Powerful legislative leaders from Lafayette steer sizable state dollars to home parish

Lafayette Parish Correctional Center in Downtown Lafayette
Plans for a new jail facility have been on hold for years while parish government searched for a way to finance it. Current file photo

This story was first reported by Louisiana Illuminator and republished with permission.

The Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office and jail would receive $21.6 million directly from the state over the next year under the budget proposal currently working its way through the legislative process. That’s almost half of the $43.1 million allocated to individual Louisiana sheriffs and parish jails combined in the spending proposal.  

Legislators jockey for dollars for their communities – particularly construction project funding – over several months leading up to the annual state budget’s approval in June. The money is expected to be spread out across the state, especially this year, when Louisiana has hundreds of millions in extra cash to give out for local needs. 

But Lafayette Parish has an advantage over nearly every other community. It has a larger number of representatives and senators in the legislative leadership positions, which gives it more leverage over Louisiana’s finances.

In the House, Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, oversees the state’s annual construction budget as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Rep. Vincent Pierre, of Lafayette, is also chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, and one of the highest-ranking Democrats in the Legislature. 

In the Senate, Republican President Page Cortez, considered the most powerful lawmaker in the Capitol, and Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Gerald Boudreaux also hail from Lafayette. 

Only 13 other sheriffs and parish jails have direct allocations in the current spending plan, and only two, Lafayette and Livingston Parish, are getting more than $3 million. 

The Livingston sheriff has been allocated $12 million, second largest behind Lafayette Parish. Another powerful legislative leader, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, represents that parish. 

How the money will be spent

Most of the Lafayette sheriff and jail money can be found in the state construction budget proposal. Lafayette Parish government is expected to receive $8.75 million for the design, planning and construction of a new parish jail in that plan.  

The Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office is also currently slated to receive:

  • $3.9 million for the planning and construction of a law enforcement center;
  • $2.9 million for shooting range upgrades;
  • $2.8 million for the planning and construction of a storage and evidence building; 
  • $2.2 million to design and build a fitness center; and 
  •  $1 million for equipment.

About a third of all of that Lafayette funding — $7.1 million — will require the state to borrow money and needs approval of the Louisiana State Bond Commission. The remaining two-thirds of those Lafayette allocations — $14.5 million — would come from a state saving account and other cash resources, the most desirable type of funding to receive because it involves the fewest hurdles. 

The state construction bill also indicates the Lafayette sheriff and jail may get more state money in the future. While it hasn’t been allocated yet, the legislation signals the state is prepared to give an additional $46.5 million for the new law enforcement center and $17.5 million to the new Lafayette jail project in the cycles to come.

Bishop, who is leaving his legislative office this year, said getting money to relocate and build a new Lafayette jail is a prime concern for the parish’s entire legislative delegation. 

The current Lafayette jail is undersized and in deplorable condition, he said. It’s also an eyesore in the middle of downtown Lafayette and is considered a barrier to the area’s revitalization.

“The jail is completely outdated and it’s a top priority,” Bishop said.

Bishop initially declined to comment directly on why the Lafayette sheriff is getting $12.9 million on top of the $8.75 million going to the jail project.

“For a lot of years, I suspect a lot of money went to the Jefferson Parish sheriff as well,” he eventually said.  

The remark appears to allude to former Senate President John Alario, who held leadership positions in the Legislature for much of the past four decades. Alario was famous for plowing state money and resources into the West Jefferson area and his hometown of Westwego.

Spokespeople for the Lafayette Sheriff’s Office and the Lafayette Consolidated Government have not responded to questions about the jail and other projects receiving money. 

Jail dollars exceed high-profile needs

The $8.75 million going to the Lafayette Parish jail in the next budget cycle is a larger allocation than what some of the state’s much more high-profile and publicized construction projects will receive. 

The construction of a new library at LSU is slated to get just $3.25 million next year in the current budget proposal, in spite of years of complaints about the condition of the current facility that the university estimates will cost more than $150 million to replace.

Southern University is getting just $1 million to deal with an erosion problem causing part of its campus to fall into the Mississippi River, though the entire project would cost approximately $32 million to complete.

The Lafayette sheriff and jail allocations rival the entire construction budgets of some higher education campuses over the next year.

In the current version of the budget, the Lafayette sheriff’s facilities are getting millions more in construction dollars than the University of Louisiana Monroe ($16.3 million), McNeese State University ($10.7 million), Grambling State University ($4.7 million) and Louisiana Tech University ($5.5 million).

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ initial state budget plan included none of the current money for the Lafayette sheriff and jail. It has all been added since Bishop and other lawmakers started working on the proposal earlier this month. 

Funding is still expected to be shifted around significantly, meaning the Lafayette Parish allocations could go up or down before lawmakers adjourn on the evening of June 8.

Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, is responsible for rewriting the state construction plan in the upper chamber and indicated that major changes are coming to the proposal, which is expected to get its first Senate committee vote Thursday. 

“There’s some things we need to fix,” Allain said. 

Cortez, who runs the Senate, said last week that he hadn’t had a chance to give his personal input on the state construction proposal yet, which is likely good news for his hometown of Lafayette.

Like other lawmakers, Cortez said he met with the sheriff about Lafayette’s needs, though Cortez said he isn’t the person who requested the funding currently in the budget. The Senate president said he planned to start analyzing and evaluating the bills for his own funding priorities this week. 

“Every legislator gets requests from their local government, from their parish government, from their sheriff or other entities,” Cortez said in an interview. “I’ve gotten requests from hospitals in my district. I’ve gotten requests from the chamber of commerce in my district. I’ve gotten requests from nonprofits in my district — all for either appropriations or capital outlay requests.”