Ten weeks after Katrina slammed into the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, the Louisiana Legislature begins its first extraordinary session to deal with the disaster and its aftermath. Mississippi has already convened two special sessions. Don't blame our lawmakers for the tardy response; in each state the governor set the agenda and scheduled the session.
It has been widely noted that Gov. Kathleen Blanco suffered a calamitous drop in public esteem since Katrina. It's hard to say she doesn't deserve it. The last thing that worked well was contraflow, and we had a dress rehearsal for that with Hurricane Ivan last year.
There was no playbook for Katrina, particularly once the levees broke. Still, Blanco looked weak, dazed and confused in most of her early appearances. She now seems to be getting some traction here and there, but overall her performance remains spotty. For example, she wasted no time shooting down Mayor Ray Nagin's ill-conceived "gambling district" idea, but when she testified before Congress she read from a script like a school kid. It was a singularly uninspired moment, which is too bad, because she -- and Louisiana -- could have scored a lot of points had she done better.
The good news for Blanco is that her Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) is getting some legs after just three weeks of existence. This week several hundred leading design and planning professionals will meet with local leaders (by invitation only) for a three-day Louisiana Recovery and Rebuilding Conference at the Marriott Hotel. The goal is to "develop a body of principles that will guide Louisiana's long-range recovery efforts." The conference is being presented by the American Institute of Architects along with the American Planning Association at the request of LRA. Blanco will deliver an opening address, and then the work will begin.
The conference is not designed to come up with a final plan, but rather to get things moving in that direction. Another conference, this one sponsored by the Urban Land Institute, convened last week in California to discuss some of the same issues. That conference was attended by several members of Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission -- further underscoring a perceived rift between Nagin and Blanco.
On one level, the more input the better. But, Louisiana politics being what it is, we really don't need dueling committees -- or the appearance that they may be duplicating their efforts. My guess is that the state's LRA ultimately will be the body that matters, if for no other reason than the fact that federal money generally flows from the U.S. Treasury through the states to local governments. There are exceptions, but when you're talking about billions of dollars, the local committee should not expect to be calling too many shots. It can, however, serve a very valuable advisory and monitoring role.
Shifting gears to the bad news, Blanco may be even less popular among lawmakers than she is among voters, and that's saying a lot. Her 77-item call for the special session leaves legislators just 17 days to deal with a wide range of matters, and she offers no cohesive vision or plan for dealing with the larger issues presented by Katrina. Rather, it's a scatter-shot approach.
One item that many lawmakers want to address is the PR fiasco hatched by the state Bond Commission last month. The commission voted to redirect capital outlay funds from the areas decimated by Katrina and spend them on pork projects in unaffected areas -- right when Congress and the world were watching our every move. It was a bone-headed ploy, and it rightly made our public officials looked like looters. Expect legislators to rescind the Bond Commission's blunder. If that happens, it won't be to the Governess's credit. She'll have to look to the LRA to boost her waning fortunes.
- Gov. Kathleen Blanco may be even less popular among lawmakers than she is among voters, and that's saying a lot.