Sunday, October 30, 2005

Mixed messages

It's been a period of mixed messages from Louisiana. None of it will help the state in its efforts at reputation rehab. First, the state requests $250 billion in federal monies for post-hurricane recovery. Then the state bond commission votes to spend tens of millions of dollars on ill-advised pet projects. Then the governor invites the president to address the upcoming special session of the legislature saying, "I can assure you that you will be welcomed by the leadership of Louisiana as a true friend and ally." Then the governor stands on the capitol steps with some of the president's most vocal national critics at a public rally where the president was referred to as neither a "friend" nor an "ally." (Note to the spin doctors: Don't even bother trying. There's no way around the fact the governor's presence at that rally was an endorsement of its message -- including the message that it's time for a change in Washington.) However legitimate the concerns about getting fair wages and opportunities for Louisianans in the post-hurricane world, the governor's participation in yesterday's rally was a really bad idea. Whatever member of the governor's staff advised her to stand on the steps of the state capitol decrying the president in the same week she issued an invitation to the president to address the special legislative session should be sacked. The most disturbing aspect of all these recent developments is that they all point to the same conclusion: There is no strategy. The state is adrift. Who's in charge around here?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Self-sabotaging behavior

My column this week discusses last week's absurd bond commission vote and that vote's negative impact on Louisiana's reputation. The column begins:

Louisiana's leadership is disappointed to discover the state still has a lingering reputation for improper spending of public monies. That reputation belongs to the past, leaders insist, because it's a new day in Louisiana.
The column concludes:
When the lieutenant governor addressed Congress last week, he accused politicians and the media of "basically 'kicking our state while it is down.'" But after last week's bond commission vote, it looks like Louisiana's doing plenty to damage its reputation without any outside help.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

That will help

Amidst all the criticism of Louisiana's post-hurricane performance, the state is now delaying its delivery of requested documents to congressional investigators. No doubt that will help the state with its efforts at reputation rehabilitation in Washington.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Actions have consequences

Kudos to the Times Picayune which today slams the state bond commission for its antics last week. The editorial states:

Louisiana's finances, in short, are in horrific shape. And in these difficult times, members of the Bond Commission, which is supposed to prevent reckless spending of public money, have completely taken leave of their senses.
My only concern with this editorial is its implication that the bond commission is acting irrationally, like someone who has "taken leave of his senses." A more cyncial interpretation of last week's vote would suggest it was a sane, coldly calculated decision to continue promoting business as usual in the state. Either way, it was a pathetic showing for Louisiana -- especially in the same week Team Landrieu, Governor Blanco, and others were defending Louisiana's way of doing business to all in Washington who would listen. One thing's for certain: Actions like last week's bond commission vote have consequences. And for Louisiana's already shaky national reputation, the timing couldn't have been worse.

Friday, October 21, 2005

"New day" not yet here

Further proof that Louisiana’s “new day” has yet to arrive: Yesterday’s state bond commission vote to conduct business as usual, funding 73 new projects. An article in today’s Times-Pic quotes Commissioner of Administration Jerry Luke LeBlanc in defense of the vote: “You cannot ignore the rest of the state when you deal with those parts of the state that are incapacitated.” But you can’t ignore the state's post-hurricane reality either. That the state bond commission’s priorities haven’t changed much since August 29 is obvious. And a common sense proposal to have each project considered independently on its merits failed to gain support. That's not evidence of a new post-Katrina sensitivity to the state's fragile economic standing and precarious national reputation. That's business as usual. Consider some of the 73 new projects the bond commission just signed off on: --$1 million for an equine center in Morehouse Parish --$975,000 for reservoir projects in Richland and Washington parishes --$300,000 for "recreational, picnic and multipurpose development" by the Avoyelles Port Commission -- $1.4 million to study a proposed cargo airport Behavior like this ensures the opinions of people like Idaho Senator Larry Craig persist. Behavior like this merely adds fuel to arguments that negative opinions of Louisiana politics remain founded on current reality instead of outdated misperceptions. It won't help the state's request for $250 billion in post-hurricane federal monies either.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Perception is still reality

All this righteous indignation about Idaho Senator Larry Craig's negative opinion of Louisiana government and politics misses the point: Perception is still reality. Senator Craig stated his opinion bluntly and it hurt Louisiana's feelings. But let's be honest: Senator Craig probably isn't the only lawmaker in Washington with a dim view of Louisiana's ability to handle this fiscal and social crisis. The senator's evaluation of Louisiana politics and leadership is a reality that this state and its leadership need to address head-on in order to bring order to the chaos the hurricanes revealed. This doesn't mean attacking Senator Craig. It means having the political courage to address the underlying issues that still allow Louisiana to be branded America's lone banana republic. The longer Louisiana tries to portray itself as "victim" in the post-hurricane world, the longer it will take for the state recover. Victims beg for $250 billion in federal monies to rebuild the state. Survivors call for tax incentives and a long-overdue re-ordering of state budget priorities. The hurricanes didn't create the state's reputation for corruption and ineffective government. But the hurricanes did expose state leadership's rhetoric about a "new day in Louisiana" for what it's long been suspected of being: Wishful thinking.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Locked in limbo

My column this week discusses the continued plight of prisoners displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Human Rights Watch press release from October 14 documenting the issue here. The testimony, compiled by HRW, of several evacuated prisoners here. Link to column here, but the Shreveport Times website is slow this morning, so full text of column below:

Emily Metzgar Locked in limbo It’s been more than seven weeks since Hurricane Katrina threw the state’s legal system into turmoil. Those who were behind bars in affected areas now find themselves trapped in a system that seems to have ceased functioning altogether. The American legal system works because it’s predictable. And the system’s legitimacy stems in part from that predictability. Detained for an offense, you are informed of your first scheduled appearance before a judge. From there, dates for resolution of the issue – whether it’s a failed drug test, a missed child support payment, a robbery, or a violent assault – are set. Bondsmen can arrange for your pretrial release, if appropriate, and attorneys ensure your file doesn’t fall through the cracks. You know when and where your case will be heard and you’re guaranteed a fair trial with unspoiled evidence and a lawyer familiar with your case. There’s a clerk’s office to receive and disseminate case-related materials. The process ensures that you, the accused, are kept abreast of the status of your situation and, if you are detained behind bars until the court date, that you are housed in appropriate conditions. And, although it’s impossible to predict the exact decision of the judge in a given case or the proclivities of an empanelled jury, you have the right to expect that, thanks to the constitutionally-mandated protections of due process, your case will be handled in a timely fashion and that the time you serve will be appropriate to the offense committed. Some unpredictability in the state’s legal system is understandable given the magnitude of the disaster that prompted the problems. But for 8500 prisoners relocated due to Hurricane Katrina, predictability disappeared in August and hasn’t been seen since. Although approximately 700 of those prisoners have been released, for the thousands who remain in custody, now detained in 26 different judicial districts, the legal process has become an unpredictable mess. Administrative offices are shut down and courts haven’t been called to order, leaving the still-incarcerated prisoners and their families locked in limbo. Hope that the situation can be resolved quickly is fading. There was hope that order might soon be restored thanks to a request filed with the Louisiana Supreme Court asking that a single judge (or, alternatively, six different judges) be designated to hear the cases of prisoners from the six evacuated parishes. But the Court denied that request in a 4-3 decision last week, leaving attorneys advocating on behalf of these forgotten prisoners with little hope that a resolution to this judicial crisis will come anytime soon. The result is that many prisoners have already spent more time behind bars than would have been required if found guilty of the offense for which they were originally detained. The situation, as observed by a Human Rights Watch spokesperson, “makes a mockery of due process.” Family members seeking information about offenders and detainees moved from areas affected by Katrina can call the Department of Corrections hotline at 225-342-3998 or 225-342-5935.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Formal redevelopment begins

Yesterday, Governor Blanco announced the establishment of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. Speaking of the LRA, Blanco said:

It will be a unified voice with the single focus on rebuilding. It will show the nation that we can work across all of the old boundaries that once kept us apart.
That's a giant task, but it's an important one for state leadership to undertake as evidenced by today's report in the New York Times about the LRA:
In a state known for its bitter political rivalries and history of corruption, the board is intended to set priorities for restoring housing, jobs, transportation, health care and education to New Orleans and other Gulf Coast areas struggling to recover.
As a reader observed in an email yesterday:
By its very nature, plans for rebuilding and the rebuilding/building anew process by government and private sector are given timeframes of 9months-5 or more years. The timeframes that people need for rebuilding and restarting their lives, however, is only a matter of weeks-3 months.
I can add nothing to this except perhaps the additional observation that since Katrina hit the Gulf Coast it's been painfully clear that some governments (local, state and national) are better equipped to respond than others. Look east to Mississippi and see that the governor has already signed Katrina-inspired legislation. Does Louisiana have any such legislation? Not yet. Sadly, what all this means is that the LRA, as bold and important and dramatic and all-encompassing as it is, may be too little too late for the hundreds of thousands who have left the affected areas and have no intention of ever coming back.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Future of NOLA

Robert Novak weighs in this morning on Louisiana's recovery efforts. He doesn't have many positive things to say about Louisiana as he sets the scene for the future of New Orleans' business redevelopment: Among Novak's comments: "Nagin is described by business leaders as overwhelmed." "Gov. Kathleen Blanco is seen as a total embarrassment." "The state's two senators, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter, are laughed at for begging open-ended multibillion-dollar expenditures." Despite all this, the overall tone of the piece is ultimately upbeat, but only because Novak believes the private sector can (and already is) doing more than elected officials.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Wanted: Leadership

Today’s Advocate has an important editorial titled “Good Advice from Giuliani.” The piece urges Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin to begin working from the same playbook, something that obviously hasn’t been happening. Although the editorial’s primary point seems to be that the governor and the mayor need to learn to play nicely together, there are some less explicit points in the piece worth highlighting. First, for what may be the first time since Katrina and Rita, The Advocate is critical of Governor Blanco’s post-hurricane leadership. The editorial observes:

“Gov. Kathleen Blanco announces task forces and working groups seemingly by the score, but is rightly pilloried by legislators because there seems to be very little in the way of leadership about how to make progress faster.”
That criticism is significant enough. But the editorial goes on to suggest that the Blanco Administration’s response so far offers no indication of the outside-the-box thinking so badly needed to get Louisiana beyond the current crisis:
“The governor's occasional statements and news conferences have not led anyone to believe that the administration has any plan other than trying to keep the state afloat with the gigantic budget problems ahead.”
The Advocate is, in the words of Elvis Presley, requesting "a little less conversation a little more action please." This could mark a significant turning point in public discussion about the post-hurricane response. The editorial quotes former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani who explained that the secret to NYC’s post-9/11 success was the mayor and the governor were "joined at the hip." Don’t forget, these were two politicians without particular fondness for one another when disaster struck. Still, New York’s crisis demanded leadership. And leadership resulted. It’s obvious there’s no love lost between Blanco and Nagin -- no doubt due in part to Nagin’s endorsement of Blanco’s opposition in the governor’s race. And no one’s suggesting Blanco and Nagin need to learn to like one another. They just need to set aside whatever petty differences they have -- and given the magnitude of the challenge ahead, all differences are petty -- and work together to do what they were both elected to do: Lead. It’s been 7 weeks. How much longer should Louisiana be expected to wait?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Louisiana Works

A new website operated by Louisiana's Department of Labor is up and running, although not all links are active yet. The website's called Louisiana Works and it's an all-purpose clearinghouse for information on labor-related topics in Louisiana. The site also includes helpful links to still-relevant hurricane disaster relief information. Looks like a good resource and a great example of government channeling its information and resource advantages to provide much-needed information to the public.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Louisiana's new politics?

Today's Washinton Post has an article about how the hurricane-forced displacement of more than 400,000 Louisianans will impact the state's politics. The potential long-term (perhaps even permanent) displacement of the state Democratic party's margin of victory suggests Louisiana politics may never be the same. Indeed, the WaPo writes,

In political circles last month, "there was talk that the Democrats' margin of victory [in Louisiana] was living in the Astrodome in Houston," said Ronald D. Utt, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation.
As one pundit recently observed, with Katrina and Rita's forced outmigrations and upheavals, "overnight Louisiana became a Republican state." That may be overstating things a bit, but it certainly highlights the significant changes in store for Louisiana's politics. Today's article in the Post leads to several serious questions now facing the state: --Should people who have stated they have no intention to return be allowed to vote in future elections? --Can the state, with its history of racial politics and the still-profound disparities between the state's haves and have-nots (as broadcast for the world to see during Katrina) weather this political, social and economic crisis? --Is a return to the pre-hurricane status quo going to be good enough? Perhaps the most important question is whether Louisiana can reform its public education, public health, criminal justice and economic development environments enough to convince voters to continue to call Louisiana home.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Prison outrage

My column today focuses on recent statements from Human Rights Watch about the alleged abandonment of more than 600 prisoners at Orleans Parish Prison as Katrina churned ashore. There are reports that now, 6 weeks after the storm, more than one hundred prisoners are still unaccounted for. If the allegations are true -- and there's no reason to believe they're not -- then Louisiana is likely facing its biggest post-Katrina public relations disaster yet. An event planned for later this morning will attempt to further raise public awareness about the issue. The abandonment of incarcerated human beings to the wrath of a hurricane and its aftermath is an indicator of absolute moral bankruptcy. Nebulous promises of leadership, no matter how frequently repeated, cannot substitute for what should be immediate, public and thorough official investigation of the allegations. If the reports of prisoner abandonment and death are true, then quick and dramatic retribution for those responsible ought to be just the beginning of the official response.

Today's column

The Shreveport Times website is a bit lethargic this morning. My column for today is copied below

Emily Metzgar: Concern grows about prison evacuation efforts October 12, 2005 State media really hasn't noticed and Louisiana's political establishment doesn't particularly want it highlighted, but there's growing concern about alleged events at Orleans Parish Prison as Hurricane Katrina came ashore. And yet, there's been more attention devoted to the plight of missing, displaced or stranded Louisiana pets than there has been to the plight of prisoners. Human beings, even incarcerated, deserve more respect. Late last month, Human Rights Watch accused Orleans Parish Prison corrections officers of abandoning hundreds of prisoners as Katrina hit. According to HRW, in Templeman III, one of the three buildings comprising one of the nation's largest prison complexes, "As of Aug. 29, there were no correctional officers in the building, which held more than 600 inmates. These inmates, including some who were locked in ground-floor cells, were not evacuated until Thursday, Sept. 1, four days after flood waters in the jail had reached chest-level." Television images of prisoners, clad in orange jumpsuits, shackled at the ankles, and standing in water at the end of a submerged interstate entrance ramp were disturbing. It took news commentators time to digest what they saw. "These men are all in uniform," observed one broadcaster speculating about from where they had come and for what purpose. But the images were no mystery to anyone who drives Louisiana's highways and sees men in the same "uniforms" gathering trash. They were prisoners and there was no telling where they'd been since the storm and flooding. HRW says, "Some inmates from Templeman III have said they saw bodies floating in the floodwaters as they were evacuated." HRW also notes several corrections officers acknowledged there was no evacuation plan for the prison. Asked about the possible fate of the prisoners, one officer said, "Ain't no tellin' what happened to those people." Indeed. According to the statement from Human Rights Watch, as of late September, there were at least 130 prisoners from Templeman III that still were unaccounted for, despite state Department of Corrections statements that all prisoners were evacuated. Last week, Florida's St. Petersburg Times reported Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gussman's response to Human Rights Watch's statements about the prison and the treatment of the prisoners: "They're in jail, man. They lie." They better be lying. All of them, from those held for murder to those detained for public drunkenness on Katrina Eve. But the state's track record on prisoners isn't encouraging. Louisiana has America's highest prisoner incarceration rate without accompanying rates of crime. The indigent defense system has been nationally condemned. The state's death row exoneration rate is the nation's second-highest. The system demonstrably is broken but the state lacks the political will to fix it. Last month, when Louisiana Corrections Secretary Richard Stalder spoke about evacuated inmates he said "Some have assured me they will never be late on child support payments again." But if Human Rights Watch is right about what happened at Templeman III, some prisoners may not have survived to make those payments at all. Emily Metzgar is a Shreveport-based freelance writer. Write to her in care of The Times, P.O. Box 30222, Shreveport, LA 71130-0222. E-mail to shreveportopinion@gannett.com

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

More Katrina tragedies

From a press release for an event scheduled for tomorrow morning

CONTACT: Tamika Midddleton, 504-813-4714; Xochitl Bervera, 504-606-8846 FAMILY MEMBERS AND PRISONERS SHARE NIGHTMARE AFTER KATRINA Broad Coalition Calls for Independent Investigation of OPP Evacuation, Amnesty and Real Public Safety Models for New Orleans WHAT: A JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE called by Critical Resistance, Families & Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, People’s Hurricane Relief Committee, and the Southern Center for Human Rights WHERE: Orleans Parish Prison 2800 Gravier street (Corner of Gravier and South White, One Block From South Broad) WHEN: 11:00 am, Wednesday, October 12, 2005 NEW ORLEANS, LA – “They won’t let my daughter out of prison, even though she was supposed to have been released weeks ago,” says Althea Francois. “This is a long time for us to be separated – I’m worried sick about her. And I know there are thousands of families in the same situation.” Stories like Ms. Francois’ have galvanized a broad coalition of human rights organizations, community groups, Orleans Parish prisoners, and their families, who will gather on Wednesday in front of the now infamous Orleans Parish Prison (OPP). The press conference will take place during Critical Resistance’s Delegation on Safety and the Status of Prisoners, which is calling attention to charges that prisoners were left to drown in locked jail cells, hundreds more were arrested for the ‘crime’ of trying to feed themselves after Katrina, and thousands have had their cases thrown into legal limbo post-Katrina. The press conference will share personal stories of prisoners left to rising floodwaters without food or water in locked jail cells at Orleans Parish Prison, of arrest and imprisonment at the makeshift jail now set up at the New Orleans’ Greyhound bus station, and of individuals who would have been released from jail or prison but for Katrina. Members will demand an independent investigation into the evacuation of OPP and amnesty for those arrested for trying to feed and clothe themselves post-Katrina, while calling for real public safety in a rebuilt New Orleans. “Rising from the devastation of Katrina, we have an amazing opportunity to rebuild a truly new and genuine system of public safety for New Orleans,” said Xochitl Bervera, Co-Director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children. Along with lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Southern Center for Human Rights, the press conference will include personal stories from mothers whose children were left to drown in chest-high water at Orleans Parish Prison, and Ortegas Coleman, who was one of hundreds imprisoned at the makeshift jail set up in the New Orleans’ Greyhound Bus Station. Pointing to additional recent accounts of police beatings, “Katrina’s aftermath reflects the way we as a nation increasingly deal with social ills: police and imprison primarily poor Black communities for ‘crimes’ that are reflections of poverty and desperation,” said Tamika Middleton, New Orleans-based Organizer with Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization whose mission is to end society’s use of imprisonment as an answer to social problems. Louisiana has had the highest rate of incarceration of any state in the U.S. Blacks are grossly over-represented, making up 72% of the state prison population, while only representing 35% of the total population “This emphasis on ‘law and order’ has historically had a devastating impact on the people of New Orleans,” Middleton continued. “Locking people up in this crisis is cruel mismanagement of city resources and counters the outpouring of the world’s support and concern for all survivors of Hurricane Katrina.”

Quickly & dramatically?

Today's Advocate reports the governor's chief of staff, Andy Kopplin, spoke to state lawmakers and the Baton Rouge press club yesterday. Replying to criticism about the administration's post-hurricane response, Kopplin assured the audience:

You will see substantive leadership on the part of the state... We are making progress. Action is coming quickly and dramatically. You will see it.
A few thoughts in response: --It's been six weeks since Katrina. More than two weeks since Rita. How exactly does the administration define quickly and dramatically? (The speed with which the governor apparently called for troops post-Katrina suggests the administration abides by unusually lethargic definitions of both "quick" and "dramatic.") --Mississippi has demonstrated "substantive leadership." Louisiana hasn't. --Promising leadership and demonstrating leadership are two entirely different things. Perhaps that's why, as Rep. Danny Martiny noted in the Advocate piece, "'We are getting absolutely obliterated' in the national media."

Monday, October 10, 2005

NBC looks at Louisiana

For those unable to see the video, what follows is the transcript of a short piece that aired on NBC Nightly News on Saturday, October 8, 2005. Anyone who's been following events since Katrina will see there is little new. Still, having this information broadcast worldwide won't help Louisiana in its ongoing efforts at reputation rehab. It also serves as a reminder of the many still unanswered questions about Louisiana's response.

The response of Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco during Hurricane Katrina JOHN SEIGENTHALER, anchor: In the aftermath of the hurricanes, NBC News has been taking a hard look at response failures by government officials, and there are plenty to go around. We've already brought you reviews of federal and city actions. Well, tonight, NBC senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers focuses on the performance of Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. LISA MYERS reporting: It was governor Blanco's first big disaster, and on that Saturday, less than 48 hours before Katrina hit, she reassured the state. Governor KATHLEEN BLANCO: I believe that we are really prepared. That's the one thing that I've always been able to brag about. MYERS: Though experts had warned it would take 48 hours to evacuate New Orleans, Blanco did not order a mandatory evacuation that Saturday. Gov. BLANCO: And we're going to pray that--that the impact will soften. MYERS: She and the mayor waited until Sunday, only 20 hours before Katrina came ashore, to order a mandatory evacuation, the first of what disaster experts and Louisiana insiders say were serious mistakes by the governor. Mr. DONALD CRAVINS (Democrat, Louisiana State Senator): It certainly appeared that there was a lot of inde--indecisiveness exhibited by the governor in the early stages of the disaster. MYERS: A key criticism the governor's slowness in requesting federal troops. She told the president she needed help, but it wasn't until Wednesday that she specifically asked for 40,000 troops. That day in a whispered conversation with her staff caught on camera, the governor appears to second guess herself. Gov. BLANCO: (From file footage) I really need to call for the military. Unidentified Aide: (From file footage) Yes, you do. Gov. BLANCO: (From file footage) I should have started that in the first call. MYERS: Another key mistake, experts say, Blanco's lateness in getting the Louisiana National Guard, which she commands, on the streets to try to establish security. Ms. JANE BULLOCK (Former Clinton FEMA official): It would have been better if it had happened sooner. MYERS: And remember the chaos at the convention center? We now know there were at least 250 Guardsmen deployed in another part of that building but they were engineers, not police, so they were not directed to help restore order or even to share their food and water. Colonel DOUG MOUTON (Louisiana National Guard): I think we would've hurt a lot of people if we tried to take that on. MYERS: The governor would not say whether she made the decision not to use these troops, and tells NBC News that her state's response to Katrina was, quote, "very well planned and executed with great precision and effectiveness." Mr. ROY FLETCHER (Louisiana Political Consultant): How could any governor argue that they have done what they can do when people were left on an interstate without food and water for a week? MYERS: The governor has said she takes responsibility for what went wrong, but insists her biggest mistake was believing FEMA officials who told her help was on the way. Lisa Myers, NBC News, Washington.

A dreadful idea

The Times Picayune has weighed in on NOLA Mayor Nagin's proposal that casino gambling be expanded in the city to help spur its regrowth. The Times-Pic rightly calls this "a dreadful idea."

Mayor Ray Nagin's vision of a downtown casino district running along the city's prime business corridor and one of its most-storied streets is a dreadful idea. This is not what the new New Orleans should be.
The Mayor's suggestion is a clear example of how crises have done little to change the state's business-as-usual thinking. Am I the only one who's read Bad Bet on the Bayou? The last line of today's Times-Pic editorial is straightfoward:
Find a better way to recreate New Orleans.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Louisiana in depth

A couple of good, in-depth pieces in today's papers about Louisiana in general and New Orleans in particular. Both articles are worth reading through: New York Times: Wading Toward Home Washington Post: The Slow Drowning of New Orleans

Friday, October 07, 2005

Mississippi: Not Louisiana

Just glancing at this interview with Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi, it's clear that his state's approach to government, entitlement and recovery is entirely different from that of Louisiana. Compare Gov. Barbour's statements and media coverage of Mississippi to the news from Louisiana in recent weeks ($250 billion legislative request; delayed scheduling of special state legislative session; pleas for federal money to subsidize bloated public payrolls; blaming the federal government; ineffective leadership at all levels, etc...) and the differences are clear-cut: Start with the pre-Katrina environment. Barbour on the MS state budget:

It is important for us to be good stewards. But my own view about government is that when you are not at a crisis that is the time to start looking for savings. My state’s budget for this fiscal year that started July 1 was 1.75% less than we spent last year, real savings. Most of the departments and agencies took 5% cuts. We would have been spending, and were spending, less on Medicaid this year than last year. Not less than the baseline projection, not less than somebody asked for, but less... We were going to spend 1.75% less this year than last year.
Barbour on the breadth of destruction in MS:
We have had about a half a million households, over 40% of the families in our state, who have applied for disaster assistance. Seventy percent of our population, and more than half the area of the state, are in counties that have been declared major disaster areas. So, we are not talking about a calamity on the coast. We are talking about 29,000 square miles and 47 of our 82 counties. That’s by the way, 29,000 out of 47,000 square miles. If you take 1.9 million people, which is how many people live in these counties, and if you get 98% of things right, there are 4,000 people a day who have something to complain about.
Barbour on federal government footing the bill:
...I don’t think it’s right for them [federal government] to pay the whole bill, because it’s important that the state and local governments be contributing. That will help make us good stewards, because we will be stewards of our own money as well as the federal taxpayers’ money. As I understand it, there have been 90-10 splits in the past, and that’s what we would like to see. Now, the federal government is paying 100% in the immediate wake of the storm, but when we come to rebuilding our infrastructure, we would like for the federal government to pay 90% and us to pay 10%. We would not favor the federal government paying 100%.
Asked about Louisiana's request for $250 billion, Barbour says:
... I don’t think the cost of relief, recovery and rebuilding will be anything like that amount. That seems to me very excessive. We are trying to project what the costs would be here and it is a small fraction of that... [Mississippi's needs] will be well under $50 billion. Well under. Our best estimates right now are in the low thirties. I don’t want anybody to think we are trying to compare Mississippi to anyone else. We’ll stand on our own two feet. We need the federal government’s help. At the same time, we are going to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money, and we are not going to try to use this as a way to gouge the taxpayers.
The differences between Louisiana's and Mississippi's political cultures are stark. And those differences are being noted by people across the country. So Louisiana's not only squandering its opportunity to improve a poor national reputation, it's actually providing new fodder confirming that the poor reputation remains an accurate portrayal of the state's political reality.

Louisiana's loss

Around the country, Louisiana's hurricane evacuees are putting down new roots and leaving Louisiana behind. A few stories from recent papers: St. Petersburg Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Rocky Mountain News. Their departure is Louisiana's loss.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Update from FFLIC

From Families & Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children:

Friends and Allies: We owe you all an update and we'll get it out just as soon as we can. The short of it for those who dont know is that FFLIC quickly relocated to Lake Charles/Sulphur after Katrina hit in order to continue with the work we felt we needed to do. When Rita came along, we all had to evacuate again. Our staff is scattered again. We are not allowed back into either parish to work. Gina, Kori and Xochitl are travelling and sleeping on friends and familiy's couches. Gina returned last week for the first time to see the damage of her home in New Orleans - both the city and her home, she says, are devastated. Grace, our Lake Charles organizer did get home but is now without electricity and is standing in 3 hour lines for ice, gas and food. Many of our members were hit hard by Rita as well. And that is actually why we wanted to send this quick request for help out today. Some people on this list have mentioned wanting to donate clothing and other items. Marcy, a parent coordinator for FFLIC from Lake Charles (and an amazing outreach worker and organizer) returned from evacuation to find 2 tree in her home. It is lost. She had no insurance. The hotel where she was staying was going to put her and her husband out just a few days ago because they couldnt pay. FFLIC was able to help out from our fund (your donations - thank you!) and will continue to assist her in finding and affording housing. But she and her husband have an immediate need for clothing. If anyone would like to send some clothing to help out a long time FFLIC member, we would really appreciate it. All packages could be sent to: Marcy Tweed Pinevile Days Inn 11 Lord of Lords Ave Pineville LA 71360 She is in 2x for shirts and 1x or 2x in pants and she wears a size 8 shoe. Her husband is in 34 pants, XL for shirts and 11 shoe. Thank you - anybody who sends a package if you could just email xochitl@mediajumpstart.org a quick note letting me know, that would be great. We know she will be at this address for a week and a half longer. Be in touch soon and with so much thanks and respect, Xochitl, Gina, Grace, Kori FFLIC

Recovering from crisis

My column today borrows a page from Thomas Kuhn's famous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The point is that Louisiana can recover from the current crisis with original thinking and a new approach to doing business.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Consequences

News reports are beginning to reflect the magnitude of the reality check Louisiana now faces. None of the following is really new aside from the hurricane context: The NYT reports Louisiana may lose population and a congressional seat as a result of Katrina and Rita. But as the state demographer quoted in the article acknowledges, "We have not shown a positive net migration in many years." The reasons for that are well-understood. Among them: a stagnant economy and a failed public school system. Gannett News Service reports the state is seeking federal assistance to cover local and parish payrolls for up to 3 years in order to provide necessary public services. Governor Blanco said, "We need to allow federal aid money to cover more than merely overtime for public employees" and the article suggests that may be for up to 3 years. Of course, the receipt of federal money for public payrolls -- if approved at all -- will likely be accompanied by scrutiny of those payrolls. Are those payrolls up to it? The statewide trend of increased public employees (despite outmigration -- see above) is unlikely to go unnoticed. Obviously public services must be provided and the money for that must come from somewhere. But asking U.S. taxpayers to sustain more of Louisiana's business-as-usual isn't likely to go over well in the long-run (or at least for the next 3 years). There's more of the same from last week's Associated Press report about Louisiana's post-hurricane budget picture. It isn't pretty:

The state is forecast to permanently lose as many as 125,000 jobs... More than a third of the state's residents live in areas hit by the two hurricanes and 37 percent of the state's jobs are located there... 81,000 businesses [are] closed or at least displaced — 41 percent of Louisiana's companies and... up to 325,000 jobs will be temporarily lost.
The message from the AP report is that Louisiana can no longer generate the income it has relied upon to feed its growing state budget -- up more than $1 billion just last year. In other words, Louisiana can't sustain the way it's been doing business. Maybe if business taxes had been fully eliminated rather than phased out they would have been less vulnerable to the tragedies in the long term... Maybe if the state political environment had been more business-friendly there would have been more businesses in the area to begin with... The what-ifs are endless and depressing. No one could have predicted -- and certainly no one would have hoped for -- the tragedies that have befallen Louisiana in the last month. But sometimes a crisis presents opportunities for positive change. Hurricane fallout is simply accelerating problems that were already well underway (but almost completely unaddressed) in Louisiana before the 2005 hurricane season. Until Katrina, Louisiana had somehow always managed to kick the can down the road. But corrupt, bloated and ineffective government ultimately has consequences. And now, Louisiana is reaping what is has sown.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Louisiana matters

Yesterday, Senator Mary Landrieu responded to last week's Washington Post editorial with a written op-ed explaining why Louisiana matters. Obviously it was necessary for the state to respond in some fashion to that newspaper's scathing editorial -- regardless of the many truths buried within it. But Landrieu's response is to highlight all the important things Louisiana does for the country -- sea food, oil & gas, extremely busy ports, etc. All valid points with which no one disagrees. But Senator Landrieu sidestepped the Post's primary argument: Louisiana has demonstrated no awareness of a need to change the way it does business. Instead Landrieu writes,

The Post dismissed the federal government's role in the rebuilding of these and other devastated sectors of our economy. It described an effort to rebuild the regional economy as extraneous, comparing it to a sports venue miles from Ground Zero in New York. The people of Louisiana do not share this simplistic view. Nor would an Iowa farmer unable to bring his grain to market, or a Virginia mother who can't keep up with rising gas costs for the family car, or a Chicago seafood restaurateur trying to expand his business even as supplies are constrained.
I again direct your attention to language in the Post's original editorial:
Like looters who seize six televisions when their homes have room for only two, the Louisiana legislators are out to grab more federal cash than they could possibly spend usefully. For example, their bill demands $7 billion for rebuilding evacuation and energy supply routes, but it also demands a separate $5 billion for road building and makes no mention of the $3.1 billion already awarded to the state in the recent transportation legislation. The bill demands $50 billion in community development block grants, partly to get small businesses going, but it also demands $150 million for a small-business loan fund plus generous business tax breaks. The bill even asks for $35 million for seafood marketing and $25 million for a sugar-cane research laboratory. This is the equivalent of New York responding to the attacks on the World Trade Center by insisting upon a federally financed stadium in Brooklyn.
The Post editorial continued:
The Louisiana delegation has apparently devoted little thought to the root causes of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. [emphasis added]
And that's the rub. In a statement of righteous indignation that Louisiana should be so badly maligned by a major newspaper, Senator Landrieu neglects to address the issue at the core of all federally-funded post-Katrina and post-Rita reconstruction concerns: The state's demonstrated inability to make good use of many of the federal dollars it does get. Senator Landrieu argues that Lousiana should be given broad-ranging control of the reconstruction process but fails to acknowledge anything about the reality of the context within which this disaster took place. It's that continued denial of reality that has the rest of the country rightly concerned about how federal dollars might be used in the Bayou State.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

On aiming higher

Today the New York Times has an article about Louisiana's checkered political history having a negative impact on the state's post-hurricane future -- particularly on national perceptions about the state's ability to properly handle the influx of aid dollars. The article notes:

John Maginnis, a journalist, author and editor of a statewide political newsletter, said that Louisiana's reputation for bad behavior had outstripped its reality, and that whatever flaws one could see in its current leading players - Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, Senators Mary L. Landrieu and David Vitter, and Mayor C. Ray Nagin of New Orleans - none had been the subject of major ethical issues.
Given the state's history, having several high-profile officials who've never been embroiled in "major ethical issues" may indeed be progress, but it's not saying much when the best that can be said of current leadership is "they've never been indicted." Isn't it time for Louisiana to aim higher?