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Louisiana reshuffles federal virus aid to avoid losing it

December 18, 2020 GMT
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House Appropriations Chairman Jerome "Zee" Zeringue, R-Houma, talks on the phone on the House floor as the Louisiana Legislature reached the final hours of its legislative session, on Monday, June 29, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)
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House Appropriations Chairman Jerome "Zee" Zeringue, R-Houma, talks on the phone on the House floor as the Louisiana Legislature reached the final hours of its legislative session, on Monday, June 29, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers Friday reshuffled $16 million in federal coronavirus aid to unemployment payments and mobile devices for schoolchildren, in a rush to spend all the dollars before an end-of-year congressional deadline.

The money comes from $1.8 billion in direct coronavirus assistance that Louisiana received from Congress, which must be used by this month or the state loses it. Without objection, the joint House and Senate budget committee quickly agreed to move the final dollars around to avoid giving up the available cash.

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“We just want to make sure we don’t have to return it,” said Senate Finance Chairman Mack “Bodi” White, the Baton Rouge-area Republican who leads the joint budget committee.

The $16 million will be split, with one half going into the state’s nearly bankrupt unemployment trust fund to pay for jobless claims and the other half steered to Louisiana’s education department for technology including computers and tablets for distance learning.

State Superintendent Cade Brumley told lawmakers the department will use its dollars to offer more mobile devices to students and teachers and replace outdated ones. The technology initiative has been stepped up because so many classes have been forced into online learning environments during the coronavirus outbreak.

If the education department can’t use its entire $8 million allocation by Dec. 28, any remaining dollars will flow to the unemployment trust fund, under the terms of the legislative agreement which also was supported by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration.

Louisiana’s unemployment fund has been drained to provide aid to hundreds of thousands of workers forced out of jobs during the pandemic. The state has borrowed $133 million from the federal government so far to help pay for claims because fewer business taxes are flowing into the fund than the payments flowing out of it, according to the state labor department. Many other states also are borrowing from Washington.

House Appropriations Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, a Houma Republican, said lawmakers sought to steer the remaining federal aid dollars to areas that represented a “pressing need” and that could use the assistance quickly.

The Democratic governor and majority-Republican Legislature spent more than half the $1.8 billion to fill gaps in Louisiana’s state budget. The remaining $855 million was split among several assistance programs, to reimburse local government agencies’ virus expenses; for small business grants; and for one-time payments to frontline workers who stayed on the job in the pandemic’s early days.

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The local government reimbursement and small business grant programs had more eligible applications than money available.

Also Friday, Louisiana learned that its second shipment of Pfizer coronavirus vaccine will include about 12,000 fewer doses than expected. Instead of the 40,000 doses anticipated, the state will receive 28,275 doses, Edwards’ office announced.

Several states have announced they are receiving fewer doses than they anticipated. Federal officials say they’ve held back some doses to ensure that individuals who got their first shot would be able to get the second shot that makes the vaccination fully effective.

Louisiana received 39,000 doses of vaccine in its first week of shipments. Hospital systems have vaccinated at least 11,500 workers at their facilities so far, the governor’s office said.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak. Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.