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New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell talks in her City Hall office in New Orleans, La. Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, about her new strategy to reduce gun violence based on advice from a gun violence reduction council and dozens of experts and advocates who served on her transition committees this spring.

When it comes to local tax elections, the State Bond Commission has a well-defined role. To quote from the commission’s website, it is supposed to review applications for “compliance with Constitutional and statutory requirements and feasibility, including the ability to repay any indebtedness incurred.”

It is not set up to weigh in the merits of the tax. And it’s certainly not designed to mediate political disagreements between different branches of a city’s government.

Yet you would not have known that from its meeting last Thursday, in which a dispute between New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the City Council landed right in the commission’s lap.

The council has unanimously scheduled a March 30 election to ask voters to raise 2-mills, or $6.6 million dollars, and send it to the Council on Aging. It did so without the usual coordination with the mayor’s office, and in fact, Cantrell has come out against the millage, arguing that the city should not hand over even more tax money to entities it doesn’t control. She’s also said she’d prefer to come up with a more comprehensive approach that serves not only the elderly but also other constituencies such as young children and those with mental health needs.

On top of that, the council has scheduled another tax vote, this one a Cantrell-pushed renewal that would redistribute money for parks and recreation, cutting the Audubon Nature Institute’s share and directing property tax revenue to City Park as well as the city’s parks and parkways department and recreation commission. This vote has been set for just over a month later, May 4.

There are a lot of reasons for concern here, including the possibility of voter confusion and plain old millage fatigue from an electorate that has proved itself willing to reject city tax requests, including Audubon’s prior attempt to extend its full millage for decades.

In asking the bond commission to take the unusual step of refusing to OK the election, a Cantrell aide zeroed in yet another downside: The $440,000 cost to city taxpayers of holding a separate election with no statewide measure on the ballot.

Bond commission member Neil Abramson, a New Orleans lawmaker who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee and is Cantrell’s chosen floor leader, found plenty of merit in that argument and noted that the money the city would have spent on the election could instead go to the cause in question.

Another New Orleanians on the commission, J.P. Morrell, the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs chair and a close ally of several council members, cautioned against applying a stricter standard to this vote than to others, or involving the commission in local fights.

Procedurally, Morrell’s argument won the day — and even a yes vote from Abramson, who wound up joining in the commission’s unanimous ’s approval.

Philosophically, though, Cantrell’s point also found a sympathetic audience, including from Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne. While agreeing that the commission should not second-guess local decisions, Dardenne also said it was “crazy” to pay for two separate elections so close together. He’s right about that.

Not that the Cantrell administration pushed the argument when it could have mattered. Had the mayor confronted the council in public about the added cost before members put it on the ballot, they would have at least been forced to make a case for its necessity. I suspect that might have been enough to make them back away from an already questionable plan.

There’s an irony to this whole story, and it’s that the mayor and council members don’t really disagree on the city’s needs. They all won election on the same ballot last year, and they share many stated priorities, including support for the potential beneficiaries of both millages as well as the communities that Cantrell wants to help with a broader proposal.

From all appearances, this is simply a power struggle — one that city officials really should have been able to work out among themselves, without dragging the bond commission or any other outside office into it. Because doing things this way is, to borrow Dardenne's word, crazy. 


Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.