It's About Time

by Jeremy Alford

Levee issues, coastal restoration and flood protection pushed to the forefront of the state's agenda this year.

Hurricane protection, flood control and coastal restoration are usually the province of south Louisiana legislators, but those issues crystallized into major state policy during the regular session that adjourned last week. Even traditionally dismissive north Louisiana legislators championed coastal concerns in the wake of last autumn's hurricane season, and a standing committee to provide coastal oversight was considered for both the House and Senate.

A true benchmark arrived when the state budget was amended during floor debate at the hands of two Terrebonne Parish lawmakers to include coastal restoration projects. Rep. Gordon Dove, a Republican, shifted $18 million around to fund a barrier island maintenance project, and Sen. Reggie Dupre, a Democrat, dedicated another $150,000 to a levee elevation program. Lawmakers not only approved the changes by overwhelming margins, they did so with barely any debate ' even though amendments placed on centerpiece legislation are traditionally hammered out in numbing detail.

"That is virtually unheard of," says Republican Rep. Loulan Pitre, who represents portions of both Lafourche and Jefferson parishes. "But it's a big given now that coastal restoration and flood control are a priority for the state."

Hurricane Katrina changed the way levee bills are heard in the Legislature; otherwise mundane levee measures that would have never received a second look before last autumn were scrutinized closely. One bill that allows levee districts to take on construction projects in-house if the value is less than $1 million was nearly gutted on the House floor because it would have allowed the districts to abandon public bid law for these limited circumstances. The concept almost failed because the knee-jerk reaction was that anything dealing with public bid law and levees is automatically controversial.

Placing such matters under a microscope is a positive change, according to Republican Rep. Ernest Wooten, a former sheriff from Plaquemines Parish.

"The hurricane opened up everyone's eyes to the fact that there is a lot at stake," he says. "I'm just amazed that it took this long."

Longstanding geographic differences were shelved, for once. Baton Rouge Republican Sen. Jay Dardenne sponsored legislation during the session directing some of the state's tobacco settlement money to coastal restoration, and Morehouse Parish Republican Sen. Robert Barham is slowly earning a reputation stumping for coastal issues. While both were early bloomers in the coastal debate, it's a sign that more will eventually join the ranks.

"Representatives and senators from non-coastal parishes are beginning to realize that storm surges can impact inland areas and even further," says Rep. Gary Smith, a Norco Democrat and member of the Acadiana Delegation. "They are starting to see the need to get involved, and it is changing the debate."

Coastal restoration has also gained momentum further west along the shoreline in the wake of Hurricane Rita; legislation was adopted during the session to implement local restoration programs in Vermilion Bay. And there's been a quiet push for an aggressive ' if not outrageously futuristic ' project dubbed the "Louisiana Intracoastal Highway."

The proposal, sponsored partly by the Acadiana Delegation, calls for a 255-mile seawall that stretches from New Orleans to just beyond the Texas state line. The seawall would double as a major transportation route, and tolls would help pay for its construction. The Legislature passed an unrelated bill this month that gave solace to proponents of the seawall project ' it would allow gap funding or seed money for toll projects around the state using donations or gifts or other creative sources. (Texas has a similar program that uses funds from increased traffic fines and bonds.)

The one major coastal item left hanging from the regular session was the creation of a standing committee for coastal issues. Lawmakers overwhelmingly supported forming a panel to pass and recommend legislation, but the legislative leadership turned the enacting bills into one-year studies. There are high hopes, however, that the committees will be formed in time for the 2007 session.

"That would really put the issue into stone here," says Morgan City Democratic Rep. Carla Blanchard Dartez.

Above all, lawmakers say the momentum the matter has earned over the past few years cannot be lost. That political propulsion may be the only thing that will push the issues farther along the statewide agenda ' a critical need, given the risk of further hurricanes. "We're going to have to see more and more of this," says Sen. Joel Chaisson, a Democrat from St. Charles Parish. "It has to continue. We have to focus as much as possible on these issues."