Old-time politics resurface

LEGISLATORS REGRESS — Republicans who have overwhelming control of the Louisiana Legislature are taking up old Democratic habits of "bringing home the bacon."

Have “slush funds” returned to the Louisiana Legislature? Are Republicans who have overwhelming control of our lawmaking branch reviving a Democratic political tactic that began in the 1980s?

Judging from events of last week, it appears the answer is yes to both questions. The Advocate reported Friday that House legislators from both parties “bristled late Wednesday night when legislative leaders sought to pass a supplemental budget bill that spent $22 million on a host of earmarks in legislators’ districts.”

Rep. Mary Dubuisson, R-Slidell, said, “I’m completely baffled. I don’t understand when all these were approved, when we (Appropriations) committee members didn’t know about it. How did that happen?”

Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, called the list of projects “blank checks,” with little explanation of where the money was going. He called it a bad decision at a time when the state was borrowing money from the federal government.

Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, said he didn’t feel comfortable voting on a bill when he didn’t know what was in it. “Give me time to see what I’m voting on. That’s all I ask,” Bacala said.

Jeremy Alford in LaPolitics Weekly said some representatives had a negative reaction to what he called “earmarks” in a conference committee report because “they either had no idea what was happening or they weren’t part of the deal.” Earmarks is a more acceptable term for slush funds.

After hearing those complaints, Rep. Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, RHouma, and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, shelved his bill and came back with one that was more acceptable. It passed both houses, but some of those appropriations still raise questions.

The New Orleans City Park Improvement Association is getting $2.5 million. Local sheriffs offices are getting from $50,000 to $500,000. Parish and city government bodies are getting as little as $15,000 and up to $500,000.

Some spending is justified, but the amounts aren’t going to solve many problems.

The Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, for example, is getting $500,000 for hurricane relief. The Calcasieu School Board is getting $400,000 for the same purpose. The Cameron and Jeff Davis police juries are getting $250,000 each for hurricane relief.

Anyone who has seen the devastation from two hurricanes that hit all three parishes has to question how much good those funds will do. The same thing can be said about the small appropriations going to government organizations around the state.

The list of local government projects in House Bill 39 makes for interesting reading. The list can be found on Pages 8-14 of the bill. Go to www.legis.la.gov and look for the enrolled version of House Bill 39 under “Bills,” “2020 Extraordinary Session” at the top of the legislative home page.

Organizations receiving the $22 million are mostly government agencies, and that is how Zeringue justified spending the money. He said he took out some of the money for parks and focused on infrastructure, drainage and first responders.

Even so, it’s obvious the $22 million spent on these local projects could have been spent on more pressing issues. While spending that money, the state is borrowing federal funds to shore up its unemployment fund that has been nearly depleted.

What current legislators are doing is called “bringing home the bacon.” Money they send home helps their re-election efforts.

Former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards in 1984 offered members of the Legislative Black Caucus from urban areas $7 million to be used for non-governmental agencies (NGOs) in return for their support of the governor’s $1 billion tax increase program.

The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana at that time correctly called the NGO appropriations slush funds.

Rural legislators in the 1980s decided they wanted a piece of the action and the slush funds grew to $20 million. The funds also took on a more respectable name — Urban and Rural Development Funds.

Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco abolished the funds in 2005. Members of the Legislative Black Caucus were upset over her elimination of the $27 million, but the funds resurfaced later under “State Aid to Local Government Entities.”

Former Gov. Bobby Jindal said during his 2007 campaign, “There’s got to be accountability, There’s got to be results. I’ll line item veto those kinds of requests. Those are our tax dollars.”

The funds did disappear, but they resurface from time to time. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards could veto questionable items in the current bill, but he doesn’t talk like he plans to do it.

“I would hope that they make sure that we do things to shore up the solvency of the unemployment trust fund,’’ Edwards said. ‘‘If we can move more money to the local efforts with respect to CARES Act (the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, & Economic Security Act), I think that would be a good thing.’’

Call this kind of funding whatever you wish, but it isn’t the way state tax money should be spent.

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