Lafayette City Council members face a situation that should never have been allowed to happen: the possibility that $22 million of city tax dollars could be appropriated without their approval.
What they face Tuesday (tonight) is a bizarre situation, in some ways engineered politically and in others due to inherent deficiencies in our form of consolidated government.
Two weeks ago both councils voted 9-0 to zero out Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s proposal for spending Lafayette’s portion of coronavirus relief and slow down the process of budgeting $86 million in combined American Rescue Plan Act funding for city and parish governments. Their justification for doing this was to take their time deliberating how to prioritize this once-in-a-lifetime funding opportunity.
The councils went their separate ways, thinking they had bought time to make decisions. Instead, Guillory wielded an unusual line item veto to “restore” $22 million in projects out of the city of Lafayette’s portion of the ARPA allocation. Because he chose to structure his ARPA budget as a joint ordinance — and the councils went along with it — he set the stage to once again leverage the Parish Council to override the City Council’s authority over spending city tax dollars.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this situation. Last summer, the administration’s interpretation of the charter effectively gave the Parish Council veto authority over the City Council’s ability to appropriate funds to parks and recreation. The City Council attempted to restore funding to cuts Guillory made, but the Parish Council failed to muster a second to bring the item to consideration. The measure died, and there was (apparently) nothing the City Council could do about it.
This is an even more egregious situation. Even if the City Council votes unanimously to overturn Guillory’s veto — veto overrides require a four-person supermajority, by charter — with just two votes on the Parish Council the veto will stand and Guillory’s power move will appropriate $22 million without the City Council’s approval. This is absurd.
Lafayette’s home rule charter clearly states that amendments to the operating budget for line items funded by city tax dollars alone “shall be submitted solely to the City Council for adoption.”
The seven projects restored are all solely paid for by the city of Lafayette. Clearly the Parish Council members should have no say in how this money gets spent. But here we are. They get a say.
The original sin was Guillory’s decision to propose his ARPA budget through a joint ordinance and the councils’ decision not to scrap it altogether. Had the City Council voted down the joint item, forcing the administration to start over, this entire situation would have been avoided.
There was no need to structure this as a joint ordinance. The city and parish each received their own allotment of ARPA funding — $38 million to the city of Lafayette and $47.5 million to the parish. And none of the projects Guillory proposed are jointly funded. There was no benefit to the city or the parish by entangling the City Council’s and Parish Council’s decision-making authority in this way. All it did was give the administration more leverage to manipulate this situation to their advantage.
As a result of Guillory’s gamesmanship, the City Council is at risk of losing control of more than half of the city’s ARPA funding. Effectively Guillory is attempting to appropriate city tax dollars by veto and by leveraging the Parish Council’s support. He is consistently more aligned politically with Parish Council members and has been at frequent odds with City Council members.
This is a big deal, not just because it highlights another way in which consolidated government is hurting the city’s interests. But because it threatens to take away $22 million that could be spent in helping the city of Lafayette respond to the pandemic and support our recovery from the subsequent economic fallout. Instead, it directs this money to infrastructure projects that could be paid for as part of the city’s normal capital improvement program.
To be clear, even if they override the veto, that wouldn’t necessarily mean the seven projects Guillory’s chosen won’t get funded. In fact, the City Council could amend next year’s capital budget as soon as Thursday during final approval of the upcoming budget to add funding for some or all of these projects. Or the City Council could introduce separate city-only ordinances to restore some or all of this ARPA funding at its next meeting on Sept. 21.
And to be fair, even if they fail to override the veto, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this $22 million of ARPA funding has to be spent in this way. Because the City Council could introduce its own ordinance(s) to reappropriate this funding to other projects.
Regardless of the avenues still open to the councils, attempting to appropriate city funds without the City Council’s approval is a bright red line that no one should even be thinking about crossing.
If the City Council fails to override Guillory’s veto, it’s effectively ceding its authority to appropriate city funds. If the Parish Council fails to override Guillory’s veto, it’s effectively claiming that it has authority over how city funds are appropriated.
If both councils care about protecting their authority and their autonomy, the right choice is obvious: unanimously vote to override Guillory’s veto.
Tuesday’s vote brings to light just how untenable the city’s current situation is. It’s yet another example of a system easily manipulated to marginalize the city of Lafayette’s voice over of its own affairs — and of a mayor more than willing to take advantage of it.