Louisiana legislative committee approves $331M in federal funding for disaster recovery, rent assistance

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

The joint budget committee of the Louisiana Legislature gave Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration the authority Friday to spend $331 million in federal funds but not before a contentious debate about how officials will distribute aid to rental property owners.

The committee quickly approved allowing the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness to spend $257 million in disaster recovery funds related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the five named storms that hit Louisiana during last year’s record-breaking hurricane season.

Legislators primarily were concerned about $148 million meant to help households unable to pay for rent and utilities because of the pandemic. While tenants must qualify for the program, the money goes to the landlords.

Federal regulations say no more than 10% of the money can be spent on administration. Some legislators tried to get the officials in charge of overseeing the program to commit to spending no more than 5% on administration.

“We did it for 5%,” said state Sen. Heather Cloud, a Turkey Creek Republican, referring to a $275 million grant program the Legislature created last year that was meant to help small businesses recover from the pandemic.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said that was an “apples-to-oranges” comparison. As with any federal program, state officials must comply with federal rules, which, in this case, were issued this week. The program is unique and highly complex, he said.

“We are not going to spend 10%,” Dardenne promised, but he couldn’t commit to a specific percentage.

The committee ultimately decided to authorize spending half of the money with a 5% cap on administrative costs, and with the understanding officials would come to next month’s meeting with a detailed budget for the program. Dardenne said he didn’t think that approach would cause a problem because he didn’t think administrative expenses would exceed $3.7 million (5% of $74 million) in the program’s early stages.

Officials said the program will kick off next week.

“We have so many families on the brink of being homeless,” said Sen. Regina Barrow, a Baton Rouge Democrat.