LA House Committee OKs $3.6B

Sat May 29, 2004 - West Edition

BATON ROUGE, LA (AP) A $3.6-billion budget for Louisiana construction projects — much of which the state can’t afford to fund — was quickly approved May 20 by a House committee that added approximately $500 million in items.

The bill amounts to a wish list for the budget year that begins July 1. The state is limited in the amount it can borrow for construction each year, and Rep. Bryant Hammett, D-Ferriday, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said there is only about $33 million available for new projects.

“We have gone over ad nauseam the lack of available funds and the lack of bonding capacity,” Hammett told committee members.

Most of the projects won’t get any money for years — if ever. Some projects already are under way. Others are complete, but the state hasn’t finished paying for them.

The committee agreed to changes proposed by Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s administration that slowed down the schedules for some construction projects already under way or scheduled to begin.

Commissioner of Administration Jerry Luke LeBlanc, Blanco’s chief budget adviser, said former Gov. Mike Foster’s construction budgets during the last few years left the state “overcommitted” to several long-term projects that the state can’t afford to complete on schedule.

But lawmakers still tacked on millions of dollars in new items, though Hammett said only half of House members’ original requests actually were added to the bill, and he called that a large improvement over previous years.

“We have used considerable restraint,” said Hammett, who handles the construction bill in the House.

Among the items added in 49 pages of committee member amendments were dollars for museums, drainage improvements, crime labs in north Louisiana, a skate park in Baton Rouge, a women’s health center in Caddo Parish and a planning study for a new charity hospital in Baton Rouge.

The measure, which goes next to the House for debate, contains a multi-year construction plan for highways, bridges, ports and legislators’ pet projects. It is funded mainly with bond sales that are paid off by the state, federal money for projects such as highways and revenue bonds that are paid off by money earned through a project’s operations.

Hammett said he’d like to see the bill changed to a more workable list. He also said the current budget leaves much of the power over lines of credit from the State Bond Commission to the Governor’s office.