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A Tale of Two Weeks

What a difference a week makes – one week Louisiana’s Bond Commission defers to the wishes of a local politician on a local project, but only days later defers the wishes of a powerful statewide politician on a matter of some statewide importance.

Last week, Shreveport Mayor Keith Hightower got his wish granted to sell $40 million in bonds to finance the building of a city-owned hotel to accompany the city’s under-construction convention center. This week, Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom had the commission table his request for $85 million in bonds to build a sugar cane syrup mill pending further study.

At this time last week, nary a word was out around the state about Odom’s project, which would be the second he has built leveraged off $12 million a year from slot machine taxes originally intended for, and having successfully financed, boll weevil eradication. But led by a charge from talk radio show host Moon Griffon and later picked up by the mainstream media, the attention given to Odom’s plan, which lacks any real feasibility study with economically questionable premises for use of tax dollars, displayed what a truly bad idea it was.

Odom did himself no favors by publicly questioning the integrity of Gov. Blanco, who came out of this conflict a winner in almost every way. Only she had enough leverage over her appointee and the legislative members of the Commission to stop it, and she did, pleasing taxpayer, good government, and sugar cane grower advocates.

Now it would take a miracle for Odom’s plan to come to fruition, given the economics of the situation that surely will be revealed in the upcoming report. This constitutes a stunning setback for Odom, who, only months earlier, was directing the Democrat Party’s endorsements. Odom, we must understand, is perhaps the truest of the “good old boy network” in state by his longevity in office and stature, and the way in which he tried to pull this off has served more as the rule rather than the exception in his political career – a style which has gotten him into as-yet unresolved legal trouble.

Hightower, in his own way a member of the network, proved more politically adept by getting a study to fit his objectives (even if that study cautioned that the scenario presented was perhaps too optimistic) and did not go challenging anybody in a position of authority. His effort also benefited from very little representation of his opponents at the meeting, and that it was a project the mistakes of which would fall on the shoulders of Shreveporters, not the entire state (although in a per capita sense Shreveporters would pay more, about $200 a head as opposed to one-tenth that to state residents, for its failure).

Hightower’s political future came out much brighter after his win; Odom’s now is a big question mark with his recent actions shining even more light on a career that best operated in the dark. Even though under indictment, Odom easily gained reelection in 2003 but already two notable politicians, Democrat Public Service Commissioner Dale Sittig and Republican state Sen. James David Cain, have all but announced they will vie for the job in 2007.

Perhaps they won’t even get a chance. A pair of Republican lawmakers have said they wish the Legislature would remove the $12 million annually flowing almost unmonitored into Odom’s hands, but perhaps they should go further. The Louisiana Constitution allows the Legislature to make his office appointive, and there is precedent (removing the superintendent of education not long after the constitution’s ratification, and recently the commissioner of elections) for doing this. Only a dozen states have elective Agriculture Commissioners, so why must we continue to be a part of this minority?

Maybe that would be the best way to make sure we have no more Bob Odoms; if too many people are so inattentive to his back-room, who-cares-about-the-people leadership as to let him stay in office, maybe their representatives will be leaders and prevent the likes of him from disgracing the public weal again.

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