Dispute erupts over virus aid for Louisiana local government
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards’ plan for steering more than $800 million in congressional aid to local government agencies struggling with the coronavirus outbreak ran into roadblocks Thursday with House Republicans who want a say in how the dollars are spent.
GOP lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee proposed their own approach for using the dollars. They raised objections that the Democratic governor charted plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in federal virus aid without engaging the House and Senate.
“We wanted as a body to have some input and opportunity to participate in the process,” said Appropriations Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, a Houma Republican, who inserted spending plans for the federal aid into a Senate-backed budget bill.
The legislative plan would carve out $200 million for small business grants and leave the remaining $600 million-plus for local government expenses related to the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus. The disbursement to local agencies — such as sheriff’s offices, city councils, school districts and more — would flow through a different program than Edwards planned.
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s chief budget adviser, said the proposal advancing in the House would delay the state’s ability to get relief aid to local agencies.
“You are creating a bureaucratic process,” he told the committee. “If you want to get the money out, you should defeat this bill.”
Louisiana received $1.8 billion in direct congressional relief aid through the CARES Act to respond to COVID-19, with up to 45% available to help local government agencies respond to the coronavirus disease. Louisiana’s congressional delegation urged Edwards to use the full 45%, more than $800 million, for those local government expenses, and the governor agreed.
Dardenne detailed to local government agency officials Monday the administration’s plans for disbursing the money, in line with federal guidelines requiring its use for virus-related expenses. The governor’s Division of Administration created a website with information about the process and how to register for expense reimbursement. Applications were slated to start June 1, with Dardenne saying the first payments would go out in July.
But the legislation advanced by the Appropriations Committee in a 13-9 vote Thursday would change those plans.
In addition to the carve-out for small business grants, the local government aid would have to be divvied up based on parish population and the parish’s number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Lawmakers would have to agree to the allocations before the money could be disbursed.
Dardenne said local government agencies likely wouldn’t have enough COVID-19 expenses to use up all $800 million, suggesting he didn’t necessarily disagree with carving out $200 million for small business grants. But he said the other provisions would slow payments to local agencies.
Zeringue said he’d be willing to negotiate on a final version: “This is not intended to slow down the process.”
Republicans pushed ahead with advancing the bill to the full House for debate. Democrats on the committee voted against the proposal, siding with the Edwards administration.
Senate Bill 189: www.legis.la.gov
Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.