During the last regular legislative session, as lawmakers and Gov. Kathleen Blanco gathered to divvy up more than $3 billion in surplus and unanticipated revenues from the fiscal years 2006 through 2008, political and civic leaders from the five parishes most affected by Hurricane Katrina gathered to encourage area lawmakers to band together in support of regional priorities. The strategy worked. Hundreds of millions of dollars were allocated or dedicated in the current and coming years to the storm-ravaged parishes of southeast Louisiana. As we noted in this space on June 5 ('The Affected Areas"), that fledgling attempt at regional cooperation was borne of desperation, but we hoped it would be a lasting consequence of Katrina. Now, with a significant number of brand-new lawmakers headed to Baton Rouge from Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard, Plaquemines and St. Tammany parishes, the case for regionalism is more compelling than ever. We are happy to report that there are signs that the efforts that began last spring are ongoing " and that many new and returning lawmakers are already on board.
The regional priorities have not changed:
Higher Education " The four area public colleges and universities need millions more for recovery and operations while building back enrollment. Additional funds will help UNO, SUNO, Delgado Community College and Nunez Community College get back on their feet and reach new levels of success. These institutions provide immediate and long-term economic benefits to the entire region, and each helps sustain an educated population, which is so important to the recovery efforts of southeast Louisiana.
Health Care " Local and legislative leaders must unite behind the proposed LSU-VA Hospital in downtown New Orleans and send a message to Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal and upstate lawmakers that this project is not negotiable. The LSU-VA project will be much more than a public hospital " though a top-tier public hospital is reason enough to support it. Next to the $14 billion-plus that coastal restoration will cost, this will be the biggest economic development project in Louisiana history. Although the hospital complex occupies a few dozen square blocks, its economic ripple effect will be felt across the region. LSU and the community need a teaching hospital; Louisiana needs a research hospital; veterans from across the Gulf South need a top-flight VA hospital; the metro economy needs the doctors and other highly paid health-care professionals that these institutions will attract; our indigent population needs the network " including neighborhood-based health-care units " that will mesh with the LSU hospital system; and paying clients need the medical advances that a research hospital can provide. In addition, the affected parishes need a round-the-clock crisis intervention unit for mental health services. This is good medicine for all of southeast Louisiana.
Ports " Louisiana's ports need an overhaul, and time is of the essence. The world's economy is getting more competitive by the day, and we can no longer take for granted our 'natural advantage" at the bottom of the Mississippi River. In the next few years, Asian cargo will pour into the Gulf of Mexico via a modernized Panama Canal. We must invest in our ports now to take advantage of that opportunity.
Economic Development " Katrina taught us that economic devastation is a regional problem. The recovery should teach us that economic development requires a regional effort. Area lawmakers should unite behind specific projects from each of the affected parishes. As a bloc, their political might will be a harbinger of the economic muscle that southeast Louisiana can flex via regional cooperation.
Transportation " This subject touches all parishes and ties all of southeast Louisiana together. Several proposals are surfacing to tie gasoline taxes to highway construction and prohibit the continued 'raiding" of transportation funds. This is a good idea, but area legislators must unite to make sure that the big-ticket highway needs of southeast Louisiana are addressed.
Sanitation " The New Orleans City Council last week adopted a resolution calling for a regional approach to curbside recycling. At-large council members Arnie Fielkow and Michael Darnell, along with District B council member Stacy Head, asked the Regional Planning Commission to take up the recycling issue. An RPC study will investigate cost-sharing benefits and is expected to be complete within 60 days. Lawmakers should embrace the idea at the state level and do whatever they can to encourage this kind of regional approach.
Crime " More than ever, fighting crime requires a regional strategy. Brick-and-mortar projects such as a regional crime lab, a regional police and deputy sheriffs training academy, and a regional forensics facility would be great places to start.
We applaud the ongoing efforts at regional cooperation, and we urge all area lawmakers to unite behind the regional banner. Katrina proved that devastation does not respect political boundaries. Let's continue to show that recovery can do likewise.