John Schroder 121417 b

State Treasurer John Schroder opens his first Bond Commission meeting as chairman on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, is to Schroder's right.

Advocate Photo by Mark Ballard

State Treasurer John Schroder said Monday he is having talks on the merits of U.S. Sen. John Kennedy's proposal to help finance the Comite River Diversion Canal by cashing unclaimed stocks and mutual funds held by the state.

"I am currently in discussions to see how viable this particular idea is," Schroder said in a statement released by his office.

The statement is Schroder's first comment on Kennedy's proposal, which the senator spelled out Thursday.

Schroder was out of the office last week, and efforts to reach him have failed.

"I appreciate Senator Kennedy and the idea/discussion on how to improve the incredible crisis we have concerning infrastructure needs in Louisiana, whether it's flood protection, highway capacity and reconstruction, bridges or coastal restoration," according to the statement.

"I will consider any financing ideas that do not force the taxpayers to fork over any more money!" he added.

The canal, which has been discussed for two decades, needs about $200 million to finish financing.

Kennedy, who was State Treasurer before he was elected to the U. S. Senate in 2016, said the state has about $150 million to $175 million in unclaimed stocks and mutual funds that could be cashed and used for the canal. He said the move especially makes sense because, in his view, the nation is nearing an end to a nine-year bull market.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said last week Kennedy's proposal is unrealistic, in part because the unclaimed property fund is other people's money.

Edwards said a House-passed bill pending in the U.S. Senate would allow the state to address Comite financing problems.

Edwards is a Democrat. Schroder and Kennedy are Republicans.

Kennedy said the unclaimed property program, which was launched in 1974, has been around long enough that officials have a good idea how much taxpayers will claim yearly.

Plenty of money – usually $20 million to $40 million per year – is set aside to meet the yearly demand, he said.

The senator said the unclaimed property totals roughly $900 million, including about $750 million in cash that is separate from the stocks.

"I am not trying to be mean," Kennedy said in an interview on Friday. "He (Edwards) just doesn't understand the way the unclaimed property program works.

"And a lot of people don't," he said. "I have had legislators tell me before, 'Can we see the $900 million in the account?' Some people think it is in escrow."

"I think it is just a situation of his aides haven't explained to him how it works," Kennedy said.

Asked for comment Richard Carbo, chief of staff for the governor, said in a statement, "Sen. Kennedy is notorious for pointing the finger at everyone else, but the fact of the matter is that he is neglecting his responsibility in the U.S. Senate. There is a bill that was overwhelmingly passed by the U.S. House of Representatives currently sitting in the U.S. Senate to fund Comite," Carbo said.

"The federal government made a commitment to the people of Louisiana that they would fund it, and Gov. Edwards is holding them to it. Sen. Kennedy should focus on doing the job he was elected to do, rather than tell everyone else how to do theirs," he added.

"If there is confusion on his proposal it is because he has provided absolutely no information to the Governor’s Office on his plan, which begs the question - is he serious about it or is it just another attempt to get a headline?"

Kennedy said he considered cashing in the stocks portion of the unclaimed property program when he was State Treasurer but decided not to, in part because of concerns that former Gov. Bobby Jindal "would take the money and dump it in the general fund."

The Jindal administration, in a controversial move, tapped a wide range of state funds to bolster the operating budget during periods of financial problems.

"This is an idea I have had for a long, long time," Kennedy said.

The proposal was spelled out to the Comite River Diversion Canal Project Task Force last week.

Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, chairwoman of the panel, praised Kennedy's proposal then and again the next day. Hodges said she hopes the governor gets behind the proposal.

Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, said he is open to the idea. "I am looking at every opportunity to get financing for this project," he said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.