Updated Oct.22 10:35 am
By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer
As state officials ratified Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plan to transfer $22.5 million from myriad local projects to a new steel and iron factory in St. James Parish, New Orleans legislators joined their colleagues statewide in a simple chorus: We were bamboozled.
State legislators overwhelmingly approved the plan to shift the money recently, but some said they did so by mail, not fully realizing what they were doing.
Legislators approved a statewide construction budget in the spring, and Jindal signed it in July. Traditionally, if changes need to be made to spending bills after the Legislature adjourns, the lawmakers do so by mail-in ballot.
But state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, said it’s usually a nip or a tuck – not an amputation.
“It was the fist time in recent history that there was that significant a re-appropriation,” Morrell said.
Morrell admitted that part of the problem – and part of the responsibility – rests with him and his colleagues, who don’t always fully read the measures they vote on, which are largely procedural. He said, though, that they rely on the governor generally to respect their wishes.
“We made a mistaken assumption that it was going to be the usual small changes and that the governor would notify us if he was going to cut funding for our projects,” he said. “We assumed he would give us that courtesy.
“There is a level of trust that exists between the governor and the legislature and now that trust has been broken,” he said.
The New Orleans area lost a little more than $4 million over about a dozen projects, including $375,000 for a grocery on St. Claude Avenue, $50,000 for the Louisiana Children’s Museum and $25,000 for a Treme senior center. Other projects that lost money are:
*$50,000 for a walking path on St. Anthony Avenue in Gentilly
* $2.5 million for Audubon Nature Institute to fund an elephant exhibit at the zoo
*$175,000 for a renovation and addition to the The Jazz and Heritage Center
*$25,000 for the Treme Community Education Program for program operations, planning and construction
*$225,000 for walking and bike trail in eastern New Orleans
*$250,000 for the Irish Channel St. Andrew Street Elderly Resource Center
*$100,000 for the Milne Boys Home construction and planning
*$125,000 for the University of New Orleans for renovating a science building
Legislators said they feel betrayed by the move, which was necessary for Jindal to make good on promises made to lure Nucor Corp. to the River Parishes.
“You’re basically coming in saying you really don’t want to do what we voted on,” state Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, said at a meeting of the state Bond Commission.
That agency’s vote today was the final approval needed for the financial transfer.
The New Orleans projects represent just a fraction of the $22.5 million total in state construction funds steered to the North Carolina steelmaker in exchange for the promise of 1,250 jobs at a planned $3.4 billion plant on the Mississippi River. Around the state, Jindal’s decision will kill renovations of museums, higher-education buildings and recreational centers. At Louisiana State University, Nucor’s gain will cost a $1.1 million renovation of old engineering shops into art studios and a $600,000 dormitory for the university’s Fire and Emergency Training Institute, according to the state Bond Commission.
For the Audubon Nature Institute, the loss of a $2.5 million appropriation could delay improvements of the institute’s wildlife exhibits, including a planned improvement to the elephant display in the zoo. Audubon spokeswoman Sarah Burnette said that the institute is counting on the state reinstating funding at a later date.
Eastern New Orleans resident Debbie Gordon said the news that $225,000 intended for a bike trail and road project in the east was cut was no big shock.
“It’s upsetting,” she said, “but by now, we are used to this happening in our community.”