May 4, 2017 11:05 AM

House votes to strip attempt to spend HUD disaster relief money from state budget

Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The House voted to strip from the state budget a proposal to use up to $190 million of the state's $1.7 billion in disaster relief funding from HUD. The money was primarily targeted to help the 36,000 homeowners who were affected by flooding in Louisiana in 2016.

Early in the debate on HB1 on Thursday morning, Rep. Patricia Smith of Baton Rouge proposed an amendment to strip that provision in the state budget which had been inserted into the budget during consideration of the budget by the House Appropriations Committee on Monday.

Rep. Valerie Hodges of Denham Springs had convinced the committee to divert a portion of the state's disaster funding to complete the Comite Diversion Project, a flood control project that was developed in the wake of flooding in the East Baton Rouge, Livingston, Ascension parish area in the 1980s. Voters in the three parishes had voted to tax themselves to fund the local component of the project in the late 1990s. The property taxes went into effect in 2000.

The federal government has not provided funding for the project over the years, saying their cost/benefit analysis of the project never made it a top priority in the state. Flooding in those three parishes resulting from the heavy rains in August 2016 flooded 36,000 homes in the Capitol Region, Hodges says.

Smith prefaced her amendment by saying she supports construction of the Comite project but objected to taking money from the program targeting relief for homeowners to pay for it.

Smith's amendment sparked a 30-minute flood debate.

"Taking this money from the disaster funding meant to help homeowners across the state would affect relief for 4,000 homeowners who are struggling to get back into their homes," Smith told her colleagues.

The $1.67 billion in HUD money is targeted to provide relief for 100,000 homeowners who were affected by floods throughout 2016. That includes flooding in North Louisiana tied to high water on the Red River and storms in northeast Louisiana, as well as the floods of August 2016 that affected homes from Southwest Louisiana into the Florida parishes.

Rep. Walt Leger of New Orleans and Rep. Sam Jones of Franklin pointed out that changing the action plan upon which the disaster relief funding was based would require going back to HUD for approval. They argued that doing that would bring funding to a standstill and could produce an additional delay of three to six months before funds reached homeowners.

A number of legislators rose from the floor to lament the fact that they had flood control projects in their districts that needed funding. They also pointed out that they have constituents who are awaiting HUD funding to get back into their homes.

Hodges rose in defense of her proposal.

"It would be irresponsible to help people get back into their homes and not deal with the root of the problem," Hodges declared. "We know what the problem is and have known about what the problem is for 30 years. Our people have paid taxes to have this project built. The federal government has not funded this project. These disaster funds are federal dollars. I think these funds can be put to this use."

Hodges explained that the HUD funds include categories for infrastructure repair and mitigation.

"It was never my intention to take money away from homeowners," Hodges said. "I believe we can take money from those other categories and get this project built."

Hodges says that in the three days since her amendment was added to HB1, she had received pledges of support from parishes in the region. She said that one parish had committed $75 million of its mitigation money toward the project.

"Actually, I'm asking for $84 million now, not $190 million," Hodges said.

Hodges and Appropriations Committee Chair Cameron Henry conferred while other legislators spoke on the issue.

After nearly 30 minutes of debate and small conferences near the podium, Hodges withdrew her objection to Smith's amendment.

"I withdraw my objection, members," Hodges said. "I believe we can work something out with the Senate to get the money needed to get this project started."

Hodges said she's been told the project could be completed within three years once it is funded.

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