Over the Easter holiday, one of the legends of the Louisiana Legislature died.
Tom Casey, a Republican New Orleans legislator in the ‘70s and ‘80s, was remembered for treating opponents with respect and knowing more facts than the other side.
The tough procedural changes that Casey helped bring about nearly a half-century ago, Senate President John Alario Jr. said somewhat wistfully, serves as the foundation of a debate that is fast becoming partisan: How to choose and fund state construction projects. The bureaucratic morass is known as “capital outlay” around the State Capitol.
No fewer than 10 bills have been filed to revamp the capital outlay process. At least four of the measures have passed the House and are awaiting review by Senate committees.
“If we as legislators ever had a place to print money, it’s in capital outlay,” said Republican state Rep. Jim Morris, of Oil City and vice chair of the House Ways & Means committee.
“If you look at what we have done in the past, we’re funding ridiculous projects,” state Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, said in arguing for his House Bill 90. “The system is not working. We need to prioritize more.”
A common theme of the capital outlay reform is replacing the governor’s authority to choose what projects are funded with that of the House Speaker and the Senate President.
Very generally, the way capital outlay has been done for years is legislators fill up House Bill 2 with all sorts of construction projects. The Legislature approves the projects. Because far more “wanna haves” are included than money available, it’s up to the Division of Administration, whose leader is chosen by the governor, to rank the approved projects for the state Bond Commission, which acquires the loans necessary.
Several of the bills basically would require the Commissioner of Administration to deliver the list to the House Ways & Means Committee, chosen by the House Speaker, and the Senate Revenue & Fiscal Affairs Committee, chosen by the Senate President, and let the legislators provide the ranking to the Bond Commission.
Using their new social media initiative, House Republicans ran a video last week backing House Bill 122 by state Rep. Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice. Standing in a committee room and speaking directly to the camera, Treasurer John Schroder reprised his campaign narrative: “It doesn’t matter who the governor is, if you vote with the governor you get your project and if you go against the governor you don’t. Rep. DeVillier’s bill takes direct aim at that.”
Not to quibble, but the Bond Commission, whose agenda Schroder sets as chair, already has the authority to pump the brakes on any project.
House Republicans paint opponents to capital outlay reform as — in the catchy words of one their bloggers — “crooks, leftists and lickspittles.” Nevertheless, moderate Republicans and Democrats have voted for these bills. (A rural Democrat drafted the amendment to DeVillier’s bill that would end the practice of state funding for non-governmental organizations, or NGOs.)
The real fight is coming down between local governments, led largely by Democrats, and state government, dominated by Republicans.
Essentially, in the words of state Rep. Robby Carter, D-Greensburg, the bills add another layer by giving the power to legislative leaders, rather than the governor, to rank projects already approved by the Legislature.
That’s why the Louisiana Municipal Association has been opposing some of these reform bills. A lot of local governments depend on capital outlay to help build and maintain roads, firehouses, water systems and what not. Underfunded municipal and parish governments already have trouble getting money through the cumbersome process.
“We’re going to put one more obstruction to local government,” said Democratic state Rep. Sam Jones, a former mayor of Franklin.
Jones then went on to criticize Republican Speaker Taylor Barras, of New Iberia, for stacking Ways & Means with ideological conservatives.
“If you’re not in the trough with them, you’ll never see a dime,” Jones said.
This prompted GOP House Majority Leader Lance Harris, of Alexandria, to jump to his feet to defend Ways & Means’ composition arguing that seven of the 18 members are Democrats. “Maybe some of those bills don’t get out (of committee) because they’re not worthy,” Harris said.
E.L. “Bubba” Henry, who was House speaker for much of the 1970s, said one of the lessons he learned from Tom Casey was to listen to the other side and keep working through the vitriol with a smile. That was how the “Young Turks” were able to overcome an Old Guard defending century-old traditions to reform how state government operated.
“But then, we were interested in the subject matter. They seem to be more interested in ideology,” Henry said.