Legislators urged the Jindal administration Friday to appeal the loss of an $80 million federal grant that was designed to increase broadband Internet access in rural Louisiana.
State Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater agreed to try to talk to the U.S. Department of Commerce, which rescinded the grant amid questions about deadlines.
State Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, said the state should have been more prepared. Thompson represents one of the poorest parts of the state in the Louisiana Delta.
"If you lived there you'd be sick at your stomach, because I see the problems," he said.
The state received the grant last year to provide 900 miles of fiber-optic cable to bring broadband service to 100,000 households and 15,000 businesses in nearly two dozen rural parishes, primarily in central and northeastern Louisiana. Universities, schools and medical centers also would have benefited.
The project is formally known as the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, or BTOP. It is part of the Louisiana Broadband Alliance led by the Louisiana Board of Regents and Louisiana Public Broadcasting.
The $80 million grant was part of federal stimulus dollars, also known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Initially, the Board of Regents oversaw the project.
The state Division of Administration, which handles the daily operations of state government, later took control and modified the project.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said earlier this week that the state requested alterations without demonstrating that the project could be finished on time and achieve the goals of the original application.
She accused state government of fumbling the ball.
Rainwater told members of the Louisiana Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget on Friday that the Board of Regents' initial approach to the project would have pitted the public sector against the private sector by focusing too much on government involvement.
The Jindal administration redid the plan and aggressively submitted it, only to be told by the Commerce Department that timelines could not be met, Rainwater said.
Rainwater said he had more than 47 letters of support for the new approach to the project.
"You didn't have a backup plan," Thompson complained.
State Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, said the state failed to get the project right the first time and should try to appeal the loss of the grant. "This is about poor Louisianans that need access to Internet service," she said.
Thompson said it seems unfair for the federal government to pull the plug halfway through a three-year grant.
"We're the least of the least. We always get the dregs," Thompson said. "I don't think they can deny us."
Peterson also faulted the Jindal administration for opting against applying for a $60 million federal grant to aid early childhood education.
The money is essentially a third round of Race to the Top dollars in which states compete for federal aid.
"How do I work with someone that's not willing to go after the dollars that are available, free dollars?" Peterson asked.
Rainwater said the state does not always accept every possible dollar.