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Edwards wants more construction money on roads

by Minden Press-Herald

BATON ROUGE — Gov. John Bel Edwards wants to rework the state construction budget in an unusual way for a Louisiana governor, giving himself less ability to use projects to trade for votes.

The Democratic governor said he intends to steer more dollars from the construction budget, known as the capital outlay bill, to state roadwork and maintenance of state buildings. He said he’ll seek to drop some of the smaller, local projects favored by state lawmakers for their districts.

“We have projects in the program that add up to hundreds of millions of dollars more than can we afford to borrow to fund anyway. And so we need to cull a lot of those projects out. They’re never going to see the light of day,” he said.

Governors, who have wide discretion over which projects get state financing, have often used those local projects sought by lawmakers to curry favor for administration bills.

Edwards acknowledged the construction budget is often how governors “turn votes around on certain matters.” But he added: “That’s not the way I intend to use capital outlay.”

He will face resistance in lessening those local projects.

Senate President John Alario, a powerful legislative leader known for drawing millions in construction financing to his district, said he doesn’t support the governor’s position.

“The people around this state also have some serious problems and needs. They have drainage problems that obviously are showing up a lot with the rains we’ve had. They’ve got road problems,” said Alario, R-Westwego. “We’ve got a cap at 25 percent in total capital outlay that could be allocated for local projects, and I think that ought to be maintained.”

Other lawmakers, meanwhile, are proposing bills that would give themselves more decision-making over which projects get state financing.

The construction budget passed by lawmakers each year has become a wish list, crammed with more proposals for economic development projects, building repairs, park improvements and lawmakers’ favored construction work back home than Louisiana has money to spend.

That leaves the governor to decide which projects advance to receive lines of credit and the money to get under way, and lawmakers say that often involves deal-making.

As the regular legislative session opened this week, Edwards told the House and Senate he intended to take a different approach. He said his administration will whittle down the projects in the pipeline and boost spending on road and bridge work by 25 percent.

The governor said with continued budget problems, Louisiana must prioritize its dollars.

Rather than construct new buildings, Edwards said, the state needs to spend more money on maintaining what it already has, particularly on college campuses that are estimated to have deferred maintenance needs of as much as $2 billion.

Higher education leaders describe leaky roofs in classrooms, library volumes protected from water with plastic sheeting and ceiling tiles that collapse during storms. They talk of old heating and cooling systems that malfunction and buildings that can’t be maintained properly.

“Maybe while they can’t afford to operate new buildings, next time heavy rains come they won’t take on water through leaky roofs and windows that don’t operate properly,” he said.

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