- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — State lawmakers yesterday considered ways to strengthen building codes and grappled with a billion-dollar hole in the state budget left by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

It was the first full day of a special legislative session called by Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco to deal with the aftermath of the two storms.

The House budget committee began hearing testimony on various proposals to cut the deficit, caused by the storm damage and the interruption of tax revenue when Katrina brought commerce in the New Orleans area to a standstill.

“Some of you will consider these cuts too painful, and you will try to avoid them. Let me warn you: This is just the beginning,” Mrs. Blanco said Sunday night as she opened the 17-day session.

The budget proposals include tapping at least $153 million of the state’s “rainy day” fund and borrowing money to pay for the hurricane-ravaged state’s recovery.

Mrs. Blanco, a Democrat, was expected to run into resistance from lawmakers who want to borrow more and others who prefer deeper budget cuts to borrowing.

The building-code legislation, being considered by the House Commerce Committee, was designed to bring any new or restored Louisiana buildings in line with international standards.

It would set up a council to ensure that the codes are enforced statewide, a provision currently lacking in state law, a Blanco administration official said.

“You have vast square miles of this state where you don’t have code enforcement,” said Jerry Jones, who oversees state facilities.

Mrs. Blanco backs the statewide code. She also is supporting unified state oversight of the levee system that provides hurricane protection for New Orleans and other parts of the state.

But the budget deficit is the top item on the agenda.

Mrs. Blanco cut $431 million out of the budget Saturday, slicing from state agencies almost across the board, including a $222 million hit to health care services and a $71 million cut in spending on public colleges. She said Louisiana is asking for federal assistance, but the state must help itself.

The Legislature could restore the cuts Mrs. Blanco made, but the state constitution still requires a balanced budget, and estimates of lost tax revenue and recovery expenses could continue to rise.

Several senators complained that Mrs. Blanco got off to a bad start by announcing the budget cuts without going through legislative committees.

“I think it was a strategic mistake on her part. I can’t defend her on that,” said state Sen. Butch Gautreaux, a Democrat and Blanco ally.

The special session must end by Nov. 22. Mrs. Blanco initially proposed a limited special session, with a planned session in January. But lawmakers pressured her for more immediate relief efforts, and the list of topics for the November session mushroomed.

Katrina came ashore near the Louisiana-Mississippi border on Aug. 29, damaging levees, flooding large parts of New Orleans and neighboring parishes, and killing at least 1,050 people in Louisiana. On Sept. 24, while thousands of residents still were living in shelters, Rita hit the state, aiming its hardest blow at the Texas-Louisiana border.

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