Louisiana runs into problems distributing lawmakers’ pet project money
For months, Louisiana has struggled to fund a handful of legislators’ controversial pet projects because lawmakers inserted the wrong information into state budget documents or used vague language that financial staff can’t decipher.
Legislators have been voting on a rolling series of corrections to the pet project portion of the state budget since early June. They have amended 14 projects totaling $4.1 million in increments during monthly meetings of the joint legislative committee on the budget.
The Department of Treasury insisted on most of the tweaks, saying it couldn’t disperse money for the projects without more clarification from legislators. But the changes bring back old questions about how well the pet projects were vetted in the first place.
Legislators approved their state budget plan in May with $105 million in pet projects, many of which would not otherwise qualify for state funding. They include money for high school athletic booster clubs, youth sports groups, Catholic churches and nonprofit organizations with personal connections to legislators.
Critics say the spending is questionable and dictated more by political power than the needs of the state. A Louisiana Illuminator analysis showed more than 20% of the pet project money will go to the three parishes home to legislators with the most control over the budget process.
The project selection process was also opaque. Legislators didn’t discuss how the projects were picked or which lawmakers asked for particular projects.
The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana (PAR), a nonpartisan think tank that studies state financial policy, disagreed with adding over $100 million in pet projects to the budget.
“These clarifications only underscore the problems with this method of spending state tax dollars,” PAR president Steven Procopio said.
Project tweaks are expected to continue for months. The treasury department still has more than half of this year’s pet projects left to review, said Lindsay Schexnayder, the agency’s chief financial officer, and the treasury only identifies project problems as they come up for consideration.
Lawmakers described the changes as “clarifying language” that hasn’t substantially altered the original list of projects.
“We’re just clarifying,” Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, said. “They are going to the same place and it’s the same money.”
Some of the changes are technical. Lawmakers voted to alter the recipient of $250,000 from the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Foundation. They amended another appropriation of $1.6 million from the Pontiff Booster Club in Jefferson Parish to the Pontiff Playground Booster Club in Jefferson Parish.
In other cases, they have completely overhauled the purpose of a pet project. In June, lawmakers voted to shift $500,000 that was supposed to go to the St. Landry Parish Police Jury for “debris cleanup” to the Evangeline Parish School Board to pay for a junior high school building at St. James Montessori School.
Lawmakers have amended two projects twice since they were approved in late May.
In September, they redirected $50,000 from the City of Shreveport for a dog park to the Southern Hills Business Association in Shreveport for a dog park. Then in October, they changed the project again to put the money toward a “community park” rather than a dog park.
In September, lawmakers shifted $75,000 for the Town of Winnsboro for “office equipment” to the town for “office operations.” Then last week, they voted to drop the “office” requirement altogether and will allow Winnsboro to use the money for any purpose.
Schexnayder, with the treasury, said minor adjustments are frequently needed for pet projects, but it’s more noticeable this year because the number of projects has grown significantly. In 2020, legislators inserted $25.2 million worth of pet projects into the state’s spending plan. This year they are spending more than four times that amount.
The Legislature hasn’t made it easy for the public to identify which pet projects are getting revisions either.
White and Rep. Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, R-Houma, have verbally described the changes to each pet project moments before the joint budget committee voted to adopt them at recent meetings, but a written list of the projects hasn’t been released. It’s unusual behavior for the committee, which typically provides hundreds of pages of financial documents in advance of the votes it takes.
In order to count and identify the projects, a reporter with Louisiana Illuminator had to listen to recordings of the last five joint budget committee meetings.
The legislators are holding themselves to a different standard than they require of many agencies. State department heads who want to make major changes to their spending plans in the middle of the budget cycle are criticized by legislators for doing so. So far, no lawmaker has come forward to criticize their colleagues for pushing a pet project fix.