Gov. Mike Foster didn't start out as a great friend of New Orleans. On the campaign trail in 1995, he referred to the city as a "jungle" -- a comment rife with racial overtones.
Once elected, his relationship with his former state Senate colleague, Mayor Marc Morial, got off to a rocky start and didn't improve much over the years.
Recently, however, Foster sounds like one of the best friends New Orleans ever had in the Governor's Mansion. It's not so much that he has fallen under the spell of our city's many charms. Rather, he recognizes that Louisiana cannot succeed economically unless New Orleans succeeds. (Our hospitality industry alone accounts for most of the "new money" that comes into the state.)
So it makes sense that one of the centerpieces of the special legislative session that Foster convenes this week is an economic development package chock full of New Orleans projects:
· Financial incentives to keep the Saints in the Superdome.
· Separate incentives to bring the NBA Hornets to the New Orleans Arena.
· Phase IV of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
In truth, those are just a few of the 196 items in Foster's official call for the special session. The rest include numerous local and special matters affecting various corners of the state as well as legislation with statewide impact, such as tax breaks for film, TV and software development and biotech businesses.
But the big-ticket items, money-wise, appear to favor New Orleans -- so much so that some legislators from other parts of the state are gagging at the prospect of voting for it. Many are refusing.
That's why Foster called a special session to get it done. Some of his critics have chastised him for that, saying many items in his call could just as easily be considered in the regular fiscal session that begins next month.
Legally, those critics are correct.
But politically, the special session is absolutely necessary. And Foster, to his credit, has proved himself willing to take some arrows to get the programs adopted.
Foster knows that if he had waited until the regular fiscal session to push the economic development package through, it would have become entangled in the budget debate -- and the fight over renewing the 4-cent "temporary" sales tax on food, drugs, utilities and other normally tax-exempt items. He might then have to trade a lot more for the votes he needs. Or, worse yet, he might have to choose between the taxes, his budget and the economic development package.
That's a choice he'd rather not make. So he split off parts of his agenda and served them up separately in the special session. Now he can concentrate his efforts on the economic development plan without getting himself (or legislators) sidetracked by tax and budget votes.
It's a slick move, although Foster hardly invented it. Edwin Edwards often called special sessions to consider tax increases that were "needed" to give teachers pay raises. It wasn't a pretty way to get a good result, but it got the job done.
As Foster sets out to create a legacy of economic development -- a goal to which any "pro-business" governor ought to aspire -- he first has to deal with parochial tensions and the appearance of doing too much for New Orleans.
Granted, the Saints, the Hornets and Phase IV will all benefit New Orleans. But they'll also benefit Shreveport, Lake Charles, Lake Providence and Bogalusa. Most legislators know that the Convention Center generates more state revenue than any single entity in the state. Voting for its expansion should be a lot easier than voting for a sales tax, yet some with vote against both.
I've criticized Foster a lot in the past six years, and I meant every word of it. But his latest effort deserves praise -- not for how it looks going in, but for how good it will make all of Louisiana look when it's finished.