Construction Budget Jammed With More Projects Than Money

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana's lawmakers have started advancing a state construction budget for next year that is so overstuffed with projects it would give Gov. Bobby Jindal decision-making authority over which ones actually receive money.

         Jindal submitted an overloaded proposal with $258 million more in economic development initiatives, roadwork, state building repairs and other construction projects than Louisiana has money to spend in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

         Before approving the budget proposal Tuesday, the House Ways and Means Committee loaded up the bill even further, adding millions more in park improvements, drainage and other local projects.

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         That would leave the governor to pick and choose which projects to forward to the Bond Commission for financing approval.

         "It's always a wish list. It just seems the wish list is getting bigger and bigger every year," said Committee Chairman Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette.

         The $5 billion construction budget is a multiyear spending plan.

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         About one-quarter of the bill outlines spending of federal money and state fees or taxes dedicated to specific projects like road repairs, highway expansions and coastal projects with their own revenue streams. A large slice of the measure also includes continuing projects that already have been approved in previous years for direct cash lines of funding.

         Beyond that, the state has a bond cap that will limit Louisiana to borrowing $370 million in the upcoming fiscal year for projects that don't already have lines of credit. After Tuesday's committee action, the budget contains about $696 million in projects vying for those dollars.

         And more projects are expected to be added each step of the legislative process.

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         Critics say the situation gives Jindal — like governors before him — the ability to reward and punish legislators for their votes by advancing or stalling their construction projects back home.

         Robideaux previously has sought to try to keep the budget, known as the capital outlay bill, more in line with what the state has to spend. But he said when the governor's office submits an overloaded proposal, it becomes more difficult to pare down the list.

         "You don't even know where to start," he said.

         He said the Jindal administration has the details "about which projects are at which stage of development. We have very limited information about the projects in the bill that the governor sends us." Lawmakers add their proposals to the list, Robideaux said, in the hope of making the case that their projects should get money.

         "I feel that it's justified to allow members to add the projects they feel are important to their districts," he said.

         Mark Moses, director of the Jindal administration agency that oversees state-financed construction projects, said overstuffing the bill "provides flexibility" if some ongoing projects move more slowly than anticipated, giving the state the ability to shuffle dollars elsewhere.

         The full House is expected to consider the budget proposal later this week.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte

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