Uniformed Girl Scouts prowled the halls of the State Capitol in past years, helping their adult leaders corral votes for state aid to save their camp in Tangipahoa Parish.
This year, fewer members of the public are in evidence. Those that do come find it hard to enter committee hearing rooms where seats are roped off for social distancing. They compete with special interest lobbyists wearing designer masks to buttonhole legislators in the halls.
And this year, the $850,000 Camp Whispering Pines needed, which was included in March, was struck from the Capital Outlay bill now sitting on Gov. John Bel Edwards’ desk.
The 600-acre facility is where generations of women have learned archery and rope climbing. It’s where they learned to swim and canoe on a 23-acre lake that now is on the verge of sending its water, depending on the height of the Tangipahoa River, through the streets of Independence four miles away. Erosion has reduced the lake’s spillway, which should be 160 feet wide, to about 20 feet. “If the spillway or the rusted overflow valve collapses, we have no way of stopping the water from flowing out of the lake,” the Girl Scouts wrote.
The Girl Scouts are only one of dozens disappointed to see their projects ousted in the sea change for handling the state’s construction measure, House Bill 2.
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Bafflingly complex, most of the public skips over the confusing way state officials choose which construction projects to back with taxpayer dollars. It’s easier for regular people to understand the fight over the name of LSU’s main library. Their eyes tend to glaze over trying to sort out the machinations of paying for building a new library, one that doesn’t leak in the rain.
Like the Girl Scouts, LSU lost the money needed to start that new library, whatever its name will be, in the final Capital Outlay bill. “They just said, ‘Not this year,’” recalled interim LSU System President Tom Galligan.
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The Legislature’s new world also undermines one of the most potent powers of a governor. State senators and representatives want to go home with a piece of paper showing they got that new soccer field for constituents. In years past, so many projects were stuffed into HB2 that the real selection came when a governor chose which projects to send to the Bond Commission for financing. It was a good way to reward legislators who supported a governor’s policies.
This year the list of priority projects matches the available funding, provided the agencies come up with their matching dollars, thereby removing the governor from the equation. The bill has more than $100 million left over to use next year when state revenues are expected to drop further.
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Remarkable in the annals of the Louisiana Legislature, accomplishing this balance necessitated legislators hearing “no” — a lot.
Senate Revenue & Fiscal Affairs Committee Chair Bret Allain, R-Franklin, said he limited legislators to three requests ranked by importance. Everyone got at least one of their projects and most didn’t get more unless their district also had a highway or a bridge in critical need of fixing. He and Rep. Stuart Bishop, chairman of the House Ways & Means committee, decide what’s included in the bill.
State Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton and in whose district Whispering Pines is located, said that as much as she liked the Girl Scouts, she prioritized Safe Haven, a mental health facility. “The truth is the money is just not there for things that aren’t absolutely critical,” she said.
Girl Scout leaders pushed hard during House and Senate committee hearings. While Bishop, R-Lafayette, proclaimed his support for Girl Scouts, he also seemed to want to make his point about a new age for construction spending through the organization that teaches wholesome values to young ladies.
He argued that the Girl Scouts failed to raise their portion of the money needed to match the state’s investment. The Girl Scouts pointed to a waiver, because of the possible flooding issues, and noted that what limited money the group had was used to fund activities for the girls.
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Though plans had been drawn up, no bulldozers had yet arrived at Whispering Pines. Bishop decided to pay the design engineers, then removed the project from the list of construction priorities.
Bishop said he wants to focus state construction dollars on roads, bridges, airports, river ports, coastal restoration, and clean water infrastructure. He was required to continue some construction he didn’t like but had already broken ground. Projects for private entities not already underway won’t appear on future capital outlay priority lists, he added.
“The days of building golf courses and ballparks are over,” Bishop said. “Every community deserves good roads, safe bridges and clean water, that’s the priority from now on.”