Starving The Beast

By Jennifer Moses
Tuesday, November 29, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La. -- A primary goal of many Republicans is to "starve the beast" of federal government, the theory being that states and private enterprise, better equipped to respond to local needs than Washington ever could be, will at the very least take up the slack. So let's give credit where credit is due. I don't know how things are going in Fairfax County, Va., or Prince George's County, Md., but here in East Baton Rouge Parish, La., the beast is dead.

Even before hurricanes Katrina and Rita exposed the Bush administration's cynical callousness toward our most vulnerable citizens, Louisiana in general and East Baton Rouge Parish in particular were home to some of the most profound poverty in the nation, along with all the social ills that poverty breeds. Where does one begin? With the staggeringly high rate of HIV transmission? The fact that Louisiana public school teachers are ranked 46th in the nation for average teacher pay? Our dismal high school graduation rates? Our soaring teenage pregnancy rates? Or the public schools, which on the whole are such a disaster that they can only be compared to a war zone?

Meanwhile, such glimmers of hope as after-school and job-training programs have largely disappeared. The fact of the matter is that here in East Baton Rouge Parish, we've never managed to take care of our own, and now, in the wake of the storms, we're barely keeping our collective heads above water.

Not surprisingly, in a state that's always scrambled to get by, the financial picture isn't rosy, either, with the storms having ripped a hole in the state's ledger the size of Mars. It's a dicey little problem, too, because unlike Washington, Louisiana is obligated by law to balance its books. Ergo, the governor has had to slash nearly $1 billion out of a total (pathetically small) budget of about $18 billion. In keeping with Washington's own philosophy of hurting the hurting, the poor are bearing the brunt of it, with deep cuts in Medicaid, hospitals, nursing homes and health care for the indigent, and additional cuts in education and social services.

As for the evacuees -- with tens of thousands still living in hotel rooms, it's only the lucky ones who are being housed in those spiffy new FEMA travel trailers, all of which are miles from bus lines, services, schools and jobs. Welcome to the bayou's own version of the Gaza Strip.

But not to worry just because Congress is set to slash billions from Medicaid, food stamps and student loan programs to finance billions in tax cuts for people who can afford to buy private jets. We in Louisiana know that reconstruction money is coming. Eventually. And when such money does begin to pour in, there's no doubt that good stuff will happen: jobs for carpenters and other skilled workers, the return of tourism, the resumption of normal life. As for finding an affordable rental in what's left of New Orleans: Good luck. Contractors and FEMA have bid up rents an average of 100 percent.

In the meantime, there are bills to pay. Just for starters, Louisiana owes FEMA $3.7 billion. Local governments with no tax base (their tax bases having been wiped out) are being forced to repay disaster-relief loans. The U.S. House of Representatives recently removed a provision from a bill that would have given Louisiana the opportunity to obtain federal bridge loans. New bankruptcy law makes no provision for victims of the storms. Not to mention the staggeringly high cost of electricity.

But do you know what the real kicker is? It's that even if the Bush administration comes through with adequate funding for rebuilding, it's not going to make a bit of difference without a reasonable policy to protect the wetlands, which are nature's shield against flooding. In a recent panel discussion on the subject, experts announced that it would take some $14 billion over the next 30 years to restore Louisiana's wetlands, which have been disappearing at the rate of 50 acres a day -- and that to ignore this looming environmental crisis is tantamount to "an act of mass homicide." The federal government has so far coughed up $250 million, or enough to buy some Band-Aids and bottled water when the next storm blows ashore.

Unfortunately, the people of Louisiana can't make up the shortfall. And the beast, as the poor and the struggling in Baton Rouge have known for a long time, is pushing up daisies.

Jennifer Moses is a writer.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company