During COVID-19 Special Session, State Lawmakers Pass $22 Million For Pet Projects

Oct 16, 2020

Louisiana state lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to a supplemental spending plan that will send $85 million to the state’s bankrupt unemployment insurance trust fund and earmarked $22 million for pet projects in lawmakers' home districts.

Legislative leaders rushed to get final approval for the supplemental budget bill from the House and Senate Wednesday night, which would have left the legislature with enough time to call an override vote if Gov. John Bel Edwards line-item vetoed any of their projects.

But legislative leaders delayed the vote after House members balked at the last-minute inclusion of those projects.

“I didn’t think we had this kind of money,” Rep. Kenny Cox said. “I thought that we had all other kinds of things we needed to do for the state, and this is somewhat disappointing to me.”

“Well obviously to the members who made the requests it’s important to them,” interjected House Appropriations Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, who presented the amended spending bill on the House floor.

Rep. Richard Nelson, a freshman Republican from Mandeville, questioned the wisdom of devoting money to recreational facilities when the state has no plan to ensure the long-term solvency of the state’s unemployment program.

The Louisiana Workforce Commission has started borrowing $11 million per week from the federal government to keep state unemployment benefits flowing. The state has been cleared to borrow up to $600 million for that purpose.

“I think if we’re on the hook possibly for hundreds of millions of dollars to the federal government to fund the unemployment trust fund, that the sports complex ... that’s getting a million dollars, maybe shouldn't be as high a priority,” Nelson said.

House Appropriations Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue (R-Houma) inaccurately reported to House members Wednesday night that the bill included $18 million for special projects added at the request of individual lawmakers, but in actuality the figure exceeded $22 million. He brushed off lawmakers’ frustration at the lack of transparency in the committee’s selection of projects.

Others were upset that the Senate amendments eliminated a one-time appropriation of $15 million to state public defenders to purchase permanent office space. Across the state, public defenders spend more than $1 million each year to rent offices.

After an hour of tense discussion with increasingly skeptical House members, Zeringue decided to delay the vote and return the bill to the conference committee for further negotiations.

After spending most of Thursday shuffling money around, the conference committee members were able to and quickly convince an overwhelming majority of House members to give their final approval.

“There are no parks,” Zeringue said Thursday afternoon. “The money is going to infrastructure, drainage, going to policemen and firemen, first responders — both to address some of the relief that could not be afforded for COVID dollars and for the storm response they have been involved in.”

The final version of the bill devoted even more money to special projects, and directed at least $3.3 million to community centers and parks. Many line items appropriated money directly to municipalities and provided no additional information on how it would be spent.

The bill also redirected $5 million to the office of tourism’s market budget, $1 million for the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center for coronavirus testing and $3 million in funding for public defenders was restored.

Prairieville Republican Tony Bacala, a member of the House Appropriations Committee since 2015, expressed reservations about voting on the amended version before he and other state lawmakers had time to examine it.

“Do you really know what’s in this bill?” Bacala said. “Now with about three minutes notice, just printed off, I’m asked to vote on a bill that I’m really not sure about.”

Conference committees are tasked with resolving disagreements that arise when one chamber rejects amendments made by the other. Bacala noted that the conference committee for HB39 went well beyond that, devoting millions of dollars to projects that had not been discussed in any of the public hearings or floor debates held in the budgeting process.

“We’re voting on a comprehensive bill, that appropriates money, that you and I have not got a chance to see,” Bacala said.

Minutes later, Zeringue called for a vote and 87 House members, including Bacala, voted to approve the bill. The Senate approved the bill unanimously without any pushback or debate.

“This negotiation has been ongoing for several days, but we’re through with it,” Senate Finance Chairman Bodi White said. “We came up with a good bill, with a good compromise. Nobody’s going to be perfectly happy everyday.”

Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, slammed legislative leaders for their backroom maneuvering.

“We thought that time had passed, but apparently the new breed of legislators is not so new after all,” Scott wrote in a press release. “This is not just bad fiscal management of scarce dollars, it is a regrettable revival of a wily political system based on petty favor.”

Gov. Edwards has the authority to line-item veto specific funding projects as he sees fit. In the past he has exercised that authority to axe funding for projects that did not line up with his policy priorities or to punish his political opponents.

When asked about the supplemental appropriations bill on Thursday, Edwards did not indicate whether he would exercise his veto authority on any of these projects.