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Louisiana Officials Optimistic About Flood Aid, Hope to get Next Package Approved by Year's End

The state secured an initial $437.8 million in semi-flexible grants that will go toward housing recovery, which officials have described as a "down payment" on future federal aid.

by Elizabeth Crisp, The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. / November 10, 2016

(TNS) - Louisiana leaders say they expect that the effort to secure additional federal aid for the state's flood recovery will move quickly over the coming weeks.

"All the signals we've gotten is that this would be done before the end of the year," U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, said in an interview with The Advocate on Wednesday. "I'd rather have this moving off the table and the dollars in Louisiana quickly so we can plan."

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a Jefferson Republican and the third ranking member in the chamber, said he also anticipates a speedy process as lawmakers hash out final pieces of legislation before a new administration and Congress is sworn in early next year.

"I'm confident that we are going to be able to get the remaining funds passed over the next few weeks," Scalise said.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, returned to Washington on Wednesday to continue lobbying for federal money to help the state as it attempts to recover from catastrophic floods that left thousands of homes damaged or destroyed.

Over the course of his two-day trip, Edwards is scheduled to meet with budget leaders from both chambers and parties, as well as Shaun Donovan, director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

"We'll close the loop by the time we leave here tomorrow," he said by phone Wednesday. "For all practical purposes, everything we've done with the August flooding, this is all in record time."

The state secured an initial $437.8 million in semi-flexible grants that will go toward housing recovery, which officials have described as a "down payment" on future federal aid. The governor has requested nearly $4 billion more, which will largely be spent on programs to help people rebuild their homes or find new homes, but will also help small business, agriculture and other programs, including efforts to alleviate the risk of future flooding.

Housing recovery efforts that the state has been mulling include mortgage assistance, first-time homebuyer incentives, new low- to mid-income apartments and home rebuilding programs. No money has come down, as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has to kick off what could be an up to four-month process with a notice in the Federal Register. The federal government is expected to act on that in the coming days.

As for the next, larger piece of federal recovery funds that the state's trying to secure, Edwards said he expects that the Obama administration will make a formal proposal to Congress in the coming days and that Louisiana's aid will be pitched at the same time as funding for communities along the East Cost that were hit by Hurricane Matthew last month.

"It's all going to go to Congress at one time," he said.

Leaders said they don't expect disruptions tied to Republican President-elect Donald Trump, who pulled off a stunning win over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in Tuesday's presidential election and will be sworn in on Jan. 20.

Trump visited families in hard-hit Baton Rouge suburbs shortly after the August floods. He also donated a truck-load of supplies and wrote a check for $100,000 to aid flood recovery efforts through Greenwell Springs Baptist Church.

Clinton promised she would visit Louisiana in the wake of the floods but never did.

Scalise, who joined Trump and his vice presidential running mate Mike Pence on their survey of flood-ravaged areas, said he believes Trump will be an ally of the state if it needs assistance or administrative approval.

"In the middle of a really heated presidential campaign both Donald Trump and Mike Pence cancelled all their campaign activities to view the flood damage," Scalise said. "It put a renewed national focus on it that really wasn't happening before that. It seemed like a lot of people were ignoring what was happening."

"He was very hands on, and it was sincere," Scalise said. "I'm really optimistic about his commitment."

Edwards, who had supported Clinton in the election and has held rounds of meetings with senior officials in the Obama administration on the flood recovery, said he's also ready to work with the Trump administration to continue the process.

"We're going to do it again with the next administration as we need to," he said. "But hopefully the vast majority that we need is going to come in the lame-duck session of Congress."

Some critics have questioned the pace of establishing programs with the initial round of aid, particularly after the Louisiana delegation urged an Edwards-appointed task force to craft a plan for its use to strengthen their arguments for additional money.

But Edwards said he remains confident in the timeline, which would have HUD approving the state's programs by mid-February. After the notice in the Federal Register, the state must seek public comment on its plan before it can submit it to HUD for final approval.

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©2016 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

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