“Pet projects” stack up

“Pet projects” stack up

The budget bills sitting on Gov. John Bel Edwards’ desk include more than $105 million earmarked by legislators for specific projects or organizations in their home districts. The spending, which critics deride as “pet projects,” goes to every area of the state but is concentrated in the districts of House and Senate leaders – with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Mack “Bodi” White taking home a particularly hefty share. The Illuminators’ Julie O’Donoghue breaks down where the money went and notes that earmarks have risen sharply in recent years as state revenues have surged: 

The funding lawmakers are willing to devote to these pet projects has grown significantly over the past three years. In 2020, legislators added just $25.2 million worth of pet projects into the state’s spending plan. This year, pet project funding was over four times that amount. This current $104 million in pet project spending rivals that of the Legislature’s largest budget priorities. It’s two and a half times the amount of additional funding put toward early childhood education and five times the money spent on university faculty pay raises in the upcoming budget cycle.

While hometown playgrounds, police departments and nonprofits are getting cash, the historic Pentagon Barracks – where favored legislators have apartments for use during sessions – are in a state of disrepair. The Advocate’s Sam Karlin reports on the escalating finger-pointing between House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and the governor’s office, as lawmakers consider a bill to shift control over the barracks from the division of administration to the lieutenant governor’s office. 

Jay Dardenne, who heads the division (of administration), argued that the transfer would waste taxpayer money, since it would require putting a separate bid out for work presently billed to contractors that handle multiple state buildings. He also challenged lawmakers to fund facility repairs with their reserve funds; audits show the Legislature is sitting on about $82 million in funds spanning the House, Senate and Legislative Budgetary Control Council.

Guns leading cause of death for American kids
Firearms are now the leading cause of death among American children, surpassing motor vehicle crashes for the first time since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began collecting data. Louisiana had the highest child firearms death rate of all the states, trailing only the District of Columbia. As Axios’ Caitlin Owens explains, more needs to be done to address these unacceptable numbers. 

“As the progress made in reducing deaths from motor vehicle crashes shows, we don’t have to accept the high rate of firearm-related deaths among U.S. children and adolescents,” researchers recently wrote in a New England Journal of Medicine article that highlighted the trend. The study noted that while the National Highway Safety Administration could take the lead addressing road-traffic fatalities, firearms are one of the few products whose safety isn’t regulated by a designated federal agency. It has taken 20 years to build a database of firearm-related deaths that includes data from all 50 states, the researchers wrote. The bottom line: School shootings have become tragically common in the U.S., but constitute only a small fraction of gun deaths among children.

In the shadow of the massacre of children and teachers in Uvalde, TX, Louisiana legislators are considering nearly two dozen bills favored by the firearms lobby, including a measure that would allow adults 21 and older to carry concealed guns without a permit or training. 

A new push for hunger free campuses 
Legislation that would create a “hunger free campus” designation for Louisiana colleges and universities that meet certain criteria is nearing final passage after clearing a Senate committee on Wednesday. The Illuminator’s JC Canicosa reports on House Bill 888 by Rep. Barbara Freiberg, which is aimed at combating food insecurity among college students. 

According to a HOPE Center survey, four out of 10 Louisiana college students reported being food insecure, which the federal government defines as someone in a household with limited or uncertain access to adequate nutrition. The program would have the Louisiana Board of Regents establish a grant program that would send money to colleges designated as “hunger-free campuses.” 

To get the designation, campuses would have to establish an anti-hunger task force, assess the need for an on-campus food pantry, hold at least one anti-hunger awareness event each year, and notify students who receive need-based financial aid about their potential eligibility for federal food assistance. 

College enrollment drops, even as pandemic improves 
There appears to be a fundamental shift in the way a generation of students value a college degree. Enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities worsened last spring, with 662,000 fewer students enrolling in undergraduate programs, a decline of 4.7%. As the New York Times’s Stephanie Saul explains, the enrollment drop can’t be pinned on the pandemic – enrollment was declining before March 2020 – but in a reassessment of whether a college degree offers a path to the middle class and a good paying job. 

[The number and breadth of declines in college enrollment suggest] “it’s more than just the pandemic to me; it’s more than just low-income communities that are primarily served by community colleges,” Dr. [Doug] Shapiro[, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center] said during a conference call with reporters. “It suggests that there’s a broader question about the value of college and particularly concerns about student debt and paying for college and potential labor market returns.” Prospective college students may be weighing the relative value of jobs that require or expect a college degree against equally attractive opportunities that do not, he said.

Number of the Day
163 – Number of orphaned oil and gas wells that will be plugged in Louisiana with funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Louisiana currently has more than 4,600 orphan wells (Source: Nola.com)