Cover Story

The Politics of Hurricane Relief

by Jeremy Alford

Best intentions and promises of unity preceded the recent special session, but even two hurricanes couldn't shake politics-as-usual from the Legislature.

It was as if a funeral were occurring on the Senate floor during the waning hours of the special session. One after another, lawmakers mourned at the microphone, recalling days gone by and pondering the future ahead.

The reason? They finally had to slash their cherished urban and rural development funds. Critics have referred to these pools of money over the years as "slush funds" used by the governor to wrestle votes from lawmakers. And it's not as if lawmakers minded being handled in such a way; if they curried favor with the governor, they could return to their districts with money in hand.

This time legislators didn't have a choice ' a $1 billion budget hole brought about by hurricanes Katrina and Rita had forced some severe cuts. Lawmakers wailed publicly over a life without the funds.

"I remember when they were first created," said Sen. Diana E. Bajoie, D-New Orleans.

"It pains me to see it go," added Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa.

"We ought not be afraid ..." counseled Sen. Jay Dardenne, R-Baton Rouge.

A Democrat from Monroe, Sen. C.D. Jones held out hope for the return of the funds. "The sun will shine again," he said.

Then came a completely different speech.

Choking back tears, Sen. Nick Gautreaux, an Abbeville Democrat, interrupted the slush-fund chatter to share a story about entering St. Bernard Parish on an airboat shortly after Katrina made landfall.

His search-and-rescue team found an elderly woman stranded on a rooftop with her family. But instead of taking the help offered, Gautreaux says, the elderly woman asked the workers if they needed water or food. Then she refused to get into the boat until assistance could be provided to a group of medical workers stranded right outside the parish.

"That's the human spirit of Louisiana," Gautreaux says. "That's why I love Louisiana."

When a rescue team was able to return the following morning to bring the elderly woman to dry ground, she had passed away in the night.

It was a sobering moment in the upper chamber ' but it was brief. The clock was ticking, and one of the budget bills was under consideration, so it didn't take lawmakers long to return to soapbox tirades and posturing.

In many ways, the speeches from the Senate floor during the final hours of session were a microcosm of the 17-day lawmaking assembly itself. Important matters were discussed with passion at times, but politics were inescapable.

The Machiavellian maneuvers, however, were less transparent and aggressive than usual, overshadowed by an overly ambitious agenda with 77 subject areas crafted by Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

And no sooner than the session ended, Blanco was already talking about another special session in January.

"This is a start," she says, "but it's only a start."

Educational funding still needs to be addressed for hurricane-ravaged schools. Financially crippled businesses are in desperate need of temporary loans. New housing policies are required for evacuees. Voting rights for displaced citizens will be a burning issue. And to top it all off, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent the state a $3.7 billion bill for its portion of recovery efforts.

Barry Erwin, president of a Council for a Better Louisiana, says there are so many items left dangling after the session that it's almost too difficult to look at accomplishments in total until the next session is held.

"We began to address some very important issues, but by no means are they totally addressed," Erwin says.

Still, those 17 days in November did yield both positive and negative results. Here are some of the memorable and forgettable moments from the hurricane-recovery session ' many of which slipped between the cracks.

Delayed oversight

Even before Blanco released her official agenda for the hurricane-recovery session, it was amongst the most contentious issues to be debated. After all, anything dealing with both the Legislature and Louisiana's levee boards has traditionally been a dangerous amalgam ' backroom deals are cut to decide the appointment process, salary increases for board members somehow sneak into unrelated bills, and lawmakers jockey for control of their respective districts.

Before any legislation was filed, some levee boards rounded their wagons and slipped into defense mode. Their collective mantra was simple: local input and no consolidation. Based on what came out of the special session, they got their wish ' for now.

The governor introduced her highly anticipated levee package with little controversy. It sailed through almost the entire legislative process with no opposing votes. It essentially places levee board management at the same table with coastal restoration and hurricane protection. But it does cut a bit deeper than that.

The legislation also creates an oversight authority that will craft certain criteria for levee boards to meet on a regular basis. If a levee board is found to be in noncompliance, the authority could seize funds, take civil action and implement other relief methods as they see fit.

Another bill by Sen. Walter Boasso, a Chalmette Republican, would have created a superboard of sorts for levee districts in the southeastern corner of the state through consolidation. In theory, each geographic section would operate under its own jurisdiction. No one person ' or politician ' would be in control.

The legislation failed, but never fear, reformists ' by all accounts it appears the Boasso consolidation bill will be back up for debate in January or in the spring.

"As for the levee boards, we should have reformed that system years ago," Erwin says. "We are wasting time in the sense that if we had done this years ago we could be moving on to other things."

Quentin Dastugue, a former Republican legislator from New Orleans, filed bills to reform the system during the '80s, when former Gov. Edwin Edwards was at the zenith of his power and not yet behind bars. Dastugue recalls being ridiculed for such a notion ' the same type of oversight that is being embraced today. He's also saddened that even a natural disaster couldn't stop "political paybacks" from outweighing human needs.

"What bothered me the most was seeing intelligent people turn their backs on such an important public service," Dastugue says.

Sen. Ed Murray, a Democrat from New Orleans who has also served in the House, has likewise filed bills in previous years to bring oversight to levee boards.

"There was just never a will to do that, and local politics would run the hearings," Murray says.

A second chance to pay attention

Lawmakers tried to make up for lost time in another critical area. They approved a statewide building code for residential and commercial structures in an effort to lure more insurers to the state, secure federal dollars and offer uniformity for economic development.

The new law will form a 19-member Uniform Construction Code Council in January to adopt the International Building Code and the International Residential Code, as well as other guidelines. It also calls for local governments to license code inspectors and update all standards every three years.

For parishes that are susceptible to 130-mile-per-hour hurricane winds, they would have to follow a special set of hurricane protection guidelines including elaborate building techniques and expensive material.

Dr. Mark Levitan, director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, testified during session that the building code could increase construction costs on average anywhere from 2.3 percent to 9.7 percent. That contributed to a ferocious debate that lasted until the final hours of session.

But here's the rub: Technically, Louisiana adopted a statewide commercial code in the mid-90s, but the Legislature failed to include any form of oversight in the bill. It was left up to local governments to adopt the code and strengthen it if they so chose.

The lack of oversight meant the state knew very little about what each parish or municipality had on the books, says Jerry Jones, director of the Office of Facility Planning and Control, which oversees state design and construction. In theory, it also means there could be "vast square miles" of Louisiana with substandard building codes.

If lawmakers had included some type of oversight into the original building codes, it's likely the concept would have traveled a less bumpy road during this special session. Maybe an enterprising politician would have even called for reforms before two hurricanes slammed into coastal Louisiana.

North vs. South

Aspects of the old north-south rivalry between lawmakers crept into the hurricane-recovery session. The cultural roots of Baptists and Protestants near the Arkansas line, and the Cajun Catholics near the Gulf of Mexico, are the genesis for Louisiana's modern political makeup, and there's very little anyone can do about it.

"The differing values displayed by each are about as old as you can get," says Elliott Stonecipher, a political analyst and Louisiana demographer. "These cultural differences really did shape the opposing political views at both ends of Louisiana, and we are still seeing it in places like the Legislature."

For instance, funding for the New Orleans Saints football team is one issue that often riles up north Louisiana lawmakers in a bitter and sometimes comical way ' a sentiment that is sometimes shared by their constituents.

"In Shreveport, where I'm from, they root for the [Dallas] Cowboys, not the Saints," says Marsanne Golsby, a Baton Rouge lobbyist who previously served as press secretary for former Republican Gov. Mike Foster.

The animosity also surfaces in issues involving Mardi Gras, commercial fishing, educational funding and statewide construction projects. Blanco contends the rift is getting better. She says lawmakers are communicating more and trying to understand their colleagues' geographic challenges.

"What we have here is a great spirit of generosity," Blanco says. "It goes from north to south, and in reverse. Once we get people to understand the real goals here, these difficult issues can be resolved."

Easier said than done. Sen. C.D. Jones of Monroe felt his district was overlooked during the session's budget cuts. He represents the economically deprived Louisiana Delta Region, where 24 percent of the population lives in poverty.

"For years I've been trying to explain to members of the Legislature what is going on in northeast Louisiana, and how we need to eradicate this poverty," Jones says.

Meanwhile, lawmakers from south Louisiana made outward attempts to convince their northern colleagues that coastal restoration and flood protection should be top priorities for the state.

"We're begging you," says Rep. Ernest Wooten, a Belle Chasse Democrat.

The session birthed a new version of the old geographic debate, as lawmakers from places like Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Shreveport jockeyed for money and projects to help their overburdened cities deal with evacuees and new citizens, while simultaneously balancing the dire needs of coastal Louisiana. The two natural disasters toned down the usual acidic north vs. south rhetoric, but Stonecipher believes the old way of doing things will rear its ugly head again.

"This is a honeymoon period, but it's not real," he says. "It's a honeymoon period on the surface."

Blanco's battlefront

It was difficult for Gov. Blanco to tell the difference between her friends and foes during the special session.

For starters, one of her traditional bases ' minorities ' revolted when the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus filed a lawsuit against her.

The membership wanted to know whether Blanco, a Democrat, had the authority to cut $431 million from state agencies by executive order ' an action she took on her own one day before the session convened.

Even her own legislative leadership questioned the move: "It doesn't matter what [power] she thinks she has," says Sen. Francis C. Heitmeier, a New Orleans Democrat and chairman of the Finance Committee.

Meanwhile, Blanco got on the good side of her conservative counterparts in the GOP by including several of their priorities in her session agenda and implementing the deeper cuts they favored.

"I jokingly said we should bring her a switch card," says Sen. John Schedler of Mandeville, chairman of the Senate Republican Delegation.

Dr. Pearson Cross, a professor of political science at UL Lafayette, says it's a trend worth noting. "The governor's agenda spoke to the mindset of Republicans and speaks to the realities of Louisiana being a purple state, where conservatives vote Democrat," Cross says. "I think these hurricanes will have a major and lasting effect on Louisiana politics, and this might be one of those areas."

Blanco, once a media darling for being the first female governor of Louisiana, also saw the national press turn on her as Time magazine named her one of the worse governors in the United States due to her slow response to Hurricane Katrina.

Congress as Big Brother

A wave of paranoia overtook the special session, from the first day to the last. A committee meeting barely went by without at least one lawmaker asking aloud if Congress would approve of its decision.

In short, Congress became Big Brother for the Louisiana Legislature.

Gil Pinac, a Crowley Democrat who authored the House of Representatives' version of the statewide building code, proclaimed the proposal came directly from the White House with a warning of, "Pass it or don't come begging for more money." Blanco also pushed legislation to create a master plan for coastal restoration, flood control and hurricane protection all at the request of members of Congress. She told lawmakers that the measure must be approved to convince Congress "Louisiana is serious."

Blanco says she understands some of these concerns, but was "offended" that the federal government has questioned every step of Louisiana's rebuilding process. "Undoubtedly, it's been a challenge working with Congress," Blanco says. "They just really don't want to give us money."

To chip away at Louisiana's perceived political reputation, lawmakers also rushed through an ethics bill to require all public officials and their families to report any income received from federal relief contracts. Why? Because bill sponsor Eric LaFleur, a Ville Platte Democrat, said it's a move the feds want to see.

UL's Cross says the paranoia displayed by lawmakers was probably overkill, but slightly warranted.

"Members of Congress themselves aren't paying much attention to every little move, basically because they're just too busy," Cross says. "But there is an awareness. What Louisiana has is not an accountability problem. It's a credibility problem. Corruption and the misuse of government funds has predisposed legislators on the federal level to look at money being allocated for relief skeptically. And you're seeing that reflected in the attitudes of lawmakers on the state level, who feel they have to be extremely careful not to send the wrong message to Washington."

Cautious calculations

While lawmakers were busy passing tax breaks for businesses and hammering out a tax-free holiday for consumers to purchase goods without paying a 4 percent state sales tax, one Acadiana legislator contends a major area was overlooked.

Rep. Joel Robideaux, an Independent from Lafayette and full-time CPA, says by not addressing federal deductions for casualty losses, homeowners impacted by the two hurricanes will actually end up paying more in state income taxes.

"These are ill-gotten gains," Robideaux says. "Of all the people to get more taxes from, this is the segment of the citizenry we shouldn't be getting them from."

Robideaux filed a bill to correct the problem, but it failed to gain traction among the Legislature's power brokers.

The problem is somewhat complex, but Robideaux says those with a little patience can easily understand it.

To calculate your state income taxes, take your income and subtract from it your federal income tax. Then take the difference and apply it to the appropriate tax bracket. The resulting figure is what you owe the state.

But for those people who suffered personal damages due to the hurricanes, their casualty losses will result in a federal deduction, meaning their federal income tax will take away substantially less from their state income tax.

The end result: Higher taxes due the state.

Here's a working example: If your income is $50,000 and your federal income tax is $6,000, then your taxable income for the state would be $44,000. But if you lost everything, your federal income tax will be lower because a deduction is offered for the losses after the insurance pay off.

So if you lose $20,000 due to Hurricane Rita, and the insurance company pays you $15,000, then your federal deduction will be $5,000.

As applied to the example above, your federal income tax would then be $1,000, and your taxable income for the state would be $49,000.

Robideaux says he is unsure how and when the state might address this, adding it may be too sticky to take up next year.

"Anything retroactive is taboo," he says, referring to a law that would allow taxpayers to go back a year and make changes.

What's in a bill?

It's no secret that lawmakers rarely read the bills they're voting on. But what about the legislators who actually sponsor a particular measure? Do they write the bills, or do their names just magically appear atop them?

In the case of the statewide building code debated this fall, the answer was crystal clear.

When Joe Gendron, an attorney for the House Commerce Committee, was questioned on specific details of the legislation, he deferred. "You'll have to ask him," Gendron said, pointing out into the crowd. "He wrote the legislation."

Gendron was identifying Baton Rouge lobbyist extraordinaire Kevin Hayes, who admitted he had crafted the bill based on existing law from South Carolina.

While lawmakers don't always read or write legislation, they are the only ones who can vote on the measures. And sometimes, they even need a little extra help to do that.

When a highly controversial retirement bill was introduced on the Senate floor during the final days of session, some lawmakers attempted to send it back to a committee rather than give it an immediate hearing. Senate President Don Hines, a Bunkie Democrat, was opposed to the move and gave lawmakers ample time to vote on the motion. In fact, he kept the voting machines open longer than usual in an effort to corral his votes.

Some lawmakers didn't see the humor in it.

"You got what you need now?" shouted Sen. Craig Romero of New Iberia from the Senate floor. "Close the machine!"

Despite the tactic, Hines failed to get his way, and the bill was sent to the Retirement Committee.

There's no debating that the legislative process can be confusing ' even for lawmakers.

Take Sen. Butch Gautreaux, for instance. The Morgan City Democrat agreed to co-sponsor a bill consolidating levee boards in the southeastern part of the state. But when it came time to move the measure during session, a brutal reality struck Gautreaux, and he offered a mantra that is often whispered around the Capitol, but never proclaimed loudly.

"I did not understand this bill completely," he said.