As far back as anyone can remember, governors have rewarded and punished state legislators by doling out or withholding state money for local bridges, roads, sewage systems and the like.
This process generally takes place out of public view, but it has long been known within the State Capitol as a powerful way for governors to exert their influence.
But a combination of factors has left the state with less money to spend on local infrastructure projects next year. And that has weakened the hand of Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, in his uphill battle to persuade the Republican-controlled Legislature to raise more revenue and spend more money to educate students, repair crumbling roads and provide health care to the poor and disabled.
“It’s a lot easier when the governor has extra money to help in different parts of the state,” state Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, Louisiana’s longest-serving lawmaker, said in an interview.
Edwards also has prompted complaints from Democratic legislators for keeping the dollars flowing for projects in Republican districts that former Gov. Bobby Jindal was funding, rather than killing them in favor of new projects sought by Democrats. The Democrats are especially peeved because many Republicans have refused to support any new revenue measures.
“There weren’t capital outlay projects for my district for eight years,” state Rep. Robby Carter, D-Greensburg, groused in an interview. Carter now represents the district that Edwards represented during the Jindal years. “So if you only finish Jindal projects, four more years will pass without projects. What you can deliver from Baton Rouge is an important part of your job, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican.”
How to fund schools, health care and prisons — and whether to raise more revenue to do so — has generated most of the attention on money matters during this year’s legislative session so far, with the House having approved its version of the budget, House Bill 1.
The state House has agreed to a $29 billion spending plan for the coming year that would fully-fund TOPS scholarships but doesn't fund the state agencies that oversee health and social services to the levels that leaders say is needed to fund critical programs.
But in the meantime, legislators have been maneuvering behind the scenes to get their projects — known inside the Capitol as “capital outlay” — included on the initial funding list for House Bill 2, the other major budget bill.
State Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, has scheduled HB2 before his committee on Tuesday. It’s the first step in a process that will eventually produce a final list of projects.
Every year, to look good in their districts, legislators load up HB2 with far more projects than the state can afford. So it’s ultimately up to the governor and his staff at the Division of Administration to decide which ones go to the state Bond Commission for final approval.
Kathleen Blanco, who was governor from 2004-08, said the capital outlay budget provides a useful bargaining tool for the chief executive to persuade lawmakers to support proposals that benefit the entire state but might not be popular back home.
“Most legislators don’t come built-in with a lot of courage,” Blanco said in an interview. “You save it for very important votes, for the most challenging things that have to be done.”
Asked if the practice was unseemly, she replied, “There’s no such thing as purity when it comes to negotiating. You hear the expression ‘win-win’? That’s what this is. You get something, I get something. It becomes evil only if it’s abused.”
Buddy Roemer was governor from 1988 to 1992, when the state was recovering from the oil bust and dollars were tight, similar to what Edwards is facing today.
“We have to spend money on essential things only, period,” Roemer said in an interview. “Spend money on highways and seaports. But bull**** in between? No.”
What’s “bull****” to Roemer, however, is a much-coveted project to a legislator.
“He can take credit for it when he runs for re-election,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a Baton Rouge pollster and political consultant. “He can say, ‘But for my efforts, we’d still have that bad bridge or old blacktop road. Hey, I got that done. That’s what I got done in Baton Rouge.’ Legislators work hard on things they think will help them win re-election.”
Spending on state construction projects had become so profligate by the fourth and final term of Gov. Edwin Edwards during the early 1990s that the state was spending 15 percent of its general fund revenue on debt. Lawmakers began limiting debt spending to 6 percent.
More than a decade later, Jindal agreed to have the Bond Commission authorize an expensive list of projects that far outstripped the available money under the 6 percent spending limit. He and legislators authorized hundreds of millions in construction spending on restoring the coast, expanding I-10 in Ascension Parish and hundreds of smaller projects around the state with money from a $1 billion surplus that he inherited from Blanco. In his later years in office, with his popularity sagging and as he was gearing up to run for president, Jindal steadily drew down the remaining one-time money and left little of that for Edwards.
When Edwards took office, he inherited $3.4 billion of projects that had been authorized by the Bond Commission.
Working in tandem with Abramson to right-size the capital outlay process, the Edwards administration cut $1 billion of projects that hadn’t yet received funding or gotten started, and delayed another $400 million of projects that were barely underway.
Those moves won him plaudits from good-government watchdogs and made life easier for Mark Moses, who oversees state construction projects.
“We can’t manage a $3.4 billion program,” Moses said. “We had projects in there that we simply could not fund.”
The Jindal-era spree and the state’s economic recession have left Edwards with much less to spend than lawmakers want. The governor can authorize only $935 million in capital outlay spending for next year, down from $1.44 billion during Jindal’s final year, Moses said.
Edwards is making less capital outlay money available for hometown projects next year by continuing the Jindal ones to completion and also by directing much of the available new dollars to roads and deferred building maintenance — which the governor says are the state’s most important priorities.
“The fact that there’s less capital outlay has created a fracture in the armor of his own side, the Democratic Party, who are unhappy because they can’t achieve some of the capital outlay goals in their districts that they’d like,” state Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, said in an interview. “They’re having to go home and get flak from small business owners and taxpayers by having voted to impose tax increases. But in the past they could say they got that bridge or sewer done. They don’t have that narrative to tell now.”
Legislators expressed their unhappiness to the governor at a recent House Democratic Caucus meeting, several lawmakers said.
“It’s certainly fair to say that many in the Legislature in both parties in both chambers share the governor’s frustration with the inability to properly fund important projects,” said Matthew Block, the governor’s executive counsel. “The governor believes it’s more important to reform capital outlay, get it right, so it’s a good and proper use of taxpayer dollars, more so than to win political favors.”
State Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Lawtell, is one of those left wanting. He is advocating for Opelousas officials who want $1.4 million to level land and improve drainage to build homes for low-income residents. They also want $200,000 to improve sidewalks in a city park.
“The governor is doing the right thing, but it’s very frustrating,” Miller said. “We’re making key votes to pass more revenue. Republicans in my area were funded more than me.”
For instance, the town of Carencro, in the district of Republican state Rep. Julie Emerson, has gotten a $3 million appropriation, even though Emerson consistently voted against Edwards’ tax measures last year. (Carencro is also in the district of state Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette.)
The money augments dollars allocated under Jindal to expand a water treatment plant that is at capacity. The state Department of Environmental Quality is warning the city that it faces fines for being out of compliance, Emerson said.
One of the local officials seeking capital outlay money for next year is Buddy Bel, the mayor of Amite. That happens to be Edwards’ hometown, and he and Bel are second cousins.
Bel said Amite wants to move its police department from the town’s old train depot to a vacant building that the city owns, with Carter making the legislative request. Besides providing the building, Amite has set aside $225,000, but that is not enough.
“If we got $500,000 (from the state), we’d be tickled to death,” Bel said. “It would certainly get us in business.”
And how would he react if Carter and his cousin, the governor, have to tell him that the state faces too many other demands and can’t fund it?
“Money is tight everywhere,” Bel said. “If it’s not approved, we’ll try to get it down the road.”
The story has been corrected to note that the construction spending by Jindal occurred early in his administration and that he drew down the remaining surplus later in his term.