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Louisiana Lawmakers Begin Hurricane Special Session

Facing stiff opposition from some New Orleans lawmakers to her proposals, Gov. Kathleen Blanco pressed for unity Monday on the opening day of a second special legislative session for hurricane recovery, warning that many Washington politicians have moved beyond the hurricanes.

Blanco said she would press Congress for further help, but was worried by President Bush's scant reference to Hurricane Katrina in his State of the Union Speech last week and said public opinion polls are showing the nation has largely forgotten the storms.

"The harsh reality is that for many people in Washington, Katrina is yesterday's problem and Rita never happened," Blanco told a joint session of the Legislature held at the New Orleans convention center, rather than the traditional House chamber in Baton Rouge.

For the first time, the governor outlined how she wanted to use $6.2 billion in federal hurricane recovery block grants and $1.5 billion in federal aid to minimize future damage from flooding. Most of the aid, about $5.6 billion would go to housing assistance, under plans up for debate during the session.

Rep. Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, chairman of the House GOP caucus, said he was relieved to hear Blanco spell out her plan for spending the federal money.

"At least she gave us a basic plan for how the money is going to be spent," Tucker said.

The governor touted her legislative proposals as long overdue reforms: to consolidate levee boards to strengthen hurricane protection and to merge New Orleans' city government.

"Over the next 11 days, I am asking you to overhaul problems that have begged for reform for generations," she said.

But the location of her speech — the first time in 125 years that the Legislature has convened outside of Baton Rouge, according to Blanco — and a bus tour of hurricane devastated areas before the speech started the session with discord.

The speech and bus tour received harsh criticism from some lawmakers, who said the governor was wasting time in a short session and was using sites of devastation and suffering — evacuees languished for days in the convention center after Hurricane Katrina — as a publicity stunt to repair her image.

While fewer than half the 144-member Legislature took the tour, most lawmakers showed up for the speech. Only 20 House members and 12 senators skipped the speech, according to legislative estimates. One House seat currently is vacant.

The speech won praise from sometime Blanco critic Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, who said he was pleased that Blanco emphasized the importance of housing needed to allow displaced residents to return to their homes.

"I was very, very excited to hear that her No. 1 priority is bringing people home. It was long overdue, but she said it very sincerely and forcefully," Richmond said.

Rep. Steve Scalise complained that Blanco's speech was full of broad statements about her goals, but skirted difficult issues, particularly details about her push to consolidate New Orleans government.

"A lot of our focus needs to be on consolidation, but I didn't see a lot of details in the speech," said Scalise, R-Metairie."

The special session, which must end by Feb. 17, was the second Blanco has called to cope with the damage of Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which struck Louisiana Aug. 29 and Sept. 24.

In the earlier session, lawmakers enacted a series of tax breaks to re-attract and rebuild businesses in the damaged areas, passed a statewide building code and made budget cuts and adjustments to fill in a massive deficit caused by the storms.