BATON ROUGE – Issues that have long drawn concern from only south Louisiana communities, such as hurricane protection, flood control and coastal restoration, were crystallized as major state policy during the regular session that adjourned Monday evening.
Lawmakers from the northern part of state, far from the Gulf of Mexico, championed coastal issues in greater numbers than ever before and a standing committee to provide oversight for these matters was considered for both the House and Senate.
While last year’s hurricane season can be dubbed the chief catalyst for this trend, there was also an abundance of indicators from the 85-day regular session that signal statewide sympathy is growing and will only flourish in coming years.
A true benchmark came during the session when the state budget was amended during floor debate at the hands of two Terrebonne Parish lawmakers to include coastal restoration projects.
It happened in both the House and Senate. 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 the session’s centerpiece legislation are traditionally hammered out one way or another.
“That is virtually unheard of,” said Rep. Loulan Pitre, a Republican 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.”
Of course, if you’re talking about the coast with a modern voice, then the conversation will eventually be steered toward Hurricane Katrina.
The devastating storm single-handedly changed the way levee bills are heard in the Legislature, as evidenced by this session. Otherwise mundane levee measures that would have never received a second look before last fall 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, although the bill was extremely limiting.
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 said. “I’m just amazed that it took this long.”
Interest is also beginning to spread across geographic boundaries.
Sen. Jay Dardenne, a Republican from Baton Rouge, sponsored legislation during the session directing some of the state’s tobacco settlement money to coastal restoration, and Sen. Robert Barham, a Republican from Morehouse Parish, is slowly earning a reputation stumping for coastal issues.
While both were early bloomers in the coastal debate, it is a sign that more will eventually join the ranks, said Rep. Gary Smith, a Norco Democrat and member of the Acadiana Delegation.
“Representatives and senators from non-coastal parishes are beginning to realize that storm surges can impact inland areas and even further,” Smith said. “They are starting to see the need to get involved and it is changing the debate.”
Coastal restoration has also caught fire further out west along the shoreline where interest has been building steadily over the past few months in the wake of Hurricane Rita.
Legislation was adopted during the session to implement local restoration programs in Vermilion Bay and the surrounding area and momentum continues to build quietly 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 right past the Texas line. The seawall would also double as a major transportation route, complete with tolls, which would help pay for the construction.
The Legislature passed an unrelated bill this month that proponents of the seawall project found solace in. 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 traffics fines and bonds.
The one major coastal issue 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,” said Rep. Carla Blanchard Dartez, a Morgan City Democrat.
But above all, the momentum the matter has earned over the past few years cannot be lost, coastal lawmakers say. That political propulsion may be the only thing that will push the issues even further along the statewide agenda – barring another round of natural catastrophes, that is.
“We’re going to have to see more and more of this,” said Sen. Joel Chaisson, a Democrat from St. Charles Parish. “It has to continue. We have to focus as much as possible on these issues.”