– 2010: Nearly 450 non-governmental line item requests filed for consideration
– 2011: In excess of 170 requests filed with the Legislature
– 2012: Year to date, there have been only 90 or so filed
Source: Louisiana Legislature
The requests submitted by non-profit organizations, religious associations and quasi-public entities seeking taxpayer money from the Legislature are trending downward like never before — just in time for a new term of state government.
These non-governmental entities are referred to as NGOs. Over the years, these particular line items have been beat up by editorial writers, described as “slush” by radio talk show hosts and berated by good government types for siphoning money away from other public needs.
To be certain, Gov. Bobby Jindal isn’t a fan. At the outset of his first year in office, Jindal sent a letter to lawmakers demanding that all NGO requests:
- Must have statewide or substantial regional impact
- Must have been presented/openly discussed during the legislative session
- Must be a state agency priority
- Must have the proper disclosure form published online prior to consideration for funding
For its part, the Division of Administration also implemented new oversight rules for how the treasury doles out NGO dollars and how the recipient groups are held accountable. All requests were likewise made public during Jindal’s first term.
Prior to that, so-called NGO line items were slipped into appropriation bills with little or no notice. Lawmakers would personally direct money to their own pet projects, ranging from high school associations and country fairs to hot air ballon races and local museums.
But it slowed noticeably under Jindal’s initial run. By the 2010 regular session, there were roughly 450 NGO requests filed for consideration. In 2011, the requests weighed in at 170, largely because Jindal threatened to veto all NGO line items — not just some (if you call 258 some), as in previous years — due to an unprecedented budget deficit.
According to the Legislature’s NGO database, there are now only 90 or so NGO requests pending. Still, the upcoming regular session convenes March 12. That means there’s still plenty of time for NGOs to file additional requests.
The real question is whether the Legislature and Jindal administration will continue to make strides in reducing taxpayer-funded NGOs.
Michael DiResto, communications director for the Division of Administration, said it’s “clear” that the governor’s earlier stances had a “significant impact” in changing the spending culture of state government when it comes to NGO line-items.
“So we will continue with the same approach, to closely scrutinize the funding of NGOs, to better determine whether or not the funding is consistent with the proper function and responsibility of state government and the use of taxpayer money, whether it addresses true state priorities, and whether those considerations are undertaken in a manner that is open and transparent to the public,” DiResto said.
State Sen. Norby Chabert, vice chairman of the Finance Committee, said the state’s lack of revenues in coming months will feature prominently in how the trend plays out. Plus, lawmakers will always have local and special needs that they bring to the budget process, he added. That’s unlikely to stop.
“There’s a correlation there with the amount of money the state will have in the coming months and years,” said Chabert, R-Houma. “Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s the mindset of this administration to spend that type of money anymore, at least not at previous levels. At the same time, there will always be two sides on every issue and some people believe we should be funding a lot of different NGOs that are being overlooked right now.”
There are definitely arguments in favor of NGOs. For example, Michael Sartisky, executive director of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, made such a case on our old sister site last year:
While some of the earmarking of state funds for non-profits may be abused by legislators looking to pad their return to their districts… the proper regulation and oversight of these allocations is the responsibility of the governor and the legislature who have the responsibility of sorting the wheat from the chaff in the public interest.
Furthermore, NGOs economize for the state in all classic ways conservatives advocate: no civil service or tenured employment and no long-term pension or medical obligations on the state treasury.
Yet try to imagine how poor and paltry would be the quality of life in Louisiana were it not for such organizations, especially in the cultural sector as the Audubon Institute, SciPort, the New Orleans Museum of Art, or the statewide programs of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
A member of the House Appropriations Committee, who asked to remain anonymous, said there are simply NGOs that deserve tax money and many others that don’t. But the game of trading projects and funding on the part of legislative leaders and the administration is something that will never die.
“The governor really has done a good job of weeding out these NGOs. He deserves credit for that,” the lawmaker said. “But projects are still being worked into appropriation bills and capital outlay. They’re still there, just taking on different forms. And from what I’ve seen, the administration is directing a lot of that attention to north Louisiana. Those are the lawmakers who have benefitted most over the past four years.”
Regarding the latter, it’s almost impossible, even for old hands at the Capitol, to tell which lawmakers are getting such projects for their districts. Even for official NGOs, which have paper trails, there are few ways to tell in the public record which lawmakers are lobbying for specific line items.
Consider this recent budget story published by THE ADVOCATE:
(Former Lafayette Sen. Mike) Michot said the governor took a hard line on NGOs that failed to disclose the necessary information prior to receiving an appropriation in the state budget. He said the governor used his line-item veto power to purge them from the budget.
On the issue of which legislators are pushing budget committee members to put projects for their districts in the state spending plan, Michot said the public is largely kept in the dark.
“There probably needs to be a clearer link,” he said.
…(The governor’s press secretary, Kyle Plotkin) said the administration is hopeful that future bodies will disclose which legislators are pushing for NGO funding for their districts.
As for the NGOs pending consideration this year, here’s a very small sample of the requests that have been filed thus far:
- Avondale Booster Club: $200,000
- Beginner’s Mind Inc.: $200,000
- District 2 Community Enhancement Corporation: $500,000
- Greater New Orleans Educational Television Foundation: $1.9 million
- Louisiana Art & Science Museum: $250,000
- Sci-Port Discovery Center: $350,000
To take a closer look at all of the NGOs pending consideration this year, click here.