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Blanco takes tiny step toward fiscal reform; big ones needed

All right, Gov. Kathleen Blanco won the first round when she got bills passed to consolidate Orleans Parish assessors from seven into one this morning. The matter is not quite home free yet because, given past behavior and rhetoric given the number of Democrat House members from Orleans as well as the number of other Legislative Black Caucus members, if they contest it about 20 votes already are against it in the House and 35 will stop it since it is a constitutional amendment. But its odds for passage now are pretty good as there’s not a tremendous amount of sympathy for this arrangement outside of Orleans.

Her next battle came this afternoon on the Senate floor concerning court consolidation in Orelans. This bill, SB 645, is the lite version of the efforts to consolidate all judicial operations in Orleans as represented by HB 514. It passed the House but remains hung up in the Senate, so the strategy has been to go for the less comprehensive solution.

Blanco put in a personal appearance in front of the House Ways and Means Committee to stump for the bill and it paid off. Some supporters bothered not to appear or fled the room when the vote happened. She couldn’t do that in the Senate (she did do it for HB 514 when it was in committee) but it was imperative that the bill get dealt with in very short order. Since it still is in the Senate, unless there’s a reach and it’s declared a duplicate of HB 514 with the latter then getting amended to match SB 645, it pretty much had to move and has to keep moving for it to beat the Jun. 19 session close.

In addition, complicating the task was an amendment tacked onto the bill in committee which would entail Orleanians approving the measure which may weaken the chances of the bill to be enacted; no other precedent exists for such a vote legislatively. (Judges for the courts insist this is necessary to adhere to the Constitution, but whether consolidation should be interpreted as a “merge” is another matter.)

As it was, it passed 29-7, no doubt through a lot of arm-twisting behind the scenes by Blanco, given the amount of and intensity of the floor debate. So, Blanco finally seems to be serious about these efficiency measures. That’s great, but savings from these pale in comparison to what could be done elsewhere in HB 1, the operating budget for which she has shown little enthusiasm. We keep hearing about how, backing out recovery funds from the federal government, it represents hardly a change over the past year. But what doesn’t get mentioned is the state’s population is down probably 8 percent (the best estimates at this point are here) so on a per capita basis spending may be up by as much as 10 percent.

Everybody’s got to start somewhere so maybe we can hope Blanco finally is starting to get it. Maybe taming Orleans Parish spending inefficiencies will lead to doing it statewide in 2007, goaded by it being an election year.

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