Political State

Sinners and Saints

While most governors yearn for the moniker of fiscal conservative, Gov. Kathleen Blanco is destined for recognition as the biggest spender in the history of Louisiana. Her new budget boosts spending by $900 million, leaving the state with a projected budget for 2005-2006 of $18.7 billion.

Budgets are expected to grow to some extent each year, but Louisiana's annual spending is accelerating at a rapid pace. The final term of Edwin Edwards produced a $3.1 billion increase in state spending between 1992 and 1996, while two terms of Mike Foster from 1996 to 2004 saw a $4.5 billion boost in the Louisiana budget. Blanco's first two years are producing a $2.5 billion spike in spending from state coffers.

The Revenue Estimating Conference found more money for lawmakers to dole out when it unearthed an additional $360 million at its May meeting. The windfall has not dissuaded Gov. Blanco from pushing for a $1 boost in the price per pack of cigarettes to fund a teacher pay raise. The smoking tax would lift Louisiana teachers to an average wage of $41,600 per year by 2007. The Blanco sin tax initiative would produce another $3,330 in teacher compensation over the next two years and also provide college faculty a 5 percent increase in annual stipends.

Blanco will need 26 votes in the Senate and 70 favorable tallies in the House to pass her so-called sin tax on cigarettes. She may get some aid from a state representative who won a Senate seat this month. Rep. Derrick Shepherd, D-Marrero, plans to delay his move to the upper chamber so that he can vote twice on key legislation, notably Blanco's cigarette tax.

The measure will begin in the House with Shepherd sitting as a state representative. The lawmaker will then move to the Senate and vote again. Senate officials have given their blessing to the timeline for the legislator, who won a special election for the seat vacated by Lambert Boissiere Jr., who became a New Orleans city constable. Shepherd's vote in the Senate could be especially critical with the death of John Hainkel leaving the chamber with 38 members. With 26 votes still a requirement for passage, it will now take 68.4 percent support from members for a tax to clear the Senate.

Politicians aren't the only ones rejoicing over the gusher of new money in this session; New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson is probably salivating over his take. It will now be hard for Gov. Blanco and her surrogates to maintain that the state is strapped for the $15 million owed the Saints in July.

The deal hammered out by Gov. Foster and Benson has been a sore spot for Blanco, who has insisted her administration will be less liberal in contributions to the Saints. Benson may be fuming that the governor seemingly opens the state's pocketbook for everyone but him.

The current agreement expires after the 2010 season, but the Saints have a 90-day window after this season in which they can bolt for another city. National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue says he is poised to intervene in the Blanco-Benson brouhaha.

The Superdome is at the center of the controversy. The facility that was the vision of Gov. John McKeithen is now the third-oldest stadium in the NFL. Benson stated last week at the annual NFL owners' convention that he has no desire to leave his hometown, but feels the Superdome is inadequate and outdated. The 77-year-old erstwhile car dealer says he is no hurry to return to the negotiating table and does not plan to talk with the governor until February "after we win the Super Bowl."

Benson sounds doubtful about paying an $81 million exit penalty at the close of the team's 39th season in New Orleans, but the supposed $1 billion offer from an unnamed suitor to buy the club, and the NFL's continued push to reestablish a franchise in Los Angeles, could change his opinion. (Ironically, one of the prospective new homes for a franchise is the Los Angeles Coliseum, another ancient relic of the NFL.) Commissioner Tagliabue will likely make a case to Blanco for a new stadium being a necessity for the club to stay in Louisiana. The governor is advocating a $174 million renovation of the Superdome, but Benson remains adamantly against the plan.

"Thirty years ago when they built the Superdome â?¦ it was the pride of the country," Benson noted. "When anything gets old and you get a lot of gray hair, nobody wants you anymore." When the owner was reminded that he was married last year as he approached octogenarian status, Benson responded, "Yeah, well, I was very lucky."

By partially tying his bid for a new stadium to the hopes of a winning Saints season influencing legislators to keep the team in Louisiana, Benson better hope his luck continues.