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The Best Fresh Start 

The special session of the Louisiana Legislature is underway, and already we can see that this convention of lawmakers is like none other during the six years that Mike Foster has been governor.

First, the governor has put more than a dozen economic development proposals before lawmakers -- most notably the $450 million expansion of the Dutch Morial Convention Center (a time-honored source of statewide tax revenues); a 10-year, $186.5 million inducement/retention package for the New Orleans Saints; and a $30 million plan to lure the Charlotte Hornets to the state-owned Arena in downtown New Orleans. If approved, the package will be funded largely by hotel-motel occupancy taxes in Orleans and Jefferson parishes.

Other Foster incentives for future business growth include tax breaks for biotechnology research, for customized computer software programmers, for job development in the Atchafalaya Trace, and for luring TV and film projects.

This modest volume of economic development projects portends a record for the administration. Previously, Foster's accomplishments -- which he chronicles on his Web site -- include only a handful of achievements in developing the economy. In the 1998 regular session of the Legislature, he secured $6.25 million for the federally funded University of New Orleans/Naval Information Center. But a proposed constitutional amendment to create "Louisiana Inc.," a quasi-public economic development organization, bombed at the polls in 2000.

We acknowledge the governor's considerable efforts to boost all levels of education in Louisiana -- and we recognize the inextricable links between improved schools and a better economy. But overall, he has mostly confused economic development with the promotion of legalized gambling.

Which brings up another distinction of this special session: for the first time in years, according to the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR), there are no gambling proposals in the governor's legislative "call" -- the issues he allows lawmakers to consider. This respite is refreshing. It gives the governor and lawmakers a real opportunity to help the state by passing true economic development projects. This could be especially good news for New Orleans. "I think the New Orleans region has the most riding on the special session," says PAR President Jim Brandt.

Now, metro-area lawmakers must maintain a united front. That ought to be easy, but unfortunately, eastern New Orleans legislators are holding out for a motor speedway that, in our view, has no place at the table. Suffice it to say that the Saints, the Hornets and the Convention Center are sure things, economically speaking. The proposed speedway is, at best, a long shot. Moreover, division within the delegation feeds historic "anti-New Orleans" legislative undercurrents. Now is not the time for parochial posturing. Local lawmakers must speak with one voice to show critics how the city in general, and these projects in particular, serve as an economic engine for the entire state.

New Orleans already owes Foster a round of applause on this score. "We should want the Hornets and we should want to keep the Saints," Foster said in his opening address. "They can and do make money for our state. The Saints contributed over $130 million to the economy in 2000. [UNO economist] Dr. Tim Ryan projects the Hornets will contribute over $100 million dollars. The Saints are responsible for just under 3,000 jobs and the Hornets will create as many as 1,200 jobs."

In addition, New Orleans has hosted a record nine Super Bowls, each of which has an economic impact of nearly $300 million to the state. Without the Saints, Louisiana will never again host a Super Bowl.

If the Saints/Convention Center/Hornets package passes, there will be other issues to resolve. The Saints' financial success hinges on fan and business support throughout the four-state Gulf South. And a governor's panel has delayed a report on Saints' owner Tom Benson's request for a new stadium until June 1, 2004.

Likewise, netting the Hornets does not depend on legislative funding alone. A deadline looms this week for the sale of Club seats at the Arena. The NBA will let us know before the session ends whether New Orleans will have a pro basketball team.

Critics note that the special session misses an opportunity for bolder strokes at economic development and tax reform. For example, this session does not address disincentives to new and expanding businesses, such as the state's sales tax on manufacturing machinery and equipment. In addition, businesses still pay taxes (on top of interest) on money they borrow to get started or to expand. "A double-whammy," Brandt calls it.

We concede that this is not a "dream season" for economic development. On the other hand, it might be our best fresh start in a long time. Let's not blow a good opportunity by focusing on what's missing. We urge all lawmakers to set aside old divisions -- and we urge local lawmakers to lead the way -- by uniting behind the governor's package.

In this case, what's good for New Orleans really is good for all of Louisiana.

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