Levee bill faces multitude of threats
Senate panel gives OK, but its chances still iffy
Thursday, February 09, 2006
By Robert Travis Scott Capital bureau
BATON ROUGE -- The governor's bill for levee board consolidation won approval from a Senate committee Wednesday but remained under a cloud of doubt as legislators from all corners of the proposed new levee zone aimed potentially lethal criticism at it.
In a day of sometimes emotionally charged testimony, officials from the parishes of St. Bernard, Livingston, St. Charles and the west bank of Jefferson raised a storm of objections that led one committee member to predict the measure lacked enough votes to pass.
"The bill's not going to pass in its current fashion," said Sen. Robert Adley, D-Benton. "There's just no way."
Sen. Walter Boasso, R-Arabi, the author of Senate Bills 8 and 9, said after the hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee that he recognized changes to the bills are needed and that he will work with some of his critics to find solutions.
"I'm taking everything under consideration," Boasso said. The Boasso bill is Gov. Kathleen Blanco's top legislative initiative for the current special session, which ends Feb. 17. Both of Boasso's bills are needed to create a new authority, but Senate Bill 9 is a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds vote of both chambers and approval by voters statewide.
He remained steadfast about the central elements of his proposal to place all or parts of eight parishes in the New Orleans region under one levee authority.
"The only way we're going to solve our problems is we've got to do something on a regional basis," Boasso said. "My goal is still one board."
Senate Bill 8 would create a Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority to manage the affairs of levee districts in eight parishes. Blanco and Boasso say their consolidation would improve efficiency, coordinate levee projects, focus more attention on flood protection and eliminate opportunities for patronage. It also would send a strong signal to Washington that the state is serious about ensuring federal dollars for levees are well spent in Louisiana, they say.
The bill is expected to be heard no sooner than Friday on the Senate floor, where amendments will be discussed and voted upon.
Adley said the Senate committee's passage of the bill should be interpreted as a sign that Boasso's proposal has a bright future. There is so little time in a 12-day session that it is better to keep the process moving forward by letting the senators fight out the changes on the Senate floor, Adley said. In a regular session with more time, the committee probably would have worked on the bill for a longer period, he said.
West Bankers speak
A slate of mayors, levee officials and lawmakers from the west bank of Jefferson Parish spoke against Boasso's bill or asked for their district to be omitted from a consolidation with east bank parishes.
But at the end of the day, Boasso said he has not changed his views against separating the west bank from the rest of his proposed consolidated region.
Sen. Heulette "Clo" Fontenot, R-Livingston, objected to Boasso's bill and said he had tried to propose a compromise but never got a call back from the governor.
"This plan is not based on science, it's based on political expediency," Fontenot said.
He wanted Boasso's bill changed so that if the new regional authority called on voters to approve a new levee tax, his parish would not be forced to accept it. A compromise would let parishes opt out of a new tax if voters say no, Fontenot said.
After the hearing, Fontenot said he would speak with Boasso in hopes of finding a solution. He said that he and about seven other lawmakers in his region could be won over with such a deal.
"If no effort is being made to work with the opposition, then this constitutional amendment is dead," Fontenot said.
Similar concerns were expressed by Sen. Joel Chaisson II, D-Destrehan, who does not want the east bank of St. Charles Parish included in the new regional authority. That area and the east bank of St. John the Baptist Parish would be drawn out of the Pontchartrain Levee District and placed within the new authority under Boasso's bill.
Chaisson said the levees of those parishes protect no one except the people in them, and so a regional authority would never make St. Charles a priority.
"Your commission would be derelict in its duty if it didnt do regional projects," Chaisson said. "We are going to get lost in the mix."
He, too, said he hoped some kind of compromise could be reached.
"Reasonable minds can come together to address my concern," Chaisson said.
Meanwhile in the House Committee on Transportation, Highways and Public Works, a second day of hearings on a stack of levee board bills ended with Rep. Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, throwing an unexpected wild card into the legislative mix.
As a counter or fallback to Boasso's new bill, he introduced the same levee overhaul bill Boasso carried in the November special session that was famously killed by a procedural vote without a hearing in the House. That bill kept West Jefferson out of the regional consolidation, which coincides with Tucker's desire to keep the west bank separate from any east bank authority.
Working in tandem with Tucker, Fontenot introduced the old Boasso bill in the Senate on Wednesday. Boasso was unaware of the developments.
That left more than a dozen levee overhaul bills for the House committee to consider, some intended as competitors to the Boasso bill and others placed as a fallback in case Boasso's fails.
"This is all beginning to look like a Chinese menu," said committee member Nita Hutter, R-Chalmette. Is the approach, "Whatever sticks on the wall?" she asked.
House committee Chairman Roy Quezaire, D-Donaldsonville, said that "four or five bills have struck a chord with this committee" and that "all are possible avenues."
He said the panel, after two days of hearings, would meet this evening and take votes on the bills that had been presented.
A multibill strategy among some members on the House side is taking shape. Tucker has also filed a bill that would create a new West Bank levee authority covering both Orleans and Jefferson parishes. A bill by Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, could be amended to form an east bank authority serving as a companion to Tucker's region. Burns said his bill was filed as a backup in case Boasso's measure failed, not to become part of a counter-strategy.
A bill by Rep. Pete Schneider, R-Slidell, would cover some of the changes that would have to be made in the state Constitution to accommodate the Tucker and Burns bills. And a bill by Rep. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, would give more levee planning and oversight authority to the state Department of Transportation and Development.
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Robert Travis Scott can be reached at email@example.com or (225) 342-4197.