Lighthouse repairs in Madisonville. A new generator for a water tower in Iota. Economic development in downtown Houma. Crime cameras in New Orleans. Fire hydrants in Assumption Parish. HVAC equipment for the Washington Parish jail. Town hall repairs in Maurice.
Those are a few of the 118 local pet projects lawmakers voted to spend $25.2 million on this month. The money wasn’t distributed evenly across the state. A handful of legislators who control the budget process sent more than half of the funding — $13.1 million — to parishes they represent.
If you would like to see our maps of these pet projects, go here.
Six lawmakers — House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, Senate President Page Cortez, House Appropriations Chairman Jerome Zeringue, Senate Finance Chairman Bodi White, Sen. Greg Tarver and Rep. Francis Thompson — were the chief negotiators on the budget bill that contained the pet projects.
They represent only 17 of the state’s 64 parishes — but those parishes received over 52 percent of the pet project dollars, according to an analysis done by Louisiana Illuminator.
In fact, the budget negotiators represent five of the six parishes that received the most pet project funding. White lives in East Baton Rouge ($4.8 million). Cortez lives in Lafayette ($2 million). Tarver lives in Caddo ($1.3 million). Schexnayder and White both represent Livingston ($1.3 million). Zeringue lives in Terrebonne ($1.2 million).
The only parish to crack over $1 million in pet projects without a local legislator on the small negotiating team is Orleans ($2.4 million).
When dividing the money up based on population, the parishes represented by the budget negotiators also fared better than average. Lawmakers voted to spend approximately $5.42 per resident statewide on local pet projects. But in the parishes represented by these six lawmakers, the Legislature spent $7.10 per resident.
Those legislative leaders responsible for drawing up the pet projects list defended it in interviews, saying all of the projects on the list were worthwhile.
“What some people call pork, other people call great necessities,” said White, a Republican. He represents four parishes that received $6.6 million in total — about a quarter of all the money given out.
“Show me a project that’s not a good project,” White said. “I’ve never been ashamed to do things for my district. I’m supposed to pass legislation to help them.”
In addition to the pet projects, lawmakers also touted the $85 million they put into the state’s depleted unemployment trust fund. The federal government ended up covering more of the state’s health care costs than expected, freeing up millions of dollars in cash that lawmakers were able to use in other ways.
But outside groups were still critical of the process the legislature employed — and the local projects it chose to prioritize.
“The list is essentially a resurrection of the old ‘slush funds’ that once served political favors at the expense of more pressing needs of the state. We thought that time had passed, but apparently the new breed of legislators is not so new after all,” said the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a local nonpartisan think tank, in a written statement.
“There is no doubt that parishes, municipalities and sheriff offices across that state have real needs. But this is not the right way to address them and these are not what lawmakers have said are the highest priorities for state spending at this time of crisis,” the group wrote.
Gov. John Bel Edwards also announced he plans to veto some of the pet projects, though he hasn’t specified which ones yet.
What’s a pet project?
Pet projects, as used here, are those allocations that benefit a local community more than the state as a whole. They were added during the most secretive portion of the budgeting process, when little public debate takes place. They encompass a list of $22 million in allocations made directly to local governments and nonprofits as well as millions of dollars sent to higher education institutions and economic development groups in certain regions.
The projects showed up in the state’s supplemental bill — sponsored by Zeringue — only after public hearings concluded and lawmakers had already taken initial votes on earlier versions of the legislation. They are primarily the product of private negotiations led by the six lawmakers named above during the legislature’s special session that ended last week.
The projects range in size and scope. They encompass everything from $540,000 for the LSU-Shreveport Technology Center to $25,000 for the Houma Police Department to purchase “neighborhood security cameras, monitoring equipment and related items.”
The House’s objections delayed approval of the list by a day, but a slightly reworked projects list eventually passed overwhelmingly. The House voted 87-5 for the bill. The Senate approved it unanimously.
Cortez, who leads the Senate as its president, said every one of the 39 senate districts had some money put into them. He considers it unfair to describe some of the allocations — including the $500,000 going to the Cajundome in his home parish of Lafayette — as pet projects.
The Cajundome is a state building which has lost significant revenue as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions. It is at risk of deteriorating without state support, Cortez said.
“I don’t see that as a pet project,” he said. “I see that as money well spent.”
Who’s getting the money?
LSU facilities in Shreveport were a big winner among the allocations. They received $1.2 million overall, including $700,000 for equipment to help with a “viral neutralization test program.”
Tarver, a Democrat and one of the chief budget negotiators, is an unabashed cheerleader for LSU facilities in Shreveport, which include North Louisiana’s only medical school.
“It’s about time. It’s usually South Louisiana that gets all the money,” Tarver said in an interview. “It is more than deserved. We need more money.”
Sewerage, drainage and local road repairs were also popular places to put money. Cortez said local government agencies are in need of financial assistance. COVID-19 has depleted much of their tax revenue.
About $5.3 million — more than 20 percent of the pet project funding — went to local sheriffs, fire districts and police departments. That money was allocated even though law enforcement and fire protection agencies are already among the main recipients of $524 million in federal funding the state has been giving out for COVID-19 expenses.
Money for Lake Charles?
The list is notable not just for which pet projects were inserted but also for what were left out. Initially, the pet projects included no money for Calcasieu, Cameron and Jefferson Davis parishes — those hit hardest by hurricanes Laura and Delta.
The hurricanes left several public structures in Calcasieu — home to Lake Charles — without roofs, windows, power or internet access for weeks. Some of the public buildings have been damaged so badly that they are still unusable. Hundreds of thousands of people are also struggling to get their homes repaired after the storms and many businesses haven’t been able to open since August.
None of the six main budget negotiators is from Southwest Louisiana. Money was eventually put into the pet project list for those parishes, but the allocations aren’t necessarily as generous as they are in other parts of the state.
Calcasieu Parish has 200,000 residents and received $900,000 in pet project funding. Meanwhile, Terrebonne Parish, where Zeringue lives, has a little more than half Calcasieu’s population, was not significantly affected by the hurricanes and received $1.2 million.
A sports complex in Central, where White lives, received $1 million — more than any of the parishes devastated by the hurricanes received.
“I would have allocated differently, but I’m just one vote,” said Rep. Stephen Dwight, a Republican who represents Calcasieu.
The budget negotiators said they provided other, substantial relief for the parishes affected by hurricanes. Lawmakers voted to keep school funding for Southwest Louisiana stable, even as many of the schools are shut down or struggling to enroll students.
They’ve also advanced McNeese State University and SOWELA Technical Community College about $20 million in construction funding to repair damaged facilities, though that money is expected to be repaid with federal funding later.
Lawmakers also expect billions of dollars in federal relief and insurance money to start flowing into Southwest Louisiana shortly. Members of the Southwest Louisiana delegation said they have also been told they will be a priority if the U.S. Congress sends more money to states in response to COVID-19.
“I didn’t mind not getting the [pet project] money,” said Sen. Mark Abraham, a Republican who represents Calcasieu and Jefferson Davis parishes. “The big test is going to be the future when more money comes down.”
Still, some communities in Southwest Louisiana need money now. Rep. Troy Romero, R-Jennings, said Jefferson Davis was struggling to remove debris from the side of the road, weeks after the storm hit.
His parish received a little pet project money. For example, two of his fire districts received a combined $25,000 to replace doors and generators lost during the storms. But other fire departments located in areas not hit by hurricanes received more support. In Terrebonne Parish, where Zeringue lives, fire districts received $300,000.
Romero said he felt at a disadvantage because he’s a new legislator — this is his first year in office — and he didn’t know he should ask for local project funding in state budget bills.
“It’s frustrating that maybe you don’t know what the process is,” he said. “It’s maybe disappointing that this is the way the process works.”
Nevertheless, Romero plans to be prepared in the future. He is carrying a list of local projects that need funding in his suit pocket, so he will have the information available if funding is up for grabs in the future.
Again, to see our interactive map of lawmakers’ pet projects, please go here.
Clarification: This story originally said the LSU medical school in Shreveport was part of LSU-Shreveport. It is a separate institution from the LSU-Shreveport campus, though both are all managed under LSU’s larger higher education system.