Flood Control Project Construction, New Orleans, By Peter A. Ravella, CNT

Louisiana seeking ways to lessen $3B flood-protection debt

BATON ROUGE, LA. -- Louisiana welcomed federal flood-protection money in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in a deal that didn't require the state to begin repaying its share for a decade. But now that bill is coming due, and it has ballooned to a dismaying $3 billion because of accumulated interest.

The looming payments have Louisiana officials worried the debt will steer money away from other risk-reduction projects in a vulnerable state worried about the next killer storm. And the debt threatens to create new budget woes in a state where the governor and lawmakers reached a hard-fought tax deal that just returned Louisiana to budget stability.

"Those numbers are just unbelievable to me," Republican state Sen. Mack "Bodi" White, of Baton Rouge, said at a recent budget hearing.

With Louisiana's first payment due next year, state lawmakers are bristling at the near-tripling of the cost estimate, particularly since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' work on 350 miles of levees and 73 pump stations has taken years longer than promised and still isn't done.

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