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Turning the Tide

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I confess I'm very worried about the future of my home state of Louisiana. What concerns me most isn't the certainty that another powerful hurricane will slam into it someday. Rather, I fear that the past, present, and future decisions made by Louisiana's state and local officials, and by its congressional delegation, will impair its ability to recover from Katrina and prepare for future storms.

Federal decisions about how to help Louisiana are, unfortunately, being influenced by the state's long-standing reputation as a bastion of corruption, malfeasance, and mismanagement. Although at least a half-dozen states have chronic management problems that are virtually as bad as Louisiana's, the Pelican State probably has the worst reputation -- deserved or not -- for corruption. That image partly comes from Louisiana's long list of colorful politicians, dating back at least to Govs. Huey Long and Earl Long in the 1930s, and including former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who is doing time in a federal prison.

The nation's goodwill toward the people of the Gulf Coast will vanish if taxpayers suspect that their hard-earned dollars are lining the pockets of the friends and relatives of the region's elected officials, or that the money will be used to rebuild a troubled city just the way it was -- that is, no less vulnerable to a big hurricane.

Louisiana's senators, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter, have proposed a 440-page spending package with a $250 billion price tag. That's a whopping $55,361.54 for every man, woman, and child who lived in the state, pre-Katrina. And that sum does not include the initial $62 billion aid package that Congress passed for the Gulf Coast. Considering that just over half of Louisiana's residents live in areas largely unaffected by Katrina, the senators' proposal works out to more than $100,000 per person in the Greater New Orleans metro area.

No one knows how much it will really cost to rebuild Louisiana and to upgrade its storm defenses. But, given the state's reputation, perhaps the surest way to kill the goose before it lays the first egg was for Louisiana to smack Congress with a greedy, jaw-dropping request that set off alarms. Experiencing sticker shock, The Washington Post, not known for urging frugality in federal spending, dubbed the legislation's sponsors "looters."

Before introducing their costly wish list, Landrieu and Vitter created stakeholder working groups, packed with lobbyists, to advise them. Also serving on one of the groups were acclaimed author John Barry, who wrote Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, and Ivor van Heerden, the deputy director of Louisiana State University's respected Hurricane Center. Barry and van Heerden recommended that the National Academy of Sciences oversee the Army Corps of Engineers' rebuilding work, but the advisory panels rejected that suggestion. The Times-Picayune quoted van Heerden as complaining, "This was a bill put together by lobbyists, without any involvement from scientists from Louisiana who know the situation."

But a bloated legislative proposal is hardly the state's only self-inflicted problem. The mayor of New Orleans seems hell-bent on repopulating the city before its water, sewerage, electricity, and phone services are ready -- and before careful thought is given to how and what to rebuild. Just slap everything back up the way it was. That's a great way to spend billions of dollars.

Before Katrina, New Orleans was a great, but troubled and impoverished, city. Katrina brought untold tragedy, but also an unparalleled opportunity to effectively address problems associated with urban decay.

For at least 50 years, at every important public policy fork in the road, Louisiana has seemed to invariably choose the wrong direction, squandering chances to maximize its bounty of oil, gas, and other natural resources, for example. Now, much of that bounty is gone, with little to show for it. And Louisiana is having difficulty getting large corporations to move into the state to provide the kind of manufacturing jobs that other Southern states have created with relative ease.

Especially in this time of rising federal budget deficits, Louisiana's leaders should carefully assess their every decision -- to make sure they do things the right way, and to reassure Congress that relief and rebuilding money will be spent wisely and honestly. The last thing storm-ravaged Louisiana needs to do is reinforce the negative stereotypes that have long plagued it.

 
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