CHARLIE MITCHELL: Louisiana's extremism decimates good will

It was 202 years ago that the United States paid France $15 million for land that now makes up the state of Louisiana (and about 20 percent of the rest of America).

Ask Haley Barbour, and he might be ready to sell it back.

Not to put words in the governor's mouth, but he is more than a little peeved with the antics of officials of Mississippi's neighboring state.

Louisiana's governor and assorted other officials, you see, trotted up to Congress last month and said they'd like $250 billion, please, from their fellow Americans. That's what's needed, they insist, to patch things up from the mess left by Hurricane Katrina.

Even Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat as is Gov. Kathleen Blanco, was somewhat taken aback by the request she and her fellow Louisiana senator, David Vitter, a Republican, were asked to drop in the federal hopper.

“I realize that it's a very high number,” Landrieu said. “But I guess part of introducing this package and doing it unified in our delegation is to say this is an unprecedented natural disaster, a national tragedy. And it's going to take an unprecedented response.”

Barbour, a Republican, has not been viciously critical of the Louisiana request, but he has noted it.

Upon return from his own lobbying visits to the White House and Capitol Hill, Barbour made it clear the sheer size of the Louisiana request wrecked a lot of the good will people from other states had been expressing. “There was an overnight sea change in Congress' attitude about this,” Barbour told The Associated Press. “People thought it was beyond the pale.”

Before that comment, it “seems to me very excessive” was as harsh as Barbour had been, insisting that he doesn't know very much about the storm's Aug. 29 impact in Louisiana or in coastal portions of Alabama.

His focus, he said, has been Mississippi, where 47 of 82 counties were declared disaster areas. Here, he said, $33 billion – a number whittled down from initial projections of $50 billion or more – will get the state back in order.

It's worth nothing that Louisiana is a more populous state, with 4.5 million people compared to Mississippi's 2.8. The New Orleans metro area is also more densely developed and populated than any single area devastated in Mississippi.

Still, the Lousiana request – more than seven times greater than Mississippi's – staggered members of the House and Senate. Where there had been promises to forgive the states' share of Medicaid matching money and such, talk shifted to what kind of precedents Congress would be setting. After all, once the feds provide novel varieties of aid to one state, they'd be expected to keep providing it after future hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, fires and floods elsewhere in the nation.

Before Louisiana's request, Congress had been moving quickly, earmarking $62 billion for relief within two weeks after Katrina hit. Since then, the talk has shifted to the need for hearings. (For those who don't keep up, offering hearings is what members of Congress promise when they don't plan to do anything else.)

News stories accurately reporting a few of the requests in Lousiana's package probably fed some of the official reluctance. Among disaster needs, the state asked for $8 million for alligator farms, $23 million for sugar cane research and $750 million to be spread among teachers, apparently for nothing other than returning to work. (That calculates to about $15,000 per teacher statewide.) Louisiana also asked for $40 billion for Corps of Engineers projects just in Louisiana, an amount 10 times the Corps' total annual budget for a whole year.

For any state to face something as awesome as Katrina, Mississippi was politically well-positioned for the aftermath. Barbour is the insider's insider in D.C. He's been a mentor to President Bush, who was known as “Junior” when his father was vice president and Barbour was senior political director for President Reagan. And Thad Cochran, the state's senior delegate to the U.S. Senate, is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Another little nicety is that all these chummy folks are members of the GOP, and the GOP has majorities in the House and Senate.

But the warm welcome has turned cold, leaving Barbour perplexed about how to prevail.

Don't know if he's done the math, but that $15 million America paid in 1803 to complete the Louisiana Purchase equates to about $200 million today.

Barbour might suggest Congress save a fortune by finding a buyer willing to acquire the territory, less a discount for the damage, of course.

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at P.O. Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail post@vicksburg.com