Senate panel returns many state construction projects to capital outlay budget _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- Louisiana Sens. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, left, and Eddie Lambert, R-Prairieville, both members of the Senate Revenue & Fiscal Affairs committee await staff to finish copying changes to the legislation that authorizes spending for state construction projects.

A Louisiana Senate committee rewrote the House’s version of legislation that provides spending authority for state construction projects.

The Senate Revenue & Fiscal Affairs committee returned many of the projects that had been eliminated by the House, and then in a rare Memorial Day meeting advanced House Bill 2 to the full Senate with little discussion and without objection.

Revenue & Fiscal Chairman JP Morrell agreed with the House’s concerns that some projects had lingered for years without its promoters getting the matching funds or agreements needed to progress. He was OK with dumping those projects and clearing the way for others.

“But there were a lot of projects that we could not fathom why they were taken out in the first place. That seemed very arbitrary,” Morrell said.

For instance, his committee replaced money for a crime lab in Acadiana.

“When you talk to those individuals, and (legislators) from both the House and the Senate from Acadiana, the crime lab is very important to them and nobody could give me an explanation why it was taken out, so it was put back in,” Morrell, D-New Orleans, said in an interview after the hearing.

State construction projects are financed using a contribution of state dollars and permission to raise cash from selling bonds that would be paid off over time. Called “capital outlay” around the State Capitol, HB2 includes authorization for several years of spending on economic development projects, building upgrades, highway expansions and other improvements, including golf courses and playgrounds.

Historically, governors — Gov. John Bel Edwards is changing that tradition — have used capital outlay as a way to trade votes with legislators, so the bill is something of a wish list.

The Senate panel did agree with the House’s concern that the legislation gets overstuffed with projects that receive funding authorization, but whose promoters fail to raise the matching dollars or obtain the necessary agreements.

Traditionally, those projects are rolled over to the next year and receive authorization again.

“We’re not doing that any more,” Morrell said.

Morrell agreed with the House’s sentiment on the issue. But Revenue & Fiscal Affairs changed the procedure by allowing the promoters until November to show that they had raised their portion of the money needed and gathered the appropriate cooperative endeavor agreements.

“If you do not meet the criteria by then, your project will be suspended,” Morrell said.

The House simply struck the projects from the bill.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Neil Abramson made 378 changes to the capital outlay budget. His changes cut $330 million more than what Edwards had initially recommended.

House Bill 2 arrived from the House two weeks ago specifying $1.38 billion in cash and the ability to raise up to $2 billion by taking out loans in the form of general obligation bonds for a total means of financing of $3.4 billion to cover projects over multiple years.

The Senate committee’s version of HB2 increased the cash portion to $1.6 billion but lowered the bonding authorization to $1.97 billion for a total means of financing of $3.57 billion over the next five years.

The legislation will be voted on later this week and likely will end up in a conference committee as representatives and senators work out their differences.

The Legislature must adjourn by Monday at 6 p.m.

Morrell has complained that House leadership communicated very little with the Senate during the two months the lower chamber was considering capital outlay. He said he didn’t have time to communicate much with House leaders given that the Senate has only had the legislation for two weeks and must move it this week.

He and Abramson would communicate when the legislation goes to conference committee, Morrell added.

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