Gov. John Bel Edwards had both good news and bad news for those who gathered Thursday to discuss Louisiana's shrinking coastline.
Edwards promised that he would not propose any cuts to funding for coastal restoration projects. But he warned that as the state's budget crisis continues, coastal restoration may nevertheless find itself in the Legislature's cross-hairs.
"No dollar is safe," the governor told attendees at a daylong symposium in Baton Rouge on Louisiana's coastal master plan.
"My plan for this current special session does not involve any impact on coastal funding," Edwards said. "And there will not be one in April for the regular session."
The governor said he agrees with the common notion that too much of Louisiana's budget is tied up in the form of dedicated spending, but he said money to protect and restore the coast should remain off limits to cutbacks.
The crowd, mostly government workers, academics and members of coastal advocacy nonprofits, gave Edwards a warm reception.
The governor also encouraged the crowd to "take ownership" of the coastal master plan, a new version of which will go to the Legislature for an up-or-down vote during the regular session.
The master plan sets out a list of projects that the state's Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority would like to see implemented during the next 50 years.
The projects, which are projected to cost about $50 billion in all, are divided equally between restoring Louisiana's coastline and protecting existing communities from inundation.
The public comment period for the latest version of the master plan — it gets officially revised every five years — runs through March 26, and the CPRA board will vote on a final draft April 19.
For the fiscal year beginning July 1, the CPRA has requested $663 million in funding for various projects included in the plan. Most of that money comes from dedicated funds, and legislators can change only a small percentage of it.
Edwards, like many of the other speakers and panelists at the symposium, was glowing in his praise for the updated master plan, saying his listeners need to tell their legislators how important it is.
"It's based on science," he said. "We need to have a world-class plan."
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Edwards said state officials are preparing to send a list of five projects, all in the master plan, to Washington for fast-track consideration in response to President Donald Trump's executive order expediting the federal permitting process for infrastructure projects.
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Other speakers at the symposium, which was organized by the America's Wetland Foundation, said the plan does something unusual for Louisiana: It puts the state squarely in a leadership role.
"Louisiana doesn't always lead, but we are leading on this," former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu said. "We need to get our master plan better known around the world."
Justin Ehrenwerth, president of the Water Institute of the Gulf, a Baton Rouge-based group, said that leadership role already is being recognized.
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"We are working at the Mekong (River) delta in Vietnam and in Latin America," he said. "This is where everything is happening."
Ehrenwerth, like other speakers, bemoaned the slow pace and labyrinthine nature of the federal government's permitting process. Many environmental regulations were put in place "when rivers were on fire" and were not meant to hinder projects that are designed to restore the environment, he said.
While some noted that the Trump administration has signaled that it may not be sympathetic to regulating the emissions that are commonly understood to foster sea-level rise, former Gov. Kathleen Blanco offered a hopeful note.
Trump has vowed to focus on infrastructure projects, she said. "If the president follows through on this commitment, we might see some movement."