Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s $7.5 billion aid program for people whose homes were heavily damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita got a giant boost June 7 as congressional negotiators agreed to federal funding for the plan.
Louisiana had a portion of the money but needed another $4.2 billion included in a spending bill that was being worked out in a congressional conference committee after President Bush threatened to veto the measure because of congressional add-ons.
Negotiators on the bill agreed to maintain the state’s housing dollars as they worked out differences and reduced the price tag on the bill, said U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-New Orleans, a member of the conference committee.
They also agreed to maintain $3.7 billion for levee repairs and upgrades, and Louisiana will get a share of a $500 million agriculture relief package and $128 million in fisheries aid for areas impacted by the hurricanes, said U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-Metairie.
“It was a steep political hill, but we climbed it,” Landrieu said in a phone interview from Washington.
Blanco announced the news to state lawmakers. “We are extremely grateful that the Congress has responded … It lifts Louisiana and we are on our way to recovering,” she said.
The U.S. House and Senate still must approve the spending bill after the conference committee signs off on it. But Vitter said the hardest work is complete.
“What’s important is the deal is done, and the bill will pass,” he said in an interview.
Without the $4.2 billion, Blanco and her Louisiana Recovery Authority said they couldn’t start a comprehensive housing assistance program to provide rehabilitation dollars and buyouts.
The housing aid program, which would provide grants of up to $150,000 per homeowner depending on the type and extent of damage, has received the state and federal approvals required to begin – but it still needs the dollars pending in Congress.
A private contractor also must be selected to oversee the “Road Home” program. Checks aren’t expected to go out to homeowners until late summer at the earliest.
The White House united with state officials to push for the housing funding, to give Louisiana homeowners aid levels similar to a housing program in Mississippi that already has full federal funding.
“We are able to have an equitable housing program that have limits of up to $150,000, just like Mississippi’s. That means we aren’t second-class citizens,” Blanco said.
In other spending areas, Landrieu said the conference committee bill also includes dollars for preservation and alternative housing programs and education recovery efforts.
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