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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Gorilla on the Ropes

Posted By on Sat, Aug 22, 2009 at 8:35 PM

For decades, LSU was the proverbial 800-pound gorilla of Louisiana politics. There was virtually nothing the Ole War Skule couldn’t get out of a governor or lawmakers. In fact, governors often were LSU’s most effective lobbyists. No longer.

LSU’s flagging political fortunes are partly a result of legislative term limits (many freshmen lawmakers are not beholden or connected to LSU), but mostly they reflect the university’s own failure to recognize changing political realities — particularly the one about it no longer being the 800-pound gorilla.

Case in point: the controversy surrounding the proposed $1.2 billion LSU teaching hospital in New Orleans.

By way of disclosure, this newspaper signed on in support of the LSU-VA plan early. Conceptually, there’s a lot to like about the idea. Unfortunately, the university and its boosters have behaved like bullies in attempting to execute the plan. They have tried to steamroll residents and businesses in the historic Lower Mid-City neighborhood, where LSU hopes to build the proposed hospital; they have stiff-armed Tulane Medical School, which deserves a seat at the table with regard to governance; they reneged on a governance compromise that was struck during the legislative session; they have resisted attempts to open the planning process to the public, particularly the notion of public hearings by the New Orleans City Council or the City Planning Commission; and they have not-so-subtly threatened to move LSU’s medical school to Baton Rouge if they don’t get their way. On top of all that, LSU hasn’t even come close to finalizing a concrete, bankable plan to pay for the new hospital.

For all this, LSU has paid a price.

House Speaker Jim Tucker introduced a bill this year to take hospital governance away from LSU entirely. When LSU sabotaged a negotiated settlement of that issue at the eleventh hour, the Jindal Administration halted land acquisitions in Lower Mid-City, bringing the entire process to a halt. As for the threat of relocating the medical school to Baton Rouge, that one will be tough to pull off without a governor and legislature in full support.

In addition to losing political support in Baton Rouge, proponents of the new hospital have some problems in New Orleans as well. A recent survey of New Orleans voters by veteran pollster and political scientist Ed Renwick shows that local voters would prefer putting the new teaching hospital back in the old Charity Hospital facility by a margin of 2-to-1 rather than razing substantial portions of Lower Mid-City. The actual poll numbers were 60 percent favoring a new hospital inside Charity, 30 percent for putting it in Lower Mid-City.

An even larger proportion (71-20 percent) favor an objective analysis of the two proposals. In the end, this should be a financial and medical decision — but public support is crucial to making it work.

The poll was commissioned by Smart Growth for Louisiana, a nonprofit group that supports the Charity model. While that may taint the results in the eyes of some, anyone who knows Renwick knows his polls are not for sale. The numbers are legit.

The same poll shows that the controversy will be an issue in the upcoming citywide elections. Forty-four percent of those surveyed said they would be more likely to vote for candidates who favor building a new hospital inside Charity, compared to just 11 percent would said they would be less likely to support such candidates.

None of this is meant to suggest that LSU should abandon its plans. It should, however, change its tactics. The gorilla is on the ropes, and somebody needs to teach it some manners.

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