Session is stormy for Blanco agenda
Levee compromise in, housing trust out
Saturday, February 18, 2006
By Jan Moller and Ed Anderson Capital bureau
BATON ROUGE -- The Legislature wrapped up a contentious 12-day special session Friday that produced a compromise bill to restructure southeast Louisiana's patchwork system of levee boards but failed to deliver on Gov. Kathleen Blanco's efforts to downsize New Orleans' government and to form a state trust to distribute federal housing aid.
In the second special session since the upheaval caused by two major hurricanes, lawmakers passed bills designed to make it easier for displaced New Orleanians to vote in the April 22 city elections and reshuffled the state bureaucracy by making the Louisiana Recovery Authority a permanent state agency.
Beyond the specifics of what passed, the session is likely to be remembered for the raw emotion it elicited as lawmakers confronted difficult issues tinged by race and parochialism.
"Clearly it's one of the most emotional sessions we've ever had," said Sen. Jay Dardenne, R-Baton Rouge.
For Blanco, whose ambitious agenda raised hackles among some legislators even before the session began and was nearly torpedoed at several points, the session brought enough to claim some vindication in the end.
"If consolidation of the New Orleans area levee boards was the only accomplishment, I would call this session a total success," Blanco said at a session-ending news conference. She also cited the success of the bill to make the Louisiana Recovery Authority a permanent fixture in state government and the package of election bills for Orleans Parish.
Barry Erwin, president of the nonpartisan Council for a Better Louisiana, said the levee board consolidation ranks as the highlight of a session that will otherwise be remembered for bills that failed to pass. "We didn't accomplish what we came here to do, by and large. That's the bottom line," Erwin said.
He cited the failure of Blanco's housing trust legislation, which underwent many revisions before it died on the final day, and the failure to downsize city government in New Orleans, where seven elected assessors serve a city that has lost more than half its population since Hurricane Katrina. Most of the legislation failed to get out of committee.
But the Public Affairs Research Council, another watchdog group, said the success of the levee legislation is likely to be what people most remember. "While the usual political resistance to change was cause for some embarrassment, the successes realized this session may have been just enough to improve the national perception of Louisiana and set the stage for the state's recovery," the group said in a statement.
Halfway through the session, several of Blanco's key initiatives appeared either dead or mortally wounded, and allies and opponents of the governor were both describing a sense of disarray in the Capitol.
Some powerful lawmakers in the House and Senate, including Blanco's hand-picked leaders, refused to go along with the single levee board, insisting that a separate governing authority be established for the West Bank. During the weekend, they won key victories on the Senate floor and in a House committee, prompting the bill's sponsor, Sen. Walter Boasso, R-Arabi, to pull the measure from consideration.
Several legislators complained publicly that Blanco and her staff weren't working hard enough to advance their agenda, a claim that a spokeswoman for the governor denied.
Things appeared to hit bottom late Monday afternoon, when members of the Legislative Black Caucus tried unsuccessfully to adjourn the session after the House rejected a bill by Rep. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock, D-New Orleans, to set up 10 satellite voting centers around the state for displaced New Orleans voters.
When the motion to adjourn was voted down, members of the caucus staged a walkout and held a news conference on the front steps of the Capitol. They compared the defeat of the legislation to segregation-era efforts to keep African-Americans from the polls.
Administration officials acknowledged that they were unprepared for the conflagration. Thinking the election bill would pass easily, the governor's staff had paid little attention to the measure until it was narrowly rejected on the House floor.
In a Monday evening meeting with members of the Black Caucus, Blanco vowed to get full-force behind a similar bill when it came up in a House committee. The administration pressure brought the bill out of a House committee and onto the floor, where it ultimately passed.
Rep. Karen Carter, D-New Orleans, said the turnabout on the voting bill showed what a difference a governor can make "when there is active engagement."
By Tuesday afternoon, Blanco and Boasso had agreed to support legislation creating two levee districts provided other key provisions in the bill, such as staffing the boards with experienced professionals, remained intact.
Boasso said public pressure from the business community and citizens groups was key in getting legislators on board, citing more than 11,000 e-mails he received during the past several weeks on the subject. "It wouldn't have happened without that," Boasso said.
More work ahead
Blanco called the failure of the housing trust "the biggest disappointment of this session," but said that her administration will be looking for alternative ways the state can speed the process of getting money into people's hands without legislation.
The Louisiana Recovery Authority is expected to announce the programs that it wants to make available to individual homeowners at a meeting in Lake Charles on Monday. Those programs would be financed through the $6.2 billion in federal block grants already available to Louisiana and the $4.2 billion request that President Bush has made to Congress to give Louisiana additional housing aid.
Besides housing, the effort to consolidate New Orleans government promises to play a prominent role in the 85-day regular session that starts March 27. "People are demanding it -- it is only time before the Legislature hears," Blanco said.
But some said the governor still has work to do if she wants to repair the bruised feelings among some legislators as the session drew to a close. "This session smelled of Edwin Edwards," said Rep. Pete Schneider, R-Slidell. "There was no leadership from the governor or her floor leaders."
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Staff writer Laura Maggi contributed to this report.
Jan Moller can be reached at email@example.com or (225) 342-5207.
Ed Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (225) 342-5810.