When I interviewed Mississippi's Republican Gov. Haley Barbour for last week's Human Events, my first question offered him an opportunity to criticize how the government of neighboring Louisiana had responded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Barbour diplomatically declined to take it.
Noting that former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown had defended himself in congressional testimony by arguing that Louisiana was "dysfunctional," while "the system worked in Mississippi and Alabama," I asked Barbour if he agreed. "Well, I don't know anything about Louisiana," he said. "So, I'm not knowledgeable to comment about there."
But later in our conversation when I brought up the $250 billion federal aid package proposed for Louisiana by that state's senators, Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and David Vitter, a Republican, Barbour was incredulous.
"I don't know much about their proposal," he said. "However, I don't think the cost of relief, recovery and rebuilding will be anything like that amount. That seems to me very excessive. We are trying to project what the costs would be here, and it is a small fraction of that."
In fact, Barbour said Mississippi now estimates the total federal share of rebuilding Katrina-damaged areas of his state will be "well under $50 billion," and that the best estimate puts it "in the low $30s."
This is despite massive destruction in Mississippi. According to Barbour, 47 of the state's 82 counties have been declared major disaster areas. Forty percent of Mississippi families have applied for disaster assistance.
And it isn't as if Barbour is trying to short-change his state of its share of federal aid. The Stafford Act calls for the federal government to pay 75 percent of the cost of rebuilding hurricane-damaged public infrastructure, such as highways, sewers and ports. But Barbour would like the federal share to be even larger. "As I understand it," he said, "there have been 90-10 splits in the past, and that's what we would like to see."
Yet, Barbour vows Mississippi will not squander federal funds, and his record as governor suggests he will be good to his word. Before Katrina, Mississippi was budgeted to spend 1.75 percent less in nominal dollars this year than it did last year.
"We need the federal government's help," said Barbour. "At the same time, we are going to be good stewards of the taxpayers' money, and we are not going to try to use this as a way to gouge taxpayers."
Louisiana has 4.5 million people; Mississippi, 2.8 million. Louisiana's gross state product (as calculated by the Bureau of Economic Analysis) was $152 billion last year, twice Mississippi's $76 billion. Even so, it is hard to imagine that the value of the damage done to Louisiana so far outstrips the damage done to Mississippi that Louisiana needs five to eight times the $30-$50 billion in federal aid that Mississippi needs.
Even the liberal Washington Post noted that Landrieu and Vitter's $250 billion, which would come on top of $62 billion already approved for hurricane relief, would give Louisiana more than $50,000 in federal aid for every man, woman and child in the state.
Perhaps the real secret behind the astronomical price Louisiana is asking of federal taxpayers was revealed by the Los Angeles Times, which reported Monday that Landrieu and Vitter put together advisory panels packed with Washington, D.C., lobbyists to advise them on their package. "The lobbyists and the entities they represent tend to be among the most experienced experts available who have direct, real-world knowledge of the situation," Landrieu spokesman Adam Sharp told the Times. "They are advocating for a position and for a client, but usually from a vantage point of expertise that can be very beneficial to us."
Sure. That must be why the plan includes $8 million for alligator farms, $23 million for sugar-cane research and a $750 million "teacher incentive fund" to pay rewards to teachers who simply return to their jobs. That's not to mention big-ticket items like the $50 billion in the proposal for Community Development Block Grants and the $40 billion to be used by the Army Corps of Engineers solely in Louisiana, which, as The Associated Press reports, is 10 times the Corps' current total annual budget.
Last week, under pressure from the conservative House Republican Study Committee to cut spending to offset the cost of hurricane relief, Speaker Dennis Hastert announced that the House leadership would seek significant new spending restraints. Among them are an across-the-board cut in discretionary spending for fiscal 2006 and a package of rescissions from already appropriated spending to be developed with the White House.
While they are at it, House Republicans should tell Louisiana's senators to take their bloated $250 billion aid plan and bury it in a bayou.