U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and Gov. John Bel Edwards got into a spat Thursday over Kennedy's proposal to use up to $175 million in unclaimed property dollars to help finance the long-delayed Comite River Diversion Canal.
Kennedy, in an appearance before a state task force studying the issue, said his idea is a viable option and one that could aid the project without hindering efforts by taxpayers to recover their money.
"We're not taking away anyone's unclaimed property," the Republican said in a statement that accompanied his appearance. "Your lost money will be there whether you wait two years or 20 years to claim it.
"We would simply leverage this asset in order to help pay for projects across the state, including the Comite River Diversion Canal," Kennedy said. "Enough Louisiana families have lost their homes because the diversion canal project has been buried in mothballs and bureaucracy for decades."
U.S. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La) has proposed a new funding plan to build the long-delayed Comite River Diversion Canal.
Edwards, in a statement issued during the hearing, said Kennedy's plan is unrealistic. "This is other people's money; even Sen. Kennedy has repeatedly acknowledged that," he said.
The governor said a stalled bill in the U.S. Senate would provide critical money for the canal, and that Kennedy should be doing more to help get that measure through the Washington, D.C. legislative process.
"As the only member of the Louisiana congressional delegation who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, he should focus his full attention on the legislation before him to get this federal project moving," Edwards said.
The canal would be a 12-mile structure and siphon water from the Comite River, sending it to the Mississippi River.
The Comite is a tributary of the Amite River. In August 2016, after Louisiana received 20 inches of rain over a couple of days, the Amite River crested about 17 feet above flood stage at Denham Springs and poured water into about a third of the homes in Ascension Parish. The Comite overflowed and flooded homes in north East Baton Rouge Parish.
Efforts to build the canal have gone on since the 1990s.
Federal funding for the Comite River Diversion Canal is so erratic that state officials may want to consider heavily revising or even scrappin…
Kennedy made his comments to the Comite River Diversion Canal Project Task Force that was meeting at the State Capitol. His appearance was unusual because sitting U. S. senators rarely appear before state legislative panels of any kind.
Kennedy has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor in 2019, when Democrat Edwards is seeking his second term.
The Comite dispute is the latest in a series of public disagreements between two of the state's top politicians over the state budget, Medicaid and other topics.
Kennedy said in an interview that the governor dismissed his proposal because he is the one who offered it.
The senator said his targeted unclaimed property vault includes stocks and mutual funds.
New frustrations surfaced Monday over the latest bid to breathe life into building the decades-old Comite River Diversion Canal.
Cashing out stocks, as some states routinely do, also makes sense because the nation's nine-year bull market has to end soon, he said.
Kennedy said he has discussed his proposal with State Treasurer John Schroder, also a Republican, and House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia.
The senator said the decision is up to Schroder and that the money could be used for the canal through the state appropriations process, without special legislation.
Schroder was unavailable for comment Thursday.
Kennedy was elected State Treasurer five times before he won election to the U.S. Senate in 2016.
In his statement, the governor said the federal legislation that could provide relief is a disaster supplemental bill stalled in the U.S. Senate since Dec. 21, 2017.
He said it includes dollars for infrastructure across the state and would provide critical funding for the canal.
"If the $600 million in anticipated funds available in the disaster supplemental passes the Senate, I have already announced that this will provide the necessary funding for the Comite River Diversion Canal," Edwards said.
The governor added, "This proposal is not a new concept for Sen. Kennedy. Year after year, he has proposed using unclaimed property to fund various state projects, while also promising to return the money to its rightful owner."
Kennedy said unclaimed property dollars he is targeting are separate from a $750 million account that pays claims from forgotten bank accounts, utility and apartment deposits and tax refunds.
He said state treasury officials hold back some of that money for current claims "and the Legislature and the governor appropriate the rest."
Kennedy said taxpayers typically claim $25 million to $30 million per year and the fund is quickly built back up with dollars moved into state coffers from new unclaimed accounts.
"I am not telling anybody how to use the money," he told reporters. "I am just saying I think the diversion canal is a top priority and if they wanted to use it on this, they could."
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, said Kennedy's proposal and other funding avenues are worth considering.
"Anybody who is going to bring new ideas, energy, to the table, love to have dinner with them," Graves said in a telephone interview Thursday.
State Rep. Valerie Hodges, R-Denham Springs and chairwoman of the task force, said backers are nearing the roughly $200 million needed to do the work.
Hodges said $128 million has been tallied from state capital outlay funds, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston parishes for the canal. Her home flooded in August 2016.
State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, vice-chairman of the task force, repeatedly grilled state and federal officials on how long it would take to finish the canal if the money is in hand.
"I have been dealing with this for 15 years," White told corps officials.
"I am not going to be polite if you say four or five years finishing," he said. "There is no reason if we have $200 million sitting in our lap."
The canal is a project of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and critics have long said foot-dragging by the corps is the key stumbling block.
Federal officials contend that lack of money is the chief obstacle.