Power and pork: Powerful legislators send big share of La. pet projects to their districts

Julie O'Donoghue
Louisiana Illuminator
House Appropriations Chairman Jerome "Zee" Zeringue, R-Houma, speaks during a meeting of his committee, which unveiled its budget proposal for next year, on May 3, 2021, in Baton Rouge.

Louisiana lawmakers inserted about 300 pet projects worth $85 million into the state’s budget plan this spring, and a handful of lawmakers in legislative leadership benefited the most from this spending.

Among the state-taxpayer-funded spending:

$1 million for Pointe-aux-Chenes Elementary in Terrebonne Parish. The School Board has closed the school, citing low enrollment, but Native American residents are pushing to create a French immersion program there.

► $2 million for the Central Athletic Foundation in East Baton Rouge.

► $2.5 million for Johnston Street lighting in Lafayette.

► $110,000 to upgrade the computer system for the District Attorney’s Office that serves Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes. 

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About $48 million — 56 percent of all lawmaker pet project funding — went to 12 parishes represented by six powerful lawmakers who oversee the state’s finances, according to an analysis done by Louisiana Illuminator. 

When divided up, the $85 million in pet project funding amounts to $18.30 per Louisiana resident statewide. But the state budget plan steered more of that money — $28.67 per resident — to parishes represented by Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-French Settlement, Senate President Pro Tempore Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee, R-Houma, Senate Finance Committee Chair Bodi White, R-Central, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma. 

Senate President Page Cortez speaks with a colleague April 12, 2021, during opening day of the Louisiana legislative session in Baton Rouge.

The funded projects include a Lafayette broadcasting transmitter ($873,000), an East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s training facility ($450,000), the Bogalusa YMCA ($265,000), traffic improvements for a new Prairieville high school ($870,000) and the Bayou Country Sports Complex in Houma ($500,000).  

In all, Cortez’s home community of Lafayette received $17.9 million worth of pet projects, more than any other parish. White’s East Baton Rouge was second, with $15.8 million. Magee and Zeringue’s Terrebonne came in third, with $5.9 million. 

Though more money is going to legislative leaders’ home parishes, individual lawmakers can’t be linked easily to specific requests. Legislators added the projects to the state budget plan en masse during House and Senate committee meetings, which means it isn’t clear which lawmaker requested which specific project.

Defining 'pet projects'

Pet projects are items that primarily benefit a local community more than the state as a whole. They are also items that would likely not be given state funding — at least not in this budget cycle — if a state legislator wasn’t specifically requesting money for them.

The pet projects list includes road and university campus projects the state wasn’t prioritizing for funding before a legislator’s request. It also encompasses community projects — like school construction, law enforcement equipment and park upgrades — that are typically the responsibility of local governments and not designed to be funded by the state. 

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Not only did legislative leaders’ home parishes receive more pet project funding, they also got the most expensive items. Out of hundreds of projects, the one with the biggest price tag — the $6 million widening of Duhon Road — is taking place in Cortez’s Lafayette.

Cortez said there is an undue amount of attention paid to pet projects, given that they make up a small fraction of the state’s $37 billion budget plan. The Legislature made many larger expenditures this year, he said.

Defending the spending

Lawmakers paid down $400 million worth of debt on the Post-Katrina levee system in southeastern Louisiana. They spent $567 million on major transportation upgrades and set aside $300 million to help communities rehabilitate local sewer and water systems.

“It’s one fifth of one percent of the overall budget,” Cortez said of the pet project spending. 

He also pushed back on the characterization of these items as “pet” projects. He said much of the $13.2 million going to transportation-related pet projects in his parish, Lafayette, will be used to fix up state roads — and therefore should be considered typical state funding.

But unlike typical transportation projects, the Lafayette road projects didn’t have to go through the normal vetting process and compete against other state transportation proposals for money. Some of the non-transportation projects don’t appear to be the types of activities that the state would normally involve itself in funding at all.

Magee and Zeringue’s hometown of Houma is getting $500,000 for a local sports complex and $900,000 for downtown economic development projects. The Francois-Benoit American Legion and Auxiliary Post — located in Lafayette — is receiving $150,000. Hospice of Acadiana, also in Lafayette, is receiving $400,000. The school board in Livingston Parish — represented by Schexnayder and White — is getting $100,000 to update its school bus route system.

Some pet projects have strong ties to existing political figures. The Louisiana Leadership Institute — a nonprofit organization founded by Democratic Baton Rouge Sen. Cleo Fields — is receiving $2 million. The Community Foundation of Acadiana is getting $500,000, though the charity reported $151 million worth of assets at the end of 2019 in its annual report. Randy K. Haynie, an influential lobbyist in the Capitol, sits on the foundation’s board.

Lawmakers included their pet projects in two different budget bills passed during the legislative session that concluded last week: the supplemental budget bill, House Bill 516, that funded state government through June 30 and the annual operating budget bill, House Bill 1, that took effect July 1. Gov. John Bel Edwards has signed the budget bills into law after vetoing a handful of the projects connected to some conservative lawmakers’ districts.

Pet projects not new in La.

Lawmakers and lobbyists for years joked about the streets “being paved with gold” in Westwego, hometown of retired powerhouse legislator John Alario. Over 45 years, Alario served as Senate President for two terms and House Speaker for two terms, and he wasn’t shy about directing state taxpayer money to his community on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish.

Still, it’s been several years since the state has seen funding for lawmakers’ pet projects on this scale. There wasn’t much opportunity for such earmarks during Gov. Bobby Jindal’s time in office or during Gov. John Bel Edwards’ first term as the state spent those years in a constant state of fiscal crisis. 

But that dynamic started to shift last year. Due to a tax hike in 2018, Louisiana’s finances have stabilized, and the state has been running budget surpluses regularly. The federal government has also injected billions of dollars into Louisiana’s economy for COVID-19 pandemic relief and economic recovery efforts. This influx of money has freed up hundreds of millions of dollars in the state spending plan. 

Passing on priorities

Lawmakers still chose to spend $85 million on pet projects over other statewide initiatives that had previously been touted as priorities.

Legislators had initially looked at increasing teacher pay by $1,000 and support staff pay by $500 this year, but ended up raising it by $800 and $400 respectively. Cortez said he didn’t think the state could afford the extra $20 million per year it would have cost to implement more generous raises. 

Lawmakers also said they couldn’t extend Medicaid benefits for postpartum women till a year after pregnancy because it would be too expensive. The program would have cost an estimated $4.6 million annually — less than the cost of widening Duhon Road in Lafayette Parish.

Legislators said it isn’t just about the price tag but also the ongoing costs associated with these changes. Pet projects are a one-time expense. A teacher pay increase and Medicaid program expansion would need funding year after year. The state is not expected to have this much money available for years to come, so lawmakers need to avoid permanent increases in spending, they said.

But lawmakers also voted to spend $85 million on pet projects over some one-time expenses legislators otherwise claimed to prioritize.

White and other legislative leaders said they supported setting up a free, automated criminal record expungement system — which would have helped thousands of residents — but the cost was too high to approve this year. The project would have taken $4 million to $6 million to launch. Some of those expenses would have been recurring, but the bulk of the costs would have dissipated after the first few budget cycles. Still, the proposal failed. 

Lawmakers have also championed early childhood education investments. This spring, they voted to steer new revenue collected from sports wagering into this program, but that money won’t materialize for at least several months. Early childhood education advocates had asked for $6 million to support programs for the next school year until the money arrives. Their request was left out of the budget.

Picking projects

It’s not clear why the pet projects were prioritized over early childhood education programming, something that lawmakers discussed for years. Legislative leaders have been tight-lipped about how they determined which pet projects should be granted funding and how much they should spend. 

Historically, each lawmaker was given a budget — such as  $250,000 — and told they could spend that money on something in their district. The higher up in leadership a lawmaker was, the more money they got to spend, said former legislators in interviews.

Magee said the current pet project allocations are not nearly as “organized” as the previous system. Zeringue said lawmakers approach him and the House speaker with projects they want funded — and the House leadership vets the projects to see if they are worthy of support. Zeringue said the House leaders tried to be as equitable as possible when distributing money. 

In the Senate, Cortez said he asked senators to tell White what projects they would like to see funded, and White determines which items should be included. 

But if White and Zeringue got details of how all the pet project funding is going to be spent, that information didn’t make their way into the budget documents they drew up. The descriptions of how the pet project funding will be used are vague in the budget. For example, the City of Baton Rouge is receiving $500,000, but there’s no information about how that money might be spent. The Pointe Coupee Parish jail is receiving $2 million for “expenses” this year — with no further explanation.

— The Louisiana Illuminator is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization driven by its mission to cast light on how decisions are made in Baton Rouge and how they affect the lives of everyday Louisianians.