BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — In a special session called to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, Louisiana legislative leaders are proposing to steer $22 million in state cash to local pet projects, a list crafted behind closed doors that received little public discussion and followed no specific vetting process.
The earmarks tucked into a budget bill could come up for final passage Thursday in the House and Senate. But a first attempt to pass the seven-page list of dollars divvied up to municipal agencies ran into a buzzsaw of criticism Wednesday night from rank-and-file House lawmakers.
“We've got a lot of problems, and this is not what I thought I came down here to do. I don't understand,” said Rep. Kenny Cox, a Natchitoches Democrat. “I didn't think we had this kind of money.”
Republicans and Democrats, including some on the budget committee, questioned how the list was developed, who made the decisions and why Louisiana was spending its money on municipal sports and park facilities when its unemployment trust fund is bankrupt and borrowing federal money to pay jobless benefits.
“If we’re borrowing money from the federal government that we don’t have, maybe we shouldn’t add last-minute projects,” said Rep. Richard Nelson, a Mandeville Republican. “Maybe the sports complex ... maybe that shouldn't be as high a priority.”
House lawmakers also objected to the removal of $15 million slated to help cash-strapped local public defenders from the bill and the reallocation of the money to the local earmarks.
Appropriations Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, the Houma Republican who shepherds budget bills through the House, sought to defend the projects under intense questioning. He said individual lawmakers requested the items receive state funding.
“These are projects that the authors obviously felt very strongly about,” Zeringue said.
Zeringue noted that lawmakers also were steering $85 million to the unemployment trust fund, which has been drained to provide aid to hundreds of thousands of Louisiana workers forced out of jobs during the pandemic. Zeringue said he expected Congress will eventually provide states with additional federal coronavirus aid that could be spent on the unemployment fund.
Many of the local projects appear to be in or near the districts of legislative leaders. Most of the line-items provide little information about how the money will be spent.
Among the dozens of local earmarks, $1 million would go to Central for a community sports complex; $500,000 would go to Broussard for water line improvements; $500,000 would go to the Louisiana Leadership Institute, $639,000 would pay for fire hydrants in Assumption Parish, $500,000 would go to Opelousas parks; $2 million would go to Baton Rouge's police department for “coronavirus response;” and $805,000 would to Terrebonne parish for a road project.
About $7 million of the projects were added in the Senate Finance Committee. The rest of the list was tacked on during behind-the-scenes negotiations between House and Senate legislative leaders over a final version of the budget measure. Zeringue offered no explanation of how the projects were selected, and acknowledged not every ask was honored.
“The requests were made by the members, who felt that these projects warranted the funding,” Zeringue told his colleagues.
He said Louisiana has additional cash available for spending because the health department is getting more federal Medicaid money because of the coronavirus outbreak. That freed up state dollars that otherwise would have been needed for health services, he said.
Still, members of Zeringue's Appropriations Committee were stunned by the list.
“I’m completely baffled. I do not understand when all these are approved that we on the committee as members didn’t know about it,” said Mary DuBuisson, a Slidell Republican. “How does that happen?”
The budget bill is filed as House Bill 39.
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