The Louisiana highway department got its money but not before a handful of legislators forced a vote to protest the routine raiding of the state’s chief transportation fund.
Following the usual procedure, the state Department of Transportation and Development asked to tap a trust fund for highway maintenance to pay $2,149,289 for expenses, such as de-icing roads when wintry weather shut down 23 parishes in the northern part of the state in late February and early March.
Such requests are usually granted by the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget with little debate and rarely a vote when a state agency asks for more money because of an emergency.
Democratic state Sen. Francis Thompson, of Delhi, pointed out that throughout history, these reimbursements have been routinely granted.
“Isn’t that what we do always?” Thompson asked. “That’s the right thing to do, historically perspective.”
But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue would have none of it.
“We’re going to take $2 million away from the road maintenance that this state needs and put it to de-icing because they can’t find $2 million out of a $1 billion budget” for DOTD, Donahue said.
During an interview later in the day, Donahue admitted he knew he was on a quixotic quest. But, he said, he had tired of agencies and legislators raiding the Transportation Trust Fund whenever they need money.
He touched on a volatile issue.
The trust fund collects revenues from the tax on gasoline and other sources. The money is the key state source for financing roads and bridges. But the fund is raided all the time. Since 2005, $418 million has been diverted from the state’s chief transportation fund to the State Police.
“I wanted to make a stand,” Donahue said.
He acted out in a frustration that a lot of lawmakers are feeling as they try to fill a $1.6 billion revenue hole without further deep cuts to higher education and health care.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin explained, “What’s happening here is that the more we squeeze maintenance every day, when these events come along, then we don’t have extra money in the budget.”
The Joint Committee is charged with approving requests for additional money after the state budget, which allocates spending, becomes law.
Fannin pointed out that this was not the first time an agency came looking for extra money for storm-related events. But he asked why the agency didn’t plan for these kinds of events in its budget.
Nita Chambers, DOTD’s undersecretary, said the agency absorbed about $700,000 but, for the rest, blamed the mid-year cuts needed to rebalance the state budget a few months ago.
She said if required to pay the extra $2 million from its operating budget, DOTD would defer other maintenance costs, such as mowing medians and filling potholes. “It’s the only alternative we have,” she said.
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