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La. governor battles allies in Legislature over recovery agenda

BATON ROUGE, La. -- When Governor Kathleen B. Blanco convened a truly ''extraordinary" session of the Legislature this month, one goal was to show Washington, D.C., that Louisiana is responding aggressively to its battering by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, that the state is helping itself.

''The nation must see a united front," the governor told lawmakers when the session began. ''Our fellow Americans must know that we are united in purpose and determined to recover."

Convened in part to close a budget deficit of nearly $1 billion -- much of it due to a loss of tax revenue as businesses shuttered and taxpayers scattered because of the hurricanes -- the 17-day session has been anything but harmonious. ''Popular governors are popular when they have a lot of money," Blanco said. ''This is a tough session when you have a nearly $1 billion shortfall."

The governor is struggling with opposition from her allies. Lawmakers are questioning whether the most critical needs of cities and displaced residents are being addressed.

Many of the main items on Blanco's agenda are moving through the Legislature, but disputes threaten to shut down crucial work on the all-important budget, said Jim Brandt, president of the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council.

''There's the potential we could end up with no resolution on the big fiscal issue," he said.

The session's biggest public rift is between Blanco, a Democrat, and black lawmakers she normally counts among her allies.

The Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus challenged the types of hurricane recovery items Blanco included in the session. Several caucus members disagree with Blanco's plans to revamp the New Orleans school system and take more authority away from the local school board. Caucus members also were unhappy that the governor's framework for the session didn't include housing for those displaced and more individual tax relief. ''There's no conversation about incentives for people to come back home," said Representative Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat and chairman of the black caucus.

The caucus has filed a lawsuit against the governor, challenging her authority to make deep budget cuts by executive order and asking a judge to reverse the cuts she made.

Blanco also is at odds with some lawmakers whose districts were not directly ravaged by Katrina and Rita. They bristled at the governor's proposal to let the state borrow up to $1 billion to provide loans and grants to local governments and businesses struggling to recover from the hurricanes.

Representative Charlie DeWitt, a Democrat from central Louisiana, said opinions on the proposal are split above and below Interstate 10, the major highway in the southern part of the state that separates most storm-damaged areas from the rest of Louisiana.

Jerry Luke LeBlanc, the commissioner of administration and Blanco's chief financial adviser, said legislators need to realize that devastation in one part of Louisiana hurts the entire state. ''Unless Louisiana is willing to offer a unified front, both north and south, how can we expect Congress to come in and help us?" LeBlanc said.

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