Landrieu, New Orleans had some wins, some losses during legislative session _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Robert E. Lee will be vacated the circle that bears his name after a vote in today's city council. That's likely fine with the person who left graffiti at the monument's base.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu seemed to have more success playing defense than offense during the 2016 regular legislative session that ended Monday evening.

Landrieu scored partial victories, at best, in his efforts to relieve New Orleans police from some time-consuming tasks, to thwart a lawsuit that has stalled redevelopment of the city’s former World Trade Center, to block a repeat of the court battle that almost forced him into house arrest last year, and to win a higher minimum wage for city and state workers.

The mayor fared better when on the defense. Continuing their longtime tradition of taking aim at left-leaning New Orleans policies, lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature filed bills designed to foil the city’s removal of its Confederate monuments, hamper its local hiring program and block it and other so-called “sanctuary cities” from receiving state capital money. Those bills all failed as fellow Democrats and enough Republicans sided with Landrieu.

Separately, he did win approval of changes in pensions for New Orleans firefighters — a move that could end a decades-old feud with the city’s firefighters union — but those changes only codified what was hashed out as part of a deal struck by the city and firefighters last year.

That was a clear win for Landrieu in the waning days of the session, as the administration finalized a deal with the firefighters over changes to their retirement system that city officials say will save hundreds of millions of dollars over the coming decades and put the pension system on a more stable footing.

The fact that the four bills making up the plan passed should not have been much of a surprise, however, as the terms were hammered out as part of an agreement to pay a $75 million judgment the administration owes firefighters in a decades-old lawsuit.

“That in itself would make a successful session for the city,” top Landrieu aide Ryan Berni said Monday about passage of the four bills.

Those bills ended up in last-minute negotiations before they finally made it through the process, though not at the same level of animosity that, for years, has characterized the clashes between the city and the firefighters.

But Landrieu got no traction on a related matter: a bill that would prevent city officials from being held in contempt of court for failing to pay legal judgments.

During the height of the city’s dispute with the firefighters last year, Civil District Judge Kern Reese ruled that Landrieu should be put under house arrest on weekends until the city paid up the money it owed the firefighters. Though that decision was later stayed by the state Supreme Court, Landrieu’s bill, which fizzled, would have prevented the same thing from happening in the future.

While the mayor did manage to win approval of half of his bid to relieve the city’s police officers from some laborious tasks, a key component of that bid was rejected. The defeated bill, House Bill 417, would have relieved officers of the time-consuming reporting of minor traffic accidents, a move city officials said would give the depleted force the chance to deal with more serious crimes and help reduce lengthy response times to calls for service.

But many lawmakers were swayed by critics and the insurance industry, who said police are needed to determine who is at fault during accidents.

The bill’s death “certainly doesn’t help” a city struggling to find ways to put more police officers on the streets after voters in April struck down a millage increase aimed at bolstering recruitment efforts and pay, Berni said.

A second bill, to allow civilians to perform traffic control, did pass. House Bill 418 originally would have limited such traffic-control efforts to the Central Business District, but an amended version will allow police to use civilians for traffic control citywide. Gov. John Bel Edwards signed that bill last month; it goes into effect in August.

Landrieu’s World Trade Center bill, originally intended to thwart lawsuits over public redevelopment projects, was declawed considerably after a company that sued the city over the selection of firms to redevelop the office tower fought to have some of the bill’s language removed.

The city wanted public benefit corporations to be granted wide latitude in choosing developers for such projects. It also wanted losing applicants to be forced to put up millions of dollars before they could challenge such selections in court.

The bill was amended to limit the public corporations’ leeway and to remove the minimum amount of money legal challengers must post.

In a win for the city, though, the final bill does speed up the time line for resolution of lawsuits such as the one Two Canal Street Investors filed after it lost the right to redevelop the vacant WTC office tower. A judge is expected to rule in coming weeks on whether to dismiss Two Canal’s suit, which has been holding up progress on the more than $350 million project.

Landrieu can also claim wins for blocking several measures in the Legislature aimed at overruling local ordinances and initiatives, part of what Berni described as a historic pattern of state efforts to micromanage the city’s affairs.

Lawmakers shot down Democratic efforts to raise the state’s minimum wage and to allow New Orleans and other cities to set their own minimum rate for private companies, something now prohibited. Landrieu and other city officials, particularly City Councilman Jared Brossett, had supported those efforts.

Perhaps the mayor’s biggest defensive win involved the city’s local hiring program, which sets aside a percentage of hours of work on city contracts for local and disadvantaged workers. Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, tried to kill that program, saying it imposed too many restrictions on local businesses. Appel’s bill passed the Senate but was killed in a House committee.

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate mounted efforts that would have complicated Landrieu’s plan to remove four monuments honoring Confederate officials and a 19th century white supremacist militia from public display in New Orleans. Those lawmakers proposed creating a statewide commission that would have had to sign off on such removals. Those bills sputtered early in the session, however.

The monuments remain standing, while a federal court case challenging their removal plays out.

One major loose end as the session closed was how the state’s construction budget, contained in House Bill 2, will shake out. Lawmakers failed to pass the bill before the regular session ended, holding it over for further discussion in the special session that started Monday night.

Some key projects, including a flyover ramp to the new terminal at Louis Armstrong International Airport, depend on funding contained in that measure.

“Unfortunately, due to a lack of leadership, there’s a lot left out on the table in the construction budget,” Berni said. He singled out House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, for criticism for keeping the bill from passing.

“Especially because someone from New Orleans like Neil Abramson is someone who holds that bill, that’s disappointing and really outrageous,” Berni said.