St. George transition bill waiting for hearing when Legislature reconvenes

(Photo illustration by Hoa Vu)

The Legislature briefly reconvenes today from its COVID-19-imposed hiatus to read any last-minute bills into the record, as today is the deadline for filing bills for the 2020 session.

Though issues unrelated to the pandemic and economic crisis have largely escaped public attention, one noteworthy piece of legislation filed the day before lawmakers put the current session on hold is a bill by Sen. Bodie White, R-Central. White’s bill would establish a transition district for the prospective city of St. George.

White’s SB 423 is very similar to a 2019 measure by former Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, that was approved by lawmakers but later vetoed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, who said, at the time, the measure was premature.

Since then, however, voters within the footprint of the prospective city have voted to incorporate.

If approved, White’s bill would establish a framework for how the new city would divide sales tax revenues and share expenses with the city-parish.

Like Claitor’s bill, the White legislation would allow St. George to collect a 2% sales tax to pay for municipal services. It would also require St. George to assume a proportionate share of pension debt and liabilities from the city-parish.

Significantly, the bill would also free St. George residents from having to pay any debt related to “immovable property not located within the municipality or to debt secured by parish taxes that relates to movable property not transferred to the municipality.”

That would mean St. George would not be liable for a share of the  $15 million bond used to pay for the renovation of the old Woman’s Hospital on Airline Highway. The hospital site is now a command center for local law enforcement, including the East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff and the district attorney.

The city-parish still owes more than $11 million on that loan, and the Broome administration has argued it’s unfair that St. George residents wouldn’t have to pay for a share of a public safety complex that serves the entire parish.

The bill also says St. George wouldn’t have to pay any pension debt for employees and retirees who did not provide services within the St. George footprint.

The Broome administration opposes that provision, arguing it’s impossible to determine which city-parish workers in a department like DPW, for instance, provided services to particular areas of the parish.

Until the Legislature reconvenes to hear bills, the issue is on hold. An attorney representing Mayor Sharon Weston Broome in a suit against the prospective city believes establishing a transition district is premature anyway because, she says, the city isn’t officially incorporated until the legal challenge is resolved.

“There’s nothing to transition to or from,” attorney Mary Olive Pierson says. “They think they became established on Oct. 12 because they had an election and now they want to have this commission that will give them all kinds of authority, but it’s just not reality.”

White, however, says it’s important to establish the transition district now so if and when—and he believes it will be a when—the legal issue is resolved, the new city will be on its way to moving forward.

“I don’t see this going on for years,” White says. “Eventually, this will get in front of a panel of judges and for most panels it will be hard to overturn a vote of the people.” 

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