Levee districts overhaul under fire
Lawmakers trying to scale back changes
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
By Robert Travis Scott Capital bureau
BATON ROUGE -- Landmark legislation passed in February to consolidate authority over the New Orleans area's fragmented levee districts came under surprise attack Tuesday by opponents of the initiative. Advertisement
Amendments placed on unrelated bills in the House and Senate would peel back some provisions in the levee board overhaul championed by the governor and Sen. Walter Boasso, R-Arabi, setting the stage for a reprise of the emotional confrontation that characterized the issue four months ago.
Supporters of Boasso's plan, which would be implemented Jan. 1 if voters statewide approve the measure in a Sept. 30 referendum, are calling on Gov. Kathleen Blanco to stop lawmakers in the current legislative session from chipping away at its provisions.
"I'm just concerned about the message this sends to Washington when we still have our hand out for money for levees," Boasso said.
A spokesman for Blanco said the administration will "review the amendments thoroughly."
The Legislature has been considering a number of levee bills this session, but none of them sought to repeal the Boasso plan, which would replace the boards overseeing each New Orleans area levee district with a single board covering an area of the east bank and north shore and another single board over the West Bank.
The plan includes a proposed constitutional amendment, which needs statewide voter approval to enable statutory changes that specify how the boards would be set up. If the constitutional change passes, those changes will go into effect Jan. 1.
West Bank wish list
Business leaders and citizens groups had called for a single regional levee board, but West Bank lawmakers succeeded in keeping a separate board on their side of the river. Still, the West Bank authorities did not get all the provisions they wanted.
On Tuesday morning, the Senate Judiciary B Committee attached one of the items on the West Bank wish list to House Bill 829 by Rep. Damon Baldone, D-Houma. Baldone's bill would give all levee districts greater authority to take over private property to build levees. At the urging of Rep. Ernest Wooten, R-Belle Chasse, Baldone asked the Senate committee to amend his bill to specify the new West Bank authority in Boasso's plan would take over Dec. 1, 2007, instead of Jan. 1. The amendment would not affect the new east bank and north shore authority.
Wooten said the existing board and staff of the West Jefferson Levee District are in the middle of a major upgrade of the levee system thanks in part to a $147 million infusion of emergency federal money last year. The delay would give the district time to implement the levee program.
Voting for the change were Sens. Nick Gautreaux, D-Abbeville, Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans, and Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe; panel Chairman Sen. Art Lentini, D-Kenner, opposed the change.
On Tuesday afternoon, Rep. John Alario, D-Westwego, added two changes to Senate Bill 89 by Sen. Reggie Dupre, D-Montegut. Adopted on the House floor without objection, Alario's amendment would change the composition of the West Bank levee board and also delay Boasso's plan on the West Bank until Dec. 31.
Dupre's original bill sought to restructure the board for a levee district in Lafourche Parish.
Alario's board change goes to the heart of the differences felt by both sides about the oversight of West Bank levee matters. Boasso's plan calls for a seven-member West Bank board, with two each from Orleans and Jefferson parishes and three from outside those parishes. Neither parish would have majority representation on the board and the three outside members would provide greater objectivity on levee decisions, under Boasso's vision.
But Alario and West Jefferson Levee District officials say that Jefferson Parish's West Bank population is much greater than Orleans' and the geographical area is much larger, so Jefferson should not be outnumbered 5-2 on the new board.
"I don't know how you get anything done in Jefferson Parish if those five members have a different agenda," said Chip Cahill, president of the West Jefferson Levee District.
The Baldone and Dupre bills both are near the end of the legislative process and would not have to face more hearings. That means the amendments have dodged the possibility of a public hearing in a committee setting in which supporters of Boasso's plan would have advance warning to testify against the changes.
"If Alario succeeds with this, I just can't fathom what the governor is thinking," said Jay Lapeyre, president of the Business Council for New Orleans and the River Region, a powerful group supporting Boasso's plan. "Otherwise, she just encourages everything."
If the governor does not send a strong message that she will not tolerate changes to the levee overhaul, then many more amendments will surface before the end of the legislative session, Lapeyre predicted.
Concern about delays
Blanco spokesman Roderick Hawkins said the administration is "concerned" about the amendments' proposed delays for when Boasso's bill would take effect on the West Bank, but viewed changes in the West Bank authority's board composition differently.
"We're more concerned about a delay in the reform than we are in a minor change in the makeup of the board," Hawkins said. "We will take a look at these as they go through the process."
When Boasso's bill was debated in February, Blanco supported proposals in the House and Senate to change the West Bank's board composition the way Alario wanted. Boasso and other supporters of the bill resisted the change and floor votes defeated the amendments.
Alario said Tuesday that Blanco supported four Jefferson representatives on the West Bank board in February, but had told him she would not offer the same support for delaying implementation of the Boasso plan.
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Robert Travis Scott can be reached at email@example.com or (225) 342-4197.