Back in the Saddle

by Jeremy Alford

From the budget to teacher pay and property rights, Gov. Kathleen Blanco sounds off as she tackles her first full session since last year's hurricanes.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco has finished her speech to open the Legislative session, and she's traveling down River Road in her black Yukon Denali toward Louisiana State University to watch the men's basketball team practice. It's not every day that the state's flagship university makes it to the Final Four ' and it's certainly more exciting than some of the games being played back at the State Capitol. Blanco is in no mood to discuss human cloning, cockfighting, abortion and other emotionally divisive bills on the legislative docket.

"These hot button issues are so distracting," she says, shaking her head and rolling her eyes in agitation. "I really hope they don't turn the process upside down."

After five previous legislative sessions as governor, Blanco seems to realize there is very little she can do to control the Legislature. In her opening speech, she told lawmakers to "have at it," be partisan and bicker all they want ' just make sure the work of the state gets done.

And she won't let legislators take unnecessary bites out of her proposed $20.7 billion budget to do it. Some lawmakers are putting on a full-court press to resurrect the controversial urban and rural slush funds. Before being abolished, partly by Blanco, the funds were traditionally used by governors to dole out cash to select lawmakers for pet projects. Blanco has line-item veto authority and says any move to restore the funds will be squashed.

"I will stand my ground on that," she declares. "Legislators cannot just dial up anytime they want and send money somewhere."

Democratic Rep. Francis Thompson from Delhi has vowed to carry out the mission and restore the funds personally. Maybe that's why Blanco singled him out during her opening speech when she announced the state would purchase 1,400 acres along Interstate 20 in Richland Parish for economic development.

"Before you jump to conclusions, let me quickly reassure you that Francis Thompson does not own the land," she remarked with a chuckle, referring to the state representative's penchant for supporting projects he has a financial interest in, like his hometown Poverty Point Reservoir.

The offensive and defensive budget maneuvers have also begun over increased teacher pay, a campaign promise Blanco made and attempted to enact in a pre-Katrina and Rita session. This time, the governor has proposed a $1,500 annual raise for Louisiana's estimated 59,000 certified teachers ' a total investment of $105 million.

"The proposal is both fiscally and educationally sound," Blanco says. "Our teachers are among the lowest paid in the region and in the country. This is simply not conducive to long-term progress in education. After all, student performance is directly linked to quality teachers."

Opponents argue it's a political move aimed at satisfying one of Blanco's political bases. Others contend the money could be better utilized elsewhere, such as in the charity hospital system. The governor waves off the notion.

"Every year they say they don't have enough money," Blanco says. "We are redesigning the system, and you can rest assured that health care will be taken care of."

Overall, the budget is bigger than ever, swelling to $1.6 billion more than the spending plan approved last year. Blanco says that's due to the monstrous sums of federal relief cash flowing into state coffers and isn't being lulled into a false sense of security. Her staff is looking into options such as placing the federal monies into another account or earmarking it separately.

Other big-ticket moves Blanco is pushing: consolidating New Orleans government, a concept that faltered during the February special session; expanding and re-training Louisiana's workforce through a $15 million program; and an unexpected piece of legislation that could offer a compromise to the controversial issue of legacy sites polluted by oil companies.

The governor's most significant battle could be how she interacts with lawmakers ' a sore spot for her administration. In the most recent special session in February, Blanco encountered resistance. Some lawmakers staged walk-outs, and her own leadership voted against a few of Blanco's priorities. It was a far cry from the governor's first legislative session, when Blanco earned the nickname Queen Bee after she stripped Rep. Troy Hebert of his chairmanship of the House Insurance Committee.

"The difference was this time they came and told me early on why they had disagreements," Blanco says. "And I'm going to let them represent their people the way they want to."

In her opening speech to the Legislature last week, Blanco struck a different tone with lawmakers. She joked with them in a familiar way and drew a firm line in the sand on certain topics. For instance, Blanco made it clear ' in very certain terms ' that she would veto any and all measures to expand gambling: "I want to reiterate my position on that: No. And if I'm not clear: Veto."

Her new attitude and approach is unproven, but a regular session brimming with hot issues is a perfect place to try out the strategy. If nothing else, the governor says the alterations should ease the transition the state faces.

"I was trying to strike a different tone," Blanco says of her session speech and staff changes. "I wanted to spark some humor. I've put [lawmakers] through a couple of intense special sessions, and we had some serious things to take care of. It was time to transition. There's a yearning in the public, and in the body, for a sense of normalcy. It will help speed up recovery."