The controversy over the proposed city of St. George has spilled into the Louisiana Legislature again, this time over wording quietly added to a bill by a Senate committee.
The northeast Louisiana senator responsible for the amendment said Thursday that he was surprised by the fierce reaction in Baton Rouge to what he saw as a quick fix to problems encountered by Calhoun and a couple other unincorporated areas in his district that wanted to become official towns.
Republican Sen. Mike Walsworth, of West Monroe, said the intent of his amendment to House Bill 591 was to run the elections on whether to incorporate along with balloting on how to handle the sales and use taxes that would fund the new municipality. But Walsworth said he was surprised to learn that his local fix has statewide implications.
“In fact, it appears others can use it, here in Baton Rouge and even in Algiers,” Walsworth said, referring to two areas with active movements to create their own towns.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Registrar of Voters Office is validating signatures submitted on a petition that asked to put the issue of creating a new city on the ballot. If that initiative is approved, another election would be held to determine how to finance the new city, under current law.
St. George, if successful, would be about 80 square miles in the southern part of East Baton Rouge Parish with about 107,000 residents.
Supporters of the suburban city want a new school system and more control of their tax dollars. Opponents say the new city would unfairly draw funds from the city-parish budget, to the detriment of the rest of the parish residents
Sen. Bodi White said Walsworth’s amendment “fixes a hole in the Lawrason Act,” the state law that details the procedures unincorporated areas must follow to become incorporated.
State law requires holding separate elections: one to incorporate and a second to secure the sales and use taxes to run the new municipal government.
In spring 2005, for instance, the city of Central voted to incorporate, and the following year, Central held votes to elect city leaders.
It wasn’t until October 2007 that voters in the city were asked to secure funding from the parish.
The voters of Central, of course, voted in a landslide to fund their government operations. However, the delay meant that Central didn’t start to receive its stream of funds to run government operations until more than two years later.
“It was a separate vote,” said David Barrow, Central’s chief administrative officer to the Mayor’s Office. “So, if people had voted ‘no’ to that, then we wouldn’t have that 2 percent sales tax.”
White, the Central Republican who has spearheaded the legislative effort on behalf of St. George supporters, said he had been unaware of the amendment and of Walsworth’s plans until the bill was added to the Senate’s agenda.
Few, if any, of the Baton Rouge delegation were aware of the amendment, said Rep. Darrell P. Ourso, a Baton Rouge Republican who lives in a subdivision that would be included in St. George. He polled his House colleagues after learning of the bill’s changes.
Senate President Pro Tem Sharon Broome, who is running for East Baton Rouge mayor-president, understood the ramifications. She plans to strip the amendment once the bill comes before the full Senate for a vote.
But that debate is awaiting negotiations with the underlying bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, and determinations of legal questions about whether the amendment was properly added.
Broadwater said that while he was OK with the intent, he didn’t want his legislation threatened because a controversial amendment was attached. He said he had asked Walsworth to find another instrument.
His measure essentially would move the primary election date one week earlier for regularly scheduled primary elections (except congressional primary elections and the presidential preference primary) and move the general election date one week later in certain municipal and ward elections.
Lionel Rainey, spokesman for St. George organizers, said his group had nothing to do with the amendment, so he declined comment.
But Mary Olive Pierson, an attorney for East Baton Rouge Parish in its efforts to stop St. George, said she believes St. George officials were involved and the amendment was added on their behalf.
She said she thought it was sneaky to try to hide the amendment on a bill that she said was totally unrelated.
But she also said it crystallizes the issue that St. George’s revenue stream is not solely guaranteed by incorporation; rather, it would take a separate vote.
“They have been including the potential revenues in their so-called budgets, without so much as a footnote,” Pierson said. “This is a clear demonstration of what I have said all along — they have no plan and, even if they do, it is certainly not well thought out.”
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