In her opening address to lawmakers last week, The Governess set forth her plan to spend more than $3 billion in combined surplus and previously unanticipated revenues from the current, last and next fiscal years. Of that amount, $827 million has been certified as "surplus" from the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2006. Another $1.2 billion -- possibly more -- in "extra" state revenues are expected in the current fiscal year, and she projects another $1.3 billion in additional revenues in the fiscal year starting July 1.
Blanco sees this windfall as her chance to finally give teachers a long-promised pay increase to the southern average -- part of an overall $611 million education spending plan. She likewise proposed to spend $450 million on roads, plus more millions on health care and pay hikes for cops, firemen and state employees. She also offered up what is sure to be a bargaining chip: a modest $133 million tax cut.
In outlining her vision to legislators during her opening-day address, Blanco noted that she and many lawmakers won't be coming back next year. Roughly half the House and Senate members are term-limited, and Blanco has opted not to seek re-election. She described her plan as a chance for all of them to leave a legacy, and in doing so she painted a picture of Louisiana robustly rebounding from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
There was no mention of the many shortcomings and budding scandals in her Road Home program. Not one word about New Orleans' many infrastructure needs. Nothing about the urgency with which local civic, business and political leaders are working to keep the VA Hospital downtown.
It was as if she woke up last Monday in a wonderful new state where everything is just fine.
Her failure even to mention New Orleans or southeast Louisiana -- which gave her more than her margin of victory in 2003 -- was seen as a slap in the face to local lawmakers, some of whom compared it to President Bush's snub of Louisiana during his last two State of the Union addresses. The anger among local legislators was palpable.
Then came news that her much-maligned Road Home program could fall more than $3 billion short. Worst of all, that news -- which Blanco admitted she knew about -- was made public in a letter from her old nemesis, the state's new governor-apparent, Republican Congressman Bobby Jindal. Blanco fired back that any shortfall is the fault of Congress and people like Jindal, who voted against an emergency spending bill (which President Bush vetoed anyway) that contained more than $2 billion in disaster aid for Louisiana.
Blanco's retort, like her address to the Legislature, ignored one or two glaring pieces of information -- namely her decision to divert about $3 billion of the initial $10.7 billion in post-Katrina federal aid to other priorities (including $200 million to bail out Entergy), and the fact that Louisiana is sitting on more than $3 billion in surplus revenues right now. Does she really think the folks in Washington don't read newspapers, or that they won't expect her (read: us) to fund part (or even all) of the Road Home shortfall that she effectively engineered herself?
Republican lawmakers moved quickly to draft legislation to cover at least part of that shortfall. Rep. Jim Tucker of Algiers, who may become speaker next year if the GOP takes control of the House, proposes to place up to $1.2 billion of the current fiscal year's windfall in a special fund that could be tapped to cover Road Home awards and grants.
Closer to home, Mayor Ray Nagin and Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard unveiled a shared legislative agenda calling for metro New Orleans to get its fair share of the state's $3.3 billion surplus -- and the New Orleans City Council called for an audit of the Road Home program.
So where does that leave Blanco in her attempt to create a legacy?
Exactly where she placed herself over the last 20 months.