10 February 2006

Committee and floor action, Feb. 10: HB 50, HB 14, HB 57

A key part of Orleans Parish consolidation came up in front of the House Ways and Means Committee, in the form of Speaker Joe Salter’s HB 50 and HB 51. Together they would offer a chance for the state, with a veto power effectively given to Orleans voters, to consolidate the seven assessors of the parish into one. He must have known, with six of the 14 members (eventually who would vote; traditionally, the chairman and vice chairwoman do not) present from the Orleans Parish area that this would be a tough sell.

Salter asked why New Orleans should be treated differently. Rep. Art Morrell said properties, not people, must be assessed and that parcels are small and need more assessors. Salter asked why Jefferson was different. Morrell said there was double the number of parcels. “You want to kick New Orleans when it’s down,” which Salter disagreed with. Morrell backtracked, but said the general idea of reducing government in Orleans was “racial and prejudiced.” Morrell said if he heard from New Orleans citizens (but “not there now”) that wanted this, he’d support. Salter said having an amendment would show whether this is an outcry for change. “We’re fine, just leave us alone,” Morrell said. “Give them the right to vote,” Salter asked, but Morrell said it was up to the Legislature to decide in this case.

Rep. Alex Heaton said any effort was too rushed, not enough people were back even for a fall vote. Further, the state would not save money. Salter said it would save Orleans up. Heaton also cited that several parishes together with their assessors didn’t equal the population of one New Orleans district (which is illogical). Rep. Ken Odinet said people were fearful of change, fanned by “talk radio hosts.” “They’re having they’re levee boards taken away,” he said, and then added, “Don’t call me a racist.”

Rep. Damon Baldone brought up the question of length of terms. Staff eventually concluded that the amendment as written would leave assessors in place until 2010. Rep. Jeff Arnold kept taking issue with the amount of cost savings and whether it was demanded. But subsequent testifiers from the private sector argued there would be cost savings and better, more consistent assessments, and opinion polls supported it. Odinet accused the real estate business of bad faith, of wanting a single assessor to increase its profit. “We don’t appreciate you coming in here and tell us how to run our business.”

Rep. Cedric Richmond said why not go statewide, like he thought Vermont did (he wasn’t sure). He implied that it was inconsistent to change Orleans and not anything else. Opponents such as Arnold’s father, an assessor, also picked up on this theme, trying to show in comparative perspective the seven assessors were no worse than any other parish.

Morrell made a motion to defer, which effectively would kill the bill. The committee agreed 8-6, all Democrats in favor. Salter then pulled his companion bill HB 51.

Republicans lost another close committee vote, again along party lines, when the House and Governmental Affairs Committee approved 5-4 Rep. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock’s HB 14 that would allow regional voting centers set up to allow registered displaced voters to vote outside of their parishes of residence. Republicans seemed unconvinced that the setup as indicated would provide sufficient ballot security. Rep. Billy Montgomery made it two-for two – he was the decisive vote that deferred HB 50 and to pass HB 14 out of committee (although the same could be said of Arnold as he was on both committees, too, but Montgomery was the only non-urban representative to side with the majority for HB 50).

To date, HB 57 has been the only consolidation bill that has made it to the floor of a chamber unscathed. Its sponsor Rep. Peppi Bruneau pointed out that New Orleans was the only city in the country with its split judicial system and wondered if the system was so good, why nobody else does it. He also said post-hurricane realities in terms of population also dictated this consolidation. He noted the various inefficiencies in the various separate court and clerical organizations.

Rep. Jack Smith quoted some figures showing it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the transition among the sheriffs’ offices, although they were figures provided by the sheriff’s office which Bruneau questioned. He also pointed out the combination would infuse more money into criminal judicial system. In response to other queries, Bruneau said the judicial system would be studied further under the bill which may realize even greater cost savings.

Smith later offered an amendment which would largely undo the combination of the sheriff’s departments. Bruneau kept wondering how all other parishes’ sheriffs could perform all these functions that are separated in Orleans, and Orleans’ can’t. When Rep. Troy Hebert suggested it be put to a vote of the people, Bruneau wondered whether that should also be the case when the Orleans’ sheriffs wanted pay raises.

Proponents of the amendment made the chamber sound like an echo of Room 6 where earlier that day the assessor consolidation bill got deferred: the existing arrangement works, why not go consolidating of other parishes, Orleanians don’t want it. “Why is the Governor pushing this?” asked Morrell. “If it weren’t for New Orleans, she wouldn’t have gotten elected.”

The amendment failed 31-62. In closing, Bruneau pointed out a nonpartisan study which pointed out numerous benefits from consolidation. He said to follow those guidelines would “rebuild for the 21st century, not the 19th.” The bill passed 85-14.

“I don’t get Moon Griffon. I mean, I don’t listen to him.”
Salter, when discussing public opinion concerning the single assessor issue.

“Chocolate City.”
Sen. Nick Gautreaux, when asked by Sen. Edwin Murray where the latter was from during debate on his SB 5.

Total House introductions: 99; total Senate introductions: 56.

Total House good bills: 13; total Senate good bills: 2.

Total House bad bills: 12; total Senate bad bills: 4.

Total House good bills heard in committee: 2; total Senate good bills heard in committee: 2.

Total House bad bills heard in committee: 5; total Senate bad bills heard in committee: 1.

Total House good bills passing committee: 2; total Senate good bills passing committee: 2.

Total House bad bills passing committee: 4; total Senate bad bills passing committee: 1.

Total House good bills passing the House: 2; total Senate good bills passing the Senate: 0.

Total House bad bills passing the House: 3; total Senate bad bills passing the Senate: 1.

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