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Louisiana encounters problems allocating funds for pet lawmakers’ projects

Louisiana has struggled for months to fund a handful of lawmakers controversial pet projects because lawmakers inserted the wrong information into state budget documents or used vague language that financial staff cannot decipher.

Lawmakers have voted on an ongoing series of revisions to the main project portion of the state budget since early June. They have amended 14 projects in increments totaling $4.1 million during meetings of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget over the past five months.

The Treasury Department insisted on most of the tweaks, saying it could not allocate money to the projects without further clarification from lawmakers. But the changes bring back old questions about how well pet projects have been vetted in the first place.

Lawmakers approved its state budget in May with $105 million of pet projects. Many of them would otherwise not qualify for government funding. This includes funds for high school athletic development clubs, youth sports groups, Catholic churches, and nonprofit organizations with personal ties to lawmakers.

Critics say the spending is questionable and dictated by political power rather than the needs of the state. A Louisiana Illuminator Analysis showed that more than 20% of the Pet Project’s funds go to the three parishes where legislators have the most control over the budget process.

The project selection process was also opaque. The legislators did not discuss how the projects were selected or which legislators required certain projects.

The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana (PAR), a non-partisan think tank dedicated to government fiscal policy, didn’t agree to add over $100 million in pet projects to the household.

“These clarifications only underscore the problems with this method of spending federal taxpayer money,” said PAR President Steven Procopio.

Project optimizations are expected to continue for months. Treasury has yet to review more than half of this year’s pet projects, said Lindsay Schexnayder, the agency’s chief financial officer, and Treasury only identifies project issues when they come for review.

Lawmakers described the changes as “clarifying language” that didn’t significantly change the original list of projects.

“We’re just clarifying,” said Senator Bodi White of R-Central. “They go to the same place and it’s the same money.”

Some of the changes are technical in nature. Legislators voted to convert the $250,000 recipient from the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Foundation. They changed another $1.6 million funding allocation from the Pontiff Booster Club in Jefferson Parish instead of the Pontiff Playground Booster Club in Jefferson Parish.

Other times, they’ve completely reworked the purpose of a pet project. In June, lawmakers voted to transfer $500,000, which should go to the St. Landry Parish Police Jury for “debris cleanup,” to the Evangeline Parish School Board to buy a junior high school building on St. James to pay for Montessori school.

Lawmakers have amended two projects twice since they were approved in late May.

In September, they transferred $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 into a “community park” instead of a dog park.

In September, lawmakers shifted $75,000 set aside for the City of Winnsboro from “office equipment” to “office operations.” Then last week they voted to drop the “office” requirement altogether and allow Winnsboro to use the money for any purpose.

Treasury Secretary Schexnayder said pet projects often require minor adjustments, but this is more evident this year because the number of projects has grown so rapidly. In 2020, lawmakers added $25.2 million in pet projects to the state’s spending plan. This year they spend more than four times that amount.

Legislators have also not made it easy for the public to determine which pet projects are being revised.

White and Rep. Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, R-Houma, verbally described the changes to each pet project just before the joint budget committee voted to approve them at recent meetings, but a written list of the projects has not been released. It’s unusual behavior for the committee, what normally offers hundreds of pages of financial documents before the votes cast by its members.

To count and identify the projects, a reporter from Louisiana Illuminator had to listen to transcripts from the last five meetings of the joint budget committee.

The legislature adheres to a different standard than that required by many authorities. Lawmakers have criticized heads of state departments for making big changes to their spending plans mid-fiscal cycle. So far, no lawmaker has come forward to criticize their peers for pushing a solution to a pet project.