Jim Beam column: Pet projects benefit leaders

Published 6:19 am Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Legislators have been approving millions of dollars for pet projects for the folks back home at almost every session since 1984. It’s a legacy of the-late-Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, which is a guaranteed vote-getter.

The House this year has already approved 197 personal pet projects totaling $43.8 million and many more millions are expected to be added by the state Senate. The Louisiana Illuminator reported that $13.2 million of that House funding — nearly a third of the total — is going to the home parishes of four House leaders.

Those who are benefiting are House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales; House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee, R-Houma; House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, R-Houma; and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette.

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Magee and Zeringue live in Terrebonne Parish, which would receive more pet project money — $5.8 million — than any other parish in the state. Lafayette Parish, where Bishop lives, would receive $3.8 million, according to an analysis by The Illuminator.

Ascension Parish, where Schexnayder lives, would receive $3.6 million. He also represents Livingston Parish, which is receiving $3 million, the fourth largest amount of money.

When Edwin Edwards took office in 1984 for an unprecedented third term, he called a special March session in an effort to raise $1.1 billion in taxes to take care of a budget deficit. A 1 percent increase in the state sales tax was a key feature of his tax plan that eventually raised $750 million during the eight-day session.

The Legislative Black Caucus was given $10 million in what were called urban funds to use as members saw fit in return for support of the sales tax. Rural legislators later insisted they deserved a piece of that pie so a rural fund was created for their pet projects, and the spending continues.

The Illuminator said pet projects don’t often go through the state’s normal budget-vetting process and mostly benefit communities more than the state as a whole. Although more pet project funding goes to House leaders’ home parishes, individual lawmakers can’t be easily linked to other project requests.

Zeringue and Magee said a lot of funding for Terrebonne Parish is needed to deal with continued problems from Hurricane Ida. Bishop said he only requested $1 million of Lafayette Parish’s $3.8 million and the other requests didn’t come from him.

Schexnayder said it is wrong to assume he is responsible for all the money for Ascension pet projects. Three other House members also represent Ascension.

This pet project funding comes at a time when the House has stripped other millions from the state budget proposed by Gov. John Bel Edwards. Missing are funds for teacher and support worker pay increases, funding for early childhood education, and increased funding for higher education.

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

The pet projects are listed in House Bill 560, which passed the House 74-30.

Allen Parish has $175,000. That includes $25,000 for Oakdale’s recreational facility improvements, $25,000 for the Allen Parish Assessor’s Office for maintenance of the parish mapping system, and $25,000 for Allen Parish Recreation District 4 for improvements to a public facility and youth recreational park.

Calcasieu Parish has $1.29 million. That is $60,000 for DeQuincy for landscaping and purchase of equipment, $230,000 for maintenance equipment for Westlake, and $1 million for the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office for information technology server upgrades.

Jeff Davis has $270,000. That includes $20,000 for Elton’s animal control services, $50,000 for the Jeff Davis Police Jury for the fairgrounds, $150,000 to the Police Jury for road maintenance, and $50,000 for the jury’s office of emergency preparedness for equipment.

In addition to the $1 million for the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, there are 11 other $1 million projects. Beauregard, Cameron, and Vernon are among 20 parishes that received no funding for local projects.

PAR said in February it hoped lawmakers would budget “without the wasteful add-ons for favored pet projects that don’t address broader state needs.” PAR mentioned state needs like backlogs in college building maintenance, water system repairs, road overlays, bridge replacements, hurricane recovery, and coastal protection projects.

Unfortunately, pet projects are in the budget again. They were added without being publicized beforehand and justified like other legislation that is discussed in committees and in the full House and Senate.

Legislative leaders are the beneficiaries again.