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Published in Print: March 21, 2001, as Louisiana Wants Casinos To Ante Up For Teacher Raises

Louisiana Wants Casinos To Ante Up For Teacher Raises

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Meeting in a special session called by the governor, the Louisiana legislature took steps last week toward giving teachers a pay raise, courtesy of gambling taxes.

That approach reflects Gov. Mike Foster's latest attempt to meet his pledge to bring teacher salaries in the state up to the Southern regional average. Voters last fall rejected a plan to restructure the state tax code to help accomplish that goal.

The House of Representatives approved a bill, 82-20, on March 13 that would allow nine riverboats in southern Louisiana to offer gambling at dockside—instead of just while out on the water—in exchange for paying higher taxes. The change would provide an estimated $54 million next year to increase pay for both public school teachers and college professors.

Then, on March 14, the Senate approved a separate measure, 23-16, that would lower the annual payment the state charges to Harrah's Casino, a land-based facility in New Orleans, while ensuring that the money would be dedicated to pay raises for teachers and college faculty members. The current $100 million-per-year tax has threatened to put the casino out of business, supporters of the change say. The Senate had been considered the largest political hurdle for the plan.

The House this week was expected to take action on the Harrah's bill. On the Senate side, after approval by two committees on March 15, the full chamber was expected to take up the dockside-casino bill this week as well.

Together, the two bills are estimated to provide roughly $70 million for teacher pay, or half the cost of meeting the Republican governor's goal of a $2,000 across-the-board raise for teachers in the coming fiscal year. The other half would require using all of the growth in fiscal 2002 in the state's minimum-foundation program—the main state funding source for education—to raise teacher salaries.

Unions Welcome Action

Teachers' unions were pleased by last week's legislative action.

"We have just passed a major hurdle," said Carol Davis, the president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, a 21,000- member affiliate of the National Education Association. Teachers in the state are leaving for better pay elsewhere, she said, adding that "something's got to be done to stop the hemorrhaging of brain power from our state."

But she cautioned that tying teacher pay to gambling revenues would not be a permanent solution. According to Ms. Davis, the average teacher salary in the state stands at $32,510, while the Southern regional average is about $36,000.

The legislature's action was not received quite so warmly from some other quarters.

Sen. Jay Dardenne, a Republican, said in an interview last week that teacher pay ought to be a state priority, but that using gambling revenue is the wrong approach.

"It is, in my view, a very unstable source of revenue, and one that could easily decline," he said. "[This approach] perpetuates an erroneous myth that gambling money is going to save our education system."

James C. Brandt, the president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a Baton Rouge-based nonprofit research organization, said that if teacher-pay increases are such a high priority for the governor, Mr. Foster should have included them in his proposed budget, to be paid for with general revenue.

"Simply put other, lower-priority programs in a contingent category," Mr. Brandt said.

But the legislative action drew praise from Gov. Foster. At the start of the legislature's special session on March 11, the governor had sought to explain his plans.

"Last year, the people of Louisiana sent all of us a very clear message," he said in a speech to a joint session of the legislature. "They do not want to pay more taxes. At the same time, they also told us that they want our teachers paid and educational system held accountable."

The governor added that dedicating gaming money to education was "long overdue" in Louisiana.

"When our people voted for riverboats, video poker, and the casino, they thought this money would be used for education," he said.

Pay Raise in Budget

Meanwhile, the state board of education unanimously approved an education spending plan last week that was consistent with the governor's approach.

The plan, which still requires approval by the legislature when it meets in regular session later this month, would increase teacher salaries by an average of about $2,000 in the next fiscal year.

"If we remain committed to this effort, we should be able to do something historic—we'll reach the elusive Southern average," Paul Pastorek, the president of the board, said in a statement.

Mr. Pastorek acknowledged that locking away growth in the education budget for teacher salaries has encountered opposition from some in the education community, especially since the state has sought to increase accountability demands on school districts to improve student achievement. The governor has proposed $26 million to help meet these demands, but Mr. Pastorek said it would cost schools more than that.

"While we need the legislature to fund the $26 million," he said, "lawmakers need to realize districts will incur greater costs than has been budgeted by the governor, and these costs will have to be paid with local funds."

Vol. 20, Issue 27, Pages 21,24

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