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Aim Higher Next Year 

By the time the regular session of the Louisiana Legislature ended June 23, some 1,200 bills had moved onto Gov. Mike Foster's desk to be signed into law. Looking ahead, voters will consider 15 constitutional amendments on Oct. 4 -- and the state Bond Commission must pare down the capital outlay bill, a virtual wish list of construction projects. In short, it's not over yet.

Locally, three New Orleans leaders -- Mayor Ray Nagin, District Attorney Eddie Jordan and newly appointed Orleans Parish Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Amato -- left Baton Rouge with their work cut out for them.

Nagin entered his first full legislative session this spring. State lawmakers seemed ready to help him -- a rarity given the often-strained relations between the city and the rest of the state. To Nagin's credit, he toured the state earlier this year to build bridges and mend fences, and he appears to have succeeded. But Nagin made a critical mistake in Baton Rouge: he left the legislative process largely to his staff. He failed to provide either adequate leadership or a clear vision of what the city needed.

The administration says it won legislation to help protect the city's aging housing stock and to fight blight. But a lack of coordination overall led to squabbles between the mayor's staff and House members. Tensions rose. Bills stalled. Even the city's annual party, traditionally a high point of the session, was a political and social flop. Top officials, including members of Gov. Mike Foster's staff, reportedly were not even invited. Some blamed former state Rep. Garey Forster, the mayor's executive aide for intergovernmental affairs. A city spokesperson says the party was not Forster's responsibility, but could not tell us who was responsible.

The recurring fight for state funding of city services for Harrah's Casino became a big issue once again -- and once again, Nagin's team came up short. "The city got $1 million, though it was owed $6 million," says Jim Brandt, president of the non-partisan Public Affairs Research Council. "Last year, the city got nothing." State Rep. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans and a House floor leader for Foster, helped the city get its $1 million consolation.

Nagin's victories included $6 million for the South Rampart Street Historic Development, $6.7 million for Behrman Park and $10 million for restoration of Lincoln Beach. Sen. Jon Johnson, D-New Orleans, secured funding for a connecting road to the federal National Finance Center in eastern New Orleans, which itself received $5 million in expansion funding. Foster helped save a study for a proposed light rail project to the airport.

At session's end, lawmakers authorized the New Orleans City Council to call a referendum to increase the local sales tax by up to 1 percent. Nagin did not endorse the sales tax idea, which is considered DOA at City Hall. The proposal does highlight $245 million in legal judgements against the city -- $200 million for back pay and pension payments owed to firefighters and $45 million owed to the parish assessors' retirement plan. Nagin inherited the judgments, which the city is appealing.

Overall, Nagin's team did not score big. Then again, he didn't ask for much.

District Attorney Jordan, who took office in January, found no major funds in Baton Rouge for his underpaid assistants, though a scattering of bills were approved to accord him shares of various Criminal District Court fees. If voters approve slot machines at the Fair Grounds on Oct. 4, Jordan's office will get a mere $50,000 a year from the gambling proceeds -- a troubling pittance. Even then, it will take several years for any funds to materialize.

Jordan declared victory after his first session. We'll simply say that the DA deserves a pass this year, given the crises he faced immediately upon taking office. Next year, we look for him to aim higher. While the DA and the mayor say they have "joined forces," they did not team up to work the Legislature. They should start now to make a case for their mutual interests next year.

Schools Superintendent Amato convinced lawmakers to give him time and room to implement reforms. On Oct. 4, voters statewide will decide whether to approve a constitutional amendment to let the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) take over failing schools, including 21 in Orleans Parish. Amato has a lot of work to do, and he deserves a chance to put his team together and his management philosophy into practice.

Meanwhile, here's a telling historical footnote: Eight years ago next week, then-Mayor Marc Morial Morial and then-school Superintendent Morris Holmes jointly convinced voters to approve $350 million in bonds for the city and public schools. Nagin is spending some of that money today. He now needs to focus on state Bond Commission approval of the city's priority construction projects -- and start planning for next year.

In the future, Nagin should direct the city's legislative agenda himself. Legislative politics is a team sport, but it's also a hands-on game.

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