Gov. John Bel Edwards kept almost all of the 118 pet projects Louisiana lawmakers inserted into the budget intact when he signed legislation this week. He vetoed just five items — costing a combined $718,000 — out of the $25.2 million list Wednesday.
The governor removed money for Madisonville lighthouse repairs ($250,000), Grant Parish waterworks ($20,000), the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center ($193,000), East Houma airbase park ($230,000) and Houma police security cameras and monitoring equipment ($25,000).
He didn’t offer much justification for these decisions. In a letter Edwards sent to lawmakers, the governor said he removed the Discovery Center funding because it was already receiving financial support in the construction budget. He also mentioned that the money going to a recreation area at the East Houma airbase was being used to build a dog park, but didn’t say whether that is what he found objectionable.
Edwards wanted to prioritize funding for first responders — sheriffs and fire departments received a lot of the funding — as well as storm recovery, said his spokeswoman Christina Stephens on Friday.
But some of the projects that remained in the bill — such as $1 million for a Central sports complex — didn’t seem to fit into either of these categories.
The bulk of the pet project money the Democratic governor rejected — $448,000 — was supposed to go to Terrebonne Parish, where House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee and House Appropriations chairman Jerome Zeringue live.
Terrebonne is the only parish in the state that is home to two members of the House Republican leadership. Magee is second-in-command to the House Speaker. Zeringue oversees the House budget process and was the sponsor of the legislation that contained the pet projects.
Republican legislators have complained in the past that Edwards has vetoed funding in their areas because he’s unhappy with their politics, but Magee said he wasn’t too troubled by the removal of projects in this bill.
“I’m disappointed anytime Terrebonne loses funding. But there were a lot of other projects in there for Terrebonne that didn’t get vetoed,” Magee wrote in a text message Friday.
Still, Edwards, a Democrat, is in an escalating feud with House GOP leaders over the state’s COVID-19 response. He’s angry House Republicans overwhelmingly signed a petition to throw out his health emergency order that includes public COVID-19 restrictions.
The House Republicans said they felt as if they had to sign the petition — which only terminates the order for seven days — because the governor wouldn’t agree to relax enough of the pandemic restrictions. The governor also rejected their proposal to give the Legislature more power over the COVID-19 response overall.
Edwards and Attorney General Jeff Landry, who is representing the House Republicans, head to court next week to determine whether the House petition is constitutional. If the governor loses, Louisiana’s COVID-19 restrictions could be lifted for a week, which Edwards has said would have devastating health consequences.
With this backdrop, Edwards determined whether he was going to veto any of the pet projects lawmakers sent to him last month.
The Legislators voted to spend over $25 million on local issues — including jail renovations, roads, hospital upgrades, sports complexes beautification projects and fire departments — at the end of its special lawmaking session in October.
More than half of that money, $13.1 million, went to the parishes of a handful of lawmakers who control the budget process.
Six legislators — Zeringue, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, Senate President Page Cortez, 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 just 17 of the 64 parishes — but those parishes received 52 percent of the pet project money before Edwards’ vetoes were handed down. With Edwards’ vetoes taken into account, those same parishes are still receiving about 50 percent of the total pet project funding.
Zeringue is the only one of the six budget negotiators whose parishes took a hit as a result of Edwards’ vetoes. Terrebonne went from receiving $1.2 million in pet project funding to $728,000.
But Zeringue said the Houma projects Edwards removed are not in his House district. They are in Terrebonne districts represented by Magee and Rep. Beryl Amedee, another Republican.
In the same budget bill, Edwards also removed language that allowed legislators to oversee the spending of $3 million on purchasing office space for public defenders. He said the language placed “unnecessary restrictions” on the executive branch.