Yes, Those Projects Are Still There

If someone tells you legislators sacrificed this year by giving up state funding for questionable projects in their home districts, don’t you believe it.

It’s true, you won’t find them in the budget (House Bill 1) where they are usually tucked away. However, spend some time looking through House Bill 2 and they can be found on pages 107-128. It’s the state construction budget for the year beginning July 1.

We used to call those “slush funds,” but that wasn’t respectable enough for state legislators. Pet projects sounded a little better, but that also had a bad connotation. So someone came up with a more acceptable term — “member amendments.”

Some of those are worthwhile projects, like waterworks, drainage and road improvements. Others are not. Whatever the case, local work should be funded locally, especially with state finances being in dire straits.

Trying to hide those amendments in the construction bill was bad enough, but for legislative leaders to brag about them not being in the budget was even worse. And legislators wonder why they have credibility problems.

Some speak out

Don’t paint all lawmakers with the same brush. Seven legislators voted against H.B. 2 because they saw the effort to deceive for what it was. Others were surprised to hear about the amendments just before or after the bill passed.

Reps. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, and Jim Morris, R-Oil City, were two of the seven.

“I’m mad because they stuck member amendments in the bill,” Morris said. “In a year when we’ve got a deficit, they had no business being in there.”

The way all of this was done had a devious look to it. And that takes us to state Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego, and Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge.

Alario was sponsor of a proposed constitutional amendment dedicating new money to the TOPS scholarship program. The House pulled a clever move when it tacked a cigarette tax renewal on the TOPS measure.

I asked a couple of capital reporters if they thought Alario would accept the cigarette tax amendment. There was an indication he might try to have it removed from the bill.

One reporter said if Alario allowed it to stand, you could be sure he would be looking to get something in return in the capital construction bill where those member amendments are located.

Thursday, the last day of the session, legislators, reporters and spectators were waiting anxiously to see what was going to happen. Alario casually walked around or sat at his desk in the Senate for much of the afternoon.

Then, with less than 30 minutes remaining in the session, Alario walked up to the microphone to announce the cigarette tax would stay in the bill. Meanwhile, across the hall, Greene brought up House Bill 2 with only 15 minutes remaining.

Both measures passed by overwhelming margins in both houses. Alario’s TOPS bill was approved 38-1 in the Senate and 99-4 in the House. Greene got the House to go along with Senate changes to the construction bill by a vote of 90-7.

Was there a conspiracy to deceive other legislators and onlookers by waiting for the last minute to move the two bills? Only Alario, Greene or others who might have been involved can say whether that was the case. And I’m sure no one is talking.

One thing we do know. Alario’s hometown of Westwego has $4.65 million in projects in H.B. 2. And his home parish of Jefferson has four pages of projects totaling $58.5 million.

Some of those projects have been completed, but the money to make the final payments has to be appropriated to replace other funds used to pay the bills.

The granddaddy of them all is the Jefferson Performing Arts Center, built at a cost of $45 million. The Times-Picayune of New Orleans a year ago said that was 67 percent more than the original price tag of $26.6 million. And most of that was your state tax money.

There is a Performing Arts Center in Metairie on the east bank of Jefferson Parish and the Westwego Performing Arts Theater on the west bank of Jefferson Parish.

No other parish can come close to getting that kind of state money. Jefferson is getting it for a park, sports complex, bus terminal, farmers market, riverboat landing and nonprofit projects like the Performing Arts Center.

New Orleans does well in the questionable projects category. Here are some of its projects getting state money:

Efforts of Grace, $910,000; District 2 Enhancement Corp., $1.7 million; Reconcile New Orleans, $625,000; Greater Urban League, $200,000; Family Center of Life Inc., $100,000; New Orleans Neighborhood Development, $350,000; Trinity Christian Community, $900,000; Contemporary Arts Center, $300,000; Dryades YMCA, $2.8 million; Kingwood Homeowners Association, $140,000 and Mercy Endeavors, $405,000.

Check them out

You can find these and many other projects by going to www.legis.state. la.us. Call up House Bill 2 at the bottom of the home page and look through pages 107-128. It makes for interesting reading.

I’ve been writing about these local projects being financed with state money since former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards began the practice in 1984. He used the money as a bribe to get legislators to vote for a $1 billion tax package.

The practice has only grown through the years because it gets votes back home on election day. Governors have vetoed a few projects, but they, like legislative leaders, haven’t had the courage to put an end to this questionable expenditure of state taxpayer dollars.

Our thanks to the outnumbered few who have tried to change the political climate at the state Capitol. They deserve our gratitude.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at (337) 494-4025 or [email protected].

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