Blanco admonishes president in speech to lawmakers

By Ed Anderson and Robert Travis Scott

BATON ROUGE — Gov. Kathleen Blanco kicked off a history-making special session of the Legislature Monday evening at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center with a forceful message to the federal government and state lawmakers to support her levee board and housing programs for hurricane recovery.

In what was widely seen as the sharpest speech of her beleaugured political career since Hurricane Katrina, Blanco admonished President Bush for dodging Louisiana’s requests for aid while announcing an ultimatum to the federal government to give Louisiana a larger share of oil and gas royalites from offshore drilling or face a roadblock to future exploration in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico.

“If no effort is made to guarantee our fair share of royalties, I have warned the federal government that we will be forced to block the August sale of offshore oil and gas leases,” Blanco said. “It’s time to play hardball, as I believe that’s the only game Washington understands.”

The governor has limited administrative ability to stop the leases, but since such an action has never been taken it is unclear how authoritative her blockage might be. The state receives only a fraction of the annual $5 billion in federal royalties.

Blanco’s chosen venue of the convention center, a scene of human misery for thousands stranded during the botched evacuation of Katrina, was a symbolic departure from tradition. The Legislature has not met outside Baton Rouge in 125 years. The governor led many of the state’s lawmakers on a tour of the most flood-ravaged regions of the area on Monday, and the assembly will return to the state Capitol today to resume business for the 12-day session.

Housing a temporary medical center and still missing carpet over acres of bare concrete floors within its vast halls, the convention center itself is still obviosuly in need of repair.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus who last week accused Blanco of using lawmakers as a “backdrop” and threatened to not attend, did in fact show up and said he was “pleasingly surprised” at the contents of the governor’s 21-minute address.

“She finally addressed that bringing our people back is the No. 1 priority” by promising to push bills guaranteeing more voter participation in the New Orleans elections, safer levees and ways to help area residents rebuild shattered homes.

The governor went further than ever before in laying out details for how she wants to invest $7.7 billion the federal government has allocated to Louisiana for block grants and hazard mitigation funds.

Subject to approval by her Louisiana Recovery Authority and a legislative budget committee, she would spend $4.6 billion to help homeowners repair, rebuild or relocate their homes. Another $1 billion would be used to develop affordable housing.

To breathe life back into hospitals, schools and utilities, she would spend $1.75 billion, while $350 million would go toward job growth initiatives such as business incentives, bridge loans and workforce training.

The emphasis on housing was significant, because the administration feels left out in the cold on the subject after Bush rejected the so-called Baker bill, a proposal with wide support on the local and state level that would create a public-private incentive program to keep mortgage companies and homeowners from taking a bath financially becuase of blighted property.

“As you know, the White House tried to blow this solution out of the saddle. This is second-class treatment,” Blanco said. “Our people who lost everything are not second-class citizens. They deserve an equitable solution. We will continue to fight for a fair hearing.”

Blanco said her housing recovery program, embodied in a plan that would include the creation of a Louisiana Housing and Land Trust Authority, was not designed to replace the Baker bill.

Blanco pounded home themes she has been crafting since the storms. Her speech was interrupted 19 times with applause from the crowd, which included lawmakers, their guests and hundreds of ordinary citizens.

She drew a standing ovation for her line, “We had all better put Louisiana politics aside and worry about Washington politics or our people and our state will lose.”

The governor decried the the fact that Mississippi has received a much larger proportionate share of federal assistance and that Bush scarcely mentioned the state’s plight in his State of the Union address last week.

“The harsh reality is that for many people in Washington, Katrina is yesterday’s problem and Rita never happened,” Blanco said.

She criticized the federally constructed levee system that failed and called for a consolidation of levee boards in the New Orleans regions.

“It is inexcusable that our people -- hardworking and patriotic American taxpayers -- were asked to entrust their lives and property to a worn and broken system,” she said. “the people of Southeast Louisiana want and deserve a single levee board run by professionals devoted exclusively to flood protection.”

Blanco called for the Legislature to “right-size” New Orleans government during the special session. Bills have been filed to move from seven assessors to one, and to combine courts, property transfer offices and the civil and criminal sheriffs offices.

“This is painful for some. But life has changed dramatically,” Blanco said.

Richmond, who has been critical of the governor’s priorities so far, said that New Orleans area residents “need to know we want you to come on home. . . . There are a number of things that are out there that can help people. We’ll see during the session” how those people-oriented issues — such as insurance and housing relief — play out.

Richmond said that Blanco should drop one divisive issue: the consolidation of New Orleans city government, at least for now, and take it up in the general session starting in March.

“We all agree the city has to downsize, but let’s focus on levees and insurance” in the special session, he said.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who was in the audience for the speech, said he intends to lobby lawmakers in the Capitol during the session on several issues, including the consolidation of New Orleans government and better flood protection.

“We have more work to do” in a 12-day period, Nagin said. “It will be an active session.”

Nagin said many of the issues in the session mirror the recommendations of his Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

Rep. Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, chairman of the House Republican Caucus, said after Blanco’s speech that her goals are “laudable but the devil is in the details. It is going to take a lot of hard work.”

Tucker predicted that consolidation of the levee boards in the New Orleans area will not pass unless there is give and take on all sides. He said there are at least 12 levee board bills filed Monday “and we will have to work for a compromise one.”

Tucker called creating the Louisiana Recovery Authority — the state agency overseeing hurricane recovery — a major item that lawmakers will have to examine closely since it will be handling billions of dollars of federal recovery money.

“I believe the LRA is the Trojan horse here,” Tucker said. The agency was created by the governor’s orders after the hurricanes and now she is asking lawmakers to set it up by state law.

Before she addressed lawmakers, Blanco hosted a bus tour of the Katrina- ravaged areas of Lakeview, Gentilly, St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward for lawmakers who had not been in the area and those who had as a way to sell her legislative agenda.

She alternated conducting the tour with Sens. Diana Bajoie and Ann Duplessis, both D-New Orleans, and Sen. Hollis, R-Metairie, and Rep. Karen Carter, D-New Orleans, .

“Our job is enormous,” Blanco said front the front of the bus as it went through Lakeview and Gentilly. “You have just begun to see the destruction. The rules of life have been turned upside down for so any of the folks down here.”

As she went through the Lower Ninth Ward, Blanco said just passing the destruction from the Interstate or Chef Menteur Highway does not give lawmakers a sense of the widespread damage. “The problems for these people go for miles and miles and blocks and blocks,” she said. “It is enormous.”

“There is no life in this area,” Bajoie told the lawmakers as the bus wended its way through the streets of St. Bernard Parish where some people were struggling to repair homes. “This community right now is non-existent.”

Duplessis, who represents eastern New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Ward, said as the caravan of buses traveled her district that no one bill will address the needs of all the communities waylaid by Katrina.

“No one size will fit all,” she said, referring to the spectrum of insurance problems — from the uninsured, to the underinsured, to those who were covered by flood insurance.

Some neighborhoods, she said, “probably may not be able to be brought back house by house. ... There is not one answer. One piece of legislation will not solve all of these problems.”

During the tour, Blanco met with officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers near the site of the breach of the levees along the Industrial canal in the Lower Ninth ward and was assured the levees will be repaired to at least their pre-Katrina condition by the start of hurricane season this year.

She also met briefly with groups of protesters who said they want to return to their neighborhoods. Blanco promised them they will have the final say in the decision-making process on where they will live. “We want you to make the right decisions for yourself,” Blanco said.

Rep. Jean Doerge, D-Minden, who made her first trip to the area, said she was amazed at the extent of damage. “This is an eye-opener to what we are really facing,” she said. “It (the bus tour) has had an effect on me. . . . I know better what we are up against. It is absolutely unbelievable. You look out here and say it’s been five months and you still see devastation”

Rep. Donald Cazayoux, D-New Roads, who has made a few trips to the area, the last one in November, called the lack of progress in clearing debris “incredible. . . . I was expecting some movement. It is just so vast.

“It is a disaster and we need to see it. I think we need to come every three months. There is no change at all.”

Rep. Monica Walker, D-Marksville, who had toured the area earlier, said that based on what she saw Monday, “it doesn’t look like anything is getting done. This (tour) helps the cause. I don’t think that we are the ones who need convincing.”

Walker said more members of Congress and the Bush White House should be on the buses.

Sen. Joe McPherson, D-Woodworth, who flew over the devastated area but had not seen it from the ground, said the tour was sobering. “It helps to put everything in perspective,” he said.