Future of hurricane recovery aid uncertain

Published 4:47 pm Thursday, May 3, 2007

Congressional leaders vowed a fight, yet the fate of billions of dollars in hurricane recovery aid they consider key to helping restore the Gulf Coast remained uncertain Wednesday, a day after the president vetoed a war spending bill that included the money.

“It’s definitely a priority of the Democratic leadership to include funding for Gulf Coast hurricane recovery,” said Kristie Greco, a spokeswoman for House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C. However: “It’s too early to know exactly what the legislation will look like.”

Some members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation want all the aid money back in — more than $3 billion for projects ranging from levee work in the New Orleans area to disaster payments to shrimpers and the forgiveness of federal loans that cities like New Orleans took out after Katrina to keep operating.

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Sen. David Vitter, R-La., in anticipation of a veto, last week asked leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee to preserve funding levels passed by the Senate in a reworked spending proposal. U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., said Wednesday he planned to ask for more, $3 billion more, to cover a potential shortfall in the federally funded, state-run program set up to buy out hurricane-affected Louisiana homeowners or help them rebuild.

Democratic leaders were weighing their options and next step, after President Bush made good Tuesday on a threat to veto a spending package that included a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. Melancon said he expected a caucus briefing on talks Thursday.

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Wednesday that while there is a need for hurricane recovery aid, he wants to see it provided “in an appropriate way.”

“Loading these extraneous pork projects on the backs of our men and women in uniform is simply abhorrent,” he said in a statement. “ … My vote is simply not for sale.”

The administration in March raised opposition to what it considered “excessive and extraneous non-emergency spending” in the war-related measure and to both the requests for $1.3 billion in additional aid for levee repairs and the waiver of a local-match provision for rebuilding and infrastructure repairs.

The administration has said it would consider future funding needs for the Army Corps of Engineers and that the government is already covering the local match with grant dollars set aside at the state level. Those positions were reiterated Wednesday by Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the federal coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding.

Andy Kopplin, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said a separate set of federal rules and considerable paperwork has made it time-consuming and difficult for local officials to take advantage of the set-aside funds. So far, no local governments have tapped the fund.

New Orleans is counting on the waiver for another reason: the expectation it would make available more than $300 million in federal funds that would be used as part of a targeted, $1.1 billion recovery and rebuilding plan. Other funding sources identified for the plan also are not fully secured, and it wasn’t clear what the city’s fall-back plan would be if this, or other, funding sources come up short.

The city’s recovery has been sluggish in the 20 months since Katrina hit, with much of the progress being made coming as a result of private personal initiative. Fingerpointing continues among local, state and federal officials about who or what’s to blame for the pace of recovery and disbursement of aid dollars.

Aspey said that while there’s talk about the need for more funding in Louisiana, “they have yet to show us what that would be spent on.” Bush, too, is committed to rebuilding the Gulf Coast, she said, and about $110 billion has been set aside for the region. The state should use the resources available to it, including already committed federal funds and state surplus funds, before asking for more money, she said.

Figures from the Federal Emergency Management Agency show that as of Monday, less than half the nearly $5 billion in aid set aside for such things as local government buildings, utilities and roads had been disbursed by the state.

Melancon said the need is real and that the administration “apparently continues to hide in the closet and pretend they don’t need to do anymore.”

“If we don’t get this money, I will then feel it’s purposeful that we’re not getting money,” he said. “I’m close to that already.”