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|Locals plan D.C. Mardi Gras trip; former congressman says trip waste of money|
Officials from the City of Monroe, its business community and the city's chamber of commerce will travel to Washington, D.C., later this month to meet with Louisiana's congressional delegation about ongoing funding for various local projects.
The annual lobbying trip will coincide with Washington Mardi Gras. It is an annual event hosted by the state's congressional delegation, which features a host of parties on Capitol Hill that are largely funded by corporations that lobby Congress on tax and trade issues.
Monroe chamber president Sue Edmunds said the five projects of local interest the group will focus on during the trip include sewer and water improvements within the city, the Greater Ouachita Port, the North 4th Street underpass and several projects at the University of Louisiana-Monroe.
The group will be in Washington from Jan. 22-25.
The projects have been Monroe's top priority for several years. Edmunds says the lobbying efforts are for continued funding, which will be spread out over the next several years.
Work on the new $20-million Monroe Regional Airport terminal should begin sometime in 2008. It will be conducted in several construction phases, with completion set for 2010. Congress, though, has not appropriated the money necessary to complete construction of the new terminal.
Meanwhile, the city has been involved in ongoing efforts to improve its water and sewer infrastructure. That project could take up to 10-15 years to finish, and cost up to $100 million.
Over the past several years, more than $12 million has been secured for work at the Greater Ouachita Port, but Edmunds says more will be needed to pay for additional rail lines and other infrastructure improvements.
Congress has approved some funding for all of Monroe's top projects except the North 4th Street underpass. Securing funding for that project will be a priority during future lobbying trips.
"Funding is hard to come by so we can't just go there willy-nilly," Edmunds said. "They want to know what our top projects are, and they want to see forward progress with our projects."
"We're not going to get all of the funding in one year, but we don't need funding all at once," she said. "We'll have planning, engineering, site preparation and construction phases, so we'll need it over several years."
"We break it down in stages and ask for funding for these different stages," Edmunds added.
Edmunds says the lobbying efforts in Washington have paid off over the years, adding that the Kansas Lane/Garrett Road overpass and efforts for the fourth Ouachita River bridge both were top priorities in the past. Work on the overpass has begun, and the first of many environmental studies for the fourth bridge is now underway.
While Edmunds touted the effectiveness of the Monroe chamber spearheading the annual lobbying trip to Washington, one former member of the U.S. House of Representatives described the lobbying trip as a waste of time and money.
"During my time in Congress, on more than one occasion I told Mike Neal, who was president of the chamber at the time, that we could more effectively meet in the congressional district and save the Monroe chamber some money instead of him flying to Washington to meet with me," said Dr. John Cooksey, who represented Louisiana's 5th congressional district from 1997-2003.
"I feel similar arrangements could have been made to meet with the state's U.S. senators when they visited the state," Cooksey said.
"It seems to me, though, that it's more than a coincidence the annual lobbying trip by the Monroe chamber coincides with the three-day party that's commonly known as Washington Mardi Gras," Cooksey continued. "One of the frequent visitors on that annual lobbying trip told a member of my staff at the time that the Monroe chamber officials liked to make the trip to Washington to stay in a hotel in which chocolate candies are left on their pillows before they retire for the evening."
"When I asked Elton Pody (president, Alexandria Chamber of Commerce) why Alexandria chamber officials didn't make the annual trip to Washington Mardi Gras he told me the Alexandria chamber preferred to spend its travel money on recruiting businesses to locate in the Alexandria area to create jobs for the people of central Louisiana," Cooksey said.
"I wonder if the Monroe chamber has given Elton Pody's statement any thought?" Cooksey added.
Monroe officials and representatives from ULM, the Greater Ouachita Port and business community will meet with the chamber's lobbying firm, Patton Boggs, on the first day of the trip to review appropriation requests. During the week, the local group will meet with the state's congressional delegation about those requests.
(Sam Hanna Jr., publisher of The Ouachita Citizen, contributed to this report.)