Louisiana will spend $45 million on sports and livestock facilities and other new projects in spite of a looming deficit, frustrating some officials who say the frivolity reinforces the state’s history of political patronage.
“We’re in Washington with our hands out asking for $2 billion plus, and rather than holding on to the money to see what the needs are, they’re spending it on local projects financing goat shows and lawn-mower races,” says state Sen. Robert Barham, Oak Ridge Republican.
Supporters of the $4 million Morehouse Parish Equine Center say it will give a much-needed boost to the economy.
Jimmy Christmas, center chairman, says it will be used for horse, cow, dog, goat and art shows; rodeos; auctions; crawfish festivals; lawn-mower races; religious functions; an animal shelter; and a community center.
“I like a good goat roping as much as anyone, but come on,” Mr. Barham said. “It’s funny, but it’s sad. At a time when Louisiana needs so much to enhance its public image, the taxpayers are just shaking their heads and wondering.”
The Louisiana state Legislature yesterday began a special two-week session to deal with record-setting budget shortfalls, but this spending, approved by the state’s bond commission and headed by Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, will go unchallenged.
Also up for discussion during the special session is a bill that would allow lawmakers and their family members to obtain Federal Emergency Management Agency contracts, and proposals to restructure the state’s levee boards. The president of the Orleans Levee Board resigned last month after accusations he awarded contracts to family members.
Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, says the spending is not helping his efforts in Washington to secure emergency funding for the state to deal with the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
It’s not just Republicans who are critical of the spending. State Treasurer John Kennedy, who was Mr. Vitter’s Democratic opponent in the 2004 Senate race, is leading the charge in the state to block spending on projects not related to the hurricanes.
“I argued unsuccessfully that dollars are scarce and our cash flow has been severely impacted,” Mr. Kennedy said. “These projects may be needed in a particular area, but the question is, are they needed now at a time when the state budget has been impacted by $1.5 billion and 250,000 people are out of work, and many more lost their homes, their cars, and in some cases, members of their family?”
Mr. Vitter and Mr. Kennedy also worked together to develop a disaster-relief loan program for the state with federal dollars that includes accounting measures to ensure against wasteful spending.
“We need a lot of federal help, but all eyes are on Louisiana in terms of leadership and what we are trying to do to help ourselves,” Mr. Vitter said. “This action by the bond commission is exactly the opposite direction. It sends a very negative signal up here, and it has not helped our cause.”
Mrs. Blanco’s office referred a call for comment to the Louisiana Division of Administration, which did not return calls seeking comment.
The list of projects also includes reservoirs, a cargo airport, sewer systems, an Audubon Institute building, a hospital, a performing-arts center, a cruise-ship terminal, a light-rail line, a gene-therapy research building, a library, an arboretum and a technology transfer center.
“I don’t know what they think, and I doubt if they are thinking,” Mr. Vitter said.
“This bond commission is spending money on new projects that weren’t going to be funded and have no relation to hurricane recovery, and it is not being viewed favorably up here,” Mr. Vitter said.
A spokeswoman for Mrs. Blanco also says the state cannot pay the $3.7 billion required to match more than $41 billion in federal funds.
“You can’t squeeze $3.7 billion out of this state to pay this bill. Period. That would be difficult for us on a good day,” Denise Bottcher told USA Today.
On Saturday, Mrs. Blanco announced cuts of $431 million from the state’s $18.7 billion budget.
“State government must work leaner but smarter than ever before,” she said.