Louisiana legislative leaders steer millions to their communities

Lawmakers approve budget plan with over 100 local pet projects

Louisiana legislators convene in the House of Representatives chambers at the State Capitol during the 2020 special session. (Wes Muller/LA Illuminator. Wednesday Sept. 30, 2020)

The Louisiana Legislature overwhelmingly passed a budget bill Thursday (Oct. 15) that included more than $25 million in pet projects, many of which benefit the communities of the legislative leadership. 

House and Senate members approved the bill after only having a few minutes with the final version, and their vote came less than 24 hours after Democrats and freshmen Republican lawmakers in the House balked at a similar proposal Wednesday night. 

State Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, voted for the bill, but admitted he didn’t have time to review it before doing so. He’s a member of the House Appropriations Committee — which is in charge of building the state’s budget — but was not part of the small group of legislators who put together the final version of the plan over the last couple of days.

“Do you really know what’s in this bill?” Bacala asked his fellow House members Thursday. “Now with about three minutes notice, just printed out, I’m asked to vote on a bill that I really am not sure about.”

“Do you know if you had a project completely added or completely eliminated? I don’t because I haven’t had a chance to review it,” he said.

The details of the bill were worked out by legislative leadership behind closed doors and only released publicly minutes before the House and Senate votes took place Thursday. The proposal did not resemble previous versions of the legislation that had been vetted by the Senate and House earlier this month.

Previous versions of the bill approved by the Senate and House had included, for example, $15 million in funding for cash-strapped public defenders seeking to purchase office space. An earlier version of the Senate budget plan had also included an extra $15 million for the state Office of Public Health, which is primarily responsible for running the Louisiana’s COVID-19 response.

But the final version bill that was approved Thursday included just $3 million for public defender office space and $10 million for the Office of Public Health. The additional funding for those services appear to have been diverted to over 100 pet projects — including those for small town drainage systems, village roads, community fire hydrants, local jails, and neighborhood beautification projects.

House Appropriations Chairman Jerome Zeringue, the sponsor of the legislation, said he had prioritized infrastructure needs and assistance to first responders who were on the frontlines of COVID-19 response. There was reluctance to give public defenders the full $15 million since the state public defender board hadn’t developed a detailed plan for acquiring office space yet, he said. 

“To quote that great philosopher Mick Jagger: ‘You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need,’” Zeringue said of the budget plan. 

Yet many localities benefitting from the local projects are represented by the people who negotiated the final spending plan. Republicans Zeringue, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, Senate President Page Cortez, Senate budget chairman Bodi White and two Democratic members of the legislative budget committees — Sen. Greg Tarver of Shreveport and Rep. Francis Thompson of Delhi — were involved in those talks. 

The project list includes $193,000 for the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center in Houma and another $228,000 for economic development projects in downtown Houma. There’s also an additional $230,000 for the east Houma airbase, a recreation area that’s under construction. Zeringue is a Houma representative. 

Sheriffs’ departments in Ascension, Livingston, St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes received a combined $850,000 in projects. Schexnayder, a Republican from Gonzales, represents those communities. 

Lafayette, which Cortez represents, received $500,000 for road infrastructure projects. Another $250,000 went to the Cajundome for operations. 

Central, White’s hometown, received $1 million for a sports complex. White also represents Baton Rouge, where the local police department received over $2 million in extra funding.

LSU-Shreveport, located in Tarver’s district, received $700,000 for a “viral neutralization test program” and $540,000 for its technology center. 

Delta Community College, which serves Thompson’s district, received an extra $200,000. Thompson’s hometown of Delhi also received $100,000 for a local road project. 

Other causes receiving money included the Beautification Project for New Orleans Neighborhoods ($100,000), Assumption Parish fire hydrants ($639,000), a Washington Parish jail HVAC system  ($400,000), the Village of Maurice City Hall building ($250,000) and a Madisonville lighthouse ($250,000). The nonprofit Louisiana Leadership Institute — founded by Sen. Cleo Fields of Baton Rouge — also received $500,000.

In some cases, money was given out for unknown reasons. The Tangipahoa Parish Government — which White represents — has been allocated $355,000, but it’s not clear why. 

The money in this budget bill is available in part because the federal government has given more money to Louisiana for health care expenses than was expected. That freed up millions of dollars in Louisiana’s budget cycle that can now be used for other expenses. 

But Louisiana has a lot of financial pressures. 

The state’s unemployment trust fund — from which unemployment benefits are paid — has run completely dry, forcing the state to borrow money from the federal government. 

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and other local government leaders have also said they are facing massive budget reductions if they don’t get more funding to deal with lost tax revenue from COVID-19. Southwest Louisiana was hit by two hurricanes in six weeks that left hundreds of thousands of residents without power for weeks and with damaged homes.  

The bill tries to address those issues. It gives $85 million to backfill the unemployment trust fund. There is also an additional $5 million for local governments for their COVID-19 expenses. And after some pressure, legislative leaders allocated $560,000 to local governments hit hardest by the hurricanes. 

Yet even members of the House Appropriations Committee — which builds the budget — were caught off guard by the inclusion of the long list of local projects on Wednesday night.

“I’m completely baffled. I don’t understand when all these were approved when we committee members didn’t know about it. How did that happen?” said Rep. Mary DuBuisson, a freshman Republican who sits on the House budget committee, when she first saw the local projects list Wednesday. 

Pushback from House Republican freshmen and Democrats put off the vote on the budget bill from Wednesday evening to Thursday afternoon. But by Thursday, the majority of lawmakers were on board with the proposal. The House voted 87-13 for the legislation, with some conservative Republicans and Democrats opposed. The Senate passed it unanimously.

The bill is now headed to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ desk. The governor has the power to remove individual projects from the plan through vetoes if he wants. The Legislature can then try to override his decisions, though that rarely occurs.