Louisiana lawmakers divvy up last $16 million in CARES Act money

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

Louisiana lawmakers on Friday divvied up the last $16 million in federal pandemic relief money they had available.

The Legislature’s joint House of Representatives and Senate budget committee agreed to put $8 million in the state’s unemployment trust fund while sending the other $8 million to the state education department for computers and mobile devices. If the Department of Education is unable to spend its share, that money also will go to pay unemployment benefits.

Money allocated to states through the federal CARES Act must be spent by Dec. 30 or revert back to the federal government.

“We just want to make sure we don’t have to return it,” Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget Chairman Mack “Bodi” White said.

Cade Brumley, the state’s education superintendent, on Thursday told the House Education Committee that state schools had more devices than students. He said his department has distributed $372 million in CARES Act dollars, most of which was spent on technology.

When questioned about the need for more money on Friday, he said that while state schools overall have better technology than before receiving the CARES Act allocation, many of the devices in use now are old and outdated. He said the new dollars approved Friday would be sent to schools with the greatest needs.

In response to unprecedented demand from unemployed workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, state officials have been forced to borrow money from the federal government to pay legally required benefits. As of Thursday, the Louisiana Workforce Commission had borrowed about $133.5 million, said Robert Wooley, the commission’s assistant secretary. He said the current fund balance is about $46 million.

The state has paid out more than $6 billion in total unemployment benefits to about 690,000 people, counting state and federal dollars, Wooley said.

Also on Friday, state officials reported an estimated $270 million surplus from the fiscal year that ended June 30, an increase from previous estimates. The surplus cannot be spent until the Revenue Estimating Conference officially recognizes it.

During the public comment opportunity at the end of the meeting, Mary Cloud with the Louisiana Movement for Worker Councils criticized lawmakers for not doing more to help people who are out of work and are struggling to pay for basic needs.

“We need immediate cash assistance,” she said, mentioning the money lawmakers moved around earlier in the day.

White said he expected more federal assistance would be coming down soon.