There are those active in the St. George movement who suggest little will ultimately be at stake with the anti-incorporation lawsuit filed by Mayor Sharon Weston Broome and others.
No doubt, they’d rather the lawsuit—which kicks off in 19th District Court this month—go away. Or have District Judge William Morvant find a reason to either dismiss the lawsuit or ultimately rule in favor of St. George becoming East Baton Rouge Parish’s fifth incorporated city and the sixth-largest by population in Louisiana.
(Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, we all get it will be the state Supreme Court that almost certainly gets the last legal word, but, for now, let’s not get bogged down in that reality.)
Fueling this boundless optimism is the theory that even as the legal maneuvering by both sides continues unabated, the decisive action on the future of St. George, say its zealots, will take place this spring in the Louisiana Legislature. It’s there—in a State Capitol that’s lopsidedly Republican and likely far more sympathetic to their plight—that incorporation activists hope to get their justice.
(Foreshadowing alert: As you might imagine, Mary Olive Pierson—who has lobbied hard against St. George and is one of the attorneys representing Broome and others suing to halt the incorporation—says there’s no way St. George becomes a bona fide city without a judicial judgment declaring it so … but more on that later.)
The linchpin of this utopian dream is resuscitating the St. George transition bill that won legislative approval a year ago before getting a death knell veto from Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. The bill, says a key figure in the St. George camp, will come from state Sen. Bodi White and pretty much mirrors last year’s legislation, which generally spells out which existing city-parish debt and government services the would-be hamlet will cover as well as broadly outlining how an unincorporated suburban chunk of the parish transitions into an incorporated suburban city.
No doubt, Pierson and a who’s who of lobbyists on the city-parish dime will again howl in protest over some of the bill’s language—especially on the divvying up of debt obligations—but the sounds of fury will signify nothing as the legislation is a near lock to win passage.
For starters, White, the bill’s author and a St. George supporter, now heads the Senate Finance Committee that undoubtedly will hear the bill and favorably report it to the floor of the supermajority Republican Senate. On the House side, Lionel Rainey—something of a behind-the-scenes strategist for the St. George effort—is a special consultant to House Speaker Clay Schexnayder of Ascension Parish. Moreover, representatives sympathetic to St. George stack key committees.
While the bill will cruise control its way through the Legislature, the great unknown is what will Edwards do—WWED—once it lands on his desk?
His issues in vetoing the measure last year were threefold: 1) the bill was pointless until voters gave their approval to incorporation, 2) he wasn’t thrilled with 11th-hour amendments tacked onto the bill by White limiting the debt load responsibilities of St. George and 3) transition specifics are something a cooperative endeavor agreement between the two sides should address.
Two of those three items no longer apply: Voters within the boundaries of the prospective new city gave their thumbs up this past Oct. 12, and there’s zero shot of these two sides agreeing to anything—cooperative or otherwise—in a world where St. George lawyers won’t stipulate that Baton Rouge “is in the vicinity” of the proposed new city.
What really matters, say those laying out this field of dreams, is given the Democratic governor’s agenda and the inherent challenges of working with a GOP-dominated Legislature that’s nearly veto-proof, how much political capital does Edwards want to spend on a decidedly local matter? More important, how hard will city-parish officials and their lobbyists push for a veto when getting their way could well result in some state dollars that typically go to Baton Rouge suddenly finding its way instead to Central, Zachary and politically right-leaning cities in neighboring Ascension and Livingston parishes?
OK great, you might be thinking, what in the name of Art Briles does all this political maneuvering mumbo jumbo have to do with the legal boxing match being slugged out six blocks down N. 4th Street?
(Tell Pierson to start warming in the bullpen.)
The crux of the lawsuit comes down to a state statute that requires a would-be city to meet three benchmarks before becoming an actual city: 1) the prospective city must show a “reasonable” ability to financially sustain itself, 2) that it can get up and running in a “reasonable” amount of time and 3) the incorporation will not adversely impact another municipality within its vicinity.
Indeed, other charges and counter-charges are flying like Mardi Gras doubloons—racial allegations, false campaign pledges, improper annexations and all manner of other nastiness—but those issues are for other potential lawsuits to decide.
Under the “Legislature to the rescue” line of thinking, passage of a transition bill will successfully address the first two requirements, leaving only the question of whether the creation of St. George will have an adverse impact on the city of Baton Rouge?
“It may not end it,” says the feeder of St. George information, “but (passage of the transition bill) negates the arguments in the lawsuit.”
Pierson, of course, could not disagree more, saying, “There’s no way anything this Legislature does will cause the lawsuit to go away. St. George won’t become a city until the (state) Supreme Court rules it can become a city.”
Succinctly put, Pierson’s position is that a transition bill won’t demonstrate how a city that large can financially sustain itself based on the budget information put out prior to the election and “it certainly won’t address the impact” incorporation will have on Baton Rouge.
“I don’t think they can prove what they have to prove to become a city,” she declares.
Sorting out the truth—and the future of St. George—is why the only winners here will be the lawyers.