New Orleans Mayor defends reopening process decisions while requesting additional COVID aid
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell came to the Louisiana Capitol on Tuesday to ask for money to help the city’s coronavirus -damaged budget, but Republican lawmakers questioned her economic reopening decisions rather than offering her promises of aid.
The Democratic mayor told the House Appropriations Committee the city faces a $150 million budget gap, representing about 20% of its general tax and fee collections. City employees are being furloughed to save money, but that’s not nearly enough to close the shortfall.
Cantrell was seeking a greater share of federal coronavirus aid from lawmakers than New Orleans has received so far through a program run by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration.
“The pandemic has decimated local governments across Louisiana,” she said. “There are resources that we need to be made whole so we can provide basic city services.”
She said the city, the earliest epicenter of Louisiana’s COVID-19 outbreak, has allocated dollars to protective equipment and other expenses because of the pandemic. In addition, she said the city economy — which is heavily dependent on tourism and the hospitality industry — has been damaged by the steep drop in visitors, depressing tax collections.
“We are hurting desperately,” Cantrell said.
Republicans peppered Cantrell with questions about why she continues locally tougher restrictions on businesses and activities than what Edwards has allowed statewide. GOP lawmakers also have criticized the governor’s rules as too harsh.
Rep. John Illg, a Republican in neighboring Jefferson Parish, said the city’s limits on crowd sizes at high school sports events were too strict. Rep. Troy Romero, a Jennings Republican, questioned if Cantrell was “putting fear” into potential visitors with restrictions on bars and restaurants. And Republican Rep. Raymond Crews of Bossier City suggested Cantrell’s rules were too harsh for the city, which has seen some of the state’s lowest virus transmission levels in recent months.
“Your ask is pretty big,” Crews said. “A lot of people are going to ask, ‘Why did they wait so long to open up?’”
In response to Cantrell’s description of city furloughs, Prairieville Republican Rep. Tony Bacala cited thousands who are unemployed because of the pandemic and blamed “restrictions we have placed on them.”
“I don’t think we should miss looking at that as well,” Bacala said.
Cantrell defended her decisions as helping to curb the further worsening of an outbreak that has killed at least 588 people in the city, out of at least 5,486 COVID-19 deaths statewide, according to Louisiana’s health department. She said her restrictions were aimed at ensuring there’s “no regression.”
“We’ll continue to ease restrictions as it relates to COVID-19 as we make progress,” Cantrell said.
She said her rules will loosen again this week, to allow people to drink onsite at bars with outdoor patios and seating. But she said tourists will return only when they feel safe.
Cantrell was hoping that lawmakers, meeting in a special session, would intervene to help fill some of the city’s budget gap. But Tuesday’s hearing didn’t offer encouragement.
Louisiana received $1.8 billion in direct federal coronavirus aid from Congress. The governor and lawmakers steered most of that money to the state budget to help close holes. Lawmakers also earmarked portions to one-time payments to front-line workers and to small business grants.
The remaining $525 million went to a program to reimburse local government agencies for their COVID-19 expenses, hundreds of millions of dollars below what Edwards wanted. Less than $60 million of that has been allocated for New Orleans so far under the Edwards administration formula, which factors in population and the rate of virus infections.
Cantrell said she hopes New Orleans will receive more money from the local government program. But she added: “I can’t run a city on hope.”
Republican lawmakers said with municipalities across Louisiana struggling, it would be difficult to steer more dollars to New Orleans at the expense of other local governments.