With the Legislative session entering its final hours, Black lawmakers joined social justice advocates Tuesday to decry what they say is a "double standard" at the State Capitol where wealthy corporate interests win big while everyday citizens get left behind.
Exhibit A, they say, is a measure that would exonerate several members of the Baton Rouge-area groundwater commission from ethics charges they face for working for the companies they're tasked with regulating.
Brought by Sen. Bodi White, a Central Republican, Senate Bill 203 would clear the way for companies like ExxonMobil and Entergy to keep their own employees on the board that regulates their pumping of groundwater in the Capital region, a hotly-contested topic as saltwater intrudes into the aquifer. It sailed through the Legislature and awaits Gov. John Bel Edwards' signature.
Compare that to the fate of House Bill 346, which would have granted new trials for about 1,500 mostly Black inmates convicted for serious crimes years ago by non-unanimous juries. The U.S. Supreme Court previously outlawed the Jim Crow-era system but opted last month against applying their ruling retroactively. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Randall Gaines, a LaPlace Democrat, would have spelled relief for those inmates, but it failed to advance out of committee.
"We hope that the public will pay attention to this dangerous juxtaposition where some people get a chance for retroactive justice and other folks are denied it in the same session, in the same House in the same state," said Rev. Theron Jackson, a pastor at Morning Star Baptist Church in Shreveport.
Together Louisiana, a faith-based advocacy group, arranged the press conference Tuesday to urge Edwards to veto SB203. Dianne Hanley, an organizer with the group, said "there's a clear public private conflict of interest if employees sit on the state board that regulates their employers." That's in-line with the Louisiana Board of Ethics, which voted to bring charges last year against five commission members for drawing a salary from a regulated groundwater user while also serving on the board.
White, a former employee of ExxonMobil, wrote in a statement that the law was written to "allow people who know about the use of groundwater to serve on the commission that regulates its use." He noted that there's no salary for serving on the commission.
"Wouldn’t you want people who know what they’re doing to serve on these boards? We need the people who are most knowledgeable about what they are regulating and they should not be prohibited from doing it," White wrote.
The ethics carve-out, if approved, would apply retroactively, meaning it would nullify the charges currently pending against the five members. It would also apply to commissioners of groundwater districts statewide.
Gray Sexton, an attorney representing three members employed by ExxonMobil, Georgia-Pacific and Entergy who were charged by the Ethics board, said SB203 simply acknowledges the fact that industry for decades has had a seat at the table.
"The real complaint by the dissidents is that industry even gets to make nominations, much less that they nominate skilled, knowledgeable engineers on staff," Sexton said, noting that the statute establishing the body sets aside three seats for "industrial users in the district."
Sexton added that industry representatives make up only a "small voice" on the 18-member panel, which also includes officials from the Farm Bureau, Cattlemen's Association and the surrounding parishes. Still, critics say industry employees have had an outsized influence on the commission, citing a state report that found they chaired the commission 80% of the time between 1974 and 2004.
The commission in question regulates the use of the Southern Hills Aquifer, which provides water for hundreds of thousands of people in the Baton Rouge region. It is at the center of a years-long fight over how to best address the slow intrusion of saltwater into the fresh drinking water source.
Industrial companies pump water from the aquifer and want to continue that practice. But environmental advocates have for years tried to push them off and make them pump water from the Mississippi River, arguing they are exacerbating saltwater intrusion that could threaten the drinking water supply. Some have accused the commission of being beholden to industries with a financial stake in lighter oversight.
Hanley on Tuesday displayed a pristine glass of Baton Rouge tap water next to a cup of muddy Mississippi River water. "This is what we drink, and this is where we're heading," she said. "The clock is ticking."