Louisiana's Unspent Cash Proposed for Roads, Colleges, Coast
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — More than $400 million in unspent cash from Louisiana's better-than-expected tax collections would pay for roadwork, coastal protection projects and public college programs, among a long list of spending plans under debate by lawmakers.
The package of budget bills would plug gaps in the TOPS college tuition program, pay down debts, steer money to legal judgments owed by the state and cover the fire marshal's overtime for investigating the burnings of three black churches in St. Landry Parish.
Dollars would be invested in computer upgrades, socked into a savings account and steered to lawmakers' favored local projects. Much of the spending matches recommendations made by Gov. John Bel Edwards.
WHERE'S THE MONEY FROM?
Louisiana had a $308 million surplus from the budget year that ended June 30, dollars limited in use by the state constitution. The state also has another $110 million in unbudgeted money for the current year, based on revised tax collection estimates.
Plans to spend the money are contained in three budget bills, two of which won unanimous House backing Thursday and await debate in the Senate. House lawmakers will start advancing the third measure, the state's construction budget bill, next week.
DEBT PAYMENTS AND SAVINGS
Under the constitution, one-quarter of last year's surplus, $77 million, flows to Louisiana's "rainy day" savings account. Another 10 percent, about $31 million, must pay down debt in the retirement systems for state workers and public school teachers.
Lawmakers propose to send $25 million of the unbudgeted cash to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to cover a portion of Louisiana's share of ongoing disaster recovery efforts. Another $9 million would pay legal judgments, money owed to people who successfully sued the state.
The spending plans include $22 million for higher education programs.
TOPS would receive another $6.6 million to cover full tuition for eligible students, since the program costs more this school year than the $295 million lawmakers allocated for it.
Other dollars would pay for LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center to recruit faculty. The LSU and Southern University AgCenters would get more cash, and LSU's New Orleans medical school would receive more than $2 million to pay a new lease arrangement with the Louisiana Cancer Research Center.
Money would be steered to a fund expected to help with online resources for students, such as electronic textbooks. The University of Louisiana at Monroe's pharmacy school would get $3 million to help with expenses as it undergoes accreditation review.
Nearly $90 million would pay for road and bridge work, coastal projects would receive $55 million and lawmakers' favored local projects would divvy up about $51 million. Another $20 million would chip away at a lengthy backlog of repairs needed at state-owned buildings.
More than $7 million would continue computer upgrades to the state's financial reporting system, a years-long project aimed at moving every agency to the same accounting system. Louisiana's child welfare agency would receive $5 million for upgrades to its eligibility system.
The budget bills would steer other dollars to public safety programs. The corrections department would receive about $8 million, while the juvenile justice agency would get more than $1 million to help it handle increased caseloads from a law change shifting more offenders from the adult corrections system to the juvenile system.
The Louisiana fire marshal's office would get $37,000 to cover overtime expenses in an investigation that led to the arrest of the arson suspect in the burnings of three century-old African American churches in and around Opelousas.
House Bills 2, 286 and 392: www.legis.la.gov
By AP reporter Melinda Deslatte