Pet Projects Never Really Disappear

Some in the Louisiana Legislature would have us believe money is so tight this year that there won’t be any funding for lawmakers’ pet projects back home. Don’t you believe it.

If there is one thing the history of the Legislature has proved, it’s the fact that funds for local projects always manage to surface somehow.

Gov. Bobby Jindal said his proposed $24.9 billion state budget for the year beginning July 1 doesn’t have any funding for those projects.

Speaker of the House Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, told us the future of those projects is bleak this year.

“While we’ve always been attentive to these small needs in the past where we’ve had an opportunity to, I want to make sure that the public understands that they shouldn’t get their hopes up,” Tucker told The Advocate of Baton Rouge.

The speaker means well, but down deep he knows better.

A little history helps explain why these annual goodies are so hard for legislators to give up.

Bribe money

Former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards is the father of pet projects, but that isn’t what they called them when he came up with the idea.

Edwards was trying to pass a $1 billion tax package during a special session of the Legislature in 1984. Members of the Legislative Black Caucus said an additional 1 percent state sales tax would be a burden on the poor.

In an effort to sweeten the pot, Edwards let black House members amend the tax bill to provide $8 million to be used to give $10 rebates to anyone who was “certifiably poor.”

No one ever got any money because the chairman of the Black Caucus said it would be an administrative nightmare. So the money was given to 69 different agencies, many of them in the New Orleans area.

There was little accountability on how that money was spent, and that is still true in some cases today.

Actually, it was a bribe to get the tax votes Edwards needed, and the payoffs became an annual affair. Rural legislators saw it was a good gimmick to help their re-election campaigns, too, so they wanted in on the action.

Officially, they were called urban and rural funds, but others called them slush funds, and that sounded more accurate.

Legislators didn’t like the term, of course, so pet projects became a new description. However, even that lost favor, and lawmakers started calling them member amendments.

Don’t get me wrong. A number of those annual appropriations serve good causes, like waterworks, drainage and road improvements. But those are local needs that should be funded locally in difficult financial times like now, when the state is facing a $1.6 billion deficit. Others are questionable at best, and it’s difficult to determine whether they are worthwhile. The state was in financial trouble last year, but two funds were raided at the last minute to come up with $30 million for those member amendments. In 2009, lawmakers managed to find $31 million for local projects. Gov. Bobby Jindal stripped $16 million in projects in 2008, but another $39 million stayed in the budget. Gov. Kathleen Blanco and the Legislature gave teacher raises in 2007, and citizens got tax breaks. Lawmakers also padded the budget with $40 million in local pet projects. The Legislature found another $32 million in 2006, $37 million in 2005 and $20 million in 2004. Taxpayers were encouraged when they heard Jindal and Tucker say there wouldn’t be any member amendments this year, but all of us should have known better.

I was scanning through the 133 pages of House Bill 2 the other day, looking to see what Southwest Louisiana projects might be funded in next year’s capital construction budget. And guess what I found scattered throughout pages 99 through 120?

You’re right. There were some of those member amendments that we were told wouldn’t happen. They could be removed from the bill, of course, but don’t count on it.

Who are they?

We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars and millions in some cases for organizations that are questionable beneficiaries of state funding. Here are some examples:

Efforts of Grace Inc.; McKinley High School Alumni; YMCAs in Baton Rouge, Bogalusa, the West Bank of New Orleans and New Orleans; the District 2 Enhancement Corp.; Teche Action Board; Reconcile New Orleans; Greater Urban League of New Orleans; Options Inc.; Treme Community Education Program; Home Away from Home Inc.; Family Center of Life; Trinity Christian Community; Triumph of Special People; Allume Society; Chez Hope Inc.; Mercy Endeavors; and Progress 63 Inc.

Most of us can think of thousands of similar organizations across the state that are raising their own money and taking care of their own needs.

Putting this funding in the capital outlay bill is just another way to avoid accountability, one of the major deficiencies of every other way these expenditures have been handled.

No, the member amendments aren’t gone. They are simply slipping through the budgeting process in disguise. It’s obvious some legislators are addicted to this slipshod process of handling tax dollars.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@american



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