Pet projects added to La. budget

Published 11:52 pm Sunday, May 30, 2010

BATON ROUGE (AP) — As they cut colleges and charity hospitals, budget-crafters in the House slipped in dollars for local festivals, cattle fences, playgrounds, museums, town fire stations and pages of pet projects in their districts back home.

More than $10 million in legislative earmarks were quietly added to the $25 billion budget bill, with no public discussion of them, by the House Appropriations Committee as it wrapped up its work on the spending plans late last week.

Parish councils on aging got money as war veterans’ homes got cut by the committee. Municipal law enforcement agencies received line-item grants while state prisons lost funding. Local economic development agencies are in line for dollars while a state economic development fund was drained and left empty.

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Lawmakers say the dollars help supply needed services and programs that state agencies don’t supply, and they fill gaps for towns and municipalities struggling to provide fire, police, sewage and other services.

‘‘We have needs all across this state, and members have a tremendous amount of needs in their districts,’’ said House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown.

Tucker said the add-ons were a small amount when looking at the entire budget.

Critics say the items have no place in a budget that should provide for state government operations, particularly as the House panel stripped $68 million from the state’s charity hospital system and $50 million from public colleges.

‘‘It’s always worrisome when you see large budget cuts to critical areas, and then you see these types of amendments added back on, knowing full well there will be more added in the Senate,’’ said Barry Erwin, head of the government watchdog group Council for A Better Louisiana.

Tucker and Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin both noted the dollars added in the so-called ‘‘member amendments’’ were fewer than in previous years when the state had more money and fewer budget problems. But the Senate hasn’t put its pet projects in the budget bill yet.

Last year, lawmakers added $34 million in earmarks into the budget, though Gov. Bobby Jindal cut $3 million of them with his line-item veto.

The dollars for the pet projects aren’t doled out evenly — or with any open discussion of who gets what. Fannin, D-Jonesboro, said he determined the amount each House member got, and he said that ‘‘depends on if you’re a chairman, a vice chairman, that kind of thing.’’

Among the add-ons: the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department would get $25,000 for its Cops and Clergy Program, the Vernon Parish Police Jury would get $20,000 for fairground cattle fences, the city of Denham Springs would get $25,000 for the Kids Korner Playground, the city of New Orleans would get $50,000 to provide local grants for homeless services, the Algiers Development District would get $300,000 and Gretna Fest would get $200,000.

An array of local fire departments, water and sewage projects and local road construction would get state tax dollars. A list of cities, towns and villages would get dollars with no explanation of how they would be spent at all.

‘‘I have people who need water. I have people who need the roads,’’ Fannin said of the types of projects he added to the budget. ‘‘I don’t blow it. It’s in water, it’s in sewers, it’s in those kinds of things.’’

Tucker said lawmakers have gotten rid of the litany of questionable non-governmental organizations that had been funded in past years and have winnowed the earmarks down to what he considers legitimate needs.

‘‘I’m sure there are some, and a number perhaps, that are worthy causes and things that people need in their community,’’ Erwin said.

But he said the state budget should focus on state needs and shouldn’t prop up local governments that have their own streams of local financing.

Erwin had no expectation lawmakers would trim the earmarks, however.

‘‘At this juncture, there’s probably just no way to turn the spigot off,’’ he said.