Politics and Katrina in Louisiana

A special session of the Louisiana state legislature ended this past week without sweeping reforms many believed were needed to ensure future investment in the hurricane-ravaged state. Debbie Elliott and political analyst Elliott Stonecipher discuss the results.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This week, the Louisiana Legislature ended a special session intended to start addressing the problems creating by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Lawmakers cut budgets, passed business tax breaks, enacted a statewide building code and tackled a controversial subject--reform of the state's levee oversight system. To help us interpret the session, we called longtime Louisiana political analyst Elliott Stonecipher. He explains that responsibility for the flood control levees is spread over several entrenched agencies that resist change.

Mr. ELLIOTT STONECIPHER (Louisiana Political Analyst): Well, the way the levee system works is you have flood control apparatus that, of course, is exerted by Army Corps of Engineers. Then you have local or parish levee boards that are also in the business of building/maintaining/managing levees, and the point is you have a tremendous number of people working and the job doesn't get done, which is what Katrina showed us. So people in New Orleans, businesspeople who have stayed and are a part of the rebuilding group that is New Orleans-based rather than the one that is state-based, really wanted to see these interlocking kinds of levee boards and flood control districts brought under single management, some kind of unified control. And a bill to specifically do that simply was not even heard in the House of Representatives and it has a lot of people very, very upset because it really shows business as usual. Much of what we recognize today as the so-called levee management system happened after the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River, but it's grown and it's always been a source of patronage and, quite frankly, corruption which is the real elephant in the room in this entire discussion. We're hoping it gets fixed in the next special session, which we believe will be in January.

ELLIOTT: Now something did pass. What was that?

Mr. STONECIPHER: That's the governor's version of this, which does to some extent bring in professionals, engineering, etc., to oversee some aspects of flood control. It stemmed from the governor's view of how this needed to be done, but the governor's view very carefully did not try to do away with some of these local boards. The governor wouldn't take that on and this other bill would have. You can't say you've done anything about the corrupt nature of this whole beast if you don't do something about those local boards. If there's a wanted poster out there, it's the levee boards, and quite frankly, they weren't going to be obliterated. They were simply going to be consolidated and that's where the battle is going to be again and continuingly.

ELLIOTT: Ethics was big on the agenda for the legislative special session as well. And the Legislature actually approved a new code that deals with who can profit from the hurricane rebuilding contracts. Is this a push to sort of say, `That was our history. This is the new Louisiana'?

Mr. STONECIPHER: Well, it is a part of the push, but if you covered the debate, you may have come away like many of us did and that's with a little bit of disappointment and I'm putting that very mildly. What we ended up with was a bill that requires elected officials, state legislators, for example, to disclose with the state ethics office if they are going to do business with any of these agencies involved in the post-hurricane period, any kind of contract at all. And, of course, there was a push earlier for a much simpler solution to the problem which was, doesn't it make sense that we should simply say, `Make a choice. Be an elected official and don't do this business,' or, `Do this business and don't be an elected official'?

ELLIOTT: Well, finally, let's talk a little bit about Governor Kathleen Blanco. She has really been on the hot seat ever since Hurricane Katrina. How does she come out after all this?

Mr. STONECIPHER: Well, I think it's fair at this point to acknowledge that the governor began this special session with a very strong--for her, a very strong--move in cutting half a billion dollars in spending before the legislators even showed up. She also froze slush funds as we call them--that's money available to urban legislative districts. Those are disproportionately African-American, they are disproportionately Democrat, as is the governor, and that is supposedly in a broader view the group that she has to always take care of. She didn't. That's I think one of the ways that you complete the circle on how the Democrats and her traditional constituency feels about her. Not only did she not do the things that they wanted her to do in the case of those so-called slush funds, she also did a lot of things for the Republicans.

ELLIOTT: I'd like to know how you think she has to look at her future at this point? Is the governor playing to the national audience? Does she have to be concerned that she's alienating her base there in the state of Louisiana?

Mr. STONECIPHER: We believe that she knows that the audience for her to be playing to is the audience of people who took this hit. And that means in a way she's going to get to be Kathleen Blanco the person. She doesn't have to worry about Washington, per se, or New Orleans or the business community or legislators who may be African-American or Republican. What Louisiana needs is a governor who says what really happened and who does everything in her power to fix it. If that happens, she will not be re-elected, I don't think there's any question, but she wasn't going to be anyway and that is the signal the nation, if not the world, needs to see, that Louisiana's being honest about this being a decades-long problem that had a cataclysmic trigger here but she has the amazing openness now politically to just do the right thing.

ELLIOTT: Elliott Stonecipher is a Louisiana political analyst. He joined us from Shreveport.

Thank you.

Mr. STONECIPHER: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: This is NPR News.

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