Tuesday, February 21, 2006
by Jeremy Alford
Granted, there haven't been any throw-downs during the hurricane-recovery sessions, but tempers have crested following Katrina and Rita, prompting lawmakers to walk out of debates as once-staid coalitions crumbled and public outcry thundered.
Among the most contentious issues raised during this month's special session was the consolidation of levee boards in southeast Louisiana. The debates often ran several hours, with lawmakers waging intense turf battles over which parishes should be included and which ones should maintain separate levee boards. Even though Gov. Kathleen Blanco backed the proposal and called the session to enact it, many of the legislative committee chairs -- her handpicked leadership -- refused to follow her lead.
Sen. Tom Schedler, a Mandeville Republican, took to the floor just minutes after the Senate reached a compromise last Wednesday and warned his colleagues that tensions were reaching a "dangerous" level. For once, he declared, Louisiana should be thankful for term limits.
"I have personally never seen anything like this in my 10 years," Schedler says. "A lot of us can't wait to get out of here because this is a changing environment that is like quicksand. And it's truly unfortunate for the future."
The same emotions boiled over into anger on the House side when a bill to set up satellite voting centers for displaced New Orleanians was initially voted down. Rep. Cedric Richmond, an eastern New Orleans Democrat and chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, blamed the bill's initial failure on racism and the lack of a clear vision on the part of lawmakers. He made a motion to end the session four days early, and 24 of his fellow House members voted with him.
"This House is more divided than I've ever seen," Richmond says. "That makes it difficult for us to get our business done."
Dan Juneau, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, one of the state's most powerful lobbies, says geographic and racial disputes in the aftermath of the storms could be expected. People outside of the disaster zone aren't willing to embrace change, while those impacted are desperate for it. The end result aggravates an already stressed-out political atmosphere.
"Some of what is happening was predictable," Juneau says. "Some of it is purely bizarre. Much has to do with the fact that power abhors a vacuum and the Capitol is definitely in a power vacuum right now."
If the issues raised during the most recent two-week special session were enough to send the Legislature into a tizzy, Dr. Pearson Cross, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, says he wonders how the policymaking environment will evolve in coming months. There are a bevy of other issues that promise to be touchier than any of those addressed thus far -- property rights, for example -- and the topics could be brought up as early as the regular session this spring, which begins March 27.
"I don't see any break in the political climate until the 2007 election cycle," says Cross. "The state is in an uproar."
According to Cross, it's all bad news for the first woman governor of Louisiana: "It's quite clear to me that the governor's prestige, and certainly any re-election hopes, hang quite literally in the balance in terms of her accomplishments from the special sessions and the upcoming regular session."
Juneau says what is most telling at this juncture is the lack of desire to reform old practices in government. If parochialism can prevent reforms from being enacted in a time of great crisis, then one has to question whether reform is possible at all, he says. In the end, it may be up to voters to bring in dramatic change.
"Right now, Louisiana is at war with itself and with Washington," Juneau says. "That is not the recipe for a successful recovery from severe devastation. It is reminiscent of the acrimony that existed after the Great Flood of 1927, acrimony that led a few months later to the beginning of the Long dynasty in Louisiana politics. Power abhorred a vacuum then, also."