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John Bel Edwards

State-led program offers COVID-19 small biz help

Gov. John Bel Edwards today announced a new loan guarantee program offering loans of up to $100,000 to Louisiana small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. To be eligible, businesses must have fewer than 100 employees.

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JBE, Cantrell touring Convention Center field hospital Sunday; media briefing to follow

Gov. John Bel Edwards will join New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell Sunday in New Orleans for a walk-through of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center that will be used for recovering coronavirus patients who no longer need to be hospitalized. 

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Virus Update

JBE Friday update: 69 deaths in the state had either diabetes or obesity

The gist: COVID-19 numbers continue to rise around the state. Gov. John Bel Edwards said the state saw a 19% increase in cases since yesterday to a grand total of 2746 and 119 deaths. Though the numbers seem daunting, and they are, Edwards said, the state’s testing has improved, and as of now, Louisiana is one of the top five states for testing per capita.

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Virus Update

JBE Thursday update: strike team incoming

The gist: Once again, Gov. John Bel Edwards made an impassioned plea to the people of Louisiana, asking them to stay home and help #flattenthecurve. The current trajectory for the state hasn’t bent to promising numbers quite yet, with 510 more cases and 18 new deaths since yesterday. A 28% increase in case numbers.

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Virus Update

JBE Wednesday update: Trump signs declaration, resources on the way

The gist: Late last night, President Donald Trump approved the major disaster declaration requested by Gov. John Bel Edwards. With the declaration signed, Louisiana has greater access to funds and resources that we desperately need to combat COVID-19.

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Virus Update

JBE Monday update: Remember the 2016 Flood? COVID-19 is like that

The gist: Gov. John Bel Edwards and a team of state officials and health experts took viewer questions over the course of an hour on LPB. Sally-Ann Roberts hosted the event, providing a soothing voice while urging the state to keep #flatteningthecurve.

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Once more for those in the back: Mitigation was the talk of the evening. State officials compared Louisiana’s current situation to the 2016 floods. Sure, the area could sustain 20 inches of rain over the course of two months, but 20 inches of rain in three days? That’s the level of COVID-19 cases the state is staring down.

“No one knows how long this is going to last,” Edwards said. “Take all the information we’ve given you and use it.”

Treatments: Though testing has increased, officials say don’t look for a cure any time soon. For now, supportive care is what’s available, helping the lungs of those affected work through the muck, but there is no fully tested medication.

Cover that sneeze: A study out of Germany suggests that asymptomatic patients usually shed the virus sooner, LPB reported. The study also shows that the virus sheds itself very quickly for the first few days then tapers off after.

According to Dr. Alexander Billioux, the state’s assistant health secretary, officials should know within the next week whether the “Stay at Home” measures work.

Unemployment: The Louisiana Workforce Commission has seen a massive wave of unemployment claims — 71,000 people had filed claims as of Monday. Officials announced that the one-week waiting period would be waived for new claims.

“We’re going to get through this, we’re going to come back and we’re going to get through this together. Everyone should have hope,” Edwards reiterated. He also said the class of 2020, both high school and college, will see their celebrations happen in the future, though he wasn’t quite sure what those celebrations would look like.

LPB also announced a new broadcasting structure, adding a block from 12 p.m. – 5 p.m. that focuses on middle and high school social studies content. Younger kids can refer to PBS Kids’s award-winning lineup.

Key takeaways: Don’t be a spreader. Stay away from others. Exercise. Hike. Read a book. We’re in this for the long haul.

Virus Update

JBE Sunday update: ‘stay at home’ ordered

The gist: In an emergency press conference called today, John Bel Edwards pulled the trigger on the awaited, “Stay at Home” order that several other states enacted. According to the order, which will begin at 5 p.m. on Monday, March 23, all non-essential businesses will close to the public.

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Virus Update

JBE Thursday update: we’re on Italy’s track

The gist: Gov. John Bel Edwards took a sobering look at Louisiana’s worst-case scenario for infections versus hospital beds and found that Louisiana could see an Italy sized problem in as little as 7-10 days.

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Virus Update

JBE Wednesday update: surge is coming

The gist: In an unusual show of unity, Gov. John Bel Edwards was joined today by Attorney General Jeff Landry to deliver the somber message that the state has two weeks to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Another familiar face, LSU football coach Ed Orgeron, joined the elected officials for the daily press briefing on the virus quickly spreading in the state.

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What you need to know: Louisiana numbers likely to jump substantially. It’s going to get much worse before it gets better, the governor said. “Over the next 24-36 hours, in all likelihood, you’re going to see the number of cases in Louisiana jump tremendously because we’re going to get test results, probably over 1,000 test results,” he said.

Need unemployment? Edwards announced a waiving of the one-week wait for unemployment benefits. That doesn’t necessarily mean those out of work will get a call back right away, but it should help, he said. For small business owners, Edwards has put in a request for assistance from the Small Business Association for disaster loans.

Also, Edwards has suspended all eviction and foreclosure proceedings, but people should still continue to make their rent or mortgage payments.

Health and home: Coach O called out those who still feel the need to go out into the world with a resounding, “Stay home.” Edwards cautioned against stocking up for an apocalypse and mentioned a week of supplies is fine. Buckling down for the next two weeks remains absolutely crucial. Landry expressed support for the governor’s measures to limit gatherings to 50 people, close bars and limit restaurant service. The message from all three: Don’t be a spreader.

Testing access still limited: The governor said the state is “ramping up” its testing capacity, noting drive-thru screening locations in Orleans and Jefferson parishes are expected by the end of the week. Approximately 400 National guard soldiers have been activated, and they will like be working at one of the drive-thru testing sites. The drive-thru service that shut down after less than hour yesterday in Baton Rouge after running out of supplies is back in business.

Rapid expansion: Edwards said the state has opened negotiations with the VA to make use of the three hospitals within the state. Both new bed space and new bed count will come online within the next two to three weeks. The state also looks to identify rural hospitals that need renovations to handle increased numbers and assist them with bringing those much-needed medical facilities up to code as quickly as possible.

A little good news: The LA Wallet app, a digital driver’s license that functions as a valid ID, is currently free in the app store. The app is typically $5.

Watershed initiative isn’t just about the money, state officials say

The gist: While the Louisiana Watershed Initiative’s $1.2 billion federal grant may be attracting the most attention, reps with the program say its real aim is changing how Louisiana lives with water. Program lead Pat Forbes says the initiative is prepared to earn buy-in from a beleaguered public who want dirt moved immediately. 

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Get caught up, quickly: The Louisiana Watershed Initiative is a statewide program, commissioned by Gov. John Bel Edwards, to redefine how Louisiana manages flood risk. Dividing the state into eight regions mapped along the state’s major watersheds, the initiative was launched to lift flood management decision-making above politics. A major catalyst for the program is a $1.2 billion grant authorized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development intended to fund transformative projects and programs that make Louisiana less prone to stormwater disaster. Lafayette Parish and the Teche-Vermilion Watershed are part of Region 5, a zone made up of 16 parishes and dozens of municipalities.  

“$1.2 billion is not a tenth as much as we need to address flood risk in the state, which is why we’re using it to leverage a new approach,” Forbes tells The Current. Forbes is the executive director of the Office of Community Development, the state agency responsible for the HUD grant. 

Local officials want projects funded fast. And it doesn’t look like the program is designed for speed. In many cases, projects may not be funded for several years, moving further and further away from the catastrophic flooding in March and August of 2016 that spurred the initiative. At a hearing in September, parish and municipal representatives from Region 5 peppered LWI about releasing funding for projects in their communities, frustrated with the initiative’s long time table and emphasis on further study. 

“Their concerns, their fears are very well founded in the sense that until you can feel and see and touch a thing it shouldn’t really give you a great deal of comfort,” Forbes says of the initiative’s deliberative rollout. The program has stalled while waiting for federal rules to be issued on how the HUD grant will work. That guidance was delivered in August. 

A draft plan for how to spend the money was released earlier this month. The document lays out basic guidelines for how the LWI will work within the funding rules attached to the HUD grant, which was authorized by Congress in 2018 but won’t be released until next year. Major themes in the plan emphasize developing science and engineering first and building regional governing structures within watersheds to promote projects and even-out land use planning practices. The Department of Transportation and Development is in charge of contracting firms to build watershed models that can test project concepts and determine impacts up and downstream. Roughly 10% of the HUD grant will go to modeling, which is projected to be completed in the next two years. 

Critics have raised concerns that the money will pass small towns by. Sea level rise related to climate change and coastal erosion are identified as the most probable threat to the state in the action plan, and that hazard affects coastal parishes the most. The draft action plan points out that 39% of Louisiana’s population lives in that zone, raising the possibility those areas would see the most benefit from the initiative’s spending.

“Our process is to get funds out there to reduce risk,” Forbes says. “We won’t accomplish that if we let the money and resources go to those most populated areas.” 

There’s a natural tension between the new approach and how things have historically been done. Forbes says state disaster funding has typically been allocated piece-meal, addressing specific needs as they arise. Moving away from project-specific funding is designed to make the process less political and encourage collaboration. But that approach could cause friction. 

“This a break from the way we used to [allocate funding],” Forbes says.  “So consequently it’s completely understandable that people at the local level, who are facing a brand new paradigm, are somewhat disconcerted over the process. I’m not concerned we won’t ultimately get folks into the fold.” 

What’s next? Two immediate funding opportunities will be available in the next few months. First, the state will distribute $400,000 to each region to build staffing and capacity for project and policy development, money that will likely go to regional planning agencies like the Acadiana Planning Commission. Next, LWI will issue the first $100 million tranche out of the HUD grant for “no regrets” projects. Each region will see $5 million out of that pot, with the remaining $60 million distributed competitively. Forbes says LWI will outline the criteria in a grant notice later this year.

State releases draft plan for spending $1.2 billion watershed grant

The gist: The multi-agency program created by the governor’s office in the wake of the 2016 floods has released a draft action plan outlining, in broad terms, how the state will spend a $1.2 billion grant from the federal government. A 45-day public comment period begins next week.

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Get caught up, quickly: The Louisiana Watershed Initiative is a statewide program, commissioned by Gov. John Bel Edwards, to rewrite how Louisiana manages flood risk. Dividing the state into eight regions mapped along the state’s major watersheds, the initiative was launched to lift flood management decision-making above politics. A major catalyst for the program is a $1.2 billion grant authorized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development intended to fund transformative projects and programs that make Louisiana less prone to stormwater disaster. Lafayette Parish and the Teche-Vermilion Watershed are part of Region 5, a zone made up of 16 parishes and dozens of municipalities. 

The plan doesn’t include specific projects. Rather, it develops guidelines by which projects will be selected and proposes a general distribution of the HUD grant. Here’s how the money breaks down: 

  • Local and Regional Projects and Programs – $571 million 
  • State Projects and Programs – $328 million 
  • Non-Federal Cost Share Assistance – $97 million 
  • Watershed Monitoring, Mapping and Modeling – $146 million 
  • Administrative Costs – $49 million  
  • Watershed Policy, Planning and Local Capacity Assistance – $24 million 

Half the money will be spent in 10 parishes most impacted by the 2016 floods. Three Acadiana parishes are included — Lafayette, Vermilion and Acadia. That segment is spread across the full program budget allocations listed above, meaning not all of that money is earmarked for moving dirt. The action plan identifies 46 other parishes not designated by HUD as areas of increased risk, based on disaster declarations made in those areas during the 2016 floods, both in March, which affected northwest Louisiana, and August. 

There is some concern the program is stacked in favor of large cities. Pam Granger, the consulting engineer for the city of Youngsville, says without enough money to design and study projects that can be competitive, small towns won’t be able to take advantage of it, even in those hard-hit parishes. The plan notes high disaster risk affecting larger populations in coastal parishes, which she says suggests the initiative will likely emphasize projects there. 

“I think it’s going to shift money east. East of the Atchafalaya is going to see the most benefit of this plan,” Granger says.

LWI officials insist this is a starting point plan. Pat Forbes, executive director of the state Office of Community Development and the LWI lead, has stressed the state’s intention to build LWI’s work on local input. Even the eight watershed boundaries set up to organize the initiative’s work are flexible, he told New Orleans CityBusiness this week.

What to watch for: How the plan shapes up from here. State officials say they want to have the draft plan submitted to HUD for review by November, well ahead of the February deadline, to get things moving. That leaves relatively little time for substantive changes to be made. Once approved by HUD, the plan becomes the program’s scaffolding and will set the direction of travel for how funds hit the street.

Millions in state dollars likely headed for Moncus Park, Lafayette airport, I-49 South and more

The gist: In an election year breakthrough, nearly 20 Lafayette Parish projects have survived into the final days of the state legislative session. Pending a signature from the governor, the area is set to pull more than $40 million in priority funding for some long-suffering projects, as well as $150 million in transportation dollars for I-49 South.

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“It’s a small victory, but it’s not the end of the process,” state Rep. Jean-Paul Coussan tells me. Coussan credits an areawide push to sell Acadiana projects to key figures like Gov. John Bel Edwards and state Sen. JP Morrell, the chair of the Senate’s Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee. Both Morrell and Edwards visited priority projects — Moncus Park and the airport, respectively — in the last year. Big budget capacity greased the skids as the political stars aligned.

Making it rain across South Louisiana. Here’s a list of some of the Priority 1 and 2 dollars (more on that in a minute) earmarked for Acadiana in HB2, the state’s infrastructure budget bill.

  • Lafayette Airport – $10 million (P1)
  • Moncus Park – $2 million (P2)
  • Lafayette Parish Courthouse – $3 million (P1)
  • Opportunity Machine Renovation – $5.6 million (P2)
  • Lafayette Metropolitan Expressway – $4 million (P2)
  • Apollo Road Extension – $5.5 million (P2)
  • University Avenue Corridor – $3 million (P2)
  • Holy Rosary Institute – $500,000 (P2)

Top priority dollars aren’t the entire outlay. HB2 includes more projects than the state can actually fund. Priority 1 dollars are typically paid outright. Priority 2 is for new projects paid by bonds. Other dollars are parked in Priority 5, which is essentially a queue for future allocations.

I-49 South got $150 million in BP oil spill money in a bonanza of riders to a transportation bill that ballooned the item to $700 million in total allocations, statewide. The I-49 money is cash for “shovel-ready” components of the project, not the Lafayette Connector, which alone is expected to cost half a billion dollars or more and will likely need federal funding to move forward.

This marks something of a breakthrough for the Acadiana delegation. Legislators have grumbled for several years that the region has been left out in the cold on state allocations. Some of the items in HB2 are outlays previously killed by Edwards, like funding for Moncus Park and Apollo Road. Insiders say the starve-out was a direct result of clashes between Acadiana’s largely Republican delegation and a Democratic governor.

You gotta commend the legislative delegation,” LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux tells me of the haul. “It’s impressive.”  

What to watch for: Whether HB2 makes it to the end of session unchanged. And then, whether Edwards vetoes any of the projects, as he has in the past. Edwards has a lot of incentive to pass these projects through in an election year. Meanwhile, last year’s sales tax compromise gives the governor little reason to be punitive, some state political insiders tell me. There’s optimism that much of the outlay will make it.