By Victor Skinner, The Center Square contributor
Louisiana Treasurer John Schroder discussed a variety of considerations Tuesday for the current legislative session, including reallocating unused money from COVID-19 relief programs, the need for revolving funds for infrastructure repairs, cryptocurrency and efforts to divest from investments linked to Russia.
Schroder and other Louisiana Department of Treasury officials, along with representatives from the departments of State and Veterans Affairs, testified before the Louisiana Senate Finance Committee.
Treasury officials said only about $1.6 million of the $10 million Logger Relief program and about $3.8 million of $4.5 million available through the Save Our Screens program were paid in grants before they closed the programs at the end of January. That left about $8.3 million remaining in segregated funds for lawmakers to reallocate for the upcoming fiscal year.
“What happened is we ran the program and we got to a point where we felt like we maxed out what we could and we ended it, which left a balance and the balance stays in a fund until you appropriate it,” Schroder said.
Schroder also discussed efforts to create a revolving loan program for infrastructure emergencies.
“As you all know, we continuously have events that cause us great grief in our communities after these hurricanes or freezes or whatever, and if you haven’t noticed, FEMA hasn’t always been the most responsive,” Schroder said. “But we do now have enough experience to know where FEMA will reimburse us in most cases.
“I’d like to see a revolving loan program, it’s not a grant program, … where the state would step in and loan the money down into the parishes to help them get off the mat immediately, instead of waiting around for months,” Schroder said.
Other Treasury priorities included working with lawmakers to permanently authorize virtual meetings for the state bond commission and issues involving cryptocurrency. The Treasury also is focused on helping the state divest from Russian linked assets, Schroder said.
“Treasury is working on ending business relationships and investment deals as we speak with any companies that are detrimental to Louisiana’s economy, or our individual rights, and is working on a policy that would guide these investments,” Schroder said. “Regarding the state’s investments in Russia business, in Treasury we only have one fund that currently owns international stocks that have any exposure to Russia.
“The Louisiana Education Quality Trust Fund, which is managed by Vanguard, has less than 1% invested in Russia, and according to Vanguard, they will be liquidating the Russian holdings as soon as conditions allow because the ruble is probably worth absolutely zero right now,” he said.
Officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs provided an overview of the department’s budget and work underway to expand veterans’ cemeteries. They also discussed struggles to fill nursing staff openings at veterans homes and the effect of COVID-19 on residents there.
About half of the 151 open positions in the department are located in veterans nursing homes, officials said.
“What we’re seeing … is the impact of the labor shortage in the health care industry,” said Dustin Guy, the department’s deputy chief of staff.
Guy said the nursing positions have high turnover, and many have been lured away with higher pay and easier working conditions, but new efforts to recruit employees are bearing fruit.
“Just within the last week, we’ve filled or have offers out on approximately 20 of these vacancies, including five nursing assistants, three RNs and one LPN,” Guy said, “so we are making progress.”
Officials with the Department of State fielded questions from lawmakers about efforts to improve voter outreach, as well as progress in selecting and implementing new voting machines throughout Louisiana.
Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin laid out the years-long process for new voting machines and told lawmakers he does not anticipate they will be in place before the 2023 election. The department has about $13.8 million set aside for the new machines, but Ardoin could not provide an estimate of the total cost because of a multitude of factors that have not yet been determined.