Pet projects cause disputes

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 13, 2009

BATON ROUGE (AP) — The Girl Scouts, the Awesome Ladies of Distinction and the Special Olympics are caught in a state Capitol tug-of-war.

Those projects are among hundreds of favored add-ons that lawmakers inserted in next year’s budget bill and that are caught in a financing dispute between the state House and Senate.

So, while budget negotiations continue over big ticket items like higher education and health care funding, lawmakers also are haggling over projects that many consider pork.

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At least $28 million in ‘‘member amendments’’ were added into the 2009-10 budget bill by lawmakers in both chambers as it moved through the Legislature. But the Senate tied that spending to passage of a tax break delay that is opposed by a majority of House members and Gov. Bobby Jindal.

And rather than agree to negotiate with senators over the budget in a compromise committee, a divided House voted Thursday to send the budget bill to Jindal with the tax break delay provision intact, though they know it can’t win final passage.

The move leaves lawmakers trying to either add their pet projects into another spending bill or to persuade Gov. Bobby Jindal to remove the contingency language with his line-item veto, even though the governor stripped 258 such add-ons from the budget bill last year.

‘‘We’ll be working with other instruments to put the member amendments back in,’’ Rep. Jim Fannin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told the House.

The projects slated for state taxpayer dollars include local museums, boat launches, councils on aging, food banks, nonprofit organizations, drainage work in lawmakers’ local districts and tiny towns and municipalities.

Critics say the items have no place in a budget that should provide for state government operations — particularly when colleges, health services and other state programs are on the chopping block. Lawmakers say the dollars will help supply needed services, generate jobs and offer programs that state agencies don’t.

The Bunny Friend Neighborhood Association in New Orleans would get $10,000. The Awesome Ladies of Distinction, a Harvey-based mentoring program for school-aged girls, is on track for $25,000. The Christmas Festival in Natchitoches would get $20,000. St. Charles Parish is slated for $300,000 to buy land for a boat launch. The Evangeline Parish Police Jury would receive $750,000 for ‘‘recreational district infrastructure.’’ Two Girl Scouts organizations would get $135,000 between them. And Special Olympics Louisiana Inc. was added for $200,000.

But all of that is tied to a bill expected to fail that would stall a scheduled tax cut for middle- and upper-income taxpayers who itemize.

The Senate and House disagree on the level of cuts slated for Louisiana’s public colleges and health care in the budget for the new year that begins July 1. Senators want to delay the tax break as a way to generate $118 million to offset higher education cuts.

The Senate tied the pet projects to the tax break delay bill as a bargaining chip, even though the projects actually have a different source of funding.

Fannin, D-Jonesboro, pledged to House members that he would work to lessen the college cuts with money from a planned tax amnesty program and other sources. He said he’d get those dollars — and the pet projects — worked into another bill.

However, all the bills he referenced as possible options sit in the Senate for discussion, so senators would have to agree to work out the plans.

House leaders also will consider asking the governor to remove the contingency language for the pet projects, said House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown.

Senate President Joel Chaisson said legislators’ favored festivals, nonprofit organizations and other add-ons shouldn’t be a focal point of the debate while health care programs and colleges are at risk of deep budget cuts next year.

‘‘This is about so much more than member amendments. I can’t even believe that’s part of the discussion,’’ said Chaisson, D-Destrehan.

On the Net:

The budget bill is filed as House Bill 1 and can be found at