Sunday, February 19, 2006


Special session had major ups, downs

by Jim Beam

Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder when it comes to deciding whether the legislative session that ended Friday was successful.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who set the agenda, said it made history. Legislators called it everything from “one of the most emotional sessions we’ve ever had” to “a complete failure.”

The truth lies somewhere in between, but it was nothing to brag about. Racial tensions were high, and the pluses came grudgingly and the minuses were glaring.

Levee board reform did mark a major milestone, but it wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for a group of young Republicans in the House. They came up with levee board alternatives when Blanco and Sen. Walter Boasso, R-Chalmette, pulled Boasso’s heavily amended levee legislation from Senate consideration.

It happened after Senate President Don Hines, D-Bunkie, and Blanco’s hand-picked Senate committee chairmen deserted her and Boasso like rats from a sinking ship. And with the exception of Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, Hines and those committee chairmen were conspicuously absent from the governor’s post-session celebration and news conference.

If levee reform was the major accomplishment, the unwillingness of legislators to downsize government in Orleans Parish was the most significant failure. With two-thirds of its population living anywhere but New Orleans, the parish doesn’t need two sheriffs, two clerks of court, two court systems and seven elected assessors.

Unfortunately, political selfpreservation ruled the day. Two of the assessors have immediate family members on the committee that helped kill a move to reduce the number of assessors to one. Other legislators have friends in those Orleans offices, or they have their eyes on some of those jobs when they are term-limited out of office.

“When New Orleanians are struggling to pay for new homes, new clothes, new furniture and new lives, it’s an insult to force them to keep paying for unnecessary elected offices that should have been abolished decades ago,” The Times-Picayune said in an editorial.

Blanco showed some of the determination necessary when she got behind legislation to make it easier for displaced New Orleans residents to vote in their April city elections. However, even in that instance, her involvement was almost too late to make a difference.

Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, talked about the fact that Blanco’s own floor leaders worked against some of her biggest proposals.

“I’ve never seen it as open and blatant as that,” Erwin said. You would expect that Republicans might try to stonewall a Democratic governor, but most of those leaders are members of her own party.

Republicans did help derail an effort by Blanco to create the Louisiana Housing and Land Trust. She wanted the new agency to distribute up to $9.8 billion in federal grants for home buyouts, loans, repairs or gap financing. Republicans were disturbed about the $3.8 million cost of staffing that agency, which they removed from the bill, and questioned the need for another bureaucracy.

Louisiana governors already control too many appointments, and we don’t need to make additional room for political contributors and supporters.

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