New Testing Site

A member of the Louisiana National Guard works at a COVID-19 testing site in Livingston Parish.

(The Center Square) – State government has an extra $7.4 million in federal COVID-19 relief dollars to spend, though it won’t be nearly enough to satisfy everyone who says they need help, officials said Friday.

With the federal CARES Act, Congress sent Louisiana $1.8 billion to defray pandemic-related costs. Initially, $811 million was allocated for local governments while state government would use the rest. Legislators carved out from the local portion $50 million for one-time payments to frontline essential workers and $275 million for a small-business grant program.

State officials must spend the money by Dec. 30 on eligible expenses or else send it back to the federal government. After covering its own expenses, state government has an additional $5 million left over, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne told the Legislature’s joint House of Representatives and Senate budget committee.

The frontline worker program won’t be able to spend $2.4 million of its allocation, Department of Revenue Secretary Kimberly Robinson said, leaving a total of $7.4 million for state legislators to divvy up.

State Treasurer John Schroder said the business grant program will run out of money before it runs out of eligible applicants, suggesting he could pay out $60 million more if he had it to spend. Dardenne said parish governments have incurred $431 million in eligible expenses that the local program won’t be able to meet.

Sen. Bodi White noted that several House members would like to provide targeted relief to bar owners who were unable to get grants through the small-business program. Gov. John Bel Edwards has imposed closures and strict occupancy limits on barrooms as part of the effort to control the spread of the new coronavirus.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt said she did not think the local relief dollars were distributed fairly because some parishes got a much larger percentage of their requests met than others. Dardenne said the formula used to distribute the funds has remained consistent.

“There’s a lot of need and not enough money to go around,” Hewitt said. Dardenne agreed.

In other discussions Friday, Robert Wooley with the Louisiana Workforce Commission said the state as of Thursday had borrowed almost $133 million from the federal government to pay legally required unemployment benefits. He said the $85 million the Legislature appropriated during the recent special session for the unemployment trust fund should be available by Friday afternoon, so the LWC should be able to stop borrowing, at least for a while.

Wooley said the LWC has seen a drop in state claims as people reach their limit of state benefits and roll onto a federal pandemic relief program. That federal program will expire Dec. 26 unless Congress extends it.

“At that point, there will be some serious issues,” he said.

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