St. George: Odds-on Favorite

When the movement to incorporate a new city in the southeast part of East Baton Rouge Parish began in earnest four years ago, it was given little chance of success by most elected officials, media, and business leaders.
Today, quite the opposite is true. When organizers of St. George announced two weeks ago that they are launching a new petition drive that would call for a referendum on the issue, no one was laughing.
The dynamics of the issue have taken a 180 degree turn.
First, it is important to realize that only the people of the proposed City of St. George will get to sign or not sign the petition and only they will get to vote in the referendum. The matter will not go before the Metro Council, the Mayor-President, or the legislature.  It is for the residents of any proposed city to decide whether to incorporate.
Last time around, the proposed City of St. George included all unincorporated areas of the parish south and southeast of the City of Baton Rouge. Now the revised map excludes areas that were opposed to or lukewarm in their support of St. George. In other words, if the people in an area did not want to be included last time, they aren’t included in the proposed city this time. That could well eliminate most of the opposition from within St. George.
In addition, last time around, the organizers of St. George started with nothing. They did not know who would support their proposed city. But now, they start with the names of 18,000 St. George supporters, the vast majority of whom live in the new proposed boundaries. Gathering the signatures this time should be far quicker and easier than before.
Last time around, the organizers of St. George got enough signatures, but while the Registrar of Voters was certifying signatures, a group called Together Baton Rouge launched a campaign to have signers of the petition withdraw their names. Ultimately, over the course of two months, they got a few hundred people to withdraw their signatures, leaving the organizers with more than 18,000 signatures but still 71 short.
In 2016, the legislature changed the law regarding withdrawal of signatures.  While there was no time limit before, now signers of a petition have five days after the petition is submitted to withdraw their names. That should effectively prevent Together Baton Rouge from doing what they did before.
The political atmosphere surrounding the St. George movement has also changed. Many thought the election of a new Mayor-President would take the steam out of the St. George movement, but the contrary appears to have happened.
The leading opponents to St. George, the vast majority of whom do not live in the proposed city, still remain opposed. However, many who had reservations about St. George and others who sat on the sidelines have changed their minds and are now supportive.  One example is well respected local contractor Eddie Rispone.
The main goals of the organizers of St. George are public safety and good schools.  After the City of St. George is incorporated, they plan to go to the legislature and seek approval of an amendment to the Louisiana Constitution specifically authorizing the creation of the Southeast Community School System, which would mirror the independent school systems already created in the parish in Zachary and Central. Those systems are ranked the No. 1 and No. 2 in Louisiana.  Organizers of St. George think their schools would be very competitive with those of Zachary and Central.
Amending the state constitution would require a two-thirds vote of each house of the legislature, a statewide referendum, and a referendum in East Baton Rouge Parish and St. George.
Failing that, organizers have another option, which is little known and has never been attempted although it seems clearly authorized by the Louisiana Constitution.
State law allows municipalities to do all things that are not specifically forbidden to them by law. Municipalities are not forbidden to begin or operate a school system. Art. 8, Section 13 (B) of the Louisiana Constitution specifically says that “city school systems” will receive their share of MFP funding.  Likewise, Art. 8, Section 13 (C) provides that the right to levy a five mill property tax for school purposes is afforded to any “city school board actually operating, maintaining, or supporting a separate system of public schools.”
Note the word “supporting.”
This subsection also provides that “any municipality or city school board which supports a separate city system of public schools may levy an ad valorem tax for a specific purpose.” Note the word “supports.”
The language suggests that St. George could create a public body to operate a city school system and that if it “supports” that school system, then the system would be entitled to MFP funds and the levying of property taxes like every other school system in the state.
Under the provisions of Art. 8, Section 13, no “city school boards” or “city school systems” currently exist because the section says that “for purposes of this section,” the existing school systems in Central, Zachary, Baker, Monroe, and Bogalusa “shall be regarded and treated as parishes.”
The bottom line is that if St. George is successful in incorporating, the question of whether or not it also operates a school system may not be controlled by the two-thirds’ vote requirement of amending the state constitution.
With 86,000 residents, St. George would be the 5th largest city in Louisiana behind New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, and Lafayette and ahead of Lake Charles, Kenner, Bossier, Monroe and Alexandria.
Analysis by editor Woody Jenkins

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