BUDGET COMMITTEE TAKES ON KEY ROLE
In the first meeting since the catastrophes of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the members of the Louisiana Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget began the hard work of not only tackling the tremendous budget problems facing the state, but also examining and approving the first of many requests from state agencies and local governments to spend disaster funds. The committee also granted limited budget authority to state agencies to receive anticipated federal disaster relief dollars at the September 30th meeting.
"You might say the joint budget committee has the final word," District 7 State Senator Francis Heitmeier (D-Algiers), chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, said. "When the legislature is not in session, no state agency can legally spend money that has not been appropriated in the legislatively approved budget bill without the eventual approval of the joint budget committee."
The joint budget committee is working with the Division of Administration to ensure accountability in the tracking of all disaster funds flowing into the state. The committee is also working closely with the Legislative Auditorís Office to make sure that both local governments and state agencies utilize all funds in accordance with FEMA guidelines. This accountability is critical since the state must pay back any disaster money not used in accordance with the rules.
Serving as the final checkpoint, the joint budget committee received a series of certification letters regarding disaster funding already approved by the federal government and spent under an emergency declaration and a list of requests from state agencies for the funds.
The five certification letters for federal funding total $807,025,000 and basically represent what Louisiana has released to local and state entities for hurricane related operations as of September 29, 2005. Included in the certification letters are:
Budget authority totaling $109.25 million ($41.7 million contained in certification letter) was granted to the Department of Labor for disaster unemployment benefits, related operational costs associated with the benefits program and a program to provide some 10,000 temporary jobs to displaced workers.
The joint budget committee increased the budget authority for the Department of Military Affairs by $2 billion. The increase incorporates the $764 million in federal funds released and contained in the certification letters and provides budget authority beyond these expenses to cover additional Hurricane Katrina expenses and Hurricane Rita expenses. The departments of social services, health and hospitals, agriculture, wildlife and fisheries and insurance received budget authority for smaller amounts to cover storm costs relating to everything from public health needs to clothing and supplies for first responders.
"This is just the beginning of the process. We have a great deal of work to do, not only ensuring that we are properly tracking the federal disaster funds headed to Louisiana, but also developing a plan to address our state and local government budget problems and rebuilding our economy," Sen. Heitmeier said. "We are seeking guidance from across the nation from those who have dealt with major disasters. Officials in New York, California and Florida have been very helpful and we will continue to reach out to determine the best practices."
Of primary importance to the stateís immediate recovery plan is to get an answer from the federal government on the stateís request for changes in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. Without a change, the stateís recovery process will become even more difficult. State legislative leaders have asked the president to allow federal aid to help replace lost state and local government income and to exempt Louisiana from the federal disaster aid match requirement for at least three years. Next on the agenda is to bring all elected officials and department secretaries before the committee to get an update on their budget status.