‘LaPolitics’: Louisiana mayors face post-storm pinch

    “When the burdens of the presidency seem unusually heavy,” President Lyndon B. Johnson would sometimes say, “I always remind myself it could be worse. I could be a mayor.” That’s especially true right now in Louisiana, where mayors are being forced to look to the federal government for relief from this week’s hurricane-related damage. This comes at a time when the mayors are also trying to turn up the pressure to get additional assistance for COVID-19 needs. 

    In Ruston, for example, the city has already trimmed $3.5 million from its current year budget, let some employees go and put infrastructure projects on hold, all due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn that began five months ago. “We wouldn’t have had to cut a single person from our payroll if Congress had done for cities what they did for businesses,” says Ruston Mayor Ronny Walker. “If we could get the same payroll protection plan that small and large businesses got, that would be a great help to us in northeast Louisiana.”

    Walker joined a group of colleagues in a virtual town hall last week hosted by John Gallagher of the Louisiana Municipal Association, who explained that small and mid-sized municipalities are particularly at risk. Basic fiscal needs may not be met in the coming weeks and months, the mayors argued, especially as total local revenue statewide is expected to decline by 13% this fiscal year, including an average 20% to 30% dip in sales taxes.

    Even if Congress gets its act together soon on relief funding for local governments, some elected officials have concerns about allowing other bodies to control that cash. “We certainly hope that Washington would take a look at us—we’re small, we’re rural, but we’d a whole lot rather the money come directly to us than go through the bureaucracy,” says Woodworth Mayor David Butler.

    The issue is much larger than underwriting city halls, says Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn. Federal  resources are needed to help with police, fire, water, sewage and garbage collection, he says. 

    “We don’t need it forever, we just need it now,” he says, adding, “We’re asking for as much as we can get right now because we’re all feeling that. We need small businesses, big businesses and government working together to continue our services.”

    Electing more women: A new Louisiana-based organization created to equip and inspire more women to enter public office has received a dose of national seed money to begin its mission. With lobbyist and advocate Renee Amar serving as executive director, Louisiana Women Lead (or Lead for short) is positioned for an aggressive push this term thanks to a grant from Women’s Public Leadership Network. The grant is part of a national undertaking to establish similar efforts across the country. Amar, the vice president of government affairs at the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, described Lead as a new pipeline for “center-right, business-minded women.” She also said the grant requires Lead to provide child care on site for any in-person meetings. Larissa Martinez, co-founder and executive director of Women’s Public Leadership Network, adds, “There has long been a need for state resources that offer in-person training and mentor support for women seeking to hold public office, and who identify as right of center in their principles. It’s no secret that women remain underrepresented in political leadership, especially center-right women.”

    They said it: “The optics aren’t good.”—Senate and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, during a committee meeting this week on state worker raises, in the Associated Press.  

    Jeremy Alford publishes LaPolitics Weekly, a newsletter on Louisiana politics, at LaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter, or on Facebook. He can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.