La. politics reshaped by hurricanes

November 18, 2005|By ELLEN BARRY | ELLEN BARRY,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BATON ROUGE, LA. -- In a committee room deep inside Louisiana's Capitol this week, something unusual happened: A House panel rejected a funding proposal from the state Department of Education, complaining that it was overly generous to New Orleans' public schools.

Rep. Charlie DeWitt, a conservative Democrat from the rural community of Lecompte, was downright gleeful afterward. Sending that budget back, he said, was "so much fun."

Things are looking up for DeWitt, a former House speaker who before Hurricane Katrina felt so out of favor politically that he joined a group of legislators known as "the Outhouse Gang."

An influx of evacuees has added to the population of his district, padding its tax base. And he and his allies in the Legislature are looking forward to the long-delayed pleasure of flexing their political muscles.

"It's hard to sing the blues if you're doing well," DeWitt said.

Before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, there was a familiar equilibrium in the Louisiana Legislature. Black Democrats were key allies of Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, and conservative rural lawmakers harbored age-old grievances about New Orleans' grip on political power.

Now, with the city's population dispersed - and no indication of whether, or when, most residents will return - some lawmakers hope they are witnessing a permanent reversal of fortunes, said Elliot Stonecipher, a political analyst based in Shreveport.

"Even good people are quietly sitting back, not lending their support to the rebuilding of New Orleans," Stonecipher said. "What you're seeing is a lot of people snickering and winking and nodding. ... This is something they thought they would never see."

Late Monday, Rep. Karen Carter - a New Orleans Democrat and member of the Legislative Black Caucus - argued for a change in a bill reducing the tax rate for businesses from 3.8 percent to 3.3 percent. The break, she said, should not be extended to oil companies that have seen record profits in recent months.

"They don't need relief right now," she said. "To offer them something more when we are making cuts in central services makes absolutely no sense."

Carter exited the floor a few minutes later, looking drained. The tax breaks had passed overwhelmingly, and her amendment was voted down.

Carter described the special session as an experience of "frustration and disarray." And she laid the blame at the feet of Blanco, who she said showed "a complete lack of vision and leadership."

Similar complaints have come from the Legislative Black Caucus itself, which filed suit last week in district court, charging that Blanco had violated the state constitution by ordering $500 million in cuts to the budget without consulting lawmakers.

Black legislators also have protested the agenda for the special session, charging that it centers on deep budget cuts and tax breaks to industry rather than aid to Katrina's victims.

"It would appear that the administration is moving to the right," said Rep. Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat and chairman of the black caucus. "We're going to continue to speak for the people whose voice is ignored, and that's poor people - not just African-American, but poor people across the state."

The Legislature is powerfully influenced by the governor, who has the right to select legislative officers, veto single items in bills, call special sessions and choose what matters will be heard.

Denise Bottcher, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Blanco is not undergoing a political shift, but responding to the needs of a state in financial crisis.

"I think when you're faced with a billion-dollar budget deficit ... any fiscally responsible governor would go about starting to cut," Bottcher said. "We have no other choice. It is as simple as that. There are 200,000 people no longer in the state. If we have a smaller population, we should have smaller government."

Blanco responded to criticism from the black caucus by saying they were angered by her decision to freeze $11 million in Urban and Rural Development spending - which critics describe as "slush funds." Richmond shot back a letter describing Blanco's comments as "the lowest form of race-baiting."

Amid this rancor, key pieces of legislation already have passed: On Monday, the House and Senate passed bills that would allow the state to take over most or all of New Orleans' troubled schools; and the Senate passed a bill backed by Blanco that would create a state authority overseeing levees and coastal protection. The House on Tuesday approved $600 million in budget cuts, including those made by Blanco. The 17-day session will end Tuesday.

Analysts say that it is too early to predict the effects of migration from New Orleans except that they will be enormous. Over the next three years, almost half the state's elected officials will be forced out by term limits. Congressional elections loom in 2006, and statewide elections follow in 2007.

"Obviously there has been a large segment of the governor's electoral margin that is now in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and elsewhere," said Jim Brandt of the Louisiana Public Affairs Research Council, an independent, nonprofit think-tank based in Baton Rouge.

Still, some conservatives already are celebrating a change in the political atmosphere of the Capitol. DeWitt said the loss of minority voters to other states will resonate in Louisiana for many years.

"This state has totally changed politically," DeWitt said. "I think it's going to be probably one of the most conservative states in the South."

Ellen Barry writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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