Analysis: Lawmakers load Louisiana budget with pet projects

Louisiana

Senate Finance Chairman Bodi White, R-Central, left, and Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, ready for a discussion of the Senate’s budget proposal in a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee on Monday, May 24, 2021, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — With a surprising post-pandemic surge in tax collections, Louisiana lawmakers packed the state’s budget with tens of millions of dollars in pet projects decided by legislative leaders in closed-door negotiations.

The budget sent to Gov. John Bel Edwards for the financial year that begins July 1 contains at least $49 million in earmarks for local parks, museums, cities and towns, athletic complexes, nonprofit agencies and parish roadwork. Another $27 million-plus in unspent tax collections from the current budget year also were steered to similar add-ons.

“There were more resources” this year, said Senate President Page Cortez, a Lafayette Republican. “We were able to put more money into some of the needs and wants that are out there.”

For example, Ruston will get $125,000 for a skate park. The city of Youngsville will receive $250,000 for recreational facilities. The Winn Parish Police Jury will get $1 million for road repairs. Pointe Coupee Parish will get $2 million for its jail. The Central Athletic Foundation will receive $2 million. The East Baton Rouge Parish parks commission will get $200,000 for upgrades to the local zoo and a nearby park. St. Martin Parish will get $500,000 to buy land.

That’s a more than $76 million giveaway to outside groups and local municipalities that have their own tax bases or other financing sources. And the tally doesn’t include millions of dollars for other pet projects that legislators added into a separate construction bill that spends a large surplus.

The spending decisions came as lawmakers said they couldn’t scrape together enough money to give teachers the full $1,000 pay raise they discussed earlier in session and as they spurned a request to boost state general fund spending on early learning programs. Instead, they’re giving teachers $800, and they’re still searching for ways to fund early childhood education expansions.

But the earmarks give lawmakers the ability to go home after session and point to financial wins they gained for their districts, attend groundbreakings for projects they helped fund and take credit for new police cars, road repairs and recreational equipment.

A decade of budget shortfalls eliminated many of the legislative add-ons that lawmakers regularly slipped into the operating budget. But after a 2018 tax deal stabilized finances and Louisiana started seeing surpluses, lawmakers this term have embraced a return to pork-laden spending plans.

Legislative leaders offered vague explanations when asked how they chose which “member amendments” won support.

Cortez — who noted the local projects are only a small slice of the $38 billion operating budget — said he left the crafting of the earmarks list to Finance Chairman Bodi White.

White, a Republican from Central, said senators have “needs in their district. We set a dollar range, and they gave us their requests.”

House Appropriations Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, a Houma Republican, said: “You try to be as equitable as possible in trying to identify priorities.”

Zeringue’s area of the state — which is also represented by the House’s second-ranking Republican Rep. Tanner Magee — seems particularly poised to benefit from the add-ons, as are parishes and cities where other legislative leaders live.

In Terrebonne Parish, for example, a local food bank will get $300,000, a sports complex will get $500,000, a local levee board will receive $600,000, the parish will get $1 million to help build a new health unit and economic development projects in downtown Houma will receive $900,000.

In one set of budget amendments, $12 million in road projects were added for Lafayette, where Cortez lives.

Many of the legislative pet projects involve money for roadwork, water and sewer system repairs and local school systems. But other dollars are available to finance such items.

School districts are getting billions in federal pandemic aid outside of the state budget, the state has a priority program to steer dollars to road and bridge projects and lawmakers are creating a $300 million program to finance water system improvements. Meanwhile, municipalities are receiving their own influx of federal coronavirus aid they could spend on items lawmakers added into the state budget.

Edwards, a Democrat, could strip individual projects with his line-item veto authority.

But the majority-Republican Legislature sent Edwards the budget bills early enough that they could try to override any of those veto decisions before the session shuts down June 10 and ensure the dollars flow to their favored projects.

Copyright 2020 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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