It has many names: member amendments, earmarks, pork, slush funds, pet projects, legislative priorities and nongovernmental organizations. At the end of the day, it's all taxpayer cash — and it greases the wheels of state government.
This fiscal year, state government has fallen on hard times; it is expected to take in roughly $1.3 billion less in revenues than in the previous year. That gives Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal all the reasons he needs to wield his veto ax.
Some $34 million in member amendments came out of the recent session. Jindal has used his veto pen freely, and that figure is significantly smaller than the $51 million in pet projects sent his way last year. Still, it's in line with previous totals. Under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, member amendments hit $37 million in 2005 and $30 million in 2006.
Louisiana politics and government have always been retail enterprises, and a secretive pecking order determines who gets what. In recent years, the task of slicing up the fiscal pie among the Legislature's 144 members has fallen to each chamber's budget chairs.
Last year, when the state was practically drowning in money, almost every House member was given at least $50,000 to earmark. This year, House Appropriations Chair Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, devised a system that gave himself and Ways and Means Chair Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, about $400,000 each — and the members of their respective committees roughly $150,000 or more.
Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, a freshman on the Appropriations Committee, says he's "personally uncomfortable" with the process and gave his allocation to the state Department of Transportation and Development. At the same time, Schroder says he understands why the money is doled out to members of those committees. It's widely understood that the money is used by governors and legislative leaders to corral votes and keep lawmakers in line. It also keeps busy bees happy. "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," Schroder says.
Over in the Senate, Finance Chairman Mike Michot, R-Lafayette, enjoys the same control as Fannin, but virtually every senator participated in the member amendments process this year. Senate committee chairs got allocations ranging from $300,000 to $700,000 or more, depending on their influence.
While Jindal vetoed several member amendments, two sent shock waves through the Legislature. They totaled $500,000 for the Algiers Development District, and both were sponsored by House Speaker Jim Tucker. Jindal offered the same veto message for both items, one that wasn't repeated for any other: "These savings will be applied to ensure a balanced budget. Therefore, I am vetoing this item."
Tucker has displayed an independent streak since being elected speaker. He opposed a Jindal-backed "transparency" bill that major newspapers and good-government groups claimed was, at best, fluff, and at worst, severely flawed. On the other hand, he helped Jindal hold the line on the budget. When asked about the connection between his vote on transparency and the vetoes, Tucker demurred.
One veteran lawmaker says legislators took note of Jindal's harsh treatment of Tucker. "A lot of us are looking at that and thinking, 'Wow. What is going on?' It's punitive," the legislator says. Other legislators, including Reps. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, Sam Jones, D-Franklin, and Walker Hines, D-New Orleans, sang the same song.
What does this teach us about the hierarchy of pork?
The Legislature's money chairs plainly control the flow of cash for member amendments in the House and Senate, but the governor has the final — and greatest — stroke of all.
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. You can reach him through his Web site at www.jeremyalford.com.