Leadership has its privileges, and it pays handsome dividends. Just ask state Senate President John Alario. He is only the second Louisiana legislator to serve as speaker of the House and as president of the Senate. The late John Hainkel of New Orleans was the first.
Alario has been in the Legislature since 1972. It would be practically impossible to determine exactly how many millions of state dollars he has been able to send back to his home parish of Jefferson over the last 40 years. His hometown of Westwego has also enjoyed unusual prosperity during Alario’s tenure.
Jefferson Parish got $23 million in construction projects in the fiscal 2012-13 capital outlay bill. The Times-Picayune added that $65.3 million in future spending has been promised for 15 Jefferson Parish projects.
Among the projects is $4.5 million in roof repairs, new scoreboards and other improvements at the Bayou Segnette Sports Complex, which includes the John A. Alario Sr. Event Center near Westwego. The center is named for Alario’s father. Another $1.5 million will be spent on the project at a later date.
The newspaper said Alario’s Senate district received almost $8.7 million in new spending for fiscal 2012-13.
Give Sen. Danny Martiny, RMetairie, another Jefferson Parish lawmaker, credit for making the understatement of 2012.
“John’s been very efficient for getting money for the West Bank,” Martiny said of Alario.
Alario has been more than efficient. He even manages to get state money for questionable projects.
One of the biggest boondoggles over the years has been the building of the Jefferson Performing Arts Center in Metairie. It began construction in 2007 with a budget of $26.5 million. The cost has now climbed to $44.7 million, and it could reach $53 million. The Times-Picayune said with 1,050 seats, the current budget works out to $42,571 per seat.
Why should you care about a project in Jefferson Parish? It’s because it’s your tax money that is helping reward inefficiency while vital state services go begging.
Most cities build facilities like this with bond issues. That is how the Lake Charles Civic Center was financed. However, the Jefferson Parish project is pretty much all state money.
The state construction budget includes another $2.6 million from the state for the arts center and $3.4 million in the next fiscal year. The parish wanted $8.2 million, but had to settle for less.
Even Alario admits the state has put up most of the money for construction and that parish officials are to blame for the mistakes and costs overruns.
“Probably that was the biggest struggle we had in terms of finding funding,” Alario told the newspaper. “At some point, the parish has to step up and realize its responsibility. They’re the ones who screwed up, not the state.”
A legislative audit of the performing arts center last year talked about accounting irregularities, poor decision-making and a lack of significant oversight.
Jerry Jones, assistant commissioner of administration last November, made it clear that the performing arts center was mishandled from the beginning.
“Whatever could be done wrong was done wrong, in my opinion,” Jones said. “Jefferson Parish hired the architects, they hired the contractor, and they had the responsibility to administer both contracts. In this case, the contracts were not administered properly by the parish.”
Members of the Legislative Audit Advisory Council oversee the work of the legislative auditor. They expressed amazement that the arts center didn’t even have a building permit.
Jones said, “Even the smallest town in the state understands when they bid, that makes it their project.”
“I know the question you want to ask,” Jones told the committee. “How can something like this go wrong without it being stopped? And frankly, I can’t answer why the parish would allow it other than — and this is an assumption on my part — they assumed someone would make them whole at some point.”
Jones doesn’t have to make the assumption. It’s obvious parish officials have been made whole by the state, thanks largely to the efforts of Senate President Alario. He and his Jefferson Parish colleagues have come to the center’s rescue year in and year out, and they are still doing it.
Like it or not, that’s the system. Legislators with the most stroke get the leadership jobs, the choice committee assignments, and their projects get the state money. And those who don’t play ball with the governor get the axe. Unfortunately, the voters back home all too often judge the effectiveness of a legislator by the success he has in “bringing home the bacon.”
Alario is the best there is at the political game. He has been elected as both a Democrat and a Republican. He moved from the House to the Senate after 36 years because of term limits, and jokes about switching back to the House when his 12 years in the Senate are up in 2020.
I wouldn’t bet against him, whatever the odds.
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 [email protected].