Louisiana lawmakers voted Friday to create a transition district in case the controversial City of St. George comes to fruition, over objections from Mayor Sharon Weston Broome and Democrats who said the measure upended a compromise deal inked earlier in the session.
The complex bill laid out the amount of liabilities, like retirement costs and bonded indebtedness, each side would pay in case the East Baton Rouge Parish residents in the St. George area vote to incorporate later this fall. Several Baton Rouge Democratic representatives argued changes made to the legislation tilted it in the favor of the proposed city, and Broome sent a letter earlier this week urging lawmakers to vote against the measure.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, now must decide whether to sign the bill. A spokeswoman for Edwards said he was still reviewing it.
Tensions over the effort to incorporate the whiter, wealthier southeastern part of the parish have simmered for years, and have boiled over this legislative session, especially as Senate Bill 229 was debate in the House chamber. The House & Governmental Affairs Committee last week advanced the measure along racial lines.
Voters in the proposed boundaries of the city will vote on Oct. 12 on whether to incorporate. If successful, the city would have about 80,000 residents, and Baton Rouge leaders have said they will have to reduce services or raise taxes to cover the lost revenue.
State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, brought the proposal to create the transition district, something he says was done when Central incorporated. State Sen. Bodi White, a Republican who challenged Broome for mayor in 2016, successfully tacked on the changes that Broome said upended an earlier compromise deal.
“As Mayor-President of the whole consolidated government I can’t stand by and watch the citizens of the proposed new City leave their share of debts behind for their fellow neighbors,” Broome said in the letter to representatives. “I urge you as a member of this body to vote against this measure.”
The House, which has a Republican majority, sided with state Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, who carried the bill for Claitor. The vote was 57-25.
“This is an ongoing process. This is a step one,” Edmonds said. “If this is going to pass, there’s going to be long-term negotiations between ... the City of Baton Rouge and the City of St George.”
Edmonds said St. George residents already pay an "enormous amount" of taxes, and he called the bill a "good government" measure.
The proposal has set off renewed controversy over the St. George incorporation effort, drawing accusations of “racial implications” in recent weeks and causing a debate over the broader effort.
State Rep. Patricia Smith, a Baton Rouge Democrat, said the changes made to the bill came when Broome and the city-parish’s lawyer handling the issue were out of town. Broome, a former state senator, said in her letter it was a “last-minute” change.
“That was unfair to the mayor-president of East Baton Rouge Parish,” Smith said.
“If you want to take the good you have to take the liabilities as well,” added state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, who tried unsuccessfully to amend the legislation to take out the changes.
Broome’s letter also included an email sent to Claitor and White by Jeffrey Yates, the retirement administrator for the Employees’ Retirement System of Baton Rouge. Yates said the change tacked on by White to remove liabilities of retirees who did not perform services in the proposed St. George boundaries would be “impossible to identify.”
At issue is the Unfunded Accrued Liability, or UAL, which is the retirement debt in the system. Yates said “most every member” of the system provided a service related to the proposed area of St. George. He also said another change that specifies how much UAL is paid by each side would let St. George pay a fixed rate while the parish would have less stability in its payments, potentially allowing St. George to “mitigate its rightful obligation.”
EBR Parish used sales tax proceeds including collections from St. George neighborhoods, to secure a $15 million bond to pay for refurbishing the old Woman's Hospital on Airline Highway to create new offices for local law enforcement. The city-parish still owes about $11.2 million on that loan. That debt is at issue with the bill, which says St. George would be freed of "debt secured by parish taxes that relates to immovable property not located within the municipality."
Because St. George would benefit from services from the sheriff's office, the use of the old Woman's Hospital, where the sheriff's office has a presence, would benefit the new city. White argued St. George should pay a pro rata share for the service.
Both sides agree the issue is likely headed to litigation.
"I am happy this will finally end with a vote," James said.
Voting in favor of a St. George transition plan (58): Speaker Barras, and Reps. Abraham, Adams, Amedee, Bacala, Bagley, Berthelot, Billiot, Bishop, Bourriaque, T. Brown, Carmody, S. Carter, Chaney, Coussan, Crews, Davis, DeVillier, DuBuisson, Dwight, Edmonds, Emerson, Falconer, Foil, Garofalo, L. Harris, Hilferty, Hodges, Hoffmann, Hollis, Horton, Howard, Huval, Ivey, M. Johnson, N. Landry, Larvadain, Mack, Magee, McFarland, McMahen, Miguez, G. Miller, Jay Morris, Jim Morris, Moss, Muscarello, Pope, Pylant, Schexnayder, Simon, Stagni, Stefanski, Stokes, Thomas, Turner, Wright and Zeringue.
Voting against SB229 (25): Reps. , Armes, Bagneris, Bouie, Carpenter, Cox, Duplessis, Franklin, Gaines, J. Harris, Hill, James, Jefferson, Jenkins, R. Johnson, Jones, Jordan, LaCombe, Leger, Lyons, Marcelle, D. Miller, Moore, Pierre, Smith and White.
Not voting (22): Reps Abramson, Anders, Brass, C. Brown, G. Carter, R. Carter, Connick, Gisclair, Glover, Guinn, Henry, Jackson, T. Landry, LeBas, Leopold, Marino, Norton, Pearson, Pugh, Richard, Seabaugh and Talbot.