Louisiana's new legislative leaders quickly signed off Thursday on plans for the state to borrow up to $350 million to replenish the account that pays for state-financed construction work, the first major financial decision for the latest House and Senate term.
The Bond Commission, a panel of state officials that oversees publicly financed construction spending, agreed to the March general obligation bond sale without objection. The proposal provoked no discussion from the House's and Senate's new budget and tax committee chairmen, sitting on the panel for the first time in their new roles.
The borrowing will keep cash flowing to a long list of projects, including coastal restoration work, state park improvements, road and bridge projects, college building repairs and local projects favored by lawmakers.
The state will sell bonds to investors for upfront cash, then pay off the debt over 20 years with interest. Louisiana borrowed a similar amount of money for construction work last year.
Treasurer John Schroder, chairman of the commission, didn't object to moving ahead with the bond sale plans, even as he's repeatedly worried aloud about Louisiana's debt load. After the meeting Thursday, he repeated those concerns and said he intends to talk to the new House and Senate leadership about ways to cut back on spending.
"I think we ought to go on a real diet, but there hasn't been a real appetite from the Legislature to do that," Schroder said.
The amount of money Louisiana owes for every man, woman, and child exceeds the national average, according to the most recent report outlining the state's per capita, tax-supported debt load. And Louisiana's credit rating is low among states. Still, Louisiana remains below its debt ceiling, a cap enacted in the early 1990s that restricts how much the state can borrow each year for construction work.
Schroder said he hopes to persuade Louisiana's new legislative leaders, Republicans who ran on conservative bonafides, to take a new approach to shrink construction spending. That has proven to be an unpopular task during prior legislative terms.
In addition to representatives for the governor and other statewide elected officials, the Bond Commission includes the House speaker, Senate president, chairmen of the House and Senate tax and budget committees and two other lawmakers.
While the commission's new Senate members were known ahead of Thursday's meeting, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder hadn't previously announced his picks to lead his chamber's tax and budget committees. Their arrival for Thursday's meeting was the first indication who was chosen for the jobs.
Republican Jerome "Zee" Zeringue of Houma will chair the Appropriations Committee that oversees the crafting of the state's annual operating budget, and Republican Stuart Bishop of Lafayette will take the helm of the Ways and Means Committee that oversees tax matters and the annual construction budget. Schexnayder didn't attend Thursday's Bond Commission meeting.