Speaker of the House Rep. Jim Tucker (R-Algiers) has hinted for months that he’d like to have more eyes on the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency budget, with its hundreds of millions of dollars in bond money and federal tax credits – as well as millions more in federal grants with the Louisiana Recovery Authority.
Now Tucker is making it official. He filed House Bill 1414 to add two members, selected by the leaders of the House and Senate, to the agency’s board of commissioners and require a review of the agency’s budget by the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget. The bill wouldn’t stop at budgets though. It also subjects any operational or governing rules passed by the agency’s board to review by the Joint Legislative Committee as well.
In an interview, Tucker made no bones about what he wanted to do.
“As money has grown tighter, we have been going through different agencies and looking more closely at them, and we understand that with LHFA, we don’t have purview over them, but we believe that we should,” Tucker said. “The point is to have greater oversight by watching the agency through these difficult financial times, and having a direct link from them back to the legislature.”
Such oversight exists now, though. The housing agency already submits budget resolutions and minutes to the joint committee as required under the Louisiana Housing Finance Act.
Tucker’s intentions with the housing agency dovetails with two other bills he’s proposed that would bring other budgets under his review:
- House Bill 1173 demands that after July 1, no hurricane recovery contracts or amendments financed with federal Community Development Block Grant money over $50,000 be awarded without evaluation and approval by the joint legislative committee on the budget. Also, asks that any contract from the Louisiana Recovery Authority and state Office of Community Development — both of which handle federal hurricane recovery dollars – over $50,000 be approved by legislative committee budget.
- HB 1175 asks Office of Community Development to allocate any unspent federal recovery dollars to parish government authorities who may then use the money for a purpose other than what it was originally pegged for if the state gets federal approval.
The housing agency hasn’t been accused of mis-managing money. Its latest audit in June found no financial weaknesses or deficiencies. Instead, Tucker focused on one particular problem as the reason for his bill. “The Katrina Cottages debacle is something that drew the ire of many legislators, and it’s something we couldn’t do anything about since LHFA wasn’t under our oversight,” he said.
Tucker was referring to the state’s much balleyhooed and delayed Alternative Housing Pilot Program pushed aggressively by former Gov. Kathleen Blanco in the immediate months after the levee disasters. With a $75 million grant from FEMA to create over 500 small, affordable units for displaced families, the housing agency was initially given the responsibility to implement the “Katrina Cottage” program. However, a dispute between the agency and the governor over the no-bid awarding of the grant to a fledgling entity called Cypress Realty Partners, LLC, which at the time had no housing construction experience, led to a delays in starting the program. After two years of contract wrangling, the program was given to the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which took two years itself to get the program off the ground.
The first cottage was completed late last year.
Tucker acknowledged that the program had been in the recovery authority’s hands for the past two-and-a-half years. He also said the recovery authority blamed the failure of the cottage program on the housing agency, and “indirectly suggested” that it be more closely examined.
“They never said to me, ‘We think the House should look at the LHFA,'” Tucker said, “but by saying, ‘It’s not us [who delayed Katrina Cottages] it’s LHFA,’ it drew our attention to them and made us look a lot closer at it.”