Lawmakers approve plan to raise teacher pay

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 23, 2001

AP and staff reports

The Legislature gave its final approval Thursday for a compromise riverboat tax increase to fund part of a teacher pay raise Gov. Mike Foster says will help Louisiana shed its image as a &uot;backwater state.&uot;

The Senate and House both voted overwhelmingly in favor of the plan that requires all 14 riverboat casinos to pay a higher tax – the second part of Foster’s plan to increase pay for school teachers and university professors. The bills will raise $140 million a year for raises.

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&uot;We were going to be a backwater state forever. The only way to fix it is through education,&uot; Foster said.

Fran Nolan, who teaches gifted education and creative writing in Concordia Parish’s public schools, said she is against gambling and has reservations about getting a raise from such sources.

&uot;Still, I feel like we needed a pay raise,&uot; said Nolan, who has taught more than 20 years. &uot;I don’t feel like we teachers are greedy. We spend a lot of extra time on our job – it’s not just 8 to 3 each day. We buy a lot of extra supplies for our students, and we do it gladly. But we still needed a raise.&uot;

Nolan said she wants to support students who want to be teachers someday. But she has a hard time doing so when she knows they will hardly be able to make ends meet on a teacher’s salary.

&uot;I love to see students go into teaching, but with the expenses of young families, how will they be able to support their families on that kind of salary?&uot; she said.

The House’s 88-12 vote sent the bill to Foster for his signature and signaled the close of the special legislative session. The Senate voted 33-5 for the higher tax. Twenty-six votes were needed in the Senate and 70 in the House.

&uot;This wasn’t a done deal until late that night, but I’m glad that both measures were finally passed and that we’ll be able to give the teachers at least a $2,000 raise, possibly more,&uot; said Rep. Bryant Hammett, D-Ferriday. &uot;We got as much as out of the gambling industry as we can. It was an exercise in compromise,&uot; he said. &uot;Along with that, we got a commitment out of the (Foster) administration to look at how we can fund raises for support employees.&uot;

The compromise bill forces all of the riverboats to stay permanently moored at the dock and increases their tax from 18.5 percent of gross revenue to 21.5 percent.

The other portion of Foster’s pay raise package, a new contract for Harrah’s New Orleans casino, was given final legislative passage on Tuesday and was signed by the governor Wednesday.

In all, the two bills ultimately will raise about $140 million to help increase teacher pay, the salaries of university professors and possibly increases for school support personnel.

But legislators warned that more needed to be done for education.

&uot;I hope we are not fooling ourselves and believe that we have resolved all the fiscal problems with this,&uot; said Sen. Don Cravins, D-Arnaudville. &uot;This is just a small piece.&uot;

Cravins noted that the Legislature returns in general session Monday facing major problems in funding health care as well as education.

Foster’s gambling package will go toward funding a $2,000 teacher pay raise for next fall, but that still doesn’t bring the state to the Southern regional average, a constantly increasing target.

Foster promised Thursday to find more money for teacher pay.

&uot;Everything is incremental in a way, particularly in government. If you try to do everything at once, usually you fail. I intend to get there,&uot; Foster said of the Southern average. &uot;I’m not giving up.&uot;

The Legislature changed Foster’s plans along the way during the special session.

The casino industry originally agreed on a bill to increase their tax from 18.5 percent to 21.5 percent in exchange for permission to remain dockside. The boats could have chosen between cruising and dockside. Nine of the boats now are required to cruise periodically, something customers don’t like to do.

The five Shreveport-Bossier City boats were exempted from the higher tax in the original bill because the Red River was deemed too shallow for cruising.

The House kept the original deal, but the Senate insisted that all boats pay the higher tax.

Foster said he met with casino representatives from the northwest Louisiana boats to gauge their reactions to the tax increase.

&uot;I think they’d have been just as happy not to have the increase,&uot; Foster said. &uot;I didn’t talk them into it, but sometimes in business it’s just the lesser of two evils.&uot;

The Senate also did not like another feature of the bill – allowing the casinos to construct new facilities on stationary barges if the operators were willing to pay an even higher tax of 23.5 percent.

Senators said barge operations amounted to expanded gambling because the casinos would have more room.

The compromise gives the five northwest Louisiana boats 25 months to get to the 21.5 percent tax. They would pay 19.5 percent beginning April 1. The tax would go to 20.5 percent a year later, and ultimately, 21.5 percent.

No barge casinos could be built.

Foster said if the Legislature tried to pass a barge option in the regular session, he likely would veto that bill.