Jeremy Alford

Coastal commission being overhauled amid concerns

A group of lawmakers and experts appointed to advise Gov. Bobby Jindal on coastal matters hasn’t met since last year, and many members fear the panel has either lost its remaining shreds of influence with the Republican administration or possibly been stripped of its usefulness altogether. Those concerns, however, may be premature since state officials are currently in the process of redesigning the scope of the advisory panel to fit the needs of Louisiana’s ever-evolving coastal master plan. Jindal’s top coastal aide is heading up the overhaul, and there are also plans to possibly hold an informational meeting before year’s end.

The Governor's Advisory Commission on Coastal Protection, Restoration and Conservation was first created by former Gov. Mike Foster, another Republican, in 2002, when land loss and erosion were not yet a part of the national political vernacular and state-level education was just beginning. Foster’s successor, Democrat Kathleen Blanco, continued the advisory commission and granted it more influence. Two years ago, its membership had a lead role in policymaking and tackled controversial topics like the closing of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet.

But during Blanco’s final year in office and the opening salvo of Jindal’s term, the commission has somewhat faltered. Only two meetings were held in 2007, and Jindal finally reappointed the commission’s membership in July of this year, six months after he took office. No meetings have been held in 2008. “Now, more than ever, I think the commission has a role to play,” says Rep. Damon Baldone, a Houma Democrat, who was first appointed to the commission by Foster. “We’re supposed to be advising the governor, but that isn’t happening anymore.”

Presently, there are 29 appointed members of the commission, including representatives from business, industry, academia, agriculture, commercial fishing and the conservation community. Several members are from Acadiana. And while nervous chatter among these officials regarding the commission’s function has become louder in recent weeks, it appears that any real outrage was dispelled by the performance of Garret Graves, Jindal’s top coastal advisor. Commission members interviewed for this story heaped praise on Graves for keeping an open line even when the commission seemed closed. “Everyone is confident that Graves has the situation under control. He’s always just a phone call away,” says Rep. Gordon Dove, the Republican chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and one of the newest members of the advisory commission. “We’re still going to be able to have a lot of input.”

Graves says the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has supplanted some of the previous purposes of the commission and it is now meeting monthly, rather than a few times a year. The devastation deposited by hurricanes Katrina and Rita forced the state to reassess its overall coastal strategy, which is why the CPRA was created three years ago. A federal task force is also regulating coastal projects alongside a new coastal financing corporation that is presently meeting. “We don't want to have another advisory group meeting for the sake of meeting,” Graves says. “We want to ensure that the commission is a productive use of everyone's time – that is what we're focusing on. We're taking the commission in a new direction.”

Graves, who also serves as chairman of the CPRA, says his marching orders come straight from the top and that Jindal is “done with the era of studies in coastal Louisiana – moving to actual construction is a new ball game.” Despite efforts by lawmakers to abolish the advisory commission during this year’s regular session, he says Jindal wants the group to continue being a valuable tool for the state. “That will be represented in the revamped commission,” Graves adds.

As for when the commission’s next meeting will be scheduled and new directives issued, Graves says those details are being hammered out. A redesign plan is also expected to start taking form before the end of this year.