AP Interview: Blanco outlines levee consolidation
1/25/2006, 4:42 p.m. CT
By MELINDA DESLATTE
The Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. Kathleen Blanco's push for consolidating Louisiana levee districts envisions the state taking over the districts' investment properties — like the airport and marinas operated by the New Orleans levee board.
Also, lawmakers would no longer nominate members for the boards, under Blanco's plan.
"We're going to try to get more professionally oriented boards focused on flood control," Blanco said in an interview with The Associated Press in which she outlined some of her levee consolidation plans.
Blanco intends the proposal, pitched as a way to strengthen Louisiana's hurricane protection, to be the centerpiece of a special hurricane recovery legislative session that begins Feb. 6, but she has been guarded on specifics so far.
She provided further details in a wide-ranging AP interview this week, saying she initially will target the consolidation of southeast Louisiana levee boards but intends to include all local levee boards in the state.
"We're going to insist that engineers, people with understandings of hydrology ... maybe a lawyer, people with a certain amount of technical background will become the appointees, and we can have a neutral nominating authority," Blanco said. "We've done that with other kinds of boards, and that seems to take some of the political mischief out."
Currently, lawmakers nominate levee board members and the governor makes the appointment.
Blanco said one of her problems with a levee consolidation bill by Sen. Walter Boasso that failed in a November special session was that it continued to allow legislators to have a hand in the appointments. "That, we think has to change," she said.
Consolidation of the levee boards has gained traction since Katrina's flooding of New Orleans and its neighboring parishes raised questions about the maintenance of the levee system that protects much of southeast Louisiana. The idea is backed by the New Orleans hurricane recovery commission, business leaders and more than 45,000 people who signed a petition urging the consolidation.
However, opponents say a consolidated levee district could harm smaller coastal towns in favor of New Orleans' protection, and the proposal could still prove to be hard-fought even with Blanco's backing.
The boards are criticized as laden with political patronage and packed with inexperienced political appointees. The New Orleans board, in particular, has been targeted for its non-levee activities, including operating a police force, an airport, two marinas and a $47 million annual budget.
Blanco said that when the boards are consolidated, the investment properties held by the levee districts will become state-owned property run by her Division of Administration. When asked if the state would take over the New Orleans levee board's marinas and airport as part of the plan, she replied, "And/or sell them."
"I'm not going to decide what we're going to do with them until we get a full and comprehensive understanding of their function and their value," Blanco said.
In November, the levee consolidation bill by Boasso, R-Arabi, only received Senate approval after he agreed to let the New Orleans levee board hang onto its independence in running its non-levee operations.
Sen. Francis Heitmeier, D-New Orleans, who has strong political ties to his city's levee board, said he didn't know many of the details of Blanco's levee consolidation proposal, but he said he doesn't object to removing the political appointments in choosing a board. He said the levee board's property already is state property "more or less," though he declined to say whether he'd back a levee district merger bill that included the property takeover provision.
He said the details of Blanco's proposal should be vetted first through the people who are most affected by the levee districts.
"We want flood protection. That's the number one thing for the city of New Orleans right now. If consolidating the levee boards is going to give better flood protection for the people, that's great," Heitmeier said.
But he said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the design and construction of levees and he didn't understand how consolidating the state's levee districts would change Louisiana's flood protection.