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Briefs from the Louisiana Legislature’s regular session

by Associated Press

BATON ROUGE — Legislative displeasure over diverted roadwork money showed up Wednesday in a transportation department request to spend $2 million from the highway fund for overtime and supplies responding to icy weather in north Louisiana earlier this year.

The joint House and Senate budget committee agreed to the spending plan, but only after criticism that too much money continues to be siphoned away from road and bridge work in a state with a $12 billion backlog of needed repairs and upgrades.

Lawmakers have grown concerned about the use of large sums of state gasoline tax money to pay for items other than road work. Since 2011, $241 million has been steered to state police operations.

Senate Finance Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, sought to stop Wednesday’s $2 million diversion, but north Louisiana lawmakers objected, saying the dollars already have been spent and were needed to deal with a weather emergency.

Nita Chambers, undersecretary for the Department of Transportation and Development, said if lawmakers refused to transfer dollars from the highway fund, the agency would have to scale back spending on maintenance work, like pothole repairs, mowing and litter cleanup.

The committee agreed to the spending shift with a 14-7 vote of House members and 7-3 vote of senators.

State lawmakers Wednesday again delayed approval of a $3.6 million casino support services contract for New Orleans, while they await estimates on whether the city’s new smoking ban will cause the state to lose money.

The prohibition against smoking in bars and gambling halls takes effect in late April. The Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget said it will consider the contract in May, when they have received more research on the possible state revenue losses.

Louisiana collects fees from the Harrah’s casino, a horse racing track and video-poker halls in New Orleans. If revenue at the gambling locations falls, the state also will collect less.

The Louisiana State Police estimated the state could lose $17.4 million over two years because of the smoking ban. But lawmakers questioned that estimate, saying some gamblers could move to casinos in other neighboring parishes.

The annual contract would authorize the state to pay New Orleans for police, fire and sanitation services at Harrah’s casino for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The money also would have to be included in the state budget before the city could collect the payment.

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