Though Louisiana's state government officially wasn’t working Thursday, the pressure of paying expenses created by the historic flood catastrophe prompted officials to gather in the closed State Capitol to start the process for taking out a short-term loan.
Even as people are still being pulled from their houses and transported to shelters, questions have arisen on how the state is going to pay for all of this.
“We’re burning cash at a fast rate now and we’re not taking in revenues,” said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said. The state has spent about $12 million in less than a week on the disaster and that’s just the beginning. The Louisiana National Guard, alone, costs about $800,000 a day.
“We are going to spend whatever is necessary … and the event is not done yet,” Dardenne said, noting the flooding keeps moving south.
Going into the unexpected disaster, state government was short of money and already was looking at booking a loan for a few months. It’s a 40-day process with specific goals that have to be met along the way, before the next steps can be taken. The loan would have to be repaid by June 2017.
Under similar emergency conditions, the Bond Commission would have postponed its Wednesday meeting. State officials hadn’t completely decided whether to take out the “pay day” style loan – the state hasn’t taken one since the 1980s – and started gathering information, just in case.
The urgency of paying for the disaster response prompted the Bond Commission to convene, despite state government being closed Wednesday, and to firmly push the process along. “We have to keep that ball in the air,” Dardenne said.
“Obviously the storm has changed things,” said State Treasurer John N. Kennedy, chairman of the Bond Commission.
The State Bond Commission had gathered proposals and bids from four bond attorneys and six banks in case the pay-by dates of the state’s invoices and the cash intake timelines don’t match. The “cash flow” problem is because most of the state’s money comes in during the second half of the fiscal year – after January – while most of the bills arrive at the July start of the fiscal year. This year it looked as if the state might not get enough money to pay those early bills.
Made up of the state’s top government financial executives and legislative leaders, the Bond Commission preliminarily approved seeking loans of up to $500 million. Final approval will be needed in September once the details are worked out.
Just how much the state ultimately will seek to borrow is still up in the air, said House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia and banker by profession, adding that he suspects it’ll be around $250 million to $300 million.
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The state is racking up all sorts of expenses from overtime for first responders to fuel for boats to pillows for shelters. State government must pay those bills along with the day-to-day costs of government. Additionally, flood waters inundated public buildings and state-owned vehicles as well as undermined the stability of roads and compromised the safety of bridges. State government will have to pay those costs and do so in advance. “When you’re trying to recover, hospitals, schools, roads, none of these things can wait,” Barras said.
The federal government eventually will reimburse the state for 75 percent of that spending but state taxpayers will have to cover the remainder, which could be costly.
“We have to cover our 25 percent and that’s going to be significant,” said Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego. “We need to be very, very careful with everything we spend.”
The Edwards administration already is talking with federal officials about the federal government upping its share of the costs to 90 percent of the total, said Matthew Block, executive counsel for Gov. John Bel Edwards.
Though he thinks the state may have to spend about $600 million, there are no set thresholds or established procedure.
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“We’re going to need an act of Congress, literally, to get it done,” Block said.