WASHINGTON -- The giant economic stimulus bill signed into law this week by President Barack Obama will provide $3.8 billion in financing and tax cuts for Louisiana, but none of it is earmarked specifically for hurricane recovery.
Louisiana officials, who were sharply critical of what they considered a lack of financial support for hurricane recovery from President George W. Bush, are holding their fire on the new president, whose administration put together much of the stimulus package.
"We're not playing nice; the new administration is playing smart, " said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who praised the administration for supporting language in the stimulus bill that will expedite the arbitration process to free $1.4 billion in hurricane recovery money stalled for years because of disputes between FEMA and local governments.
Even Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who joined all but three Senate Republicans in opposing the stimulus package, declined to criticize Obama on the bill's failure to directly address recovery issues. Instead, he talked about the steps he hopes the new president will take to accelerate recovery efforts from the 2005 hurricanes.
On one issue Vitter and Louisiana lawmakers have been pressing, the future of the Gulf Coast recovery office, the White House is expected to announce plans soon, perhaps as early as today. Under Bush's executive order, the office is scheduled to close Feb. 28.
An administration official familiar with the discussions said the announcement should please Louisiana lawmakers who have been pushing for continuation of the office, but with more clout to unplug stalled federal financing.
University of New Orleans political science professor Edward Chervenak said that it's probably a good idea to give the new president the benefit of the doubt -- at least as he deals with a national economic crisis and major foreign policy challenges.
"Obama seems genuinely concerned about rebuilding the city, and so there might be an opportunity in the future to request more money, " Chervenak said. "But for now I think it is prudent for Louisiana officials to concentrate on getting the money that's already been appropriated to flow to the city, then to ask for additional funds."
'Unique and great needs'
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is also speaking optimistically about the new administration and the stimulus bill, despite White House projections that the 2nd Congressional District, which includes most of New Orleans and part of Jefferson Parish, would see the smallest job gains from the legislation of the 435 districts nationally because of its post-Katrina population losses.
Nagin will be part of a delegation of mayors meeting with Obama in the White House today, and he promises to put recovery efforts on the agenda.
"Our city has unique and great needs because of the catastrophic disaster we experienced, " said Nagin, who contends that the city will have an advantage in pursuing stimulus funding because it has so many ready-to-go projects as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
Vitter, meanwhile, opted to look at what he hopes the new administration will be providing in coming weeks and months.
"I would like to see the president address pressing needs for relief like corps reform, renegotiating the state-federal levee cost-share agreements and Community Disaster Loan forgiveness, " Vitter said. "In a time when Louisiana's state budget is tightening, it is imperative that local communities have the ability to have their CDLs forgiven and remove that debt from their books."
Advances existing efforts
But the stimulus bill itself will advance recovery efforts, even if it doesn't designate any new money specifically for the effort, Landrieu said.
At Landrieu's request, the stimulus bill includes a provision setting up an accelerated and independent arbitration process to settle disputes between local governments and the Federal Emergency Management Agency that has held up $1.4 billion in financing for local infrastructure projects.
Landrieu tried to add language that would have allowed Louisiana to use its share of a $2 billion allocation for neighborhood stabilization projects for hurricane recovery efforts. The language was in the original Senate Finance Committee version, which included $4 billion.
Senate Democrats agreed to strip all that money from the package and make other spending reductions as part of an agreement with three Republican senators whose votes were critical to passage. House-Senate negotiators restored half the $4 billion, but the language Landrieu had added on hurricane recovery didn't make it into the final bill.
Landrieu is optimistic, however, that the Obama administration will administratively allow Louisiana to use its share of financing, an amount still to be determined, for hurricane relief.
In addition, Landrieu successfully added disaster relief for farmers affected by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike.
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