This is Kathleen Babineaux Blanco's last week as governor of Louisiana. Our state's first woman governor leaves office next Monday (Jan. 14). While much anticipation surrounds Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal's nascent administration, this also is the time to begin putting Blanco's place in history into perspective. In time, we believe history will judge her more kindly than Louisiana voters have rated her in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Blanco, 65, began her tenure with a special session that phased out two much-criticized business taxes " a sales tax on machinery and equipment, and the corporate franchise tax on debt. This early strategy of phasing out, rather than scrapping altogether, the unpopular taxes came to define Blanco's governing style: cautious and deliberative, not given to bold moves or sweeping changes.
She promised to make one big change from the previous administration " she would travel the globe in search of jobs for Louisiana workers. During her four years as governor, Blanco led delegations to Cuba, Japan, Taiwan, China and Kuwait, among other places. Her economic development efforts no doubt will rank among her proudest moments, and she scored a big win early in her tenure by luring the Union Tank Car Co., a leading manufacturer of railroad tank cars, to Alexandria in June 2004. The plant brought 850 new jobs.
While 2004 saw some early victories for Blanco, 2005 marked the beginning of her undoing. House Republicans began to flex their muscle as lawmakers rejected her proposed cigarette tax hike, which she sought for teacher pay raises. Less than three months after the 2005 regular legislative session, Hurricane Katrina, the defining moment of Blanco's administration, came crashing ashore.
Katrina's winds and floodwaters killed more than 1,400 people in southeast Louisiana, followed by Rita's devastation in southwest Louisiana less than four weeks later. Blanco's response to the two storms reflected her cautious, deliberative style " and brought upon her a storm of criticism all her own. 'Failures aren't born. They're made," wrote TIME Magazine in November 2005, adding, 'it was her job to give her constituents heart by looking decisive, steadfast and capable. Even if she wasn't."
Blanco announced formation of the Louisiana Recovery Authority more than six weeks after Katrina struck. The LRA's board and committees include leading citizens from across the state, but the slow pace of recovery " and the perception that Blanco dawdled in comparison to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour " dogged her right from the start. She rightly responds that there was no playbook for a disaster on the scope and scale of Katrina, and she also is correct in noting that the Stafford Act, which controls the federal response to disasters, imposes far too many bureaucratic obstacles to be of much use after a catastrophe this enormous.
Within months of the storm, however, the die was cast for Blanco. Her first post-hurricane special legislative session, in November 2005, reflected once again her cautious approach: she proposed to balance the state budget by cutting expenses and to prepare for future storms by adopting a statewide building code. She sat on the sidelines as state Sen. Walter Boasso made his first attempt to combine local levee boards, but she did push through creation of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which one day will be recognized as the real 'one levee board" for Louisiana. When the session ended, she was roundly " and rightly " criticized for not aiming higher.
By the middle of 2006, Blanco's Road Home Program was under siege for its glacial pace and for the $756 million management contract given to ICF International, the Virginia-based company that is administering the program. By the middle of 2007, the program would fall $3 billion short. The federal government, thanks largely to U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu's seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, ultimately covered that shortfall. The year 2006 ended on a low note as Blanco's holiday special session fizzled; lawmakers refused to raise the spending cap and allow her to tap a $2 billion surplus. Less than 100 days later, on March 20, 2007, Blanco announced that she would not seek a second term.
Though clearly stung by post-storm criticism, Blanco never lost her graciousness, which gave her a balance all her own. She finished her tenure with a string of legislative victories, including raising teacher pay to the Southern average. As she enters the next phase of her career, she plans to write a book and champion other causes. We think a fitting endeavor would be leading the charge to rewrite the Stafford Act. Given the law's role in undermining her efforts to lead Louisiana back from disaster, she might welcome the chance to save other governors from a similar fate. Whatever she chooses to do, Blanco can look back on her tenure and know that she gave her all and did it with integrity and grace. For that, Louisiana owes her its thanks.