When Gov. Kathleen Blanco formed the Louisiana Recovery Authority last year to help guide the state through rebuilding, the LRA quickly picked up a powerful team of cheerleaders. Fortune magazine called it the "most effective official body in the post-Katrina debacle." During his speech on the storm's one-year anniversary, President George Bush said the group had "done a really good job of developing a strategy, a plan, to help renew communities."
But back home on the ground, detractors are starting to line up, which isn't surprising. The 2007 statewide elections are less than a year away, and pols on all sides seem hell-bent on using the LRA for political gain. Republicans want to know why Blanco has her name plastered all over the group's Road Home program, in advertisements and elsewhere, and the GOP legislative delegation recently tried to call a special session in part to conduct a thorough review of the authority.
Meanwhile, from an administrative side, questions have arisen about the authority's purpose and future, peppered with concerns that the multi-million-dollar agency is forming complex layers of bureaucracy. The LRA is slated to come off the books in four years and essentially be dissolved, but no one -- not even the top brass -- knows how long it will take to get the job done.
Lawmakers gave the LRA formal legal standing last year by a nearly unanimous vote of both chambers. The authority was indeed charged with yeomen's work -- bridging gaps between state, local and federal governments; drafting highly controversial recovery plans; coordinating all state agencies; and braving criticisms, such as those cropping up today. In short, it was a dirty job, but somebody had to do it.
Dr. Kirby Goidel, director of the Public Policy Research Lab at LSU, says that formula is ripe for election-year antics. In coming months, the LRA will become even more of a political tool for Blanco and a target for her critics, he says, and the average voter will become more aware of the rhetoric.
"Blanco's political future resides in the success or failure of the LRA, to a great extent," he says. "It's certainly one of those things that Republicans will be addressing and watching closely. Even though I'd like to think the progress of our recovery will be judged on an even scale, the main factors will probably be political."
In many ways, the games have already started. Rep. Peppi Bruneau, a New Orleans Republican, says he has asked the attorney general to issue a ruling on whether the governor can label the Road Home program, which is responsible for distributing federal rebuilding money, as her own. "You have no doubt seen it on television and everywhere else," Bruneau says. "What exactly is the propriety of that?"
All things considered, Bruneau's complaint is small potatoes. Republicans want an in-depth review of the LRA, but that hasn't happened yet. It was included on a special session agenda the GOP delegation pushed last month, but Bruneau and others couldn't garner the legislative votes needed for lawmakers to call themselves into a special session. Still, a hearing was scheduled last week in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has oversight, and Bruneau promises the issue will not go away.
Republicans contend the LRA has grown to mammoth proportions and that information being sought from Road Home applicants amounts to "hidden means testing" -- that is, money will flow primarily to those on the lower end of the economic ladder, which is not the GOP base. Bruneau also claims the LRA is doing a job the state could handle on its own.
"I don't want this to be on a partisan basis, but this is a critical thing," he adds. "I just don't see why we can't do something that's simple. My opinion is we don't need them. We ought to be in the check-writing business and that's it. It's intrusive and obnoxious. It's well on the way to becoming a bureaucratic nightmare."
Andy Kopplin, the LRA's executive director, says the authority was created with a bipartisan board that has donated time, credibility and, in some cases, money. Only $771,000 of the LRA's total $3.8 million budget comes from the state general fund. Kopplin adds that some LRA board members privately raised $8 million to form a nonprofit planning commission, Louisiana Speaks -- all of which is outside the typical realm of government.
Moreover, the heavy lifting is being done by existing state departments, Kopplin says. When asked why those agencies couldn't just continue operating on their own without a massive oversight authority, Kopplin says there was a "clarion call" from state and federal officials to create something like the LRA. The Manhattan Development Commission, which was created in the wake of 9/11, was used as a model, he says, and the fact that Mississippi didn't do likewise shouldn't raise a red flag. "Our recovery is 964 square miles, two storms and a bigger level of development," Kopplin says. "We have different challenges."
According to the law that created the LRA, the authority will be dissolved on July 1, 2010, unless extended by the Legislature. But no one seems to know how long it will take for the LRA to accomplish its mission. "It's way too early to tell," Kopplin says. He's also unsure if the authority's 30-member staff will need to be expanded in the future, although he "doesn't anticipate that," and Kopplin says more federal money will likely be needed in coming years to assist with a variety of studies.
Even within its own ranks, there are concerns that the LRA and its related programs could be perceived as a burgeoning bureaucracy. Simone B. Champagne, the chief administrative officer of Iberia Parish Government and a recently appointed board member of the Road Home Corporation, says the various layers of operation are complex, but the right kind of leadership is in place to make sure things don't get out of control. "I think we can work through those kinds of problems," she says.
Barry Erwin, president of a Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit that monitors the activities of state government, says he supports the original mission of the LRA, but a comprehensive review may soon be needed to check on progress. "No matter who would have been selected to manage this recovery, there would have been problems and complaints," he says. "It's such a huge undertaking and only time will tell how successful this strategy was."
Those responsible for handing out Road Home checks certainly could work faster; the payment process has been excruciatingly slow. According to various interviews granted by LRA officials in recent months, only 11 people had received checks as of the end of September, with more checks on hold until the end of December or later. And only 250 people have been notified that they'll be receiving money in the future, even though the LRA has roughly $10 billion at its disposal. Some political pundits have observed that Blanco might benefit from sitting on the money and releasing it just prior to the 2007 election.
That's a big risk, because waiting too long could hurt more than it helps.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.
"We ought to be in the check-writing business and that's it. It's intrusive and obnoxious. It's well on the way to becoming a bureaucratic nightmare."
State Rep. Peppi Bruneau, R-New Orleans, on the Louisiana Recovery Authority and its Road Home Program.