BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s state workers will get pay raises this year despite the pandemic’s impact on state finances, after Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday he vetoed a legislative effort to withhold $57 million for the salary hikes.
Lawmakers sought to stall the pay raises in the budget that began July 1, freezing the money and ordering agencies not to dole out increases. They cited the state's financial uncertainty because of the coronavirus pandemic, and said it seemed inappropriate to give pay raises to public employees while private sector workers were struggling so much in the outbreak.
But Edwards stripped that language from the budget bill with his line-item veto authority. In his veto message released Wednesday, the Democratic governor said the effort encroached on the state Civil Service Commission's constitutional authority over pay raises for rank-and-file state workers. He also said it undermined a series of pay increases aimed at lessening turnover and improving recruitment.
The salary hikes are “a critical component in the state’s ability to maintain a skilled workforce to provide quality service to our citizens,” Edwards wrote. “Additionally, the elimination of market adjustments would impact the dedicated public health, public safety, public works and other such frontline personnel designated as essential to our efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.”
The raises also will go to political appointees who aren’t overseen by the Civil Service Commission.
While Edwards refused to stall the pay bumps, he did announce other efforts to cut costs. The governor said he will issue a state government hiring freeze and has ordered cabinet agencies to set aside 10% of their budgets in case Louisiana needs to make budget cuts later in the year because of the virus outbreak.
Civil Service Director Byron Decoteau announced Edwards' decision on the raises hours before the governor's office released the veto letter. Decoteau told the Civil Service Commission: “From what I understand now, the funding will be in agencies' budgets to pay those market adjustments.”
Lawmakers had planned to determine later in the budget year if they wanted to release the money for the pay increases — or if the coronavirus pandemic has hammered the state’s finances too much to afford such raises. Withholding the money now might even make future layoffs unnecessary, they said.
The idea to stall the salary hikes emerged among Republicans in the Senate.
“We appreciate so much everything that our state employees do for us, but they haven’t lost a paycheck. It would be really bad to offer up pay raises when families are suffering out there,” Sen. Heather Cloud, a Turkey Creek Republican, said when unveiling the plan.
The Legislature also added language to the budget for its agencies, prohibiting pay raises for its workers this financial year, though that could be reconsidered later. Edwards signed that bill and left the salary hike prohibition intact.
As he signed the $34 billion state operating budget, Edwards stripped a half-dozen other items beyond the pay raise provisions.
He struck out a $2 million appropriation for the fire marshal's office to buy new equipment or make major repairs, saying the agency didn't request that money and the state can't afford it. He removed language that dictated how Louisiana's Medicaid program should handle its eligibility checks and enrollment. And he jettisoned a legislative plan to give Treasurer John Schroder $7 million to divvy up among local governments with no explanation of how it should be spent.
Despite the virus' damage to state finances, the governor and lawmakers managed to keep agencies from deep cuts by using nearly $800 million in federal COVID-19 aid provided to states by Congress to patch holes. They also tapped into the state's “rainy day” fund.
“Right now our budget is in a far better shape than we could have hoped just three months ago, with funding for critical services in place as we continue to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic," Edwards said in a statement.
Louisiana's total budget — when bills allocating dollars to legislative, judicial and other ancillary agencies are included — tops $39 billion. Nearly $20 billion is state money, while the rest is largely federal cash.
Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte
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