Despite an angry electorate and pressing hurricane recovery needs, the upcoming legislative session looks like politics as usual.
When six feet of Katrina's water rushed down Bayou Savage along the eastern side of New Orleans, Pete Gerica rescued his elderly mother from the surge and strapped her to the top of a tree using a cable wire. He lost his home, his vehicles and all but one of the boats he once used for commercial fishing. Thankfully, his family survived. When the water receded and Gerica got back on his feet, he discovered oysters growing in his swimming pool. After everything he had been through, such oddities seemed normal.
Clinging to hope and waiting for recovery, he kept track of the state Legislature and their special sessions from an RV in New Orleans and a rented apartment in Baton Rouge. Gerica says there wasn't much accomplished during those gatherings that lifted his spirits.
As the regular session prepares to convene on March 27, Gerica is again looking to the state for answers. But all he can find are pre-filed bills dealing with an official state poem, promises of more money for teachers and professors, and unexpected budget priorities.
"I don't see nothing that is coming up that is going to help us," Gerica says. "All I see is a lot of money being wasted."
Gerica isn't a government expert; he just keeps track of bills that might impact his fishing business. But even those who are inside the political machine don't see a whole lot of effort being devoted to hurricane recovery this go around. Butch Speer, clerk of the House of Representatives, says while the number of bills being filed is on par with previous regular sessions, only a small percentage of the measures to be debated will deal directly with hurricane recovery.
"We'll be arguing about the same kind of stuff we normally do in a regular session," he says.
What Speer means by "stuff" is virtually anything. For instance, Rep. Mert Smiley, a Republican car dealer from Port Vincent, wants the state to have an official poem and has filed House Bill 177 to anoint "I Love My Louisiana" by James Ellis Richardson with that designation. The House Judiciary Committee is actually expected to spend time on the matter.
Rep. Bryant O. Hammett, a Ferriday Democrat and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, wants lawmakers to debate his House Bill 52, which prohibits computer-assisted hunting. This is the latest fad for hunters, found on Web sites like www.Live-Shot.com, where hogs and other critters can be gunned down through the Internet using webcams and mechanical rifles.
There are also a few bills making a return to the Legislature that always take up lively hours of debate, like bans on flag burning and human cloning. The regular session is scheduled to last 85 calendar days.
This year's $20.7 billion budget as proposed by the governor has the potential to eclipse all else. The monumental spending plan is $1.6 billion larger than the budget approved last year. It might seem irresponsible to increase spending in the shadow of an unprecedented natural disaster, but the administration argues the extra load is due to the large sums of federal relief cash flowing into the state.
The devil is in the details. Lawmakers are already rallying behind the idea of resurrecting the urban and rural development funds through the budget. Before being abolished, they were widely referred to as slush funds because governors have historically doled them out to select lawmakers for pet projects back home. Rep. Francis Thompson, a Democrat from Delhi, has vowed to personally carry out the mission.
"I'm not surprised by any of this," says Barry Erwin, president of Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit group that monitors state government. "Those pots of money have been there for years, and when you have a budget that looks fat and happy on the surface, it's inevitable that we go back to that discussion."
That misconception will likewise confuse other budgetary issues, he adds. The governor has a $135 million proposal on the table to boost pay for teachers and college faculty, and there are major shortfalls in the public hospital system's needs.
For state officials, it will be a challenging balancing act. But for people like Gerica, it's a return to politics as usual while hurricane recovery takes a backseat.
"That's all this is," Gerica says. "But I'm still hoping there will be a couple of champions up there for us that will keep things moving along."