The hurricanes that lashed Louisiana and parts of Texas unleashed not only misery but an outpouring of generosity and tangible help from people all over the country. There is little question that most of what has been destroyed will be rebuilt, including New Orleans.
The question is: Who will do the rebuilding, and who will pay for it?
The Louisiana congressional delegation has announced a proposal that is breathtaking in its scope and audacity. Republican Sen. David Vitter and Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu have introduced a $250 billion Hurricane Katrina Disaster Relief and Economic Recovery Act.
The Vitter-Landrieu proposal includes a $40 billion request for the Army Corps of Engineers — 10 times the Corps’ current budget for the entire nation. The Corps has estimated it can upgrade New Orleans’ levee system to withstand a Category 5 hurricane for about $2.5 billion. But Louisiana’s politicians, sensing opportunity in a time of crisis, want much more than that.
Try $14 billion in ecosystem restoration, $8 million for alligator farms and $35 million for seafood-industry marketing.
This proposal might be just an opening bid prior to negotiations that would reduce it to less-outlandish proportions. But don’t count on much restraint. President Bush, stung by criticism that the response to Katrina was slow, seems determined to compensate by opening up the money spigots.
Despite murmurs from Republican backbenchers, who have proposed to offset hurricane relief spending with $102 billion in reduced spending in other parts of the federal budget, the Republican leadership seems wedded to the idea of spending the Gulf Coast into prosperity, with the bills covered by taxpayers all around the country.
A better approach would be to turn the Gulf Coast into an Opportunity Zone — suspending regulations and taxes to spur the entrepreneurial spirit and encourage private ownership over public works.
Hurricane relief should come in the form of vouchers to victims so they can purchase reconstruction, health care and other services in a competitive market.
Private and personal charity outperformed government in the initial response. The private market would do better at rebuilding, as well.