In about a half hour the Louisiana House Thursday agreed to spend about $5 billion on construction projects for the fiscal year beginning in three and half weeks.
Called Capital Outlay, House Bill 2 details what projects state government will continue and finance in the fiscal year beginning July 1. If approved by the Senate and the governor, HB2 would grant $862,020 towards the $25.8 million improvements on the Louisiana Superdome; $1.6 million for new showers at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and $9.3 million to renovate old engineering shops for the art school at Louisiana State University.
Debate of the very political bill in which legislators mark out projects for their constituents and districts, usually is a bruising all day affair. This year representatives heard the presentation, asked few questions then voted 93-1 for legislation that includes far fewer projects than in the past.
House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, said that though Louisiana had a fairly large surplus to work with, the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with an international oil price war, means Louisiana will be facing reduced revenues in coming years.
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His HB2 stuck with projects that already are underway. HB2 includes $651 million in bonds for 252 top priority projects.
Ways & Means, following Bishop’s lead, agreed to funnel more of the $535 million surplus dollars into the state’s “rainy fund,” for use when revenues fail to meet expectations and don’t cover promised spending. State law requires that a quarter of any surplus – about $134 million this year – must flow into the fund. Another 10% is dedicated to paying down the debt in state worker retirement obligations.
Bishop and Republican House leadership argued that more money needs to be put aside given the state’s uncertain economic future. The administration of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards disagreed saying the money could and should be used for shovel-ready work on roads and bridges along with coastal protection and levees. Low interest rates could better leverage the money, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne argued, than saving it for the future.
After the capital outlay HB2 breezed through, the legislation that authorizes the spending, House Bill 3, came up four votes shy of being enough for passage. Republican Reps. Neil Riser, of Columbia, and Barry Ivey, of Central, questioned whether the voting machine had been properly cleared prior to the vote on HB3.
But the tally had been called, meaning any do-overs needed to comply with state law. Bishop said he would ask for reconsideration of the legislation next week.
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Capital outlay also gives permission to distribute surplus dollars on 137 projects, mostly in smaller amounts to attract bonds and federal money. For instance, $50 million was put in the Highway Program, which maintains and repairs roads, along with $112 million for Transportation Trust Fund, which collects much of the gasoline sales taxes, with the federal government kicking in $625.9 million and the state taking out loans of $30.5 million, in the form bonds.
State parks will receive $5.4 million from the surplus and the Community Water Enrichment Program will get $4 million
Lafayette is getting more to widen Kaliste Saloom Road and $2.9 million towards an updated parish government complex.
Baton Rouge is slated to receive $23.7 million towards an interchange on Interstate 10 for Pecue Lane and $1.9 million more for a project to divert flood waters from Comite River across East Baton Rouge parish to the Mississippi River.
HB2 now goes to the Senate, where projects will be added, removed, and altered. Then, the House and the Senate have to work out their differences and agree on what projects to include and at what amounts, before the bill goes to the governor to sign. One of the biggest powers a governor has is the ability, through line-item vetoes, to eliminate specific projects sought by legislators for their home districts. HB3 comes up for another vote by the House next week.