A little-known perk exists at the Louisiana Capitol: Some state legislators get premium apartment space at a very low price just a stone’s throw from the State Capitol in Baton Rouge.
It’s up to the Speaker of the House and president of the Senate to pick who lives in the Pentagon Barracks apartment buildings — about four dozen apartments that date to the Revolutionary War.
For the new term that started with last week’s opening of the regular legislative session, 28 senators and 29 members of the House get to rent apartments at the Capitol-adjacent site at a price of $185 to $625 per month for the apartments divvied up to lawmakers. There is a separate apartment for the lieutenant governor.
Both House Speaker Taylor Barras and Senate President John Alario say they have been fair in allotting the primo apartments. The legislators who live there insist the digs aren’t glamorous and are more a matter of convenience.
But the apartments are nothing to sneeze at, either. The apartments rent for about half the price for similarly-sized places in downtown Baton Rouge and within walking distance from the Capitol. Many legislators who don’t get placed at the Pentagon rent apartments elsewhere or stay in hotels during the week.
Lawmakers are paid $157 to cover expenses for every day that they spend working in Baton Rouge. That’s on top of their $16,800-a-year base pay and other expense allowances.
Republican Rep. Nancy Landry is in the apartments for the first time this year. For seven years, she drove back and forth between Baton Rouge and her home in Lafayette each day.
“I just felt like it was a safety issue for me,” she said of moving to the Pentagon Apartments.
It also was time consuming. Now that Landry is chairwoman of the powerful House Education Committee, she’s spending more time at the State Capitol and more time reviewing legislation. “I have to be in Baton Rouge much more frequently,” she said.
During the special session, Landry missed several votes one day and had to enter them in late because a wreck on Interstate 10 left her stuck in traffic for hours.
“That happens more frequently than people might think,” she said.
Alario, R-Westwego, said he accommodated nearly all senators who asked for rooming space at the Pentagon apartments.
“I think they are normal apartments. They’re not necessarily Section 8 housing, but the main thing is it’s greatly convenient to the Capitol and gives them something to make sure that they can be on time,” he said.
It’s a bit more competitive on the House side because the lower chamber has more members but the same number of apartments to dole out.
Barras won a contentious race to be the leader of the Louisiana House in January. Prior to that, he had never even gotten a chance to live in the Pentagon Barracks. This year, though, he found himself in charge of assigning them.
Rep. Helena Moreno, who had supported fellow New Orleans Democrat Walt Leger III in the speaker’s race, said she worried she would not get assigned an apartment after having one during the last term. But she ended up being one of the 11 Democrats assigned to the apartments.
“I was very thankful for that,” Moreno said, adding that she spends long nights at the Capitol that would otherwise require late trips back to New Orleans if she had to commute.
Barras said he tried to be fair to the lawmakers — divvying up apartments based on seniority, distance from Baton Rouge and committee chairmanships since chairmen spend more time at the Capitol.
But there is still a tinge of politics that enters the mix.
Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City, moved out of the apartments after a disagreement with former House Speaker Chuck Kleckley.
It’s something Morris downplays these days, now that he has regained his apartment at the Barracks.
“It’s very convenient for a legislator to be in one of them, there’s no doubt about it,“ Morris said. “I can tell you, the apartment I rented on my own was much nicer.”
Morris is bunking with Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans. Morris is vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee that oversees taxes. Abramson is chairman and has drawn negative light because he backed Barras instead of Leger for speaker.
Morris said that apartment A-3 at the Pentagon is full of a lot of tax talk, when they are spending time together. “We do spend a lot of time talking about the things that we’re working on,” he said.
Alario, who has been in the Legislature for more than four decades and has a “president suite” at the Pentagon Barracks, said he often cooks or has other legislators cook for members of the Senate. They’ve had Italian dinner nights and dinners featuring wild game, among other special meals.
“When you can sit down and have a meal with somebody and share that, you find out when you listen that maybe their ideas aren’t so bad,” Alario said. “When you sit down and eat with people, they are a bit more open to talking.”
The bare-bones accommodations are frequently described as “dorm-like.”
Moreno shares a two-bedroom apartment with Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner. Their bipartisan roommate set-up was assigned — not self-selected — but the arrangement works for them, Moreno said.
“It’s a good thing we get along,” Moreno joked. “We’ve always gotten along well.”
The two share a small common area between their private bedrooms and what Moreno described as a “tiny” kitchen.
“It’s kind of like living the dorm life,” Moreno said.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for two female professionals to adjust to: They share one bathroom.
“I’m sure you can imagine. It can be tough with two women sharing a bathroom every morning,” Moreno said.
The Pentagon apartments, which have supposedly played host to former President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, lie between the State Capitol building and the Mississippi River.
Rep. Katrina Jackson, a Monroe Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said that she found the apartment at the Pentagon to be more accommodating for her role as a chairwoman. “We all require some form of home away from home,” she said. “This helps you adjust being here so much.”
“Obviously, you can get a lot more work done if you have an apartment,” she added.
Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, said the apartments also offer a convenience for legislators who have children.
“It’s nice when your family comes to visit to have a place for them close by,” he said.
But he also stressed that the apartments aren’t nice.
“All of the appliances are from the ’80s,” he said. “The true benefit is simply location.”
Morrell chairs the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, which handles revenue-related legislation, including major tax bills during the special session.
“With the current budget crisis, we pretty much live at the Capitol,” he said.