Politics 05.28.2008

Acadiana legislators' slush funds, Vitter irony alert and more

ACADIANA LEGISLATORS’ SLUSH FUNDS Same old song, different dance. Former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco supposedly did away with slush fund projects, and current Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal decried the pet projects last year during his campaign. The criticism is a bipartisan issue on the executive level, but the projects are still making their way into the state budget — to the tune of more than $100 million as of this week.

These days, they’re called NGOs, or nongovernmental organizations. Lawmakers insert the earmarks into the state’s operating budget, found in House Bill 1, which is supported largely by taxpayer dollars. There’s money proposed for economic development groups, drug treatment facilities, religious organizations and social services. But there’s also a few NGOs the average taxpayer might not expect to find in the state’s spending plan.

For instance, Sen. Yvonne Dorsey, a Baton Rouge Democrat, is requesting $65,000 for the Louisiana Ballooning Foundation. Rep. Noble Ellington, a fellow Democrat from Winnsboro, meanwhile, wants $25,000 for his local gun club. While many legislators use their NGO’s as a way to channel pork back to their districts, which they can then take credit for if managed properly, Rep. Elbert Guillory, an Opelousas Democrat, has eliminated any concerns over the who-gets-credit game. He has $450,000 scheduled to go to a group called “Serving People District 40.” It should come as no surprise that House District 40 is represented by Guillory — who oversees the group that reportedly teaches young people homemaking and workforce skills.

Guillory also has earmarks of $10,000 for Abundant Life Baptist Church and a whopping $1.5 million for the Louisiana Equine Council, a horse advocacy group with members like the Evangeline Downs Racetrack.

Other NGOs from Acadiana include:
Acadiana Outreach Center, $350,000 — Rep. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette
ALS Association Louisiana CIO, $350,000 — Cortez
Breaux Bridge Historical Society, $25,000 — Rep. Fred Mills, D-Parks
The Gloria Kern Center, Inc, $45,000 — Mills
The Grand Opera House of the South, Inc., $1.1 million — Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley
International Rice Festival Association, $152,344 — Montoucet
Israelite Community Development Corporation, $100,000 — Montoucet
Seventh District Pavilion, Inc., $100,000 — Montoucet

All of the aforementioned line items are merely proposals at this point. Jindal has published a new set of strict guidelines for funding NGOs, so there’s a chance that many requests this year could be swiftly rejected. According to Jindal’s new rules, each project:
• Must have statewide or substantial regional impact.
• Must have been presented or openly discussed during the ongoing legislative session.
• Must be a priority to a state agency.
• Must have a proper disclosure form published online.

FARM BILL VETOED An omnibus $307 billion Farm Bill — with significant subsidies for Louisiana’s sugar, rice and sweet potato farmers, among others — sailed through Congress and was promptly vetoed by President Bush. The president has complained that the bill costs too much and does not go far enough in curbing subsidies for wealthy farmers, lending assistance to married farmers who bring in as much as $1.5 million a year. Critics also contend the bill does little to address rising food prices and hinders small farm development. At press time, Congress was vowing to override Bush’s veto, which would require a two-thirds majority vote from both the House and Senate.

Two-thirds of spending in the farm bill goes toward nutrition-related programs such as food stamps and food banks. Important measures for Louisiana farmers include a mandate that 85 percent of the nation’s sugar market come from domestic production, with excess foreign supply to be dedicated toward ethanol. The Farm Bill also provides direct and indirect subsidies for growers. In addition, it creates a new $3.8 billion trust fund for farmers who lose crops to flood, fire or drought.

Among Louisiana’s legislators, only Republicans Steve Scalise and Jim McCrery voted against the bill. Louisiana’s Democratic legislators, Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany and Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter are part of the contingent working to override Bush’s veto.

DAVID VITTER IRONY ALERT With losses to Democrats in three recent special elections in solid Republican territory — including Louisiana’s 6th District — the national Republican Party continues to fret about its fall prospects. Virginia Republican Rep. Tom Davis didn’t mince words last week, saying that Republicans could lose 20 to 25 seats in the November elections. A Times-Picayune story asking Louisiana Republicans’ take on the situation offered this nugget:

“Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said he doesn’t agree with Davis’ pessimistic assessment, but he does say ‘it’s certainly true that national Republicans need to improve their brand.’

“‘Perhaps folks should actually take some cues from Republicans in Louisiana,’ Vitter said. ‘At home, we’re the party of reform and positive changes versus failed past and the good ol’ boys.’”

If the national Republican Party wants to “improve their brand,” they probably don’t want David “Serious Sin” Vitter as an adviser or spokesman.

Contributors: Jeremy Alford, Nathan Stubbs and Scott Jordan