Louisiana House leaders direct millions of dollars toward ‘pet projects’ in their own communities

Terrebonne Parish, represented by two people in House leadership, receives the most funding

By: - May 12, 2021 6:30 am
Louisiana House pet projects

Louisiana House members allocated over $26.6 million to local pet projects this month. Each dot represents a project. The darker green parishes got more funding. A link to an interactive version of this map is located below in the story. (Map by Julie O’Donoghue and Jared Kendall)

When the Louisiana House tucked $26.6 million for lawmakers’ pet projects into the budget plan it approved last Thursday, the big winner was Terrebonne Parish.

Terrebonne received $2.95 million in pet project funding, more than any other parish in Louisiana, according to an analysis done by the Illuminator. It received the most money in spite of the fact that about a dozen other parishes have more residents. Terrebonne has about a quarter of the population of Louisiana’s two biggest localities: East Baton Rouge Parish, which received $2.75 million, and Jefferson Parish, which received $1.13 million. 

But Terrebonne has something that almost no other parish has — two representatives in Louisiana House leadership. 

House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee and House Appropriations Chairman Jerome Zeringue, both Houma Republicans, are among the four most powerful members of the Louisiana House. Magee is second-in-command to House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales. Zeringue oversees the drafting of the state budget. 

Magee doesn’t see a problem with earmarking state funding for local projects. 

“One man’s pet project is another man’s critical infrastructure project,” he said in an interview last week. 

If you would like to see an interactive map of these pet projects, go here

Pet projects, as used here, are those allocations that benefit a local community more than the state as a whole. They were added to the state budget plan in secret. It’s not clear what criteria lawmakers used for picking them.

Lawmakers distributed these pet projects unevenly across the state. A single school in Terrebonne is slated to get $1 million, while Orleans and St. Tammany — two of the most populous parishes– got just $725,00 and $250,000 for all of their projects respectively. Twenty-two parishes receive no money for pet projects under the House plan.

The pet project list is likely to change and grow. Zeringue said all the pet projects in the current House budget plan come from requests made by House members. The senators haven’t added any of their own projects to the list yet. 

The full catalogue of projects likely won’t be finalized until mid-June, when the Legislature is expected to wrap up its negotiations on the budget. Lawmakers have funding to spend on the projects because the state is collecting more money than expected in the current budget cycle that ends June 30. 

Terrebonne Parish wasn’t the only community with political connections that appears to have had advantages in drawing funding on the House side. Several pet projects can be linked back to the cities, towns and neighborhoods of lawmakers in House leadership and on the House Appropriations Committee that oversees the budget. 

House leaders put together the pet project list in secret 

St. Helena Parish gets $75,000 to make repairs to a local courthouse. Acadia Parish gets $125,000 for Le Gros Memorial Airport. Jefferson Parish gets $60,000 to install “cooling fans” at LaSalle Park in Metairie. 

The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office gets $450,000 to construct a new training station. The New Canal Lighthouse Museum and Education Center in New Orleans gets $100,000 for a water quality program.

These are a handful of the 118 pet projects included in the House budget plan. It’s not clear which lawmaker requested any of the items. Zeringue said he and Schexnayder put together the list based on House members’ requests, but the process happened behind closed doors. 

 “The [House] members approach the Speaker or me and we try best we can to accommodate their requests,” said Zeringue of how pet projects got included in the budget. “We tried to be as fair and as equitable as possible.”

The House Appropriations Committee added the projects to House Bill 516, sponsored by Zeringue, through a single amendment on May 10. Lawmakers did not debate or acknowledge that the projects had been added. The information only became public when journalists brought it up on social media. 

Four days later, when Zeringue gave an overview of this bill on the House floor, he explained other state spending — such as that for disaster expenses, debt payments and legal judgments — in this legislation, but didn’t mention the pet projects funding. Lawmakers asked no questions about the bill and the House approved it quickly on an 86-4 vote. 

Big Money for lawmakers’ small towns, cities and neighborhoods

Legislators may not have brought up the pet projects because many of the communities who are getting funding are home to the House members who understand the budget process best. 

In Zeringue and Magee’s Terrebonne Parish, the $2.95 million in pet projects include: $1 million for Pointe-Aux-Chenese Elementary, $1 million for the construction of a Terrebonne Parish health unit, $900,000 for downtown Houma economic development projects and $50,000 for the Finding Our Roots African American Museum in Houma. The school district in LaFourche Parish — which Zeringue and Magee also represent — has also been allocated $1.01 million in the bill to make up for lost oil and gas royalties.

Magee said he personally asked for the money for Pointe-Aux-Chenese Elementary, which the local school board voted to close last month. The campus primarily serves Native American families from the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw and Pointe-au-Chien tribes. With the money, Magee said he hopes the school can stay open as a French immersion public charter program.

Magee also said the proposed health unit would be located in Terrebonne Parish, but primarily serve St. Mary Parish — and was not added to the budget plan at the request of Magee or Zeringue.

House Appropriations Vice Chairman Gary Carter’s priorities are also funded in Zeringue’s budget bill. Carter is a New Orleans Democrat. Of the $725,000 in pet projects earmarked for New Orleans overall, $300,000 is going to the New Orleans Council on Aging — a priority for Carter — and $225,000 is going to various economic development, infrastructure and courthouse upgrades in Algiers, the part of the city where Carter lives. 

House Republican Caucus chairman and Appropriations Committee member Blake Miguez’s hometown of Erath — with a population of about 2,000 people — is getting $400,000 for a utility substation. 

House Appropriations Committee member and former House Republican Caucus chairman Lance Harris lives in Alexandria, which is getting $1,000,000 for water well replacement and $250,000 for the Rapides Sheriff’s Office substation in Hineston. 

House Appropriations Committee member Tony Bacala, R-Gonzales, worked as the chief deputy in the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office, which is slated to receive $110,000 to purchase body cameras. The district attorney’s office that covers Ascension, Assumption and St. James is also getting $110,000 for computer upgrades. 

All of the money going to Tangipahoa Parish for pet projects is headed for Ponchatoula, a city of 7,400 residents that is home to House Appropriations Committee member William “Bill” Wheat, also a Republican. 

The Ponchatoula projects include: $70,000 for the construction of a pavilion, $50,000 for the renovations at the Collinswood Museum, $70,000 for police equipment and $60,000 for the city’s recreation department.

Republican House Appropriations Committee member Christopher Turner’s hometown of Ruston, with 22,000 residents, is also getting $700,000 in pet projects. Those include $400,000 to upgrade Ruston’s city hall and $300,000 for the city’s industrial park. 

Another House Appropriations Committee member, Republican Timothy Kerner, is the former mayor of Jean Lafitte, a town of 2,000 residents receiving $250,000. About $50,000 of that funding is allocated to the town’s police department for vehicles. Another $200,000 is going to the Jean Lafitte Seafood Festival.

Democratic House Appropriations member Dustin Miller’s hometown of Opelousas — with 16,000 residents — is receiving $200,000 for economic development and infrastructure. 

House Appropriations Member Barbara Carpenter, D-Baton Rouge, has been a champion of keeping the Baton Rouge Zoo in North Baton Rouge, a predominantly African American section of the city.  The zoo and Greenwood Community Park — which are located next to each other — have received $200,000 in the pet project list.

House Appropriations member Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, has been an advocate for breaking off part of Baton Rouge and creating a new city of St. George. One of the main arguments for St. George’s incorporation is that the area already has its own fire department. The House’s pet project list includes $250,000 for the St. George Fire Protection District for building projects. 

Pet projects go to nonprofit organizations

Government entities aren’t alone in potentially getting pet project funding. At least 20 nonprofit entities in Louisiana are also slated to receive money in the House plan.

Our Lady of the Lake health care system has been allocated $500,000 to purchase equipment for the Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center, which operates in Baton Rouge, Covington, Gonzales, Hammond and Houma. 

The Second Harvest Food Bank of New Orleans and Acadiana, Mid-City Baptist Community Fellowship Inc. in Baton Rouge and the Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response organization (STAR) are each receiving $250,000 under the House budget plan. House Appropriations members Aimee Freeman, D-New Orleans, and Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, have worked closely with STAR in the wake the sexual misconduct scandal at LSU. 

In some cases, the House budget plan gives state money to organizations who already have a lot of resources. The Community Foundation of Acadiana — which serves eight parishes — is slated to receive $500,000 of the pet project funding. The charity had $151 million in assets at the end of 2019, according to its annual report. One of Louisiana’s most influential lobbyists, Randy K. Haynie, sits on the foundation’s board of directors. 

In general, the pet project funding reflects the priorities of the legislative leadership. A fifth of all pet projects, costing $5.7 million in total, are going to road projects. Lafayette Parish is getting $1.5 million of that total road money. House Ways and Means Committee chairman Stuart Bishop — a Republican who controls the state construction budget that typically pays for road projects —  is a member of the House leadership team and represents Lafayette. 

Lawmakers aren’t just driving money into local projects. Schexnayder used to be chairman of the House Agriculture Committee before becoming House Speaker. For years, he has been close to the LSU AgCenter. 

On top of the $26.6 million being spent on local projects, the LSU AgCenter — which has facilities all over the state — would get an additional $9.3 million under the House budget plan. 

This extra funding includes $1.2 million for the AgCenter’s operating expenses, $600,000 for National Estuarine Research Center housed at the AgCenter, $500,000 for its facility renovations at Camp Grant Walker Educational Center in Pollock and $7 million for renovation of the Parker Agricultural Coliseum on LSU’s Baton Rouge campus. The AgCenter gets this additional funding in the House budget plan, despite a recently revealed sexual misconduct scandal involving its faculty members.

Some communities are getting pet projects for a second time

This is the second time in the state’s current budget cycle that lawmakers have looked to siphon state funding away for local pet projects. In October, legislators drove $25.2 million of state funding toward pet projects as well.

In some cases, the House has planned to give more to projects that already received funding in the first round of pet projects. Lafayette received $500,000 for road improvements back in October, and has been allocated $1 million for that same purpose in the current House budget plan. Downtown Houma received $228,000 for economic development projects in October as well, and has been allocated an additional $900,000 in the current proposal. 

The St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office received $500,000 in October, and is slated to receive $1.9 million for equipment replacement in the current House budget plan. St. Charles Parish received $500,000 for drainage improvements in October, and is slated to receive $1 million in the current House budget plan.

Data reporter Jed Kendall contributed to this report. 

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.