Just when it appeared the regular legislative session would come to a close last week amid little fanfare, along came what’s been dubbed the largest highway construction bill in a generation.
Otherwise known as the “infrastructure” bill, House Bill 578 by Rep. Tanner Magee of Houma and Sen. Rick Ward of Port Allen eventually spelled out the appropriation of some $690 million on much-needed highway work from one end of Louisiana to the other.
In its original form, or when HB 578 was meandering through the House of Representatives, the measure was focused on building a three-mile flyover on La. Hwy 415 between Interstate 10 and La. Hwy 1 in Ward’s district. Also a focal point at the time was overhauling an eight-mile stretch of elevated roadway on Hwy 1 between Golden Meadow and Leeville in Magee’s district. Those two projects alone cost $275 million.
While $275 million could be considered too pricey for just two road projects, the projects in question are entirely necessary. In Ward’s district, the construction of a flyover on Hwy 415 is considered a key component to laying the groundwork toward the construction of a new bridge over the Mississippi River between southern East Baton Rouge Parish and the “west bank.” In Magee’s district, improving Hwy 1 between Golden Meadow and Leeville has been on the drawing board for years. That stretch of highway is vital for oil and gas interests to access Port Fourchon.
There were some other “goodies” for highway work in HB 578 when it was approved by the House, including $46 million for each Department of Transportation and Development highway district. The latter was key to convince rural lawmakers in the House to go along with HB 578.
Being the astute legislators that they are, Magee and Ward, who shepherded HB 578 through the Senate, recognized the bill would need to expand its impact in order to convince a majority in the Senate to sign off on it. Therein lies the rub that eventually prompted lawmakers from northeastern Louisiana to lose their collective cool when the dust settled.
Once in the Senate, HB 578 ballooned to nearly $700 million. Besides the $275 million for Magee’s and Ward’s projects, HB 578 was amended to include $150 million for work on Interstate 49 in Lafayette; $100 million for work on I-49 in Shreveport; $50 million for a road project in St. Tammany Parish; $20 million for two new cranes at the Port of New Orleans; $15 million to widen a road in East Baton Rouge Parish; some $40 million for rural roads and bridges throughout the state; and so on.
The Senate did away with the House amendment spelling out that each DOTD district would receive $46 million. The $40 million for rural road and bridge work, which the Senate added, supposedly replaced it.
The long and short of it is HB 578 — in its final form — did not appropriate any money for a single project in northeastern Louisiana.
After HB 578 was amended and unanimously approved by the Senate, it returned to the House where only a handful of lawmakers voted against it, including Reps. Bubba Chaney, Frank Hoffmann, Jack McFarland, Steve Pylant and Jay Morris, who has emerged in the past few days as the bill’s biggest critic.
The finger pointing over which lawmakers from northeastern Louisiana dropped the ball, so to speak, to ensure northeastern Louisiana was included in the infrastructure bill has become a bit prickly. Morris, who has been the most vocal about it, blamed the Senate for giving northeastern Louisiana the short shrift.
In responding to inquiries from the media, Sens. Mike Walsworth and Jim Fannin pointed out that appropriations for infrastructure projects in northeastern Louisiana were taken care of in House Bill 2, otherwise known as the capital outlay bill. Some $11 million for the Kansas Lane extension in Monroe is a good example of a northeastern Louisiana project that was included in HB 2. Morris amended the bill in the House Ways & Means Committee to add $6 million to bring the appropriation to $11 million. On Monday of this week, Gov. John Bel Edwards suddenly announced $5 million in additional funding for the Kansas Lane extension project. So, all in the state is putting $17 million into Kansas Lane in the year ahead, which is exactly how much money was needed to complete it.
As they have done year in and year out throughout my lifetime, northeastern Louisiana lawmakers took care of our region of the state in the capital outlay bill. Yet, that’s nearly irrelevant at this point. The general public, which knows very little about how the legislative process works, is left with the impression that northeastern Louisiana got squat from the Legislature. In their minds, northeastern Louisiana lawmakers dropped the ball.
The optics of it all are terrible. And in politics, optics mean everything.