La. construction projects queue overloaded

Like Santa filling his sack with toys on Christmas Eve, legislators crammed plenty of goodies into the state construction budget before leaving the State Capitol this year.

There’s $2 million to move senior citizens’ Zumba lessons and nutrition classes out of a New Orleans convent and into a brand-new building. There’s $200,000 to build a football stadium for G.W. Carver High School in New Orleans. There’s $230,000 to free firefighters in Chaneyville from a mold-riddled, rat-infested fire station. There’s $250,000 to build a Baton Rouge laboratory for a cattle vaccine.

Just one problem exists: Legislators were too generous. The state can’t afford the heavy slate of projects, forcing Gov. Bobby Jindal to pick and choose which ones move forward.

Cash lines of credit to fund construction projects are approved through the state Bond Commission. Restrictions are in place to prevent state officials from borrowing an unlimited amount of money that eventually must be repaid. For the fiscal year that starts in July, $355 million can be borrowed for new projects. By the Jindal administration’s calculations, legislators missed the borrowing limit by roughly $380 million.

Jindal will trim the slate of projects to an affordable selection, making the final list a more anticipated commodity than street corner-hawked newspaper editions on the Titanic sinking. The governor usually unveils his decision in the fall.

The Jindal administration is working on an analysis to determine when projects will need infusions of cash.

“Every year, we work with legislative delegations to invest in regional priorities, including higher education infrastructure, transportation projects, health care initiatives and economic development projects,” the governor said in a prepared statement.

“He’s going to look at those projects that have a statewide impact and probably place a little more priority on those projects. I think he’ll look at roads and bridges and sewage and water lines ... and then he’ll start looking around to see which projects are important to which members. I certainly don’t envy the position he’s in,” said state Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette.

As legislative sponsor of the state construction, or capital outlay, bill, Robideaux tried to make the budget more genuinely match the state’s means. He lost that battle. The Senate overloaded the construction budget and refused to budge.

“If you’re in the bill, you have a chance to get funding at Bond Commission. If you’re not in the bill, there’s no chance,” Robideaux said. “People would rather be in the bill and have a remote chance than not be in the bill altogether.”

The result is that legislators are pitted against one another in a stampede to convince the governor of projects’ merit. The projects competing for limited dollars include:

$100,000 to turn blighted property in New Orleans’ Broadmoor area into a community hub featuring a performing arts theater, classrooms, office space and counseling rooms.

$100,000 to build a new health center in Baker for uninsured patients.

$230,000 to replace a volunteer fire station in Zachary. The current 1960s-era station has mold as well as a rodent and insect infestation.

$400,000 to help a New Orleans nonprofit for human trafficking victims purchase a building.

$1.2 million to renovate a hospital and build clinics and laboratory space in Lafayette.

Donald Luther Jr. hopes to secure $250,000 in new borrowing capacity for efforts to build a USDA-licensed veterinary biologic facility on LSU property. The laboratory would allow expanded distribution of the anaplasmosis vaccine for cattle.

Luther’s father, retired LSU professor emeritus Donald Luther Sr., helped develop the vaccine, which protects cattle against a disease that attacks the red blood cells and can be fatal. An experimental waiver from the USDA allowed the Luthers to sell the vaccine to a cattle ranch in Florida. They now sell it in Florida, Louisiana and several other states. They give the LSU AgCenter an annual donation from the gross revenue.

Selling the vaccine on a broader scale would require a licensed lab and a licensed product. “We’ve got the product, but there isn’t a licensed lab in Louisiana,” Donald Luther Jr. said.

The lab would belong to the state. The Luthers would rent it.

At Mercy Endeavors in New Orleans, senior citizens kick off their shoes once a week and engage in Zumba exercises. Their class takes place on the first floor of a convent. Seniors in the Irish Channel and Lower Garden District use the convent every day for recreation and social activities.

The makeshift senior center can serve 50 a day, resulting in others being turned away. Most of Mercy Endeavors’ clients are extremely low income.

“We serve the elderly. We’ve been serving them for 17 years. We’re crowded. We’re so crowded. ... We don’t have anywhere to put people,” said Sister Jane Briseno.

The plan is to build a 6,100-square-foot senior activity center on Jackson Avenue. All that’s needed is a $2 million boost in state construction dollars to pair with private donations.

Charles Webb hopes to use the state capital outlay budget to make good on a promise that was made to him when he was a teenager in the 1960s. Webb played football at G.W. Carver High School in New Orleans. School leaders kept promising to build a football stadium. The stadium never materialized.

The NFL committed $200,000 to the 9th Ward Field of Dreams Football and Track Stadium project. Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ foundation kicked in another $100,000. The sale of state bonds would give the project $200,000 that is needed to start work on the football field and stadium. The track will come in another phase.

“In New Orleans, the schools pretty much just play all over the place. We’re excited about having a stadium for the kids,” Webb said.

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