With little discussion the Louisiana House authorized borrowing close to $700 million to continue work on dozens of state projects from drinking water infrastructure to bridge repairs to, now, work on the lake at the Girl Scout camp in Tangipahoa Parish.

On a vote of 87-3, House Bill 2 was sent to the Senate for consideration.

A handful of Girl Scouts were in the House chamber watching the debate after last week their project wasn’t included in the capital outlay bill, but one for the Boy Scouts was. The girls lobbied legislators asking for parity, which they received when House Ways & Means Committee Chair Neil Abramson added the $850,000 project in the category most likely to receive funds if the state can sell enough bonds in the next fiscal year.

More important, however, Abramson said is that this year’s legislation, which authorizes lines of credit, is reasonably close to the amount of money the state can reasonably raise. That’s not always been the case.

In fact for years, the capital outlay bill was stuffed so full of pet projects by legislators, who went home bragging about securing state support for a playground or a ball field, that the state couldn’t possibly fund them all. The governor would step in to decide which projects would receive the available money. In 2015 the amount authorized for projects was about twice the money available.

“We were making promises to people that we could not keep,” Abramson said. Lawmakers in 2016 started trying to rein in past practices of adding hundreds of millions of dollars in projects at each step of the process.

This year, the House approved borrowing about $629 million to continue state projects. That means only $17 million has been added since the beginning of House Bill 2’s trek and much of that came from technical changes the Edwards administration wanted, rather than legislators piling in pet projects. 

“I felt good about last year’s bill. I feel even better about this year’s,” Abramson said.

The state can borrow about $400 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1. With money still being held in the escrow account from previous loans, Abramson said he is confident that all the projects with the highest priority ranking will get funded.

Plus, some of the new projects – the House approved $95.7 million worth – have a good possibility of also receiving funding, he said. Last year none of the new projects, in the second highest priority category, got money.

That means, the state could borrow, for instance, $928,500 to finish Interstate 10 welcome center on the Texas border; $2 million towards the $4 million repair job on the LSU Memorial Tower; $49 million to increase the drainage pumping capacity in Jefferson Parish; $300,000 for New Orleans to start planning the construction of a police station on the west bank of Orleans Parish; and $15 million towards $72 million sought for the Comite River Diversion Canal, which many feel will mitigate flooding.

The Girl Scouts, if the legislation is finally approved and signed by the governor with their project still in, would have access to $850,000 to make repairs on lake levees at the Girl Scout’s Whispering Pines camp. The man-made lake – used by the girls for swimming, canoeing, and other water-based activities – is threatening to empty into the Tangipahoa River, which could cause flooding downstream.

Abramson explained that the committee had no legal alternative but no deny inclusion of the project based on what was presented last week. Since the meeting he learned that a mistake was made in the procedures that would make the project eligible. Abramson added the Girl Scouts project on the floor.

Southern University Board of Supervisors would get the ability to raise $2.8 million to repair air conditioning and buildings where maintenance has been deferred for years, plus $2.2 million more in loans if there is any bonding capacity left. That will go with $2.2 million in cash for the project.

House Bill 2 also approved spending $1.67 billion in cash on hand federal funds, statutory dedications, interest earnings, and other sources to continue projects. Southeast Louisiana War Veterans Home in St. John the Baptist Parish would get $75,000 to buy walk-in coolers, if the legislation still includes the project after HB2 navigates the system. Another $39.4 million for ports, $28.1 million to improve airports, $56.5 million to repair bridges, and $70,000 to waterproof the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge.

The legislation also approved about $986 million in what is called “trailing money,” which is money to seek loans for in the years to come to finish out projects.


Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.