Talk of change for the way Louisiana spends its construction budgeting money fizzled in the final days of the legislative session.
Instead, lawmakers went home with a construction budget overstuffed by $385 million that continues to give all project-selecting authority to the governor. For the upcoming budget year, Gov. Bobby Jindal will choose which projects should get lines of credit.
Efforts to assert legislative power over construction spending fell apart when senators refused to go along with changes sought by the House to give lawmakers more control over how the state prioritizes its limited construction dollars. The legislation faced opposition from Senate President John Alario.
“We tried to work out a deal with the Senate in the final days, but we just couldn’t get it done,” said Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, sponsor of one of the bills.
The state construction budget passed by lawmakers each year, known as the capital outlay bill, has become a sort of wish list. It’s crammed with more proposals for roadwork, economic development projects, building repairs, park improvements and lawmakers’ favored construction work back home than the state has money to spend.
That leaves the governor to decide which projects advance to the State Bond Commission to receive lines of credit and the money to get underway. The commission is packed with the governor’s allies, so whichever list gets forwarded to the panel usually gets approved.
Lawmakers — even those who rejected proposals to change the process — said the current system allows governors to trade projects for votes on other pieces of legislation.
“The process is tainted from the start to the finish,” said Sen. Jonathan Perry, R-Kaplan.
Sen. Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales, described the process: “If you don’t drink that Kool-Aid, sometimes you don’t get things in your district.”
Treasurer John Kennedy, chairman of the Bond Commission, said the state has built projects based not on Louisiana’s priorities but on deal-making, citing a fence built around a private subdivision in New Orleans, for example.
“I have seen young gubernatorial aides talk to senators and state representatives like they were dogs and say to them to their face, ‘Either you vote for this bill or you can kiss your capital outlay project goodbye.’ And that’s just not the way you make policy,” Kennedy said during a legislative hearing.
Talbot and Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, sought to require a joint House and Senate committee to review the list of local projects submitted by the governor and decide which ones get forwarded to the Bond Commission.
Though the House overwhelmingly supported the legislation, the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee stalled the effort. Senators raised concerns about the makeup of the project-review committee and whether it would favor some areas of the state over others.
“You can’t take politics out of politics,” said Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport, who opposed the changes.
That wasn’t the only resistance.
The Jindal administration raised concerns the changes could slow work on projects. And Alario, R-Westwego, said that if a legislative committee decides the projects, it likely would steer much of the work to the districts of committee members. A governor, Alario said, has a “perspective statewide.”
Talbot isn’t giving up on the idea of change, however. He said he’ll spend the off-season between legislative sessions looking at how other states handle their construction spending.
“This will probably be my top priority for next year,” Talbot said. “It’s going to be tough. But the way the practice is now is hard to defend.”