Few politicians do not enjoy attention, and Mitch Landrieu has been getting a lot as he winds up eight years as mayor of New Orleans. It has been an era of turnaround for the city, flooded after Hurricane Katrina.
But as Landrieu noted the other day, it's been 30 years as an elected official for him, and most of that time was spent in state government, not the New Orleans political arena. He was a young state legislator who came in with the "Roemer revolution" in the 1980s and later served as lieutenant governor before becoming mayor.
Of course, as a native New Orleanian, his time in the Legislature included a lot of attention to city bills and issues. For that matter, the lieutenant governor is the state's chief tourism official, and little is more important to the economy of the New Orleans metropolitan area, as well as Louisiana, than the city's giant draw as an international destination for visitors.
So asked to look back on his career as a whole, Landrieu could not help to note the two historic turnarounds that he was part of: the late 1980s and 1990s, when state government was as broke — if not more broke — than the city was when he took over there in 2010.
Over coffee with editors and reporters of The New Orleans Advocate, he recalled that the state government could not make payroll at the time when he and other young lawmakers came into the State Capitol of 1988. That was when party affiliation was only gradually becoming more important in state politics, but Landrieu spoke proudly of working in a bipartisan fashion to create reforms that not only righted the ship financially but served to make state government more fiscally responsible to this day.
Among the reforms was the Revenue Estimating Conference, much-criticized recently by GOP legislators in the House, where the leadership is at odds with Gov. John Bel Edwards. Many legislators do not recall the days when governors routinely "adjusted" the anticipated price of oil so that the budget might be called balanced, when it often was not.
It was a recipe for out-of-control spending that the REC budget limits now restrict.
The state also has borrowing limits to prevent the build up of construction debt. Over time, Landrieu said, that's $11 billion in savings "that nobody noticed," because the rule became part of the political landscape.
And in one major divergence from today, the "temporary" sales tax increase that was necessary to balance the budget under Roemer was replaced under Gov. Mike Foster with the Stelly Plan, a swap of income tax increases for permanent cuts in sales tax on food and residential utilities.
Landrieu did not say so in the most recent conversation, but he certainly said so as lieutenant governor when GOP lawmakers targeted the Stelly income tax increases. His forecast that reducing the income tax would unbalance the budget has come true, and for most of a decade since he has watched from City Hall as the State Capitol has foundered on broken budgets and increasingly partisan bitterness.
"What is a fairly easy thing to see is that the Stelly Plan worked," Landrieu said the other day. "You have a real-life example (of governance) side by side, in the same physical space, with opposite results" in terms of financial stability. The outgoing mayor praised the two terms of City Council members who worked with him "on the same page on 90 percent of decisions," in contrast to both Baton Rouge and the national government these days.
In the physically broken environment of New Orleans, Landrieu was a key part of the city's turnaround. But in a politically broken environment of Baton Rouge, no one has been able to repair the breaches that have opened in governance at the State Capitol.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.