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La. Pay Bonus Proposal Nears Approval

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An on-again, off-again proposal to grant all Louisiana public employees a one-time pay bonus neared approval late last week, leaving the state's roughly 45,000 teachers hopeful that they will soon see their money.

Lawmakers approved a plan last year by Gov. Edwin W. Edwards to give employees the bonuses of about 4 percent or 5 percent of their annual salaries. The money was to come from the first land-based casino in Louisiana.

But Lady Luck proved slow in delivering the goods.

The opening of the New Orleans casino, originally set for last August, stalled over a bidding dispute. In response, the Governor said the bonus was off, then revived it within a week. (See Education Week, 5/11/94.)

The casino finally opened last month. Its operator agreed to pay the state $125 million up front and $100 million or 18 percent of the casino's proceeds--whichever is larger--every year for 30 years.

The state has received the $125 million. But at issue last week were accounting technicalities concerning how the payments should be "counted" in the budget process and whether that process should be changed.

The legislative wranglings caused a furor among the state's employees. Many teachers joined thousands of public employees who staged a rally on the steps of the Capitol last month to pressure lawmakers to allow the pay hike to go through.

More Hoops to Jump

The snags surfaced last month in the state's four-member revenue-estimating conference, which analyzes income projections for the state.

An economist on the conference said the $125 million should be considered separately as a one-time payment, and therefore, under state law, must go toward the state debt. As a result, the employees' bonuses of roughly $700 to $1,000 each would go out the window.

The other three panelists--the Speaker of the House, the Senate president, and Governor Edwards, all Democrats--argued that the payment is recurring, since the state would receive casino funds each year.

Under current law, the panel's decisions must be unanimous. This is the first time the body has been divided.

Aiming to avoid future gridlock on the panel while saving the bonus--and a political promise to the state's 230,000 employees--Governor Edwards last month tried to change the rules of play. He introduced a bill in the House that would permanently change the panel's rules so that only three of the four members had to agree.

The House passed the measure and sent it to the Senate. But the Senate decided it wanted only a one-time rule change to pass the bonus.

After months of languishing in limbo, events picked up speed late last week.

The disagreement threw the issue to a conference committee charged with hammering out a solution while the clock ticked toward the session's June 19 end. Committee members decided they had the votes--two-thirds of each full chamber--for the one-time rule change, but not the permanent one.

They crafted a bill accordingly. Both chambers quickly approved it last week, and the revenue-estimating panel was expected to allow the $125 million payment to go toward the bonus.

"This long battle is finally, finally coming to an end," said Michael R. Deshotels, the executive director of the 23,000-member Louisiana Education Association.

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