The money, gifted by the federal government, has not flowed into the city without controversy. The inspector general’s office of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the distribution, concluded that $2 billion worth of the damage came not from the flooding, but from decades of neglect, and recommended taking back those funds. But the city looks likely to catch a break as it appears that federal officials will ignore that counsel.
New Orleans let its roads and sewerage system crumble from a stubborn insistence on high taxes – the highest urban property taxes in the state, and close to the top in aggregate sales taxes – that stunted economic growth. Overreliance on low-wage tourism braced by a slew of taxes to gouge visitors as well only made matters worse. This failure to thrive while the city disproportionately increased spending on social programs shorted roads maintenance.
It didn’t help that the Sewerage and Water Board operated too long as a patronage sinkhole less concerned about efficient service provision. To his credit, Democrat Mayor Mitch Landrieu instituted reforms to start S&WB operations on a path towards modernization and better financial management, although he failed to have administrators in place that competently addressed last year’s flooding exacerbated by S&WB equipment and maintenance inadequacies.
But Landrieu’s policies also encouraged continued wasteful spending. He insisted on throwing away taxpayer money on disadvantaged business enterprise programs and imposing a “living wage” on contractors and applying it to some city employees. Additionally, he frittered away tax dollars on battling what he alleges as the existential threat of climate change and misdirected more to an unneeded hospital in New Orleans East. All the while, over his eight years he disinvested from public safety, leaving police ranks hundreds of officers below recommended levels.
Matters would be worse without largesse from another, man-caused, disaster: the offshore Macondo well blowout. During Landrieu’s terms, payouts from BP and other liable corporations to compensate businesses and individuals in the New Orleans area counted into the hundreds of millions of dollars, a portion of which would end up in municipal tax coffers, and the city itself received $45 million directly.
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Not that Democrat Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell looks like she’ll cut back on unneeded spending and unwarranted taxation while sufficiently keeping up infrastructure. On the City Council where she serves at present, she by and large backed Landrieu’s agenda.
Worse, in remarks made after her election, she displayed hard-headedness that bodes ill for wise governance over the next four years. She blamed Pres. Ronald Reagan for dismantling social programs that she claimed then caused a crack cocaine epidemic in urban areas, when in fact overall, discretionary spending, especially in his first term, on programs dealing with social services increased dramatically while outlays for combatting the illegal drug trade more than doubled.
Belief that even large increases in government spending have proven inadequate betrays an attitude that promises more tax-and-spend policies that stifle economic growth and deemphasize infrastructure needs. So, if Cantrell and her successors adhere to that ideology and the repairs of today start their inevitable decay through neglect, what next? Voodoo incantations to spawn a disaster that attracts more outside aid?