How Louisiana’s legislative leaders want to use the state’s latest round of federal COVID-19 funding

Over half a billion dollars would go to road and bridge projects

By: - May 26, 2021 6:00 am
Legislature names 4 to Louisiana Ethics Board

The Louisiana Capitol Building, April 8, 2021. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator).

Louisiana elected officials intend to spend most of the $1.6 billion the state has received in federal support this year on roads, bridges, the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, sewage, drainage and water systems.

In total, Louisiana is expected to get $3.01 billion from President Joe Biden’s “American Rescue Plan” — with approximately half the money coming this year and the other half arriving next year. This money is on top of funding the federal government gave directly to public schools, higher education, health care systems and local governments over the past several months.

While the state’s plans for spending the $1.6 billion dollars in federal support aren’t finalized yet, Gov. John Bel Edwards and legislative leaders appear to be mostly in agreement about spending priorities. 

The governor had proposed spending more of the money on assistance to the tourism industry and state marketing, but his administration seemed mostly pleased with the current plan. The Legislature must approve a final blueprint for spending the federal money by June 10, when the current lawmaking session ends.

Until then, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne — who oversees the budget for Edwards — said he will push for some funding for large venues like the Superdome, River Center in Baton Rouge and Cajundome in Lafayette, which lost a significant amount of revenue over the last year because of the pandemic.

The Superdome has put some of its massive renovation project on hold due to a downturn in revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic. Edwards hasn’t been able to convince state lawmakers to chip in more money for upgrades to the state-owned building yet.

Here’s a breakdown of how the Legislature currently intends to distribute the $1.6 billion in federal funding:

$563 million for road and bridge projects 

Senate President Cortez said the road and bridge projects that are being funded in the current draft of the budget are “shovel ready” projects — projects where construction can immediately begin.

Here’s the list: Interstate 12 widening from LA 21 to LA 1077 on the North Shore ($38 million); Interstate 10 widening from LA 73 to LA 30 in East Baton Rouge and Ascension parishes ($50 million); LA 3241 widening in St. Tammany and Washington parishes ($75 million); Interstate 20 widening in Ouachita and Caddo parishes ($35 million); Hooper Road project in the city of Central ($20 million); LA 415 project in West Baton Rouge Parish ($20 million); statewide preservation projects ($50 million); Jimmie Davis Bridge project in the city of Bossier ($100 million); Calcasieu River Bridge ($50 million); port projects ($30 million); rail and transit ($20 million); and south Interstate 49 improvements ($75 million). 

$490 million for state unemployment insurance trust fund

Of this allocation, $300 million will go toward replenishing the unemployment insurance trust fund that was drained when unemployment skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Another $190 million will be used to pay back the federal government for money the state borrowed from the federal government in order to keep paying out unemployment benefits.

$300 million for water system, sewage and drainage upgrades 

Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder would appoint five members each to a 10-member commission that would determine the criteria for which water, sewage and drainage system projects would get assistance from the state. Louisiana has dozens of failing water systems

Under the current proposal, sewerage and water systems would be able to apply for help as early as August. In some cases, the systems might be asked to put up some of their own funding or raise rates in order to access this state funding for upgrades.

Cortez said it is unlikely $300 million will be enough to meet all of the state’s water and sewage needs, but he hopes some of the money can be leveraged to attract more funding to address water and sewage system deficiencies.

In some cases, the state may also require that local water systems merge in order to access the funding, said House Appropriations Chairman Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma.

$60 million for tourism recovery 

Local and regional tourism commissions will receive this funding to market and promote Louisiana destinations to in-state and out-of-state tourists. Grants would start going out to individual groups by early September, under the current draft of the spending plan. 

$50 million for ports

Ports in Louisiana would be able to apply for funding to cover revenue lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic and money spent on COVID-19 mitigation efforts. Though the state’s largest ports are located in the southern part of the state, ports also exist in north Louisiana as well. 

$30 million for Southwest Louisiana hurricane recovery

Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, said Southwest Louisiana is still about $137 million short of what it needs to fully rebuild, even after reimbursements from insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to a recent study. This $30 million is supposed to help fill that gap.

Johns said the money will be distributed to the following entities: McNeese State University ($4 million), Chennault International Airport ($1.2 million), SOWELA Technical Community College ($1.5 million), Port of Lake Charles ($14 million), Calcasieu Parish School Board ($7 million), Jefferson Davis Parish School Board ($500,000), Cameron Parish School Board ($700,000), Vernon Parish School Board ($200,000), Beauregard Parish School Board ($400,000) and the region’s three charter schools ($500,000).

$17.5 million for marketing Louisiana in the state and outside of the state 

This is an additional pot of money to market Louisiana for tourists. It will be allocated to the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, which is overseen by Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser. Nungesser typically runs advertising and promotional campaigns for Louisiana — as a travel destination — both nationally and internationally.

$15 million for the Capitol building technology upgrades 

Cortez said the pandemic has exposed certain technological shortfalls within the state Capitol.

He said the Capitol needs to be able to have people join meetings virtually through Zoom or some other program, which isn’t possible with the current technology in the building. He also said the sound system isn’t working properly, making it hard for some lawmakers to hear in the House and Senate chambers. 

$10 million to help the logging industry 

“Timber harvesting” and “timber hauling” businesses would qualify for this money. The businesses would have to have lost at least 10 percent of their business in 2020 due tothe COVID-19 pandemic. The grants would be capped at $25,000, according to the House Bill 642. The businesses also can’t have more than 50 full-time employees.

$10 million to help attract ‘major events’ to Louisiana 

Louisiana puts up money for major events — such as the Essence Music Festival, Zurich Classic, Super Bowl, and college sports championships — that come to the state. This $10 million would go toward that purpose. Competition for such events is expected to be much more competitive following the pandemic. 

$10 million for grants to nonprofit organizations

Faith-based organizations and public charities would qualify for this funding. The grants through this program would be capped at $25,000 each and could be used to provide services to people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizations that provide food, education and employment services will be prioritized. The nonprofit organizations cannot be focused on partisan political activity or engage in lobbying state or federal elected officials. 

$5 million to encourage people to become nurses, other health care professionals 

This money is supposed to provide support and incentives to attract more people to go into the nursing profession and other health care fields. Officials at Louisiana hospitals said the COVID-19 pandemic exposed ashortage of medical professionals working in Louisiana.

$4.5 million for movie theater owners 

Movie theaters located in Louisiana would qualify for $10,000 per screen, under the current budget plan. Independent theaters have asked that the state give out at least $50,000 in relief to any venue that qualifies for a grant. Independent theaters are more likely to have just one screen, but still need to have all the other structures — such asa snack bar, ticket takers and lobby — that larger theaters have.

Lawmakers appear open to establishing a floor for grants to benefit independent theaters. They said they might tweak the proposal to make this exception. They also want to add some language to make sure theaters that show pornographic movies don’t receive the funding, Cortez said.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.