The Hierarchy of Pork

by Jeremy Alford

A closer look at the Legislature’s pecking order for pet projects reveals a system that’s just as good as any pay raise, depending on your place in the political class.  It has many names: member amendments, earmarks, pork, pet projects, legislative priorities and non-governmental organizations. But at the end of the day, it’s just cold hard taxpayer cash, and it keeps the sprockets and chains of the State Capitol greased for smooth — or at least relatively smooth — operations.

Of course, this year’s different. State government has fallen on hard times. Between now and June 30, 2010, a period referred to as FY10, the treasury is expected to deposit roughly $1.3 billion less in revenues. You might call it an all-encompassing fiscal famine, that is, if it weren’t for the member amendments that were approved last month by Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, and the Democrat-heavy Legislature.

All told, there’s some $34 million worth of member amendments that came out of the recent session. To his credit, Jindal has been generous with his veto pen, and the figure is significantly smaller than the $51 million worth of pet projects an Associated Press tally attributed to the governor in 2008. But it’s still in line with previous member amendment totals. For instance, under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, member amendments hit $37 million in 2005 and $30 million in 2006.

Further evidence suggests it’s just part of the rapid consumerism of contemporary Louisiana politics, not to mention an ever-increasing portion of our society in general. Since January of last year, under Jindal’s administration and on the watch of the current Legislature, state spending has increased by $1 billion and taxes have been cut by about $500,000. That’s a $1.5 billion impact, a figure remarkably close to the $1.3 billion shortfall the state is facing in FY10.

Additionally, during the good years — that is, February 2006 through February of this year — state general fund revenues spiked by 15 percent, which is dramatically higher than the historic state average. In response, the Legislature and sitting governors at the time approved unprecedented surplus spending in 2007 and 2008 with practically back-to-back $1 billion tallies.

Dan Juneau, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, says the answer to the FY10 challenge was quite elementary: “Logic would indicate that the extra spending [of 2007 and 2008] should be brought back in line with historic revenue growth levels,” he says. “If that is done, most of the budget shortfall would disappear.”

But that, of course, didn’t happen and evidence of the failure — as well as a glimpse of the Legislature’s power structure — can be found within the member amendments process. As a rule of thumb, at least as far as recent history is concerned, the House speaker and Senate president do not have their hands in this secretive process, aside from taking their own cuts. Rather, the duty of slicing up the fiscal pie is left to the chambers’ top budget hawks — the chairmen of the House Appropriations Committee and Senate Finance Committee.

Last year, when the state was practically drowning in money, virtually every lawmaker in the House was given at least $50,000 to work with. But this year, Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, devised a system that provided each of the lower chamber’s money chairmen (appropriations as well as ways and means) with about $400,000 and the members of their committees roughly with $150,000 or more.

Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, a freshman on appropriations, says he’s “personally uncomfortable” with the process and decided to give his money for member amendments to the state Department of Transportation and Development. But on the other hand, from a political standpoint, Schroder says he understands why the money is handed out to members of the budget committees.

He stops short of calling it a golden carrot, but it’s widely understood that the money is often used by governors and the legislative leadership to corral votes and keep lawmakers in line. It’s also useful for keeping busy bees happy. “[The leadership] makes a good point on this,” Schroder says. “In order to get members to come to all these budget meetings throughout the year there has to be a pot at the end of the rainbow.”

Over in the Senate, Finance Chairman Mike Michot, R-Lafayette, enjoys the same control as Fannin. But unlike the action taken in the House, essentially every member of the Senate participated in the member amendments process this year. It was even better pickings if you could produce a gavel. Each chairman received an allocation ranging from $300,000 to $700,000 or more, depending on their influence.

As for how the taxpayer dough trickles down from the top, that’s trickier to pin down. Commissioner of Administration Angelle Davis was asked if the Fourth Floor identifies a lump-sum figure for the Legislature to work with and she responded by explaining that the original executive budget proposed earlier this year offered no money whatsoever for pet projects, which is true — technically.

Legislative leaders, however, contend that the administration always leaves the back door open to a cash-filled fund for lawmakers to raid. (The insurance incentive fund was one reliable fishing hole for legislators this year.)

While Jindal vetoed several member amendments, two in particular sent shock waves through the Legislature. Both totaled $500,000 for the Algiers Development District and both were sponsored by Tucker. Jindal offered the same veto message for both line items, a message that wasn’t repeated for any other veto: “These savings will be applied to ensure a balanced budget. Therefore, I am vetoing this item.”

Tucker, who has displayed a strong independent streak since being elected, opposed a Jindal-backed transparency bill that major newspapers and good government groups claim is fluff and nothing more. Last week Tucker declined to comment on the connection between these events.

But a senior member of the Legislature says lawmakers are taking notice of the harsh terms being handed down by Jindal and Chief of Staff Timmy Teepell. “A lot of us are looking at that and thinking, ‘Wow. What is going on?’ It’s punitive,” the legislator says. “You better believe it’s punitive.”

Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, claims Jindal also stripped $150,000 from the Louisiana Art and Science Museum, which has received state support in the past, out of retaliation. In mounting her defense, Smith says she opposed the same quasi-transparency bill that Tucker had questions about. Reps. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, and Walker Hines, D-New Orleans, recently sang the same song to The Advocate as well.

So, what does this teach us about the hierarchy of pork? Well, while the Legislature’s money chairmen plainly have control over the flow of cash for member amendments in the House and Senate, it’s Jindal who has the greatest stroke. After all, it’s his administration that brings the dough into the political world to start with, and it’s the governor himself, along with his top aides, who can take it right back out.