Louisiana lawmakers raid emergency fund

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 3, 2010

BATON ROUGE (AP) — To patch holes, fill deficits and pay for pet projects, Louisiana’s lawmakers raided a more than $140 million state emergency response fund, depleting nearly all its cash in the heart of a hurricane season expected to be a busy one.

Gov. Bobby Jindal backed the move, and his administration says other dollars are available to immediately cope with a storm if one comes.

But others question the wisdom of draining the emergency fund in a state that has been slammed with four large hurricanes in the last five years and that is currently battling the environmental catastrophe of the Gulf oil spill.

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‘‘It’s dangerous. It’s reckless,’’ said Treasurer John Kennedy.

Only $3 million to $4 million remains in the fund after the recently ended legislative session, depending on who’s doing the counting.

Lawmakers used $63 million from the fund to help close a budget deficit in the just-ended 2009-10 fiscal year, $67 million to pay for services in the current 2010-11 budget and $10 million to cover legislative earmarks for projects in their districts.

The dollars were added into the budget bills in the final week of the legislative session. Even as lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the spending plans, some raised objections to using the emergency fund — particularly to pay for lawmakers’ local add-ons.

‘‘Is there not some other place we can take this from?’’ asked Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington.

Rep. Juan LaFonta, D-New Orleans, agreed. ‘‘We’re in an emergency situation with the oil spill, and we’re facing hurricanes,’’ LaFonta said. ‘‘If a storm happens, no responsible action has been taken. This here stinks.’’

Rep. Jim Fannin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, defended the projects, saying they represent ‘‘real needs by real people across this state.’’ He said the earmarks pay for water and sewage projects in municipalities that can’t afford them and help fill gaps in services back home.

Jindal urged lawmakers to approve the budget plans that largely wiped out the emergency response fund, though he had fought attempts to raid the fund in previous years. A spokesman for Jindal said the depletion of the fund won’t harm Louisiana’s ability to handle emergencies, even in the state’s tight budget times and with looming fiscal problems.

‘‘As the governor has said, this budget was a compromise and wasn’t anybody’s first choice. We will make sure our agencies have the resources they need to respond to a hurricane or any other emergency,’’ Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin said in an e-mail.

Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s administration created the emergency fund in 2006, with the support of lawmakers, less than a year after the devastating back-to-back blows of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The fund was started with $150 million in state cash from an unexpected boost in tax revenue as oil and gas prices boomed and hurricane victims replaced ruined cars, appliances and other household goods and rebuilt their homes.

Blanco argued the dollars could cover state costs for evacuations, sheltering and transportation if a hurricane approached, and her legislative floor leaders fought off attempts to raid the money, despite complaints it could be better spent elsewhere. Rep. Jim Tucker, now House speaker, in 2006 criticized the emergency fund as a ‘‘slush fund’’ for the governor.

Dollars were added to and spent from the fund since then, paying for hurricane shelter supplies, communications equipment, pandemic flu preparations and National Guard security assistance in New Orleans.