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press clipping
Vitter, Landrieu get big win for coast in budget bill

06:23 AM CST on Friday, March 17, 2006

Brett Martel / Associated Press

U.S. Sens. David Vitter and Mary Landrieu secured a major victory Thursday in their effort to bring billions of additional dollars to Louisiana for hurricane protection and coastal restoration projects.

During debate on the federal 2007 budget resolution, the Senate approved an amendment that would divert a greater share of offshore oil and gas revenues to the Gulf Coast.

"These amendments open the door for significant new hurricane protection funding and support for our small businesses," said Landrieu. "While much more work is needed to get these funds through the entire legislative process, I look forward to continuing our fight for stronger levees and coastal protection."

The amendment also called for a share of royalties from possible oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and revenues from a digital TV spectrum auction to be used as funding sources for those same coastal projects.

The amount of money funneled to Louisiana could reach $5.4 billion over five years if the measure survives a conference committee in which the Senate and House of Representatives hash out differences in their budget proposals.

"We've gotten the commitment of the budget chairman (Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.) and the Republican leadership that they would preserve this in conference," Vitter said.

The President then would have final approval.

Meanwhile, the House approved billions of dollars more for recovery in Louisiana as part of a $92 billion spending bill for Iraq, Afghanistan and Hurricane Katrina recovery.

The bill contains $19.2 billion for cleaning up and rebuilding the Gulf Coast.

Nearly $9.6 billion of the hurricane money would go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for removing debris, reimbursing state and local governments for building repairs and helping storm victims.

But Louisiana lawmakers in the House still felt short-changed, in large part because the House appropriated only $170 million for covering levees with rocks or synthetic blankets that help prevent erosion. Most south Louisiana levees did not have the added "armor" prior to last fall's devastating hurricanes. In December, President Bush had pledged about $600 million for such projects. U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, offered an amendment to restore money for armoring, but it was defeated.

"As far as I'm concerned, today's action was a vote to leave South Louisiana underwater," Melancon said. "It continues to amaze me how some people in Washington keep making excuses when it comes to helping American citizens on the Gulf Coast. While we continue to suffer in Louisiana, this Congress would like nothing more than for us to say 'Thank you, sir' and sit down and shut up."

Another setback came when the House allowed other Gulf Coast states to have access to a pot of $4.2 billion that originally had been requested specially to help the Louisiana Recovery Authority help displaced homeowners.

Back in the Senate, Vitter termed his and Landrieu's amendment a start on the road to bringing an even more offshore royalties to the region. It calls for a total of $10 billion to be shared with oil- and gas-producing Gulf states over five years.

"We have further to go but this is very significant," Vitter said. "I am hopeful this will be a prelude to royalty-sharing wins in general."

A day earlier, Landrieu called for Gulf states to receive half or all federal royalties received from the production of oil and gas off of their coastlines. Such a sharing plan could bring about $2 billion a year to Louisiana, or double what could come to the state from Thursday's amendment.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita made it obvious that Louisiana is facing a dire future if nothing is done to save its coast. The storms inundated all 400 miles of the state's zigzagging coast line, destroyed more than 100 square miles of marsh and wreaked havoc on barrier islands.

Before last year, the state had already suffered some of the most staggering land loss rates in the world -- about 1,900 square miles have vanished since the 1930s.

Louisiana wants to restore and defend its coast with an array of land-building techniques. Projects range from spreading Mississippi River mud and water throughout the drying wetlands to building massive levees and floodgates.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)