House lawmakers propose changes to state construction budgeting, but face long odds to passage

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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Year after year, lawmakers pack so many projects into Louisiana's construction budget that it leaves the governor to choose the favored ones, doling out goodies like Santa Claus.

Frustrated House members wanting more control over how the state prioritizes its construction spending are trying to change that.

"Right now the Legislature has no authority to see that a project is funded, and the governor's office has total control and can kill a project even if it's been approved by the Legislature," said Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, sponsors of a bill to tweak the process.

But while the effort is advancing in the state House, it appears to be a long-shot, facing opposition from the Senate president and Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration.

The state construction budget passed by lawmakers each year has become a sort of wish list, crammed with more proposals for roadwork, economic development projects, building repairs, park improvements and other items than the state has money to spend.

That leaves the governor's office to decide which projects advance to the State Bond Commission to receive lines of credit and the money to get underway. The commission is packed with Jindal allies, so whichever list gets forwarded to the panel usually gets approved.

This year, the Jindal administration already started the construction budget bill as a lopsided request. Its proposal to lawmakers has $630 million in new and continuing projects — $260 million more than the $370 million available to spend.

The current system has been criticized as giving the governor the ability to use the promise of money for lawmakers' favored construction projects as leverage to get votes on other pieces of legislation.

"A project can't get funded unless it's on the Bond Commission agenda, and by statute, the governor's office provides a list. They can kill a project even if the funding's there, just by not including it on the list," Morris said.

Morris is proposing that a joint House and Senate committee review the list submitted by the governor and decide which projects get forwarded to the Bond Commission. The bill would take effect in January, right before the next governor takes office. Jindal is term-limited.

The measure received backing from the House Ways and Means Committee and awaits debate on the House floor.

Lawmakers in the chamber already voted 94-2 this week for a more limited proposal by Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, that would require the joint House and Senate committee approval for local projects. The review wouldn't cover larger state projects, however. That proposal, headed to the Senate for debate, also would begin Jan. 1.

Jindal's office has raised objections to the proposals.

The administration "currently ensures contractual obligations are met, project schedules are on track and capacity limits are not passed. We are concerned that changes to the process could inadvertently delay capital outlay projects," Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols said in a statement.

Even more problematic for the bills is the opposition of Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego. Senators rarely resist Alario's wishes on financial issues, and the Senate leader isn't interested in either bill.

Alario described the construction budget as "a partnership between the Legislature and the executive branch. I think if you let it in the hands of two small committees, you'll find most of those projects in the backyards of those committee members instead of a governor who would have a perspective statewide."


Online:

House Bills 212 and 495 can be found at http://www.legis.la.gov

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