Sunday, May 26, 2024

Louisiana House leaders steer millions of dollars in pet projects to their home parishes

by BIZ Magazine

By Julie O’Donoghue, Louisiana Illuminator

Courthouse repairs in Gonzales costing $1.8 million, $1 million for the Youngsville Sports Complex in Lafayette, and another $1 million for the Bayou Country Sports Complex in Houma. 

Approximately 30% of state funding earmarked for legislators’ 197 personal pet projects in the budget plan the Louisiana House has approved goes to just three of the state’s 64 parishes – the same three parishes where the House’s legislative leaders personally live. The three projects listed above are just part of that list. 

House members voted to spend $43.8 million on local pet projects in their communities in the budget proposal they passed earlier this month. 

But $13.2 million of that funding  —  nearly a third of that total — is going to the home parishes of House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Stuart Bishop.

You can see the list of projects here.

The committees Zeringue and Bishop lead handle the state budget and tax measures.

Terrebonne, where Magee and Zeringue live, would receive more pet project money — $5.8 million — than any other parish in the state under the House plan. Lafayette Parish ($3.8 million), where Bishop resides, and Ascension ($3.6 million), home to Schexnayder, would have the second and third largest allocations overall, according to a Louisiana Illuminator analysis

Schexnayder also represents Livingston Parish ($3 million), which is receiving the fourth largest amount of money.

Pet projects are items that don’t go through the state’s normal budget-vetting process and mostly benefit local communities more than the state as whole. Legislators began adding hundreds of them annually to the state’s spending plan two years ago, when Louisiana saw an influx of cash related to the federal COVID-19 pandemic relief efforts and hurricane recovery.

Although more pet project funding goes to House leaders’ home parishes, individual lawmakers can’t be easily linked to specific project requests. Legislators develop the list of projects through a secretive process that leaves it unclear who requested each item.

But House leaders appear to have a clear advantage when it comes to getting pet project funding. The $43.8 million in House pet project money this year cost each Louisiana resident about $9.47, but the House budget plan steers about three times that rate — about $27.15 per resident — into the three parishes where the four House leaders live.

Magee and Zeringue said a lot of funding for Terrebonne is needed to deal with continued problems from Hurricane Ida.

“There’s a lot of needs related to Ida,” Magee said.

Zeringue is responsible for adding $1 million for roof repairs at Terrebonne General Medical Center. Ida damaged the building and until its roof is fixed, the hospital can’t fully reopen, he said. 

Magee directed another $1 million for the Houma Restoration District for a traffic study that could help buildings in downtown Houma better withstand hurricanes in the future. Locals believe heavy traffic may have weakened buildings in that area, and officials want some large trucks rerouted, he said. 

Magee said he also asked for $1.3 million in pet project funding for the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office, which also needs to deal with facility damage from Ida. 

Bishop said he personally asked for $1 million for the Youngsville Sports Complex in Lafayette because it’s a statewide destination for youth sports. Requests for the other projects in Lafayette Parish, a community seven other House members also represent, did not come from him, he said.

When it comes to the Ascension pet projects, Schexnayder said it is wrong to assume he is responsible for all the money designated for the parish. Three other House members also represent Ascension, including Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, who also gets a say over pet project money as a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Bacala claimed responsibility for at least one of the six Ascension projects, $250,000 in funding for the Ascension Parish Council on Aging to purchase property and construct a seniors citizens center in Prairieville. Otherwise, Bacala indicated the four House members who represent Ascension work together on their pet project list.

“You have a whole delegation that typically coordinates on our requests,” he said.

Schexnayder, whose district also includes parts of Livingston, St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes, appears to have a working relationship with Ascension’s civic leaders who received pet project funding.

Representatives from the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office, which has been allocated $500,000 in pet project funding, recently cooked jambalaya for the House chamber. The Ascension Parish Chamber of Commerce, slated to receive $1 million in pet projects, hosted a party this week at Schexnayder’s publicly-subsidized apartment on the Louisiana Capitol grounds.

Among the Ascension Chamber’s allocations are $200,000 for instructors at an early childhood development center, and $525,000 for “clean energy education and advocacy initiatives.” Chamber leaders did not respond to requests for additional information about the money.

The Ascension allocation for early childhood education is notable because House members removed more than $50 million from early childhood education programs in the state budget that Gov. John Bel Edwards had proposed. Schexnayder said he wasn’t the member of the Ascension delegation who made that specific request.  

This year’s pet project spending comes as House leaders push for austerity in the state budget beyond early childhood programs. House Republican leaders did not include a teacher pay raise in the budget proposal, which would have cost approximately $200 million, because they said the state could not afford it.

Critics of the pet projects said the spending reveals what lawmakers consider the state’s priorities. The state shouldn’t be directing money to local governments, nonprofits and other programs that haven’t been vetted publicly, they say.

“Some of [the pet projects] don’t look as worthy as others,” said Steven Procopio, head of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, which tracks government spending. “[Are these pet projects] more important than early childhood education funding? I haven’t seen too many that are more important.” 

The amount of money going into pet projects is also expected to grow by tens of millions of dollars over the next three weeks before the budget plan is completed. The Louisiana Senate is currently revising the state budget proposal and expected to add dozens of items to the overall pet project list.

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