GOP Attempt to Call Special Session in La. Faces Hurdles

October 18, 2006

Republican state lawmakers face steep hurdles in their attempts to call the Louisiana Legislature into special session early next month an attempt to sidestep Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who they say is moving too slowly on hurricane recovery.

GOP legislators began circulating a petition Oct. 16 for a 15-day session beginning Nov. 8 that would deal with an insurance bailout for the state-run property insurance company and a restructuring of the state’s hurricane recovery authority and its reconstruction plans.

Initially, Blanco said a special session wouldn’t be needed. But after weeks of pressure from legislators, the governor intends to call a special session in December at the earliest – after the state’s money picture becomes more clear, her spokeswoman said. Blanco can call a special session without a vote of the Legislature.

Blanco and her allies are working to squash Republican efforts for lawmakers to call themselves into session, and Republicans are in the minority in both chambers, making it difficult to get the majority vote needed.

However, Rep. Jim Tucker, head of the House GOP caucus, said he was optimistic.

“I think we have a stronger vote in the House than we do in the Senate right now, but I think we will prevail,” he said.

House and Senate leaders disagreed. Senate President Don Hines said he and 29 other senators oppose the GOP effort. “Unless the people that I talk to change their mind, it doesn’t have a chance,” Hines said.

House Speaker Joe Salter sent lawmakers an e-mail Oct. 16, asking them to wait until the governor calls a special session – which he said probably will be in early December. Hines said he expects the governor to call a session in December or early January.

Both Hines and Salter said lawmakers should wait for a session until they know how much the state’s surplus from the last fiscal year will be and until it is formally recognized by the state’s revenue estimating panel, on which they sit and which is expected to meet in December. Early formal estimates of the surplus are expected this week.

“I certainly wouldn’t want to have my name on some petition calling us into special session if we hadn’t in fact followed the law and found out how much money we have to spend,” Salter said in a phone interview. “I certainly wouldn’t want my name on that. I think that’s a mistake.”

Republicans say they will know enough about the expectations of the surplus by the time a November special session would begin and that the state’s property owners need insurance relief quickly.

Any special session called by the governor also is expected to deal with a relief plan for the state-run property insurance company, the Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which is financially strapped after last year’s hurricanes.

Citizens borrowed $1 billion to pay off claims after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The company – established by the state to offer property insurance to those who can’t get it on the open market – is assessing private insurance companies a regular fee they can pass onto all their Louisiana customers to pay off Citizens’ borrowing. If lawmakers and the governor pay down Citizens’ debt, homeowners and businesses would face smaller insurance hikes.

Blanco proposes using part of the expected budget surplus, plugging in one-third of a $150 million state emergency fund and selling the 40 percent remainder of the state’s share of the national tobacco settlement to help Citizens.

Her plan has hit opposition from several lawmakers, particularly Republicans, who say the surplus – which is estimated to run from $400 million to $800 million – the entire emergency fund and extra dollars from the current budget year could be used to shore up Citizens.

Salter said some surplus dollars could be used for highway projects and economic development projects that might need state funding. But he acknowledged Blanco’s plan to tap into the tobacco settlement for Citizens, which would require a two-thirds vote of lawmakers and a statewide vote of the people, is troubled.

“There seems to be a good bit of concern about that. I think people want to first see what the amount of the surplus is, what the needs are,” he said.

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