You can talk all you want about this crisis or that, but the real crisis for petty and narrowly self-interested state legislators is when they can’t get political projects for their districts.
The list of projects this session evolved in the dark, behind closed doors. House Bill 39 steered $22 million in state cash to local projects like sports fields and parks.
The good news is that when the bill came to the House floor for final passage, Republicans and Democrats questioned the list of projects.
“We've got a lot of problems, and this is not what I thought I came down here to do. I don't understand,” said Rep. Kenny Cox, a Natchitoches Democrat. “I didn't think we had this kind of money.”
“If we’re borrowing money from the federal government that we don’t have, maybe we shouldn’t add last-minute projects,” said Rep. Richard Nelson, a Mandeville Republican. “Maybe the sports complex ... maybe that shouldn't be as high a priority.”
A number of the projects, including many in or near the districts of legislative leaders, were added during negotiations between House and Senate over the budget bill, including in the Senate Finance Committee, which had earlier started the pork barrel rolling.
Call us cynical, but we don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Finance Committee’s chairman is Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge, who represents the city of Central. And $1 million was to go to the city of Central for a sports complex.
Where does the money come from? That provoked some fast-stepping from Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee.
He told the House on Wednesday that some state dollars were freed up from health programs via increased federal funding. On Thursday, he dealt with the blowback by taking out some of the parks but leaving a number of earmarks in the bill, perhaps $18 million in total.
It’s telling that in the midst of a pandemic, with vast dislocation of society and the economy, the highest priority of top leaders in the Legislature is taking care of No. 1, that is their politics and their patronage back home.
Even members of Zeringue’s committee said they were in the dark about the pork barrel projects. Welcome to the Legislature, folks.
"This is not just bad fiscal management of scarce state dollars, it is a regrettable revival of a wily political system based on petty favors," the Public Affairs Research Council commented.
We thought the Legislature calling itself into session for a full month, with a 70-item list of potential subjects to address, was excessive in today’s circumstances. A short session narrowly focused on coronavirus-related issues would have been plausible.
But for $22 million, more or less, maybe this long process has been worth it. It is showing how the public interest is a highly flexible notion in the heads of the new Legislature and its leaders this fall.