Lawmakers introduce a range of options for levee board
2/7/2006, 2:53 p.m. CT
By DOUG SIMPSON The Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. Kathleen Blanco's plan to dissolve southeast Louisiana levee boards faces a slew of competing ideas, with several lawmakers arguing that some of the boards should remain because they perform well.
Blanco wants to do away with all the local boards and has the backing of outspoken business and community groups from the New Orleans area. Although levee construction was largely a federal project, local levee boards oversee the maintenance of the levees. Critics argue that nepotism, corruption and incompetence on the boards, which are made up of political appointees, contributed to the breaches. Blanco said displaced residents of New Orleans and other flooded areas won't return home until the levees get new caretakers.
"Clearly there is no faith in the way that system is organized," Blanco said at a news conference Tuesday.
But lawmakers say such a radical approach is unnecessary — some argue that Blanco's plan sounds like good government but would needlessly get rid of qualified, experienced flood experts.
One competing measure would essentially consolidate New Orleans-area flood control boards on the west bank of the Mississippi River, creating the Barataria Basin Flood Authority. The new authority would cover the areas of Jefferson and Orleans parishes on the west bank. It has support from all House members who represent west bank parishes, said Rep. Jim Tucker, the sponsor.
Tucker said the river's west and east banks lie in different flood plains, so hurricane flood protection for the two banks are unrelated and should not be combined. The levee breaks that inundated much of New Orleans caused no flooding in the part of the city that lies on the west bank.
"Our concern is, we do not want to go into a larger entity that may not pay attention to the west bank," Tucker, R-Terrytown, said at a meeting of the House Transportation Committee.
While debate continued over Tucker's and other levee bills in the House committee, Blanco pressed for Sen. Walter Boasso's measure — which is scheduled for a hearing in a Senate committee on Wednesday. Blanco wants to consolidate all the region's levee boards into one oversight board focused only on flood control. In promoting the idea, she took a veiled swipe at the New Orleans' levee board, whose holdings include non-flood-control operations such as marinas, a police force and an airport for corporate jets.
"No marinas, no parks, no airport, no other interests, only flood protection," Blanco said.
Boasso's measure would replace the local boards with a single southeast Louisiana levee authority. Its members would be geologists, hydrologists and engineers; currently, levee board members can be appointed with or without a background in flood control.
The measure is also backed by government watchdog groups and a New Orleans-based community group that says it has collected over 52,000 signatures from people in support.
It faces opposition from St. Bernard Parish President Henry "Junior" Rodriguez, who attended the governor's press briefing on Boasso's bill. Rodriguez said his parish would be overlooked in a regional board because big city New Orleans would get all the attention.
A third levee bill, sponsored by Rep. Danny Martiny, would keep the local boards intact but create a new division in the state transportation department, made up of flood-control experts, to oversee their flood-control projects and plans. Martiny said this proposed Hurricane Flood Protection Commission would have oversight over the local groups' projects to make sure they are coordinated.
Martiny said the commission's five members would be nominated to the governor by a panel of experts picked from professional engineering groups, state-based "good government" watchdog organizations, the American Institute and Hydrology and others. The governor would then approve members from those nominations.
One question faced by sponsors of the levee bills is scrutiny from Capitol Hill — the appropriations bill passed last year by Congress stipulated that Louisiana could get $12 million for a flood-control study but only if the Legislature approved levee board consolidation.
The exact meaning of that federal legislation is in some dispute, however. The bill says flood control in southeast Louisiana must be overseen by a "single state or quasi-state entity" — such as the plan in Boasso's bill — before the state can benefit from the $12 million study.
But Tucker said his plan — separate entities for the east and west banks — would also qualify the state for the federal money, because the flood plain in question is on the east bank and could be overseen by a single board.
Because of the attention from Capitol Hill, Martiny said the Legislature needs to pass some form of levee reform during this special session.
But that will mean overcoming opposition from some lawmakers from the New Orleans area who have political and personal ties to the local levee boards.
Boasso's measure will face an especially tough fight because it's a constitutional amendment, needing approval from two-thirds of House and Senate members, plus statewide approval from voters. Other levee consolidation proposals, including Martiny's, would need only a simple majority in the House and Senate.
"I don't think we can pass anything out of this body with a two-thirds vote," said Martiny, R-Metairie.
On the Net:
House Bills 11, 25, 44, 47, 48, 52 and 72, and Senate Bills 8, 9 and 11 can be viewed at http://www.legis.state.la.us/