Louisiana Senate approves $26.7 billion budget

/ Source: The Associated Press

A bigger-than-ever $26.7 billion Louisiana budget that is bulked up by federal recovery dollars and includes pay raises, health care increases and dozens of legislative pet projects for next year received Senate backing Friday.

The budget bill continued to grow as it moved through the Legislature. More than a quarter of the spending plan for the new year that begins July 1 is hurricane relief cash, $7.8 billion in aid mainly for housing, education and health care after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The disaster aid has boosted the budget to record levels. "Much of that increase is in federal funds," said Sen. Francis Heitmeier, who as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee shepherds the bill through the Senate. He later said the measure takes care "of the needy, the people of Louisiana."

The Senate voted 38-1 for the budget. Only Sen. Walter Boasso, R-Chalmette, opposed it.

In comparison, lawmakers approved an $18.7 billion spending plan for the current fiscal year. Gov. Kathleen Blanco's administration, which has tried to downplay the appearance of a giant leap in state spending, said this year's budget had grown, however, to more than $21 billion because of recovery assistance since the hurricanes.

Beefing up spending
Though the bulk of new money is tied to hurricane relief, the state also had better than expected tax collections as people replaced appliances, furniture and other items after the hurricanes and oil and gas prices boomed.

The 2006-07 budget bill, already approved by the House, goes back to that chamber for approval of substantial Senate committee changes, but the Senate — prompted by Heitmeier, D-New Orleans — successfully turned away any sweeping alterations on the Senate floor.

A final version of the budget likely will be worked out in a legislative compromise committee in the waning hours of the session, which must end by Monday. Blanco can strip out individual items but hasn't said if she has targeted specific items she plans to remove.

Lawmakers and the Blanco administration found dollars to beef up funding next year for public colleges and provide new money for nursing homes, hospitals and other health care providers.

Legislators also earmarked at least $32 million to individual add-ons for their districts, like town fire stations, local museums and festivals.

Education, health care spending grows
Pay raises would be given to public school teachers, school support workers like janitors and cafeteria workers, assistant district attorneys, judges, college professors and others. Teachers would get $1,500 pay hikes, and support workers an extra $500 a year. New jobs would be created in Blanco's offices for post-storm recovery efforts.

Funding would grow for health care and education, which are two of the largest spending areas in the budget. The state health department, which administers the Medicaid program for the poor, elderly and disabled, would take up a quarter of state spending at $6.8 billion — including a $120 million pool of money for private and community hospitals who have taken in uninsured patients since the New Orleans charity hospitals were shuttered by Katrina.

Senators rejected attempts to shuffle more dollars to the private and community hospitals and to add new dollars to community- and home-based care for the developmentally disabled.

Louisiana's public colleges would receive $2.6 billion and the state funding formula for the 68 public elementary and secondary school districts would get $2.7 billion.