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PAR’s Special Session Wrap-up

A few important reforms were enacted in the 2006 special legislative session that ended today. 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.

Passage of the levee board consolidation bills stands out as an achievement. The failure to consolidate and eliminate unnecessary political positions in New Orleans government was a major disappointment. In other areas the Legislature struggled to reach moderate success.

Levee Board Reform

The top priority of this session was to reform the New Orleans area levee boards in an effort to attract federal funding and overcome the state’s image of fostering political patronage. Meaningful, though limited, reform was accomplished with the passage of SB 8 and SB 9. Voter approval is still required for SB 9, which is a constitutional amendment.

Instead of a single board for the entire area, two boards – east bank and west bank – were established for most of the area. Portions of seven parishes were consolidated under the governance of two new levee boards surrounding Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne.

The consolidation package is an important step toward higher standards of governance for levee boards. The Katrina and Rita disasters demonstrated that Louisiana’s coastal region needs more centralization, unity, professionalism and coordination of its flood control efforts. Ideally, the entire coastal zone under the authority of the new Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority would have been consolidated into a single levee board. However, politics and constitutional concerns presently make that an impossibility.

With professional standards for board members, very restrictive ethics provisions, a more studied appointment process and less distraction from the core mission of flood control, the New Orleans area levee boards should present a more credible, unified front to the federal government. Incidents of corruption and management failures should be fewer. And, most importantly, the Legislature has demonstrated its capacity, however strained, to enact reform.

Louisiana Recovery Authority

The Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) was established in law by HB 59 to develop and coordinate plans to spend billions in federal recovery funding. Disagreement over setting the appropriate level of legislative involvement in the spending process was settled in favor of maximum scrutiny.

The law requires certain legislative committees and the full Legislature to approve or reject all spending plans for projects over $10 million. This level of legislative micro-management injects opportunity for political deal-making to overrun carefully developed priorities. Such a standard may restrict the ability of the LRA to make the tough decisions that will be necessary to target scarce recovery dollars.

However, that provision could be changed in the next regular session if the process proves too cumbersome. Meanwhile, the bill does provide a permanent and transparent conduit through which federal funding can be directed to meet the state’s long- and short-term recovery goals.

New Orleans Government Consolidation

An army of local potentates proved too powerful for reformers seeking to consolidate the multitude of Orleans Parish municipal offices that include seven assessors, two sheriffs, several clerks of court and nearly twice the number of judges employed by other large parishes. The defeat of HB 50 and HB 57 marks the most dismal failure of the Legislature to enact a badly needed reform. With its drastically reduced population and uncertain fiscal future, New Orleans government cannot afford the duplication and waste of the past.

The House Ways and Means Committee, stacked with New Orleans area legislators, narrowly voted down a bill to consolidate tax assessors. Two of the committee members are relatives of sitting assessors. Another bill consolidating the remaining offices managed to make it through the House, but the measure stalled in the Senate Local and Municipal Affairs Committee and was not even heard at the request of the sponsor.

The technical and legal challenges of consolidation delay possible implementation for years. With reforms not likely to take effect until 2009 or 2010, there will be sufficient time for thorough study and implementation of a reasonable, thoughtful plan. Meanwhile, the legislature should seize this missed opportunity in the upcoming regular session by enacting these reforms to streamline government and reduce costs.

Elections

The elections bills were the subject of lengthy and volatile debate. With April elections for mayor, City Council and other offices in New Orleans fast approaching, passage of bills temporarily easing the burden of displaced voters was a critical success.

A dramatic walk out by the House members of the Legislative Black Caucus salvaged a provision in HB 14 (later passed in SB 22) creating “voting centers” in the largest cities around the state. Another bill, HB 12, loosens restrictions on mail-in ballots from those who registered by mail but have not voted in person. Both bills will expire on July 16, 2006. A third bill, SB 50, allows some displaced voters to benefit from rules applying to the military and students.

With multiple lawsuits filed in federal courts seeking varied, and sometimes opposing, objectives, the Legislature successfully balanced the needs of the evacuees while safeguarding the elections process. The Legislature also saved the state $2.8 million by changing the election date for two constitutional amendments passed in the 2005 Special Session.

Housing

Efforts to create a Housing and Land Trust failed in the final hours of the special session. Major unanswered questions remained in SB 49 regarding the authority, funding, staffing and intergovernmental relationships in the bill. One of the major arguments for passing this skeleton bill was that the federal government would only grant Louisiana the additional $4.2 billion in aid if the Trust was created. However, it now appears that the federal allocation does not hinge on the Trust being established immediately.

This news should not slow the work of the administration and Legislature in carefully constructing an entity with the appropriate powers, oversight and transparency. They must soon resolve the serious questions regarding the basic structure and purpose of an entity that will administer billions in federal aid for housing. That work should begin immediately so that the Trust, once enacted in the upcoming regular session, can move quickly on creating a well-crafted plan that will be key to addressing the state’s recovery needs.

Looking Forward

This was a very contentious and emotional session of the Legislature. Some progress was made, most notably on levee board reform, but a lot of work remains to be done in the upcoming regular session to address the state’s recovery needs.

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