BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana would spend more than $1.5 billion in federal coronavirus aid on roadwork, water system improvements, tourism marketing, hurricane recovery and a variety of grant programs to specific industries, under spending plans advanced Tuesday in the state Senate.
Senate President Page Cortez unveiled senators' approach to using the money in the Senate Finance Committee, which sent the proposal to the full Senate for debate.
About one-third of the cash, $563 million, would pay for road and bridge work, including several phases of widening of Interstates 10, 12 and 20, port projects and work on I-49 South.
Another $490 million would be steered to the state's bankrupt unemployment trust fund, with $190 million of that to repay money borrowed from the federal government to pay jobless benefits. A $300 million portion of the federal aid would be set aside for water and sewer system repairs and improvements, with a 10-member legislative commission sifting through projects.
Many of the state's water systems have been in need of upgrades for years. Lawmakers said they hope the hefty influx of federal dollars will address many of those needs.
“We all recognize this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said House Appropriations Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, the Houma Republican who handles the budget bills in the House.
Storm-ravaged southwest Louisiana — which faced new flooding this month even as residents continue to recover from the 2020 hurricanes — would receive $30 million for recovery projects.
“They're still rebuilding and will be for a long time,” said Cortez, a Lafayette Republican.
Republican Sen. Ronnie Johns, of Lake Charles, said the dollars would be divvied up to universities and school districts in the area, the regional airport and the local port.
Ports around the state would get $50 million to fill budget gaps caused by the coronavirus pandemic, $15 million would be set aside for technology upgrades at the Louisiana Capitol, $10 million would go to a fund designed to attract major events to the state and $5 million would flow to an initiative seeking to train more health care workers in Louisiana.
Grant programs for nonprofits, the logging industry and movie theater operators would be created, with $10 million available for nonprofits, $10 million for the timber businesses and $4.5 million for theaters.
To help the tourism industry, senators want to spend $77.5 million to support the marketing and other promotional efforts handled by state, local and regional tourism authorities trying to draw visitors and their cash to the state.
Louisiana is slated to receive more than $3 billion in direct federal block grant aid from the latest assistance package passed by Democrats in Congress earlier this year, in addition to dollars flowing directly to schools, hospitals and other purposes. Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards have agreed to spend half the $3 billion in the current legislative session, leaving the rest to spend later.
The House had only drawn up plans for spending $820 million, but senators came up with a proposal to reach the full $1.5 billion. Senators struck out $40 million that House lawmakers wanted to set aside for business grants, with Cortez saying prior federal dollars already were directed to that effort.
The House and Senate will have to agree on a final version of the spending plans before the legislative session ends June 10.
Senators included most of the spending plans sought by Edwards. The governor's chief budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, thanked senators for supporting the administration's effort and for “trying to make the highest and best use of the dollars.”
But Dardenne said the Edwards administration still is hoping to add some dollars for the Superdome in New Orleans, which has budget gaps from the pandemic and is in the middle of upgrades that the state hasn't yet helped to finance.
The bill is filed as House Bill 642.
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