Louisiana Legislative Session Ends with Budget Complete
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's election-year legislative session ended Thursday, with lawmakers completing their work on the state's budget, giving teachers their first significant statewide pay raise in a decade and passing one of the nation's strictest abortion bans.
In the final, chaotic minutes of the 60-day session, lawmakers put the finishing touches on a $30 billion state operating budget for the financial year that begins July 1. Spending will be boosted on colleges, health services, foster care, senior centers, early childhood education and public safety programs. The TOPS tuition program will cover all eligible students.
K-12 teachers will get a $1,000 raise in the 2019-20 school year, school support workers will get $500 more annually and districts will get $39 million in new discretionary money for their operations.
"We kept our eye on the prize, the investment in our children, through a teacher pay raise," Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said, smiling, at a celebratory news conference after the session ended. He added: "We've had a great session. I couldn't be more excited tonight."
The school financing plan was the centerpiece of Edwards' limited legislative agenda, fulfilling a promise he made to teacher unions who are backing him in his campaign to win reelection to a second term. He describes it as the first step in a multiyear plan to move teacher pay to the Southern average. Approval marked his main victory of a session that saw his minimum wage and equal pay protection proposals fail for a fourth year.
Before they wrapped up their work, lawmakers also passed the state's multi-year construction budget and a measure to spend millions in unbudgeted money from the current year.
The session was expected to be the final gathering of the four-year term, a period packed with 11 legislative sessions and marked by sharp partisan disagreements, particularly between House GOP leaders and the governor.
Most of the term centered on the hefty budget gap that Edwards and lawmakers inherited from former Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration. After 10 legislative sessions — three regular and seven special sessions — the governor and lawmakers passed a seven-year tax deal in 2018 that stabilized finances.
That compromise made this year's spending debates quieter, as lawmakers focused on their looming election battles back home. This year, legislators bickered over how to spend new money, a more pleasant task than deciding whether and how to make deep budget cuts.
"People have walked through the fire, and this session has been sedate compared to the others," said House Republican leader Lance Harris, of Alexandria.
Already signed into law by Edwards is a ban on abortion as early as six weeks of pregnancy, when a fetal heartbeat is detected, among a package of anti-abortion bills that provoked angry debate but won overwhelming support. Louisiana became the fifth state to enact such a prohibition, refusing to include exceptions for pregnancies from rape or incest. But Louisiana's abortion ban takes effect only if Mississippi's law is upheld in federal court.
Lawmakers agreed to labeling restrictions that will keep veggie products from being called meat and products such as cauliflower rice from being marketed as rice. They legalized industrial hemp production and created regulations for selling CBD products, a bill Edwards signed Thursday. They also earmarked $700 million in oil spill recovery money to infrastructure projects.
In the waning minutes, the House also broke through a logjam and gave final passage to legislation setting 16 as the minimum marriage age in the state.
Sen. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat, lamented the failure of the minimum wage increase, the passage of the abortion ban and the stalling of his bill to exempt feminine hygiene products from sales taxes.
"Yet again, the Legislature fails women," Morrell said.
Among the other items that failed to win passage, lawmakers refused to abolish the death penalty or make significant changes to gun laws. They jettisoned all House GOP efforts to roll back last year's tax deal and refused to legalize sports betting.