Lousiana Legislators Wrap Up Katrina Session

Louisiana state lawmakers ended their special session Friday night after a contentious two-week debate over levee boards and housing bills for hurricane-ravaged homeowners. Now Gov. Kathleen Blanco is trying to pick up the pieces of key bills that failed to make it this session.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Louisiana lawmakers wrapped up two weeks of debate last night in a special session devoted to hurricane recovery. Democratic Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco started the session with high hopes for two very important bills. And the week ended with mixed results.

NPR's Audie Cornish has more on the debate in Baton Rouge.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

Billions of federal dollars were on the line as the state sought to prove it could reform old systems and properly establish new ones in the rebuilding process. One bill aimed to consolidate the dozens of little levee boards that maintains Southeast Louisiana's flood protection. The other was a plan to create a Housing Trust and Redevelopment Corporation to help repair or buy damaged properties from hurricane ravished homeowners.

And Blanco made it clear that these reforms were being done with an eye towards Washington, D.C.

Governor KATHLEEN BABINEAUX BLANCO (Democrat, Louisiana): The fact is that these hurricanes exposed us in new and different ways, showed all of our flaws. Now we know that the country is watching everything that we do, because we have taken center stage. It's not always a comfortable place to be.

CORNISH: For instance, after rigorous debate from metro New Orleans lawmakers, the idea of a single levee board gave way to a plan that actually created two big boards, one for each side of the Mississippi River. The goal was to professionalize the half-dozen parish level boards that maintain the levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers. But the boards have been criticized as being corrupt havens for inexperienced patronage hires. And nearly $12 million in federal funds were riding on the state's ability to bring reform to the boards.

But Blanco says she's pleased with the compromise package.

Governor BLANCO: These boards will operate to the highest ethical standards. No politics, no patronage, no brother-in-law deals. Never thought I'd see this in my lifetime.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, bills aimed at getting federal hurricane recovery money into the hands of people who lost their homes to the storms were not as successful. The idea was to create a state-run vehicle, called the Louisiana Housing and Land Trust, to distribute the billions of federal dollars allocated for people trying to rebuild.

But Republican Representative Edward Lambert says the proposal voted down this week was too vague and unwieldy.

Representative EDWARD LAMBERT (Republican, Louisiana): Well, I don't know if we needed to create that vehicle to hold that money now. Because your problem is there are other vehicles that could probably hold the money. We have the Louisiana Recovery Authority. There is no necessary need for this.

CORNISH: And when the bill failed, Blanco did not hide her disappointment. The Governor says federal officials are expecting the state to create some sort of plan to distribute the money, and this one should have been given a chance.

Governor BLANCO: I didn't think that it was going to be the most challenging piece of legislation. But I'm fooled quite often. Sometimes I think that the easiest pieces of legislation to pass, the most obvious ones to pass, are the ones that have the most difficult time.

CORNISH: And so nearly six months after the storm, Louisiana lawmakers are walking away from the session without a formal housing redevelopment plan. Blanco says she's working on a way to create such a trust or corporation on her own, possibly through an executive order, or through her Louisiana Recovery Authority.

Meanwhile, the best news seemed to come out of Washington, with the Bush Administration making a new request for an additional $4.2 billion from Congress for Louisiana homeowners.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, New Orleans.

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