U.S. Sen. John Kennedy

U.S. Sen. John N. Kennedy questions HUD Secretary nominee Ben Carson during a confirmation hearing on Thursday, Jan. 12. (Screengrab via C-SPAN)

At his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, Dr. Ben Carson, the soon-to-be head of the federal agency that will provide the most money for repairing flood-damaged homes, got an earful on foot-dragging and Louisiana politics.

Quoting “off-the-record” comments, newbie Republican U.S. Sen. John N. Kennedy told Carson that unnamed federal officials blamed the state’s Democratic administration for not getting nearly $1.7 billion into the hands of everyday Louisiana residents wanting to repair their disaster-damaged homes without enough resources to do so. Carson is President-elect Donald Trump’s choice as secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development.

While true that many Louisiana homeowners are frustrated, Carson also received a dose of local politics by one of several Republicans who see Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards as a blue anomaly in a red state.

For weeks, Edwards has answered those criticisms by blaming federal hurdles for the slowness of the cash’s arrival. He did so again on Wednesday in a Baton Rouge interview.

“We’re not unnecessarily delaying anything, but there are certain things you have to do,” Edwards said, adding that he is ahead of HUD’s timeline for securing the federal recovery dollars.

Louisiana received approval for $437.8 million in September — money that will become available for spending in April or May — and another $1.2 billion in December, with spending rules to be published in the Federal Register, as is required, probably next week.

States have to prepare a plan following federal guidelines, vet those ideas with the public, and then submit a proposal for approval by HUD. That process takes time.

Carson told the Senate Banking, Housing & Urban Development Committee that he had been hearing similar reports from state and local officials around the country.

“They appreciate the grant money, but they have to jump through too many hoops and there is too much red tape,” said Carson, adding that improved technology should make things easier.

Trouble viewing video below? Click here.

 

Federal help for ordinary disaster victims is a relatively new phenomenon. From almost the beginning of the nation, federal help was seen as a power grab from local authorities and churches. It wasn’t until 1974 that the federal government formalized what had been a hodgepodge of efforts to help disaster victims.

Every disaster since has been followed by angry accusations that some of the taxpayers’ dollars were wasted on the undeserving and stolen by the unscrupulous. New laws, rules and regulations, then, have been imposed by Congress.

Louisiana is not alone in trying to find the center of the maze. Other states in 2016 also were distressed by disaster.

North Carolina, for instance, was flooded by two tropical storms, whacked by a hurricane that killed 28, and ended the year fighting an outbreak of wildfires that burned the equivalent of the area between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

The General Assembly in the Tar Heel state has more options than Louisiana does, however, to cover gaps while waiting for the federal dollars to arrive. North Carolina simply dipped into its $1.6 billion in savings reserves to “supplement existing federal disaster relief programs and … help address unmet needs not covered under these existing federal programs,” according to a University of North Carolina briefing paper. Much of the $200 million North Carolina legislators appropriated last month was directed toward providing short-term housing for victims without flood insurance, grants for rental assistance, construction of new rental units and repairs to damaged homes.

Louisiana’s handled disaster expenses basically with an order by Edwards for state agencies to spend what was necessary.

“It winds up being an unbudgeted expense that the agencies must make during the throes of the crisis,” said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s top fiscal adviser and architect of the state budget.

And that seemed to work OK, he added.

Eventually, the federal government will reimburse the state for all but about $50 million, probably less, Dardenne said. “Given our financial crisis this go-round, I’m not sure how we’re going to deal with that.”

Still, Dardenne insisted that Louisiana’s system of laws and procedures, which allow the governor and the Legislature to take the actions necessary in a time of crisis, works well enough that putting money aside specifically for a disaster would be unwise.

Edwards seems to agree. One of the structural problems for the state’s fiscal health — a reason why it seems state government needs to rebalance the budget every few months to match spending with available dollars — is because so much money is tied up in trust funds and escrow accounts.

Though, he allowed, it would be nice to have more money in the till.

“Would I love to have more money here in Louisiana? Absolutely, for all sorts of reasons not just to respond to disasters, so we can absorb some of these budget problems that we have,” Edwards said.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.