Voting yes - but reluctantly
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., complained late Wednesday about the legislation axing more than $650 million in federal funds for health-care services for Louisiana’s poor.
The next day she expressed frustration that the very same bill would increase flood insurance rates too much for Louisiana residents and potentially also prevent many coastal residents from rebuilding their homes.
But she and the rest of the Louisiana congressional delegation voted Friday for the legislation as Congress sent the bill to President Barack Obama for his anticipated signature.
Well, the massive omnibus legislation is actually the federal transportation bill that includes a lot of things the delegation considers very positive for Louisiana.
- The RESTORE Act provisions originally sponsored by Landrieu that guarantee 80 percent of the fines collected from the April 2010 BP oil leak — an amount that could reach $20 billion — would be distributed for coastal restoration to the five states along the Gulf: Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas and Alabama.
- Part of tshe RAMP Act by U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, which directs more federal funds to river dredging and port projects in Louisiana and the rest of the nation.
- The legislation that maintains the current interest rate on federal Stafford loans for college students. The interest rates on federal Stafford loans were lowered from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent five years ago and were set to go back up to 6.8 percent next week without any congressional action. Extending the lower Stafford loan rate would save $79 million for 83,243 Louisiana residents expected to take out the loans, according to White House figures. That makes for an average savings of $949 per student.
Of course, because it’s a more than $20 billion transportation bill, Louisiana also will receive some funds for roads, bridges and other construction projects.
The gist is the highways bill includes a lot of positives for Louisiana that have been in the works for a long time, but also some late additions that hurt the state, particularly Louisiana’s most vulnerable.
“So many things are changing at the last minute,” Landrieu said.
“Unfortunately, I’m not going to get a chance to vote no,” she said.
Essentially, she was saying the pros outweigh the cons and she would somewhat begrudgingly vote for the overall bill.
What happened was that, as final negotiations were taking place behind closed doors with the bicameral transportation conference committee, House leadership took a look at Louisiana’s Medicaid funds.
The Louisiana-specific potential health-care cut is part of a long-running battle over the size of the federal government’s matching share of Medicaid dollars, called Federal Medical Assistance Percentages or FMAP, to Louisiana. Landrieu had previously secured more federal Medicaid dollars for the state through Obama’s health-care law.
Landrieu and state officials had successfully argued that the state’s per capita income levels over a three-year period — a chief determiner of the award — were artificially high, because of dollars paid out for rebuilding as part of Hurricane Katrina recovery. That lowered FMAP awards, requiring state government to pay more of the Medicaid costs.
But the extra Medicaid funds won last year for Louisiana were unexpectedly further boosted because of a math issue from the inclusion of the 2008 Hurricane Gustav disaster impact. Congressional critics called it Landrieu’s “Louisiana Purchase,” and now those same critics have taken a bite back out of those funds that state government was counting on for health-care services for the state’s poor and for LSU and rural hospitals.
Virtually at the same time, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who was the only Louisiana member on the transportation conference committee, successfully and quietly had his National Flood Insurance Program revamp and reauthorization into the total bill.
Vitter was able to do so and skip U.S. Senate floor debate and Landrieu’s amendments on the bill.
While Landrieu backed most of the NFIP bill, she wanted to create a funding pool to help poorer homeowners ease their way into flood insurance premium increases — some increases as high as about 20 percent — and also to help people rebuild to higher elevations in more susceptible, so-called high velocity zones, or V-zones, areas.
But, in the end, history will ignore the nuances and simply record the votes of Landrieu and the rest of the Louisiana delegate as “Yea.”
Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.