Preliminary agreement on state budget is reached

Updated at 7:45 p.m.

Legislative leaders reached an agreement in principle late Wednesday night on the $25 billion state government spending plan.

The compromise comes on the eve of the final day of the legislative session.

The plan calls for public schools to get a significant boost in state funding for the first time in several years. Teachers would get pay raises rather than the one-time bonuses briefly considered.

However, Gov. Bobby Jindal upset some leaders by holding a news conference to announce the agreement before many legislators had been briefed.

State Rep. Cameron Henry, who participated in the negotiations between the House and the Senate, worried that the governor’s premature announcement will anger legislators and spark a special session.

“It’s unfortunate that he jumped the gun and spoke out of turn. I’m hoping that doesn’t cause a problem,” said Henry, R-New Orleans.

House Democratic leader John Bel Edwards, of Amite, said the governor was warned that caucus leaders still need approval from their members.

“It has not been officially reached, and we were very careful to spell that out. There’s an agreement in principle. There was a handshake,” Edwards said.

The regular session draws to a close at 6 p.m. Thursday with House Bill 1, the state operating budget for the fiscal year that starts in July, as one the biggest outstanding issues.

Jindal initially proposed a spending plan that heavily relied on property sales, legal settlements and other one-time dollars to pay higher education bills that must be met year after year.

The House rewrote the governor’s budget to purge the one-time dollars. To replace the revenue, the House created a tax amnesty program, modified tax breaks and made spending cuts.

The Senate undid much of the House’s handiwork by stuffing the one-time dollars back in. The smaller chamber also resolved a funding problem in a voucher program that sends public schoolchildren to private or parochial schools without boosting state aid for public schools.

Earlier this week, the House rejected the Senate’s changes and generated talk of a special session for the first time in 13 years to balance a budget that funds health care, higher education and other public expenses.

A meeting Wednesday morning between House and Senate Republicans apparently did not go well, but talks improved as the day progressed.

Legislators huddled behind the scenes to broker a compromise.

As the Senate completed its public business Wednesday night, key House members swarmed the chamber. House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, chatted with Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, studied papers with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville.

“We’re hopeful,” Donahue said a few minutes later.

Also at issue was a package of bills sought by a faction of House Republicans known as the fiscal hawks. The hawks want changes to the budget process, including making it harder to use one-time dollars for ongoing expenses.

The governor said the agreement includes:

  • $69 million in additional funding for public schools, which represents a 2.75 percent increase. Half of the money would go toward pay raises.
  • His signature on two bills sought by the fiscal hawks, including legislation to create a closer review of certain funds.

“This is a very good budget, a very good agreement,” Jindal said.

House Republican leader Lance Harris, of Alexandria, said he will meet with his members to vet the agreement.

He said the plan appears to satisfy his members’ demands.

Edwards said he also will be meeting with his delegation.

“I’m optimistic,” he said.