Legislators criticize prison budget

Legislators cracked open Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed state prison budget Monday and quickly expressed displeasure with what they found.

Leftover hurricane dollars will help pay for workers’ retirement costs. Funding for supplies was slashed. No money was set aside for repairs.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, said the state Department of Correction’s $525 million proposed budget doesn’t contain a nickel for any handyman projects that arise at the state’s prisons.

The only increases, he said, are for salaries and benefits.

“I’m wondering how you can go two years in a row without any acquisitions. Don’t you have a gate that don’t work or a bucket of paint that you need to buy?” Fannin asked state Corrections Deaprtment Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc.

LeBlanc said he will dig into his budget to fund any repairs that are needed.

Other legislators highlighted what they considered to be hypocrisy in the spending plan for the budget year that starts in July.

State Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette, said she requests leftover hurricane dollars every year for actual hurricane projects. Every year, she said, the Jindal administration tells her no extra money exists. Laid into the Corrections Department’s budget is $6 million in wind damage reimbursements stemming from 2008’s Hurricane Gustav. The money will be used to cover the agency’s increased retirement expenses.

“These (dollars) concern me greatly because they’re being put in for retirement costs,” Champagne said.

State Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, wound the clock back two years, when he and other House Republicans recrafted Jindal’s proposed state operating budget by making reductions to travel and supplies. The Jindal administration warned at the time that the supply cut was impossible to implement and successfully worked to unravel the legislators’ tinkering.

Geymann asked LeBlanc to explain why it’s now possible to take $6.7 million from the agency’s supply budget and plug it into salaries and benefits.

LeBlanc said his department worked to reduce supplies is even more efficient than it was two years ago.

As Geymann questioned LeBlanc’s math, the committee room’s sound system went on the fritz. Geymann struggled to speak over the sound of loud static and eventually gave up. “Someone’s watching over me,” LeBlanc quipped.

State Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, later picked up Geymann’s thread, telling LeBlanc not to leave thinking everything is wonderful between the Jindal administration and legislators.

Schroder said the administration wouldn’t let House Republicans make even the most minute cut to the prison system’s supply budget two years ago.

“We couldn’t even find a pillow (to cut). I just don’t see it. Quite frankly, it aggravates me. I just feel like sometimes we don’t get a straight answer,” Schroder complained.

LeBlanc later clarified that he has a three-month supply of inventory. He said the prison system is working to become more self sufficient by growing vegetables and raising cattle.

For more than an hour, LeBlanc withstood criticism as legislators combed through the governor’s proposed $25 billion state operating budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Committee members had other gripes about agencies on Monday’s agenda. They’re unhappy with long lines at motor vehicle offices. They’re concerned about the abrupt closure of a Baton Rouge area juvenile prison.

However, LeBlanc’s budget got the sharpest and longest criticism, prompting other state leaders to dispense with their presentations and solicit legislators’ questions. The meeting started at 9 a.m. and bumped into the 3 p.m. start of the House floor proceedings.

“Your budget has tremendous flaws, and the flaws may be more about integrity than numbers,” Fannin told LeBlanc at one point.

After hitting her button for a turn at the microphone, state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, made an observation. “It’s a tough day so far for you,” she told LeBlanc.

The use of the hurricane money for retirement costs particularly struck a nerve with some legislators. Earlier this year, the Jindal administration assured legislators that no one-time money would be used in next year’s budget for expenses that must be met year after year. Stopping the use of one-time, or nonrecurring, money for recurring expenses is a big issue for conservative legislators such as Geymann and Schroder.

Geymann said the hurricane money certainly looks like one-time dollars. Champagne, meanwhile, struggled to understand how the dollars are even available to spend on retirement expenses.

During the committee’s lunch break, Kevin Davis, the head of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, was summoned to the State Capitol.

Davis said the hurricane money is reimbursement for money the state spent on wind damage after Hurricane Gustav. He said spending it on retirement costs is like buying a new car once the insurance check finally comes in.

Champagne directed Davis to find out what repairs were made and how the state covered the cost.

State Rep. Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales, asked if the $6 million in hurricane money is likely to materialize again. Davis said the money is gone once it’s spent.

“So it’s one-time money,” Berthelot said. Davis said he would characterize it as reimbursement money.

Eighteen minutes after the meeting ended, the Jindal administration offered more details on the corrections department’s budget. The administration said the agency has received more than $22 million in state construction dollars since 2008, when the governor first took office. The administration also said the cost of prisoner care is diminishing.