This op-ed by Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) first appeared in The Advocate on Feb. 1, 2021.
Our state sees more than its fair share of natural disasters.
After Hurricane Katrina broke our levees and stole the lives of more than 1,500 Louisianans, everyone recognized we needed better levees to defend southeast Louisiana against future storms.
With few options, Louisiana agreed to let the Army Corps of Engineers build a flood protection system for the New Orleans region, one that meets the standards for national flood insurance.
Our state took a loan from the federal government to pay for it. Knowing that, I bet you can guess how this ended.
The loan agreement turned out to be a pretty sweet deal for the federal government and a raw deal for Louisiana. Project delays slowed completion by a decade and caused the interest on the debt to balloon. Louisiana then found itself holding an enormous $3 billion tab for the New Orleans levee system.
This crushing debt ultimately falls on the shoulders of state taxpayers, so Louisiana’s congressional delegation has been trying for years to shrink the burden.
And for years, we had more hope than luck.
But that has finally changed.
The Water Resources Development Act of 2020 (WRDA, for short) tells the Corps of Engineers what projects to build and manage. Although the House’s WRDA bill initially allowed the Corps to renegotiate the loan agreement with Louisiana, it did not require the Corps to reduce that debt. I was skeptical the Corps would give up $1.3 billion unless Congress cemented the deal in law.
As the only member of the Louisiana delegation sitting on an appropriations committee in either House or Senate, I went to my colleagues and made sure the WRDA included a provision that forgives the interest on the debt Louisiana owes the federal government.
The provision wipes clean $1.3 billion of the total $3 billion loan debt as long as Louisiana pays off the loan principal by 2023. It would mean $1.3 billion in taxpayer money that state government can use on roads, schools, and other priorities.
Satisfied that forgiving Louisiana’s interest debt for the levee system was a win-win situation, senators passed the bill. President Donald Trump signed 2020’s WRDA this December, eliminating $1.3 billion in Louisiana’s interest debt to the federal government if the state pays off the principal by 2023. With that deal as the law of the land, a tremendous savings has come to Louisiana taxpayers.
So, what does that mean for us here at home? Our state is now free to invest the savings in levee repairs and upgrades and in conservation and other flood-prevention efforts. This is a huge savings for Louisiana taxpayers, who would have spent years digging deep into their own pockets to foot the massive price tag.
Louisianians are used to weathering hurricanes, storms, and floods, but that doesn’t mean we have to saddle ourselves with outrageous debt to protect our communities. We not only saved money the smart way, we’re starting the new year with something money can’t buy: peace of mind.