Louisiana Lawmakers Load Up Budget with $20M in Pet Projects

Louisiana Budget
House Appropriations Chairman Jerome "Zee" Zeringue, R-Houma, talks on the phone on the House floor as the Louisiana Legislature reached the final hours of its legislative session, on Monday, June 29, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

BATON ROUGE (AP) — In a special session called to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, Louisiana lawmakers Thursday agreed to steer $20 million in state cash to local pet projects, a list crafted behind closed doors that received little public discussion and followed no specific vetting process.

The earmarks for municipal agencies tucked into a budget bill by legislative leaders ran into a buzzsaw of criticism Wednesday night from rank-and-file House lawmakers.

“We’ve got a lot of problems, and this is not what I thought I came down here to do. I don’t understand,” said Rep. Kenny Cox, a Natchitoches Democrat. “I didn’t think we had this kind of money.”

But after behind-the-scenes negotiations and a slight reworking of the list, the complaints in the House largely evaporated Thursday — at least publicly.

The House voted 87-13 and the Senate 31-0 for the final budget deal sent to Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who didn’t say whether he will support the projects or strip them with his line-item veto.

The only complaint Thursday came from Rep. Tony Bacala, who said he had too little time to review the 13-page measure before voting on it.

“Do you really know what’s in this bill?” asked Bacala, a Prairieville Republican. “With about three minutes’ notice, just printed out, I’m asked to vote on a bill that I’m really not sure about.”

Yet Bacala, like most of his colleagues, chose to support the measure rather than go against the legislative leadership.

A day earlier in the House, the debate was laden with more objections.

Republicans and Democrats, including some on the budget committee, questioned Wednesday how the list was developed, who made the decisions and why Louisiana was spending its money on municipal sports and park facilities when its unemployment trust fund is bankrupt and borrowing federal money to pay jobless benefits.

“If we’re borrowing money from the federal government that we don’t have, maybe we shouldn’t add last-minute projects,” said Rep. Richard Nelson, a Mandeville Republican. “Maybe the sports complex … maybe that shouldn’t be as high a priority.”

House lawmakers objected to the removal of $15 million slated to help cash-strapped local public defenders from the bill and the reallocation of that money to the local earmarks. By Thursday, $3 million was restored to help public defenders.

Appropriations Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, the Houma Republican who shepherds budget bills through the House, defended the projects. He said individual lawmakers requested the items.

“These are projects that the authors obviously felt very strongly about,” Zeringue said.

He said most of the dollars will pay for local infrastructure and drainage work and assist police officers and firefighters that have had to respond to multiple hurricanes and COVID-19.

Zeringue noted lawmakers also were steering $85 million to the unemployment trust fund, which has been drained to provide aid to hundreds of thousands of Louisiana workers forced out of jobs during the pandemic.

Many of the local projects appear to be in or near the districts of legislative leaders. Most of the line-items provide little information about how the money will be spent.

Among the dozens of local earmarks, $1 million would go to Central for a community sports complex; $500,000 would go to Broussard for water line improvements; $500,000 would go to the Louisiana Leadership Institute; $639,000 would pay for fire hydrants in Assumption Parish; $500,000 would go to Opelousas parks; $2 million would go to Baton Rouge’s police department for “coronavirus response;” and $250,000 would go to Madisonville for lighthouse improvements.

About $7 million of the projects were added in the Senate Finance Committee. The rest were tacked on during private negotiations between House and Senate leaders.

“The requests were made by the members, who felt that these projects warranted the funding,” Zeringue told his colleagues.

He said Louisiana has additional cash available for spending because the health department is getting more federal Medicaid money amid the coronavirus outbreak. That freed up state dollars that otherwise would’ve been needed for health services.

There was no public debate in the Senate about the pet projects, and Senate President Page Cortez suggested senators helped persuade skeptical House members to support the final budget deal.

“I thank you all for reaching out to your House members to try to maybe help them understand the process a little better and how some of these things work,” Cortez, a Lafayette Republican, told senators.

 

By AP reporter Melinda Deslatte

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