Louisiana legislative leaders steer millions of dollars in pet projects to their own parishes

Almost 20% of pet project funding goes to parishes of three influential legislators

By: - May 25, 2022 12:37 pm
Governor: Some lawmakers focused on ‘non-issues’

The Louisiana State Capitol (Wesley Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

A state senator’s nonprofit organization has been allocated $1.5 million. The booster club for an East Baton Rouge high school is getting $1.1 million. Catholic churches in St. Martin Parish will receive a combined $170,000, and a Shreveport group devoted to roses will get $100,000.

These are just a few of the $105.2 million in personal pet projects lawmakers inserted into the annual budget plan sent to Gov. John Bel Edwards at the end of last week.

The money isn’t spread around the state evenly. Communities slated to receive the most pet project funding are home to lawmakers who have the most control over the budget process, according to a Louisiana Illuminator analysis.

Over 20% of this year’s pet project funding went to just three of Louisiana’s 64 parishes: East Baton Rouge ($13.6 million), Terrebonne ($8.5 million) and Lafayette ($7.5 million). They are respectively home to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bodi White, R-Central, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma, and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette – the three lawmakers with the most control over the state finances.

Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee, R-Houma, the second-highest ranking legislator in the House, also lives in Terrebonne. Pet projects are defined as budget requests lawmakers make for entities and programs that wouldn’t normally be part of the state’s spending plan and that don’t go through a public vetting process.

They encompass money for local government operations, roads, police departments, parks and schools that are supposed to be funded with local tax dollars. Money for private nonprofit and religious organizations is also included.

Legislators request pet project funding through a secretive process, so it’s not clear who asks for the money unless individual lawmakers admit to doing so publicly. The amount each legislator gets to spend on pet projects also varies from person to person, though Zerginue and Cortez declined to say how the funds are distributed.

“We don’t blindly put money into indiscriminate projects,” Zeringue said. “We try to be as equitable as possible, to evaluate the need and the priority.”

Yet the communities of lawmakers who run the budget process appear to have been given the most consideration. 

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White funnels major cash to Central 

East Baton Rouge is the largest parish in Louisiana, and might have been expected to receive the most pet project funding, but Terrebonne and Lafayette received millions more than larger parishes such as Jefferson ($6.9 million), Orleans ($5.6 million) and St. Tammany ($2.8 million).

The distribution of pet project funds also gets more parochial than the parish level as well. Within East Baton Rouge, White’s hometown of Central – with a population of 29,000 residents – received $2.2 million in pet projects. That’s a little bit more than the $2.19 million allocated to Caddo, Louisiana’s sixth highest populated parish with more than 243,000 residents.

Central’s pet projects include $1.1 million for the Central Athletic Foundation, an athletic booster club that supports Central High School; $500,000 for the Central Police Department; $500,000 for the Central Community School District autism park; $50,000 to the Central Chamber of Commerce for economic development; and $25,000 to the Central School District for the restoration of old monuments.  

On top of that $2.2 million, another $1 million was allocated to the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office for rapid DNA testing and the “Central area Fentanyl and Human Trafficking Task Force,” according to budget legislation.

In all, Central received a little more than $74 per resident in pet project funding, not counting the extra $1 million for the East Baton Rouge sheriff’s office. That’s more than three times the amount of pet project funding distributed per person statewide – a little over $22 per resident.

White defended the decision to give Central funding, saying Tuesday that communities all over Louisiana also received money. He also said the East Baton Rouge government doesn’t invest enough in the northern part of the parish, where Central is located.

“These are things that they needed. They don’t get help from EBR,” White said. “That part of the parish has been neglected forever.” 

Private and public pet priorities

While most of the funding went to local governments and public entities, over 20% – at least $22 million – is slated for private organizations and clubs, some of which have close ties to legislators. 

The Louisiana Leadership Institute, a Baton Rouge nonprofit organization that Democratic Sen. Cleo Fields started, has been given $1.5 million in pet project funding. The group helps “develop leadership skills in elementary, secondary and postsecondary education students,” according to its website. Fields has not responded to requests for comment on this story. 

Rep. Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge, said he inserted $270,000 total into the state budget for three Catholic churches and two chapters of the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal Catholic organization, in St. Martin Parish with which he has personal connection.

Huval was baptized and served as an altar boy in St. Joseph Catholic Church in Parks, which is slated to receive $60,000, and he lives down the street from St. Bernard Catholic Church in Breaux Bridge, which has been allocated $50,000. Huval said St. Joseph plans to use the money to help build new educational classrooms and St. Bernard will use its funds to help with its ongoing renovation project. St. Francis of Assisi Church, also in Parks, will also get $60,000, though Huval didn’t explain how that money would be used.

The two Knights of Columbus councils, located in Parks and Breaux Bridge, will receive $50,000 each. Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Huval is a member of the council at St. Joseph in Parks. He said the money will be used to help with upkeep of the Knights’ local meeting halls in each community.

Firefighters and law enforcement groups were also a priority for pet project spending, even though some have the ability to levy and collect dedicated local taxes. In all, at least $17 million of the total pet project funding went to local sheriffs, police departments and fire stations. 

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office is receiving $465,000 in equipment and guns solely for its narcotics division and SWAT team. This includes $80,000 for a Mesotech sonar system; $90,600 for new rifles; $24,000 for updates to existing rifles; $68,300 for night-vision goggles; $33,000 for 15 sets of body armor; $65,600 for flashlights, optic sights and mounting hardware for rifles; $60,000 for rifle plates, $38,000 for truck camper tops and $5,700 for a compressor for the SWAT team’s underwater tank.

 

The funding lawmakers are willing to devote to these pet projects has grown significantly over the past three years. In 2020, legislators added just $25.2 million worth of pet projects into the state’s spending plan. This year, pet project funding was over four times that amount. 

This current $104 million in pet project spending rivals that of the Legislature’s largest budget priorities. It’s two and a half times the amount of additional funding put toward early childhood education and five times the money spent on university faculty pay raises in the upcoming budget cycle.

The power of pet projects

Pet projects serve an important political purpose. They give legislative leaders leverage over other lawmakers. Those who step out of line can see their projects removed from the budget. 

Last week, the Senate removed $250,000 worth of projects House Republican Caucus Chairman Blake Miguez, R-Erath, requested from the budget plan before it was sent to the governor. Miguez is often at odds with the legislative leadership, particularly House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales.

Miguez's projects that lost funding included the Sugar Cane Festival ($50,000), New Iberia’s city court ($50,000), Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office ($75,000) and St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office ($75,000).



“Do you have any idea why those were taken out of the bill on the Senate side?” Miguez asked Zeringue about his projects on the House floor last week.

“They were removed. Yeah, they were cut,” Zeringue responded.

“Do you think it’s incumbent upon you to stand with the House members against Senate amendments that take out House members’ amendments?” Miguez asked.

“I think it would be more important as a House member that you work with your delegation to ensure that you all collectively get the money that you want to get,” Zeringue responded.

Miguez then said that he believes the $250,000 from his removed pet projects went to the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission, where funding was increased from $250,000 to $500,000. Cortez, the head of the Senate, lives in Lafayette.

“We need all of our House leadership to stand strong and support us,” Miguez said to Zeringue. 

Zeringue also dodged public questions from another conservative legislator, Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, over pet projects. Garofalo, after getting into a public feud with the House speaker, also saw his projects removed from last year’s budget.

“How does that [pet project] process work? Do you send out an email?” Garofalo asked Zeringue on the House floor last week. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an email that requests that members let you guys know what we would like to see in the bill. Is that just something that’s a handshake? I want to know how that works.”

“I’m wondering how you can go through three terms of the Legislature and you don’t know how the process works,” Zeringue responded. 

Senate and House leaders aren’t the only people who use pet projects to punish lawmakers either.

Last year, Edwards, a Democrat, vetoed a $400,000 pet project for a utility substation in Miguez’s hometown of Erath and $1 million for roads in Winn Parish, where House Conservative Caucus chairman Jack McFarland lives. The governor also struck out $150,000 worth of projects from conservative Republican Rep. Danny McCormick’s district in north Louisiana.

The governor hasn’t vetoed any items from the current budget plan yet, but may do so over the next few weeks.

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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.

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