Millions of dollars for a new interchange at Pecue Lane and Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge, for a new children’s museum in New Orleans and for a new crime lab in Acadiana are among the hundreds of projects throughout Louisiana included in the annual construction budget approved by the state Senate on Wednesday.
But exactly which projects ultimately will get funding is a question mark given the state’s budget crisis and given that lawmakers want to build many more projects than they are willing to fund. The House and Senate have until Monday — when the legislative session ends — to settle on a final set of projects that must win approval of each chamber.
As in past years, senators overstuffed House Bill 2 with a wish list of projects before approving the bill, 38-0.
The Pecue/I-10 interchange aims to reduce traffic congestion in the southeastern part of Baton Rouge and provide better access to Woman’s Hospital. HB2 contains $11 million for it with the hope of getting $36 million next year from the Legislature, the federal government or local means. Planners hope to start construction work on the project before May 2017.
The Louisiana Children’s Museum would get at least $8 million to help finance its planned move in New Orleans from the Warehouse District to City Park.
Money for the new crime lab in Acadiana would replace the outdated facility in New Iberia that is too small, suffers from water leaks and has a faulty heating and air conditioning system, said Kevin Ardoin, the lab’s director. The new lab would be about 20,000 square feet — or twice the size of the current lab — and would allow for better testing of drugs confiscated as evidence, weapons seized in shootings, impressions taken off suspect shoes and tires and blood or semen for DNA analysis.
The annual funding for new and existing state construction and repair projects began this year with Gov. John Bel Edwards cutting $1 billion of projects he said had no chance of getting funding anytime soon. The move was not popular politically, but Edwards said it is one of the steps needed to right-size budgeting after the profligate spending during the years of his predecessor Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Edwards said the money that is available next year — $330 million to $500 million — should go for improving roads and fixing public university buildings and state government buildings. This approach would mean eliminating dozens of smaller projects for rural parishes that their legislators typically fight hard for.
The House, under the leadership of state Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, reluctantly pared dozens of projects that had gotten funded in past years but hadn’t actually moved forward for one reason or another.
The Senate, under the leadership of state Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, who chairs the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, added back many projects and would allow those that have yet to begin construction to show they justify state funding.
“We have decided to allow them to continue projects for one more year,” Morrell said after the Senate vote. “It’s a timing issue.”
The infrastructure projects, known as capital outlay within the State Capitol, are vitally important to legislators — Democrats and Republicans alike — because of pressure from local government officials to provide $25,000 to fix a courthouse here or $100,000 to repair a road there. Winning funding for these kinds of projects allows a lawmaker to show local elected officials his or her effectiveness in Baton Rouge.
That dynamic means capital outlay serves as a key tool for governors to reward friends, punish enemies and secure votes on key issues. Governors typically make secret deals with legislators to fund local projects in exchange for votes on important bills, such as the tax measures that will be coming up during the second special session later this month.
Ultimately, the Louisiana Bond Commission, which is controlled by the governor’s appointees, decides which projects get funded when HB2 is oversubscribed.
As Abramson has pointed out, last year’s capital outlay bill contained $1.2 billion of projects, meaning most of them didn’t get funded and have to compete during this year’s legislative session with requests for new projects.
“The bill is too big. We’ve made efforts to trim it down,” Mark Moses, the Edwards administration’s top official for capital outlay projects, told Abramson’s Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday. “It’s going to take several years to get this back in order.”
Or as Abramson put it in an interview afterward: “The number of projects in the bill does not match up with the ability to pay for them.”
Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @TegBridges.
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