Stuck in the Middle

by Jeremy Alford

The legislative session hits the halfway mark this week, but the governor's agenda still has a long way to go.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco is on the threshold of her potential resurgence, with six weeks of the regular session behind her and just as much time remaining. Her nine-point legislative agenda, ambitiously coined "Louisiana's Path to Progress and Promise," is in varying stages of progress or decay, and its fate could very well be her own.

Blanco stumbled badly in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but she has a shot at redemption in the current session. In baseball parlance, she's swinging for the fence ' which means she could hit a home run â?¦ or strike out.

"This is a very difficult position to be in," says Dr. Kirby Goidel, director of the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University. "The task of rebuilding and everything else in this session is such a difficult job to accomplish, and her political capital, as far as approval ratings, is so low."

The latest poll by SurveyUSA, which is funded by a media consortium, has Blanco's approval at 36 percent, down sharply from the 55 percent approval rating she enjoyed a year ago.

Add to that the recent low voter turnout in New Orleans and Blanco's political prospects become even more tenuous. Roughly 27,000 fewer votes were cast in New Orleans' April 22 primary than in the 2003 governor's race. That could force Blanco to look elsewhere to shore up her base. Signing important bills into law and steering the Legislature her way would be a good place to start.

When the session convened, Blanco came on strong, vowing to veto any effort to expand gambling. She sent her chief attorney, Terry Ryder, to echo that message in committee meetings. One after another, lawmakers folded ' save Rep. Warren Triche, a Lafourche Parish Democrat who continued pushing his Texas Hold'em bill until it was defeated on the House floor.

The governor also promised to quell any move to resurrect the Urban and Rural Development Funds, which have been tagged "slush funds" because they were doled out by previous administrations to favored lawmakers for pet projects back home. Some lawmakers on key budget committees had pledged to restore the funds, but it now appears that move is dead, according to House Speaker Joe Salter, a Florien Democrat. "They don't exist," Salter told a north Louisiana newspaper, adding there will still be money available in places like the Parish Road Fund and Community Development Block Grants for lawmakers currying favor with the Fourth Floor.

From a political perspective, Blanco solidified one of her strongest bases of support ' oil and gas interests ' by backing a measure to allow the Department of Natural Resources, rather than the courts, to decide how to handle so-called legacy suits, which involve polluted land, property owners and oil companies.

The legislation, authored by Sen. Robert Adley, a Benton Democrat, made it out of committee and was pending action in the Senate last week. Supporting Adley's bill is a slick move for Blanco, who could use fundraising help from Big Oil before next year's elections.

Meanwhile, Blanco has issues with other political factions, such as the Legislative Black Caucus. While most lawmakers like Blanco's recent staffing changes (replacing her legislative director and chief of staff), the healing process is slow after the caucus felt snubbed by Blanco during previous legislative sessions.

"For myself, personally, there has been more of a concerted effort to communicate," says Rep. Michael L. Jackson, a Baton Rouge Democrat. "It doesn't mean that everything is fine and dandy at the Capitol, but there are new opportunities for us to adequately discuss issues."

On the policy front, Blanco saw a House committee ignore her wishes and approve a voucher program for underperforming New Orleans schools. She managed to swat the initiative down by just one vote on the House floor and by a tie vote in a Senate committee.

For their part, Republicans remain a thorn in the administration's side. They recently forced the governor to amend a section of her post-Katrina housing program that was going to be based partly on income levels. The GOP also is expected to oppose her health care priorities.

As the second half of the session approaches, the state's operating budget is still in committee and the governor's crown jewel ' her proposed teacher pay raise ' has yet to be fully aired. That will be the real test of her new staff.

"We feel confident and comfortable that the pay raise will be successful in passing," says Hunt Downer, Blanco's legislative director. "And there are many more initiatives from her package that have already passed or are coming up."

Goidel says some measures, such as strengthening the homeland security office and consolidating New Orleans government, could expedite the rebuilding process and give Blanco a boost ' if she can take credit for them. But what she needs most is the means to keep lawmakers from spinning out of control on other issues.