Governor has plan for how federal funds will be used

By Melinda Deslatte The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS – Gov. Kathleen Blanco pressed for unity yesterady on the opening day of a second special legislative session for hurricane recovery, warning that many Washington politicians have moved beyond the hurricanes.

Blanco said she would press Congress for further help, but was worried by President Bush’s scant reference to Hurricane Katrina in his State of the Union Speech last week.

“The harsh reality is that for many people in Washington, Katrina is yesterday’s problem and Rita never happened,” Blanco told a joint session of the Legislature held at the New Orleans convention center, where thousands of evacuees had languished for days after Katrina.

For the first time, the governor outlined how she wants to use $6.2 billion in federal hurricane recovery block grants and $1.5 billion in federal aid to minimize future damage from flooding. Most of the aid, about $5.6 billion would go to housing assistance, under plans up for debate during the session.

Rep. Jim Tucker, chairman of the House Republican caucus, said he was relieved to hear Blanco spell out her plan for spending the federal money.

“At least she gave us a basic plan for how the money is going to be spent,” Tucker said.

The governor touted her legislative proposals as long overdue reforms: to consolidate levee boards to strengthen hurricane protection and to streamline New Orleans’ government.

“Over the next 11 days, I am asking you to overhaul problems that have begged for reform for generations,” she said.

The location of her speech, away from Baton Rouge, and a bus tour earlier in the day of hurricane devastated areas upended legislative tradition.

Some said the governor was wasting time in a 12-day session and was using sites of devastation and suffering as a publicity stunt to repair her image. Fewer than half the 144-member Legislature took the tour, but most lawmakers showed up for her speech.

Lawmakers who looked at the ruined homes and collapsed neighborhoods from bus windows said everyone working on recovery needed to see the destruction to understand Katrina’s wrath.

“I think it’s difficult to comprehend until you’re actually there in the middle of it,” said Sen. Sherri Smith Cheek, a Republican.

The special session, which must end by Feb. 17, was the second Blanco has called to cope with the damage from Katrina and Rita, which struck Louisiana Aug. 29 and Sept. 24.

In the earlier session, lawmakers enacted a series of tax breaks to re-attract and rebuild businesses, passed a statewide building code and made budget cuts and adjustments to fill in a massive deficit caused by the storms.