Julie O’Donoghue/Louisiana Illuminator
The city of Central got $3 million in the Louisiana state budget this year for batting cages, a locker room and a high school weight room.
The town of Baldwin in St. Mary Parish received $160,000 for a new basketball court.
The Regional Military Museum in Houma secured $500,000.
Catholic Charities of Acadiana in Lafayette collected $3.8 million.
These entities are in communities where six Louisiana lawmakers who control the state’s budget process live. Their five home parishes — Lafayette, St. Mary, East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Terrebonne — received a larger share of the $454 million in state discretionary funding than others in this budget cycle.
The five parishes house a little over a fifth of Louisiana’s population but received almost a third of the money available. They are home to at least one lawmaker – Senate President Page Cortez, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, Sens. Bodi White and Bret Allain, and Reps. Stuart Bishop and Jerome Zeringue — who leads a legislative committee that shapes the state spending plan.
The $454 million in discretionary funding would average out to approximately $99 per resident statewide if it was allocated evenly. In the five parishes where the legislature’s fiscal leaders reside, the average came to $145 per resident according to an analysis by the Louisiana Illuminator.
The discrepancy in resources speaks to a criticism of Louisiana that reaches back to the days of Huey Long — that the personal interests of Louisiana’s elected officials often trump the state’s needs, especially in an election year.
“We just lack priorities,” said Treasurer John Schroder, a Republican running for governor who has been critical of the state budget process.
“Everything can’t be a priority,” he said.
An unprecedented opportunity
Gov. John Bel Edwards and state lawmakers had a once-in-a-generation opportunity this year to make long-term investments in Louisiana’s future. The state took in $2.2 billion more in cash than originally anticipated, an enormous boon for the state’s fiscal health.
In many ways, the governor and legislators abided by government watchdog groups’ recommendations and put that extra money toward one-time projects that align with state priorities.
They plowed large portions of it into road and bridge work ($450 million), a state savings account ($182 million) and coastal protection ($147 million). They chose to pay off hundreds of millions of dollars of state employee and teacher retirement debt early, a decision expected to save Louisiana money in future years.
But legislators, with the blessing of the governor, also took an enormous chunk of that extra funding — 20% of what was available — and put it toward projects that are personal priorities.
They used $190.6 million for their own pet projects, which mostly benefit local governments and nonprofits that aren’t the state government’s prime concern.
Lawmakers also put $263.5 million in cash into the “miscellaneous non-state” portion of the state construction plan. This money also went to build projects for local governments, private organizations and other entities that are, by definition, not the state’s priority.
When combined, the two pots of money add up to the $454 million in discretionary funding the Illuminator identified.
The money includes allocations for nonprofit organizations, such as $9 million for backup generators at the privately-run Baton Rouge General Medical Center, $1.5 million for the Louisiana Leadership Institute founded by Baton Rouge Sen. Cleo Fields, $1.4 million for the Friends All United for Natchitoches Animals shelter and $500,000 for the Team Gleason Foundation run by former Saints player Steve Gleason.
Lawmakers also spent a large swath of this money on local government functions, particularly law enforcement, parks and youth sports facilities. Some that received the most money include the Terrebonne Parish sportsplex ($3 million), Bayou Community Academy charter school gym in Thibodaux ($2 million), the Pepperplex sports facility in New Iberia ($1.5 million), and a Youngsville sports complex ($1 million). All of those highest-dollar projects are located in parishes represented by legislative leadership.
Legislative leaders have said parks and recreational facilities are important to their constituents and several local government entities are struggling to fund them.
“I think you got a lot of local governments that just need help,” House Speaker Clay Schexnayder said in an interview earlier this month. “That’s the big thing — those small government entities needing help.”
The amount of help a local government received often corresponded to the power their local legislators hold however – with one exception.
Orleans Parish, where no legislative leaders live, garnered the second largest amount of discretionary funding of any parish — $54 million — and had the highest number of items funded at 76.
Location, location, location
State lawmakers awarded Lafayette $62.8 million in discretionary funding, the most money given to any single parish. Lafayette also has the highest concentration of the legislative leaders statewide.
Cortez, the state’s most powerful lawmaker as Senate President, and Bishop, the Republican who authored the state’s construction bill, represent Lafayette. Two influential Democrats — Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Gerald Boudreax and Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Vincent Pierre — also reside there.
Lafayette received approximately six times more discretionary money than Caddo Parish ($10.4 million), though both have populations around 240,000 people. It garnered over four times the amount of money of St. Tammany ($14.7 million), a parish with 20,000 more residents.
The money going into Lafayette includes $3.5 million for infrastructure projects in the city of Youngsville, $3 million for the Lafayette parks and recreation department, and $1 million for the Lafayette Economic Development Authority.
The entity receiving the largest chunk of discretionary funding anywhere in the state is the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Lawmakers included $27 million in cash for new Lafayette sheriff’s facilities in the state budget. The allocation is higher than the total amount of discretionary funding going into Jefferson Parish ($25.2 million), one of Louisiana’s largest localities.
The money is paying for a new jail ($17.5 million), law enforcement center ($7.8 million), general equipment ($1 million), crime scene and evidence storage ($300,000) and shooting range upgrades ($300,000).
Several other sheriffs around the state were also awarded discretionary money but at a fraction of the amount that went to Lafayette Parish. The next largest allocation was $2 million for a sheriff’s training facility in St. Tammany.
Cortez and Bishop did not respond to requests for comment about the funding for Lafayette.
Smaller parishes also benefited from their local state lawmaker’s position in the legislature. St. Mary, a coastal parish of 48,000 people, received $16.7 million in discretionary money. That’s $2 million more than St. Tammany, which has more than five times the population of St. Mary.
Brett Allain, the Louisiana senator with the most control over the state’s construction budget, lives outside of the city of Franklin, the seat of St. Mary Parish’s government.
The $16.7 million in discretionary funding going into St. Mary equates to about $349 per resident, or three and half times what was distributed per person statewide. Allain said his home parish deserved some extra funding after being short changed by the state for years.
“It is time for St. Mary to catch up. For the past 30 years, we were behind,” Allain said in an interview. “There are a lot of needs that aren’t state-owned, like water and sewer projects.”
Almost 70% of the funding going to St. Mary – $11.4 million — is going into water and sewer upgrades.
Unlike sheriff facilities and youth sports complexes, sewage and water rehabilitation is considered a priority for the state. But lawmakers also bypassed a state ranking system for water and sewer projects when they independently put funding into the budget for those needs.
The Edwards administration has come up with a set of criteria for objectively evaluating hundreds of local water and sewer infrastructure requests. It helps the state determine where state funding might yield the most benefit in this arena. Lawmakers are essentially ignoring those evaluations when they devote money to water and sewer projects in their own communities regardless of where they fall on the state’s list.
The state has billions of dollars of unmet water and sewer system needs, so competition for funding is fierce and not every community facing a problem is likely to get state support. The same goes for shortfalls in road, bridges and higher education building maintenance.
“One of our core concerns is that these projects weren’t decided with the state priorities in mind,” said Steven Procopio, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a government watchdog group and a longtime critic of pet project spending.
“It is incidental that they happen to be good projects or useful,” Procopio said. “These are not really decided on any kind of rational policy basis. It is on a purely political basis.”
It may look like legislative leaders dumped more state dollars into their home communities, but lawmakers have actually made it difficult to connect themselves to specific budget requests. They added pet projects and other items to the construction budget in secret, so it’s hard to know who asked for what project.
“You would think that they are proud of these projects and want to put their names on all of these things,” Procopio said.
Dozens of items funded are also vague in nature, making it difficult to discern how the local government or a private entity actually intends to use the allocated state money.
The city of Ruston, for example, was given $6 million for “infrastructure improvements,” but the money is intended for a very specific purpose. The city will use it to revamp the site where Louisiana’s first Buc-ee’s location will go, Rep. Chris Turner, R-Ruston, said in an interview.
Even if they could get past the hazy language, almost all Louisiana lawmakers were in the dark about what exactly they were voting to fund when they approved the state’s budget plan in June.
Outside of the handful of people in leadership, most lawmakers didn’t get to see the state’s budget documents until 30 minutes before they had to vote to approve them. The budget bills collectively run hundreds of pages in length.
The budget legislation — particularly the sections related to pet projects and “non-state” construction items — also don’t appear to be carefully put together. There are several points where one item looks like it was included twice, possibly by accident.
For example, the “city of Independence” gets $200,000 in one part of the budget and then the “town of Independence” gets $200,000 in another, though there is only one municipality named Independence in Louisiana.
The Crowley Police Department received $100,000 for “equipment purchases” on one line of the budget and then an additional $100,000 for “equipment” on another line. Hospice of Acadiana got $250,000 for no specific purpose in one part of the spending plan, and the Hospice of Acadiana Foundation Inc. Calcutta House was allocated $250,000 in another section.
The city of Zachary was provided $50,000 for no specific purpose in one part of the budget, and it received an additional $50,000 for “parks and recreation” in another section.
Some of this confusion would likely be cleared up if rank-and-file legislators were given more time to review the budget and had to attach their names to these types of requests, Schroder said.
“The Santa Claus list … creates this belief that we have all this money,” he said while speaking at a recent governor’s race forum.
The list of 900-plus projects also produces a headache for state bureaucrats tasked with distributing the money.
State government has to execute legally binding agreements with each local government and non-state entity receiving discretionary funding to make sure it is used in accordance with state law.
Either the treasurer’s office, which Schroder runs, or the Division of Administration under the governor is in charge of this duty, depending on where a project lands in the budget.
The number of pet projects — and the number of entities receiving money from them — has grown significantly in the past two years. In 2021, legislators spent about $85 million on pet projects, less than half of the $190.6 million allocated two years later.
In order to deal with this influx of work, Schroder had to ask retired state workers to come back on a temporary basis to put together dozens of agreements. When he first took office, Schroder said the treasury staff had to work up about 40 of these contracts. Now, they are handling more than 600.
“They don’t just get a check,” Schroder said of the organizations receiving pet project funds. “They have to say what they are going to spend the money on.”
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The explosion in funding for local government and nonprofit organizations in the state construction budget this year could also create challenges for lawmakers in future years.
Louisiana typically has a cap on the amount of money in the construction budget that can go to anything other than a state entity, but that only applies to funding the state borrows. Cash included for these types of projects — including the $263.5 million inserted in discretionary funding this year — isn’t subject to this restriction.
This makes it more likely Louisiana has given cash to several new construction projects this year that won’t be completed within the next five years. Some of this money might be spent, for example, on plans for construction projects the state won’t be able to fully fund in the future.
Legislators could have avoided this scenario if they had put more cash into fewer projects, though that might have meant spreading the money around to fewer legislative districts.
The governor was among those who criticized the allocations of money in the construction plan. In a veto letter to the legislature, he chastised lawmakers for not being responsible with the funding and said he didn’t think he could fix the problem.
“The overall magnitude of the [construction budget] bill as finally passed is far beyond the state’s capacity to fund it in any reasonable way or amount of time,” Edwards wrote June 30.
“There is no possible way to veto enough projects to bring the bill back in balance, nor is vetoing the entire bill an option because there is no guarantee that another attempt would yield a different result,” he said.
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