In The News › Lives depend on flood authority independence: Editorial

May 16, 2014

Source: | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Governance, Levees

Lives depend on flood authority independence: Editorial

By The | The Times-Picayune Editorial Board

May 16, 2014

Sen. Robert Adley is attacking the independence of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East from all directions. The next assault is expected to come before the House Civil Law & Procedure Committee Tuesday.

Senate Bill 553, which passed the Senate in mid-April, would limit the ability of the two regional flood protection authorities in the New Orleans area to hire special counsel and would make those new rules retroactive.

Sen. Adley’s aim, as with several other pieces of legislation he is pushing, is to undo the coastal damages lawsuit filed by the SLFPA-East last summer against 97 oil and gas companies.

He and Gov. Bobby Jindal are determined to keep the lawsuit from being heard in court. In the process, they are attempting to neuter the regional authorities.

Legislators shouldn’t allow that to happen. Members of the Civil Law committee have a chance to do the right thing, and stop SB 553.

Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans and the Bureau of Governmental Research both issued statements opposing SB 553 Thursday. The two groups had already come out against other Adley bills that would weaken the flood protection authorities.

In the statement opposing SB 553, Citizens for 1 said: “The political independence of these two regional flood protection authorities relies hugely on their status as political subdivisions. … Now, legislative assaults on their political independence seek to move them away from the protections of local government, treating them as state agencies subject to the Governor’s control. That’s not what Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans fought for in 2006.”

BGR also is worried about the authorities’ independence. SB 553 would let the governor block legal actions he doesn’t like and control which lawyers get hired — and which don’t, BGR said.

That goes against the post-Katrina reforms pushed by Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans and approved by a large margin by voters. Pre-Katrina, local levee boards operated like little fiefdoms, doling out patronage. The constitutional amendment that passed in 2006 replaced those crony-filled levee boards with two regional flood authorities, which are made up of engineers, hydrologists and other experts. The law was written purposefully to shield the authorities as much as possible from political pressures.

SB 553 would unravel those protections. The bill would treat the flood protection authorities the same way as state boards and commissions — requiring approval from the governor as well as the attorney general to hire special counsel. That would essentially put them under the thumb of the executive branch. In addition, the bill would require contingency fee agreements for lawyers to also go through the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

Currently, the flood protection authorities are treated under the state Constitution the same as school boards, parish governments and other levee boards. They are required to get the attorney general’s approval to hire special counsel.

That is what the SLFPA-East did before filing suit — and that ought to be sufficient. Despite all the howling in Baton Rouge about the authority’s lawsuit, it isn’t improper. Gov. Jindal and Sen. Adley, who owns a natural gas management company in northwest Louisiana, just don’t like the fact that the authority dared to file it.

But lawmakers should let the courts decide whether the lawsuit has merit.

The case that oil and gas pipelines contributed significantly to the loss of Louisiana’s coastal land is strong. Almost three dozen studies — including one by Louisiana Mid Continent Oil and Gas Association — have concluded that oil and gas activities contributed to the erosion. The industry was supposed to repair the damage, but hasn’t.

Legislators, especially those from the greater New Orleans area, need to understand the ramifications of nullifying this legal action.

The extensive and ongoing erosion of Louisiana’s coastline has put communities at high risk from storms. The two regional flood protection authorities — East and West — will have to spend tens of millions of dollars to maintain the levees and pumps built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers post-Katrina. And the system still needs to be strengthened. The state’s master plan to protect and rebuild the coast will cost at least $50 billion — and there isn’t nearly enough tax money to pay for the plan.

The East authority has asked a fair question: Why shouldn’t oil and gas companies, which contributed to the damage, pay part of the cost to fix it?

The authority isn’t arguing that oil and gas exploration should be limited. This isn’t about bashing the industry; it’s about protecting our homes and businesses — and lives — from the storms ahead.

Attorney General Buddy Caldwell has indicated that settlement talks with the oil and gas industry are imminent. The state would be foolish to give away negotiating power by voiding the flood authority’s lawsuit.

Besides that, the post-Katrina levee board reforms are among the most positive changes in our region. The new authorities are infinitely better — and smarter — watchdogs than the old boards. That is due in large part to board members’ credentials and the independence they were given to do their jobs.

If either Gov. Jindal or Sen. Adley had lost a home or livelihood or had been in their homes with waves pounding them, they would more fully appreciate the gravity of the situation. There are many legislators who ought to understand the dangers. They should do the right thing and let the flood authorities continue their vital work.

May 16, 2014

Source: | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Governance, Levees

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