Special Session marginally reduces school funding
The Louisiana Legislature completed its two-week Special Session on June 23, and, of course, closing the state’s massive budget shortfall was the priority of the session. What effect did the last-minute negotiations have on the seven Catholic dioceses of Louisiana and their school operations?
Several of our programs received funding cuts, but I’m grateful the final budget passed by the Legislature avoided drastic cuts to priority programs that serve our schools and our children. The legislative process is so fluid no one really knows until the final gavel what the end result will be. As the Legislature began looking at trimming expenditures to meet what was projected to be a $300 million shortfall, we decided it would be prudent to identify three priority educational programs and make the case to legislators that these programs should continue to be properly funded. Rob Tasman, who is the executive director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, worked behind the scenes in Baton Rouge to explain to lawmakers the importance of our programs, and the information he provided, as well as the respect with which he is viewed, were critical in keeping the programs intact.
What were the three programs and how did each one fare?
My fellow Louisiana bishops and I decided it was best to focus on the School Lunch Salary Supplement program, which helps pay the salaries of our cafeteria workers; the state Scholarship program, which defrays the cost of tuition for low-income students from failing public schools to attend Catholic and other non-public schools; and the Required Services program, which helps Catholic schools pay for programs and reports that the state’s education department requires. Our logic was simple: our students need to be fed in school; our schools are stronger and more inclusive, and we further our Catholic teaching mission by including more children, especially those who otherwise could not afford Catholic education; and our schools face a tremendous financial burden under the Required Services program. In the end, this is how the budget numbers for 2016-17 turned out: the School Lunch Salary Supplement program decreased from $7.9 million to $7.4 million; the Scholarship program was cut from $42.1 million to $40.1 million; and the Required Services program decreased from $14.1 million to $8.7 million. It’s important to note that while the Required Services program suffered the greatest reduction, we hope this cut can be mitigated through a legislative process that will allow us to ask the state for additional funds if new revenue turns up over the next 12 months. Also, the Required Services money for 2016-17 does not actually reach the schools until 2017, which will allow our schools to budget for any shortfall.
The budgeting process is always difficult, correct?
It is, and it involves a lot of hard work on our part to share information with legislators about how we are effectively using taxpayer money. There were many legislators who helped us tremendously during the Special Session, and we are grateful to them.
Did anything else happen during the budget process?
I’m very glad to see that many of the tax exemptions and exceptions that nonprofit entities had once enjoyed – but which were eliminated due the rushed close of the first Special Session – were restored in the second Special Session. This will allow the former tax rules to apply to church-run athletic events, dances, bookstore sales, parish fair admissions and fund-raising events and auctions. That’s good news for parishes and schools who depend on income from these events to keep their ministries going. I’m grateful for all the people who took the time to contact their legislators on these matters. Those voices made a difference.