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Back in the Saddle 

Gov. Kathleen Blanco sounds off on myriad issues as she tackles her first full session since last year's hurricanes.

Castration for sex offenders, human cloning, cockfighting, flag burning, computer-assisted hunting, an official state song. Some of these are perpetual legislative issues that traditionally take up more time than they deserve. Others are just downright curious and will likely ­ regrettably ­ make national news for the state.

When asked about these bills, some of which garnered media attention even before the current regular session opened, Gov. Kathleen Blanco shakes her head and rolls her eyes, then shifts in her seat and re-crosses her legs. She appears to want to unleash, but decides against it.

"You know, we have so much work to do," Blanco says, gazing out of the window of her black Yukon Denali and watching the landscape of downtown Baton Rouge whisk by. "These hot-button issues are so distracting. I really hope they don't turn the process upside down."

After enduring two regular sessions as governor -- they last for 85 days and cover a wide array of subjects -- Blanco seems to have come to the realization that there is very little she can do to control the Legislature. A few hours earlier, in her speech to open the session, the governor told lawmakers to "have at it," be partisan and bicker all they want -- just make sure the work of the state gets done.

Now she's flying down River Road, heading towards Louisiana State University to watch the men's basketball team take in a practice. Hey, it's not every day that the state's flagship university makes it to the Final Four, and it's way more exciting than the games being played back at the State Capitol.

For example, the governor's proposed $20.7 billion budget is brimming with competition. Some lawmakers are putting on a full-court press to resurrect the controversial urban and rural slush funds. Before being abolished, partly by Blanco, the funds were traditionally used by governors as rewards for loyal votes; they financed pet legislative projects and programs back home. Blanco, who has line-item veto authority, has declared that any move to restore the funds will be squashed.

"I will stand my ground on that," she says. "Legislators cannot just dial up anytime they want and send money somewhere."

Rep. Francis Thompson, a Democrat from Delhi, has vowed to carry out the mission personally and restore the funds. Maybe that's why Blanco singled him out during her opening speech when she announced the state would purchase 1,400 acres along Interstate 20 in Richland Parish for economic development.

"Before you jump to conclusions, let me quickly reassure you that Francis Thompson does not own the land," she remarked with a chuckle, referring to the state representative's penchant for supporting projects in which he has a financial interest, like the Poverty Point Reservoir in his hometown.

The budget maneuvers have also begun over the issue of increasing teacher pay, which is a campaign promise Blanco tried but failed to keep a year ago. This time around, she has proposed a $1,500 annual raise for Louisiana's estimated 59,000 certified teachers -- a total investment of $105 million.

"The proposal is both fiscally and educationally sound," Blanco says. "Our teachers are among the lowest paid in the region and in the country. This is simply not conducive to long-term progress in education. After all, student performance is directly linked to quality teachers."

Opponents argue that the issue is purely political and is being pursued to satisfy one of Blanco's political bases. Others contend the money could be better utilized elsewhere, such as in the Charity Hospital system, which has seen severe cuts. The governor waves off the notion.

"Every year they say they don't have enough money," Blanco says. "We are redesigning the system and you can rest assured that health care will be taken care of."

Overall, the budget is bigger than ever, $1.6 billion larger than the spending plan approved last year. Blanco says that's because of monstrous sums of federal relief flowing into state coffers. Because that cash may offer a false sense of security, Blanco says her staff is considering placing it into another account or earmarking it separately.

While this year's budget debate will foster some fearsome fights, non-budgetary issues could be just as volatile. Consider the bills to criminalize abortion. Blanco's stance is clear, as it has been for years -- she thinks abortions should be allowed only in cases of rape, incest and to save a mother's life. She also favors a ban on so-called "partial birth," or late-term, abortions. Yet she doesn't know what to expect from the coming debate. When past Legislatures took up the issue, the Capitol turned into a circus.

"I hope it doesn't deteriorate into that, but I just don't know," Blanco says.

More than any other issue, abortion has the potential to knock Blanco's agenda off course and disrupt the process. It could likewise overshadow hurricane recovery.

"That hasn't happened yet," she says, "but I know everyone is fretting."

Property rights are another issue that will stir emotions. Thus far, Blanco has been quiet on that one; she seems open to most of the bills filed, but she has taken no specific stance. Perhaps that's because such legislation will likely change significantly before it reaches her desk.

One proposed constitutional amendment would allow the state to take private land for hurricane-protection projects and pay owners only present-day fair market value. Currently, landowners can claim future value, which usually is much greater. For the record, Blanco supported a similar concept a few years ago for coastal restoration.

Eminent domain is being discussed as well, and many lawmakers want to limit its use. Eminent domain is the legal doctrine that allows governments to take private property for certain public uses that are supposed to serve the greater public good. According to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, those uses can include economic development that will ultimately yield higher property taxes.

"I support, to some degree, some types of eminent domain, but it needs to be carefully worked," Blanco says. "There is going to be an abiding public need for different forms of this issue."

Blanco is also pushing to consolidate New Orleans government, a concept that faltered during the February special session; a $15 million program to expand and retrain Louisiana's workforce; and an unexpected piece of legislation that could offer a compromise to the highly controversial issue of legacy sites, which are properties that have been polluted by oil companies.

The governor's most significant battle, however, may involve how she interacts with lawmakers -- a sore spot for her administration. In the most recent special session in February, Blanco found herself with a variety of legislative problems. Some lawmakers staged walk-outs, and her own leadership opposed several of her priorities.

When Rep. Troy Hebert, a Democrat from Jeanerette, went against the flow during the governor's first regular session, Blanco stripped him of his chairmanship of the House Insurance Committee. But when others did the same recently, retribution was non-existent. It appeared as if the Queen Bee, as Hebert dubbed her after the firing, had lost her sting.

"The difference was this time they came and told me early on why they had disagreements," Blanco says. "And I'm going to let them represent their people the way they want to."

In her opening speech to the Legislature last week, Blanco struck a different tone with lawmakers. She joked with them in a familiar way, took shots at a political ally who has been a little too vocal, and drew a line in the sand on certain topics. Blanco made it clear that she would veto any and all measures to expand gambling: "I want to reiterate my position on that: No. And if I'm not clear: Veto."

Additionally, the governor has reorganized some of her staff. She also says she may be "reorganizing a few different areas" in coming months as well. For now, she has a new legislative director with a "fresh point of view" -- Brigadier Gen. Hunt Downer, a former state representative from Houma who is well liked amongst lawmakers.

If all of this seems strangely different, it is. Whether Blanco's new attitude and approach will work remains to be seen, but a regular session brimming with hot issues is a perfect place to test a new strategy. If nothing else, the governor says the alterations should ease the transition the state now faces.

"I was trying to strike a different tone," Blanco says of her session speech and staff changes. "I wanted to spark some humor. I've put (lawmakers) through a couple of intense special sessions and we had some serious things to take care of. It was time to transition. There's a yearning in the public, and in the body, for a sense of normalcy. It will help speed up recovery."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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