SADOW: Foolish, Hypocritical And Unsustainable Pay Hikes In HB 1

If you’re going to spend money you won’t have, at least don’t be a hypocrite about it.

The entire membership of the Louisiana House Appropriations Committee, mainly comprised of Republicans who should know better, voted Monday to advance HB 1. The entire chamber later this week will take up the bill that will fund most of the state’s operating expenses.

Like most states, Louisiana is flush with borrowed money sent from Washington courtesy of Democrats who make a tiny majority in Congress that has helped trigger the country’s worst price inflation since Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards started courting wife Donna in high school. Significant other tabs await payment, although the bill appears to take care of big-ticket items such as another installment on flood protection and replenishing its unemployment trust fund that would secure lower levels of payments to employers (although three other bills poised to move through the legislative process would raise permanently payment levels to the unemployed, wiping out part of this rescue).

However, it also foolishly included an Edwards request echoed by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in its Minimum Foundation Program resolution (which the Legislature only can accept or reject) that would grant pay raises to educators and support personnel. The $1,500 annual boost for teachers and half that for staffers would cost the state an extra $148.4 million annually. Additionally, higher education would receive $104 million more of which $31 million would become recurring in salaries.

Problematically, not only does this rely on one-time money, but the revenue stream to support it will diminish starting in a couple of years when the temporary 0.45 percent sales tax hike Edwards cajoled out of the Legislature will expire, removing a forecasted $388 million annually from use. Simply, the new salary commitments, plus other spending that would be hard to retract once started such as $10.5 million for the new M.J. Foster Promise program that pays for students with marginal qualifications to attend community or technical college or proprietary school without even completing a degree, simply can’t be supported.

Even Republican state Rep. Zee Zeringue, chairman of the committee shepherding through the bill, cautioned about the upcoming revenue challenge, not mentioning that the falsely-stimulated economy and inflated tax receipts from that also would melt away in the next couple of years. Yet he endorsed about $275 million in likely recurring expenses to be tacked on.

And then he used that rationale to block a $100 per month state supplemental salary increase, paid to local first responders, backed by Edwards that would cost an extra nearly $26 million annually. Louisiana is the only state to provide such assistance, to the tune of $500 monthly. Zeringue argued that “this is a recurring expense and we need to look at trying to engage and involve local governments as well to support their local fire and police.”

So, shouldn’t the same logic apply with school employees? On average, the MFP picks up 65 percent of salaries, although the formula varies this among districts where the very wealthiest may pay up to 75 percent and the very poorest picking up only around 15 percent. Zeringue didn’t explain why local education agencies were absolved from giving more effort in light of the coming pinch on recurring expenses while public service agencies weren’t. (Whether the state should pay for local public safety salaries is another debate, and one that should be had.)

And it’s not like higher public school salaries across the board have much of an impact on district performance, a measure hampered by Louisiana’s bottom-of-the barrel student achievement in aggregate that in part reflects the quality of instruction. Pay is only weakly tied to individual teacher performance, and across-the-board increases further dilute that.

Education pay hikes tied to merit would be more defensible intellectually and likely cost much less. And some recurring expenses in the budget are more than justifiable, most prominently the $34 million more for Medicaid waiver service reimbursement enhancement that could address the severe shortage of home- and community-based service provision personnel that has become so dire that many breadwinners of families with people with disabilities have had to quit full-time employment to care for relatives, putting them all on the state dole.

But it makes little fiscal sense to give away such raises to both public school employees and higher education employees – where any such increase should come from savings by paring an overbuilt system – when future funding prospects seem so uncertain. And hypocritical when suggesting local governments should bear this burden in one context but ignoring that when it comes to education salaries.

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