“The Junior League of New Orleans operates a thrift shop that is helpful to the people in my district and complies fully with all state reporting procedures. I support their efforts.” and $400,000 in state funding went to support the Junior League in the district of powerful New Orleans legislators. But State Treasurer, John Kennedy, has deemed the use of the funds does not seem to tell the story of “Money well spent” for taxpayers. Rep. Neil Abramson probably has answers that he is not willing to share, as his district was the recipient of this cash bequest.
The relationship between a state lawmaker and a non-profit group he helped steer money must be questioned. The way Louisiana directs its public funds has become the center of the scandal in New Orleans that WDSU TV has focused attention beyond that the CB Forgotston called the Shameless NGOs.
“Congress used to do this a lot, and they called it earmarks. Congress stopped doing it two years ago, and it’s time Louisiana stopped,” said state Treasurer John Kennedy.
The group says all money received has been spent properly, but some question why the group even got it in the first place with budgets tight and so many pressing needs in the city and elsewhere. In the Freret Street corridor Uptown where new businesses are taking off and visitors are streaming in, a Junior League sponsored thrift store facelift has drawn particular attention.
Records show $135,000 was spent to “upgrade” the facility, which records show is owned and operated by the Junior League of Greater New Orleans.
The store offers donated clothing at low prices – a good deal for shoppers and a good way to raise money. Yet, the money spent to revitalize the thrift store was paid for, in large part, by taxpayers.
WDSU I-Team obtained records that show that’s only part of the money the Junior League received from the state during the last legislative session. An additional $200,000 went to make its facilities handicapped-accessible and 0$65,000 more for a new heating and cooling system at its headquarters on Carondelet Street. That’s $400,000 in state funding in his year alone when cuts are being made to basic programs across the board.
“The Junior League did receive $400,000 in taxpayer money,” said Kennedy, who’s built a reputation as a fiscal hawk. Kennedy questions a group whose endowment of more than $2 million and still became a spending priority in a state that’s selling off assets across the board.
“The issue is whether the $400,000 we gave to the Junior League could have been better spent on higher education, health care or coastal restoration,” said Kennedy. “The taxpayers that call me and email me are furious.” The money given to the Junior League comes from House Bill 2. That’s the piece of legislation used for capital outlay projects across the state.
And in Baton Rouge, Kennedy said it’s no secret that side projects get slipped into House Bill 2. “I understand there are politics here, that legislators like to bring home the bacon,” said Kennedy. And he said while those projects are funded, other areas are being neglected.
Kennedy said with an almost $25 billion budget, Louisiana could fund education and health care as well as any state in the nation. “But we don’t have enough money to be No. 1 in those things and No. 1 in the south in patronage, so we gotta choose,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy wants lawmakers to stop funding projects he doesn’t consider essential. “Congress used to do it a lot, and they were called earmarks. Congress stopped doing it two years ago, and it’s time Louisiana stopped,” said Kennedy.
So how did the Junior League get the money? When public dollars are secured for nonprofit groups, it’s almost always done at the request of a lawmaker who represents the area. The Junior League – and its state-funded projects – are in Rep. Neil Abramson’s district.
Records show Abramson’s wife, Kim, is a Junior League member and serves on some of its committees. In June, a Baton Rouge TV station asked Neil Abramson about the connection. But Abromson’s response was only, “My wife just joined, and she is a new member with a lot of people I know.”
“Do you think there’s a problem with you securing almost $500,000 in state money for a group your wife is associated with?” asked a WBRZ reporter. “Basically, at one time or another, everybody has been a member of the Junior League at some point in time,” said Abramson.
Political analysts say when a lawmaker’s relatives are involved with a group receiving state money. “It doesn’t look right, and there is always a gray area there,” said UNO political analyst Ed Chervenak.
“They will say there is nothing unethical, and that might be true. But it’s just wrong,” said longtime political commentator C.B. Forgotston.
“The real issue is politicians are making these self-interest deals with their favorite special interest at the expense of things like higher education,” said Chervenak.
The Junior League is far from the only nonprofit group to get state money this year. Other beneficiaries include the Hungarian Settlement Historical Society ($170,000), the Red River Film Society (1.8 million) and the Louisiana Artist Guild (4.7 million) for planning and construction on various projects. There are many more.
And while some question the process that leads to the funding, in most cases, including the Junior League’s, the money itself is spent as intended.
In a written statement, the Junior league told us House Bill 2 “closes the gap where government ends and private industry begins. With a base of almost 2500 trained volunteers across Metropolitan New Orleans, the Junior League commits nearly 35,000 hours a year to voluntarism, improving communities and empowering women, thereby filling a void with community outreach programs to those most in need of services.”
“I don’t know what these organizations do, and I hope they spend this taxpayer money well, but I know this: For most taxpayers, these are not priorities, and they clearly aren’t as important as education, health care and coastal restoration,” said Kennedy.
When lawmakers at the Capitol vote on House Bill 2, it is a straight up-or-down vote. There are literally hundreds of projects in the measure, which itself is 174 pages long. That makes it difficult for those voting to connect the dots.
From the group that benefits to the lawmaker who inserted the funding, it’s harder still to make any changes. H.B. 2 passed this year on the last day of the session.
Kennedy is urging all lawmakers to curb the practice of earmarking money for some groups and instead focus on larger priorities.
Projects supported by the organization this year included the Safe Sitter Campaign, Kids in the Kitchen and the Senior League Project, which aims to provide programming and services to older adults in need.
Abramson statement on Monday evening also included: “I recognize Treasurer Kennedy’s frustration regarding state funding to non-governmental organizations, especially those that do not comply with proper reporting procedures. But as long as the State of Louisiana continues to fund worthy programs that benefit our citizens, I will fight to bring those funds into my district when applicable.”