The current legislative session marks what may be the last real opportunity for Louisiana lawmakers and Gov. Kathleen Blanco to target state investment in the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. To be sure, federal dollars should continue to flow to those areas for years to come -- because recovery will take that long -- but right now the state is considering the best ways to spend an unprecedented, and probably one-time, $3.4 billion increase in total revenues for the fiscal years 2006, 2007 and 2008. Most of that additional revenue was or will be generated by recovery-related state sales and income taxes. It's only fair that the lion's share of that money should be reinvested in the parishes still reeling from Katrina.
The case for reinvestment is compelling.
"The Affected Areas," as the Katrina-ravaged parishes in southeast Louisiana have come to be called, have lost roughly 300,000 residents, 200,000 homes and 18,000 businesses -- and suffered untold damage to local infrastructure and the regional economy. Yet, as next year's state operating and capital budgets make their way through the legislative process, there is a gaping hole where there should be millions for Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. The current legislative session ends in less than four weeks, which means area lawmakers have little time to get it right. We urge them to do so.
In recent days, political and civic leaders from The Affected Areas have gathered to encourage local lawmakers to band together in support of regional priorities. This kind of regional cooperation is borne of desperation, but we hope it will be a lasting consequence of Katrina. The regional funding priorities that area leaders now support include the following:
• Higher Education -- In last week's Commentary, we noted that the four area public colleges and universities need $20 million more for recovery funding, including operational costs while building back enrollment levels. That money will help UNO, SUNO, Delgado Community College and Nunez Community College get back on their feet. These institutions provide immediate and long-term economic benefits and help sustain an educated population.
• Health Care -- Private hospitals are owed $40 million in payments for care they provided to uninsured patients post-Katrina, care that was formerly provided by the Charity Hospital System. While Charity is shut down, the state is saving millions in operational costs, but somebody still has to provide care for the uninsured. This money is covered in House Bill 953 by Rep. John Alario, D-Westwego, and we urge all lawmakers to support its passage. Southeast Louisiana needs another $3 million for a round-the-clock crisis intervention unit for mental health services and $4 million for local nursing schools to expand the nursing workforce.
• Ports -- The Port of New Orleans needs a total of $30 million in capital funds ($5 million in cash now and $25 million in future outlays) for relocation efforts for New Orleans Cold Storage, which must move when the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MR-GO) closes. This is a multi-year project, the costs of which proponents hope to see reimbursed by federal funds -- but the relocation must begin now.
• Tourism -- We urge lawmakers to approve $12.5 million to cover the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau (NOMCVB) and Morial Convention Center's operating shortfalls, plus $7 million to help attract and retain conventions and corporate meetings. The hospitality industry was a leading economic sector before Katrina, and it was among the first sectors to rebound after the storm. We must do all we can to keep it healthy during the recovery period.
• Economic Development -- A 2,900-acre business and industrial tract in Tangipahoa Parish is the next big thing on the Northshore. Known as the Zachary Taylor Mega Site, the tract straddles I-55 between I-12 and the Mississippi state line, and it sits in the congressionally designated Gulf Opportunity Zone (GO Zone). Area leaders are seeking $6 million to purchase the site so that it can be developed into a regional economic driver.
• Transportation -- This is one area that touches all parishes, particularly St. Tammany, and it is hoped this need will be addressed by several bills dealing with long-range, permanent transportation funding.
In addition to regional priorities, various local operating and capital needs should be addressed while the state has the money. For example, New Orleans needs $7 million to help NOPD bolster crime-fighting and crime-prevention efforts. St. Tammany Parish needs $3.7 million to match a grant from the National Resources Conservation Service (a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) to help preserve wetlands. St. Bernard Parish hopes to restore permanent hospital services, while Plaquemines Parish seeks $300,000 for a parish-wide drainage study.
Among the big-ticket capital projects for southeast Louisiana are $18 million for the Harvey Canal flood project, more than $30 million for the Clearview Parkway flood control project in Jefferson Parish and $4.5 million for St. Tammany Parish's wastewater regionalization projects. St. Bernard Parish seeks $24 million for a new water treatment plant, and Plaquemines wants $13 million for the Peters Road bypass.
This is a year in which all southeast Louisiana communities will either succeed together by working for the common good or fail by going their separate ways. Katrina proved that devastation does not respect political boundaries. Let's show that recovery can do likewise.