Louisiana Lawmakers Tackle Hurricane Issues

Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Louisiana's legislature convened Sunday night for a special session to address issues stemming from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The state's budget is in the red, and its economy is in shambles.

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Louisiana's Legislature began a special session last night to deal with the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The state's governor has set an ambitious goal for the two-week session. She presented legislators with an agenda of more than 70 items to consider. NPR's Adam Hochberg reports from Baton Rouge.

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

This legislative session originally was intended to be quick and non-controversial; just an opportunity for lawmakers to address a few pressing needs in the wake of the hurricanes. But as legislators convened last night, it was clear their task will be neither easy, nor brief, that almost every part of Louisiana's government was profoundly affected by the storms. Many of the state's schools are in disarray and social service programs are overwhelmed. Its budget is in the red and its economy is in shambles. Last night, Governor Kathleen Blanco told legislators they face an unprecedented task.

Governor KATHLEEN BLANCO (Louisiana): The next few weeks and months will test what it means to be public servants. Katrina and Rita have challenged us to do what is right for our state. Recovery will involve tough choices.

HOCHBERG: Blanco asked legislators to consider a diverse list of topics during the session, including education governance and ethics reform. But the top priority is the huge hole in the state budget. Tax revenue has fallen so sharply since the storms that Louisiana is running a shortfall of about a billion dollars. The governor already has started slashing state programs and is asking legislators to tap into reserve funds and borrow money to balance the budget.

Gov. BLANCO: Like our people, our economy has suffered a grievous injury. There's only one way to respond: to cast aside the politics of the old days and make the tough decisions that will allow this state to heal itself.

HOCHBERG: Blanco, a first-term Democrat, called on legislators to present a united front in a time of crisis. But last night at the capitol, her proposals enjoyed less than unanimous support. T-shirt clad state employees packed the corridors, worried the budget reductions will lead to layoffs and salary cuts. Meanwhile, Republican Representative Peppi Bruneau said Blanco's program borrows too much money and isn't frugal enough.

Representative PEPPI BRUNEAU (Republican, Louisiana): The conservative and the Republican approach is to cut the budget and to cut taxes, thereby spurring the economy so that private individuals can rebuild. And then you have the other approach which is to go borrow money and continue business as usual. What side's going to prevail? I don't know at this point in time.

HOCHBERG: Republicans are in the minority in the Louisiana Legislature but hold enough seats to block many of the governor's initiatives. And even some of Blanco's fellow Democrats are hesitant to support her full program. Not only is the budget contentious, but Blanco has proposed some controversial government reforms. One lets the state take over part of New Orleans' troubled school system. Another consolidates the local boards that control the state's levees. Analyst Jim Brandt of the Louisiana Public Affairs Research Council says Blanco's legislative agenda will test her political skills.

Mr. JIM BRANDT (Analyst, Louisiana Public Affairs Research Council): Her administration will be based on how she responds to this catastrophe of Katrina and Rita. There was perhaps a slower response than many in the state would have liked. So there--I think are looking for bold, decisive plan, quick action in the session, strong leadership rather than partisanship.

HOCHBERG: The special session is scheduled to last 17 days and end just before Thanksgiving. But there's little hope here legislators will resolve all the issues by then. Governor Blanco anticipates the need for another special session in January and is predicting Louisiana's storm-related budget deficit will continue to grow. Last night, she warned legislators that the current billion-dollar shortfall is, in her words, just the beginning. Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Baton Rouge.

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