One of the most encouraging signs of real political change in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is the depth and breadth of voter engagement. People are just plain fed up with the old political order in Louisiana -- i.e., sitting back and accepting whatever decisions our elected officials make -- and a growing number of voters are determined to get involved and shake things up. The best local example of that trend is the Committee for 1 Greater New Orleans, which in less than two months has garnered 50,000 signatures on a petition demanding consolidation of southeast Louisiana's levee boards. We applaud the all-volunteer group, but we also issue a challenge: Why stop at levee boards?
No doubt the merits of consolidating levee boards make a compelling argument in support of the committee's work, but there are equally compelling arguments for consolidating or reforming other areas of government. Moreover, the consolidation movement ought to be statewide in impact, not just focused on New Orleans. Here are a few places to start:
• Health care. Louisiana has spent billions over the years on public hospitals that don't produce healthier populations. Here in New Orleans, a timeless turf battle between the medical schools at Tulane and LSU has consistently hamstrung what used to be Charity Hospital. Plus, our public hospital system was not set up to deal with the common ailments of poor citizens. Too many indigents simply used Charity as the neighborhood clinic, thereby placing excessive demands on the hospital's shrinking resources. With all the federal money that's now available for health and hospitals, why not build a system that incorporates the best of both medical schools, delivers excellent care, and helps train the best doctors and researchers in the nation? In fact, this is one area where decentralization may bring vast improvement. Instead of a statewide hospital system, why not regionalize public hospitals -- and give each its own tax base? A good model for local management exists in the Shreveport area's Charity Hospital.
• Higher education. Public colleges and universities should be a state's crown jewels. In Louisiana, we've been getting by with "costume jewelry" for too long. That's because we have built a slew of public colleges and universities based on politics, not on sound educational policies. Even a mediocre four-year college is expensive to operate; excellence costs much more. Louisiana simply does not need -- and cannot afford -- the large number of four-year colleges and universities that it has. Lawmakers from other parts of the state who want to combine New Orleans' parochial offices should look in their own backyards to see if they have a spare college or two soaking up millions in state spending.
• Courts and Judicial Districts. New Orleans' dual court system has long been a favorite target of reformers across the state and locally. Based on caseloads, there is a good argument for the large number of judges in New Orleans, and in the wake of Katrina the courts are likely to remain busy for several years. However, the case for separate civil and criminal courts is more difficult to make, particularly in these tight fiscal times. And, if we combine courts, we also should combine the clerks' offices and other parochial offices whose ministerial duties are easily handled by the clerks of court in all other parishes. This is one area in which New Orleans should lead the way -- but the consolidation movement should take hold in less populated parishes and judicial districts as well.
• Assessors. A throwback to the days when city politics revolved around its wards, New Orleans' seven-assessor system has remained popular among voters mostly because people love the idea of being able to go down to City Hall and eyeball the person who assesses their property -- knowing that person needs the taxpayer's vote to keep his or her job. While quaint, this notion has not produced even-handed assessments citywide -- just as assessors from different parishes often vary significantly in their assessment practices. Here again, while New Orleans will be the logical place to start, small parishes with relatively few residents should likewise be forced to consolidate with their neighbors.
• Dock boards. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey not only manages the nation's largest port -- across state lines -- but it also oversees the Big Apple's and northern New Jersey's bridges, tunnels, airports and transit system. It also has vast real estate holdings, including the former World Trade Center. So why does Louisiana have a half-dozen or so port authorities just along the Mississippi River? Why can't we have one port authority statewide to manage, promote, and balance the interests of all our ports -- and airports?
These are but a few places to start. But above all, lawmakers should not cut exclusively in New Orleans. While they're consolidating local courts, assessors and clerks' offices, they should look at under-populated judicial districts and parishes around the state and mark them for similar consolidations. If there are economies of scale to be achieved in New Orleans, then let's spread the good news all across Louisiana.