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Not Easy Bein' Queen

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For months, Gov. Kathleen Blanco has been criticized for not moving quickly enough to develop a post-hurricane housing plan. Now that she and the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) have devised a plan, it's coming under fire from some lawmakers -- especially Republicans.

Blanco's plan, called The Road Home, is admittedly a work in progress. For starters, it acknowledges that Congress has appropriated only some of the billions needed to fully implement the housing plan. The rest is pending in President Bush's supplemental budget request.

"Full funding levels will take effect following appropriation of the additional, required dollars," says an LRA summary of the plan (www.lra.louisiana.gov). "If federal agencies require changes to the state's plans or Congress does not provide additional, sufficient funding, Louisiana will be required to modify these proposed plans."

In other words, there's no telling how much money will ultimately be available for this plan -- or how the plan might change if all the anticipated funds don't materialize.

Still, it would help Louisiana's cause if a plan were sent to Washington with a specific request for funding. The biggest chunk of The Road Home plan (more than $3.55 billion now, total $6.35 billion) aims to provide homeowner assistance in the form of grants up to $150,000 each -- minus insurance and FEMA payments. The plan notes, however, that if sufficient funds are not allocated by Congress, the maximum grant may be less than $150,000.

Moreover, because only part of the funds have been allocated by Congress, the first phase of the plan will be targeted to lower-income households. That aspect of the proposal drew fire from the Republicans.

The GOP Caucus fired off a letter to Blanco raising 31 pointed questions last week, several days after the 10-day official comment period on the plan closed. Considering the complexity of the plan -- not to mention the housing issues it seeks to address -- 10 days was not a lot of time to let the public speak out. And that was just one of the GOP's gripes.

"Many of our members have serious reservations and lingering questions as it relates to the specifics of the plan," caucus chairs Sen. Tom Schedler and Rep. Jim Tucker wrote to Blanco.

The Republicans' concerns fall into three categories --

• "programmatic" questions about how the program will apply to various segments of the home-owning population,

• "process" questions about how the plan came about and why certain aspects of it appear as they do, and

• "big picture" questions about how the plan fits into the overall scheme of recovery programs and issues.

Twenty of the GOP's questions fall under the "programmatic" category, which is no surprise. Republicans are typically wary of new programs that offer sweeping language and little detail. LRA executive director Andy Kopplin has promised to provide more details. Meanwhile, the LRA meets this week to adopt a version of the plan and formally send it to the Legislature for approval. If lawmakers approve it, the plan will go to Washington for federal review and funding. If legislators reject the plan, it goes back to the LRA for revision.

In their letter to Blanco, the Republicans wasted no time getting to the heart of their concerns about one portion of the plan that they do understand -- the fact that it favors lower-income households and excludes middle-class and well-heeled families. The letter's first question notes that the plan "indicates that significant funding and priority treatment will be allotted to households earning 70 percent of area median income" -- roughly $31,000 -- and then goes on to ask, "What is the expected amount of assistance to be allocated for households with earnings greater than 70 percent AMI?"

The GOP letter goes on to ask if, in light of the limited funds available thus far, grants will be awarded "on a first-come, first-serve basis or on some other merit scale yet to be developed or disclosed."

And on it goes.

Among the key sticking points is the gripe that insurance and FEMA payments must be deducted from Road Home grants. Kopplin says federal law requires that provision.

The decision to give lower-income families priority could be more than just Blanco playing to her Democratic constituency. By leaving out middle-class homeowners for now, she could be trying to put pressure on the Republican Congress to approve the rest of the funds -- to take care of their own core constituents.

That's a tricky hand to play. In recent legislative sessions, Blanco has had to accede to GOP demands on certain fiscal matters. This time around, the Queen Bee seems to be trying to take care of her hive. But it won't be easy.

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