- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 23, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — State lawmakers wrapped up a special legislative session yesterday after rebalancing Louisiana’s deficit-riddled budget and creating tax breaks to entice businesses back to hurricane-damaged areas.

Nearly all of Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco’s initiatives were approved in the 17-day session. Some lawmakers said they were disappointed the governor didn’t offer more to help the thousands of people displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“I wish we could have done a lot more to help people who are around the country dispersed and who are homeless and without family and without hope,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat and chairman of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus.

The biggest-ticket item approved in the session’s waning hours was a restructuring of Louisiana’s more than $18 billion budget to account for a $959 million drop in state tax income after the hurricanes shut down businesses and boosted unemployment rolls by the thousands.

The plan cuts more than $600 million in spending, slicing mainly health care services and money for public colleges. It also taps the state’s “rainy day” fund and uses some surplus money from last year to cope with the budget shortfall.



Borrowing proposals, including plans initially suggested by Mrs. Blanco, were scrapped. Budget cuts made by the Democratic governor before the session were retained, including the elimination of many lawmakers’ local projects.

“We spread out the pain as much as we could,” said Democratic Rep. John Alario, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “It tells the rest of the country that we have taken care of our business to the extent that we can.”

The session was marked by two weeks of bickering over where to cut the budget and who had the authority to do it. At one point, the Legislative Black Caucus, a group normally allied with Mrs. Blanco, sued to stop cuts she had tried to implement by executive order.

The lawsuit was rendered moot when legislators approved Mrs. Blanco’s cuts.

The governor successfully pushed for a state takeover of New Orleans schools that fail to meet academic standards, wresting power from the city’s fractious school board. The state eventually could reopen them as charter schools.

Another Blanco-backed proposal, a “tax holiday” suspending the state’s 4 percent sales tax on retail items, also was approved.

Lawmakers approved a statewide residential building code, including construction regulations for wind speeds and flooding heights, even though opponents argued it could raise the costs of new homes.

Jim Brandt, head of the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council, said the overall message of the session was positive.

“We handled the budget problem as best we could at this point,” Mr. Brandt said. He called it “at least a very good-faith effort on our part to get our own house in order.”

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