Louisiana’s post-hurricane disaster: Part 1, the state

Much of the debris left behind in Louisiana by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is familiar to Louisiana citizens, for it is the detritus of a system that relies on pork, patronage, and power plays. When the Louisiana Bond Commission met several weeks ago, it performed the shocking act of doing nothing to change its pre-Katrina plans. Every item that had been earmarked before August 29, including $4 million for the Morehouse Parish Equine Center, the proposal that drew the most negative response from both the local and national press. State Treasurer John Kennedy requested line-item approval of the Bond Commission’s work, but when the commission met a second time, its members voted to make no changes.

Governor Kathleen Blanco has done the most annoying thing a governor can do to the state legislature–and it is something no governor has ever before dared to do–she announced the elimination of the legislators’ $11 million worth of slush funds. These funds, the source of annual power struggles in the state, are the goody funds legislators use to get pet projects for their districts, and they are considered sacred. Complaints are mounting over Blanco’s decision. The governor has also announced intended cuts in every department except for the legislative and judiciary departments, but those may also fall to the cutting ax before the current legislative session is over.

To outsiders–and even to many within the state–it was startling to hear Blanco demand that legislators making money off of post-hurricane relief must disclose their income. Though it appears to most of us to be inappropriate for them to be earning any income from relief efforts in the first place, it is safe to say that if the governor were to prohibit such schemes, her plans for Louisiana would be shut down by powerful state senators and representatives. She is boxed in by a system that has been in place for generations. Some of us were hoping she would put her foot down, anyway, but that isn’t going to happen.

Political experts in Louisiana say that legislators in districts not directly affected by Katrina and Rita simply are not concerned with the immense social and economic damage done by the storms, and are interested only in what they can get for their own districts. Katrina and Rita directly affected parishes in southeast and southwest Louisiana, but central and northern parishes did not experience any storm damage. Of course, if the New Orleans economy and the economies of surrounding parishes are permanently destroyed, there goes the Port, the Superdome, a huge tourism industry, what had become a rapidly growing film industry, the state’s oil and gas business, and the Louisiana seafood industry.

Before the two hurricanes brought an unprecedented crisis to Louisiana, the state was already dealing with crises in its healthcare and educational systems, as well as several environmental crises. Blanco’s team and the state government had massive tasks set before them, and Louisianians were skeptical about solutions. Now there is reason for even more skepticism, as these crucial matters are displaced by the issue of immediate economic recovery, and the state’s lawmakers exhibit near-blindness in their vision.