When people talk about the state’s finances, they are usually focused on the operating budget that pays for the payrolls and day-to-day expenses of government offices and agencies across the state. It’s the vital House Bill 1, the general appropriations bill.
When politicians talk about the state’s finances, it’s often about HB2, the capital outlay bill.
That is the mother of all pork barrels, the building projects state government pays for. These are not just classrooms or parking lots on state campuses or other facilities. In Louisiana, a large amount of projects in HB2 are for local governments, capital outlay that, in other states, would be paid for entirely with local revenues.
That the state can kick in cash for everything from parks and senior centers to sports fields and golf courses is one of the most corrupting things in state politics. Because legislators want political credit, they load up HB2 with more projects than the state can afford to build; the governor then has the obligation to cut the bill. There always is the threat that if a legislator does not play ball with the governor, the civic center back home would be vetoed.
This process is obviously ripe for reform, but it takes a governor willing to clean up the underbrush of projects — dozens of them in the low-priority sections of HB2 funding. It’s politically painful, but we feel Gov. John Bel Edwards should get credit for kicking off what could be a wide-ranging reform of capital outlay.
Edwards says HB2 will focus on roads and deferred maintenance for state buildings, particularly on college and university campuses. That means no “shiny, new” buildings and no pet projects for legislators.
“I made a commitment during the campaign to get realistic with our state’s construction dollars, to focus on fixing our roads and taking better care of our state buildings and to stop overbudgeting our capital outlay bill with projects we tell people back home are in line to be funded but which, in reality, have little hope of ever being funded,” the governor said.
We hope he follows through on this, but the bipartisan desire for capital outlay reform can be met only if legislators exercise better judgment in what projects they put in the bill.
We like Edwards’ priorities and urge lawmakers to agree with them. But the political temptation will be to add more projects in the bill than the state can fund.
That will please individual legislators with short-term political gain. What it won’t do is shift power from the Governor’s Office in the longer term.
Former Gov. Bobby Jindal deserves some credit for requiring some local financing for projects, but that did not go far enough. Genuine capital outlay reform would purge HB2 of local building projects so that the Governor’s Office no longer is the sugar daddy for legislators and local politicians.
Edwards’ approach to HB2 should be a start to a real political overhaul of the State Capitol. He deserves credit for pushing restraint in the capital outlay bill, but it won’t last unless legislators assert themselves in the creation of the building budget.