Rewritten flood authority bill gives Jindal more power _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- State Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, heard testimony Wednesday on legislation that would give governors sweeping power to remove members of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authorities.

The state Senate targeted the flood protection authorities around New Orleans and the lawsuit one of the levee boards filed against the oil and gas industry for damages to the state’s wetlands.

In one bill, advanced by a Senate panel Wednesday morning, Gov. Bobby Jindal would get sweeping power to remove members of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authorities. Opponents said the move, which would allow a governor to remove authority members under certain conditions, reintroduces politics into the levee boards, which is precisely what revamp after the 2005 hurricanes was designed to prevent.

Another measure, which was passed by the full Senate late Tuesday night, would derail a lawsuit filed last year by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East against 97 oil and gas companies. The levee board sought damages for contributing to coastal erosion and led to higher than anticipated storm surges.

Jindal opposes the lawsuit and has called it a windfall for lawyers, who would be paid with a portion of any winnings rather than a flat fee. Critics say the legislation would keep the oil and gas industry from taking responsibility for damage caused by drilling and productions activities over the years.

SB553 is aimed at a lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. It would not impact similar suits filed by Jefferson and Plaquemines Parishes. But other measures currently being considered might.

The legislation passed Tuesday night, Senate Bill 553, would apply to retroactively. That measure was sent Wednesday morning to the Louisiana House.

State Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, sponsored SB553 bill on the lawsuit, as well as Senate Bill 79, which would revise the nominating procedures for positions on the Southeast authorities - both East and West Bank.

But Adley ditched the original version when it hit the Senate Transportation Highways and Public Works Committee.

The Adley rewrite would allow the authorities and the governor to remove authority members who violate state law or “public policy.”

Currently, the board can recommend to the governor a commissioner’s removal for not fulfilling their fiduciary responsibity or failure to attend three consecutive meetings without good cause.

The change would allow the governor to do so on his own and add as new grounds “violation of state law or public policy.”

“It does introduce more politics on who sits on that authority,” said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council. PAR is group that studies government policy.

“I’ve seen more politics on that board than anywhere else over the last 40 years,” Adley said.

Bureau of Governmental Research president and CEO Janet Howard said the term public policy “is always kind of squishy.”

Scott questioned why the phrase is used and asked for Adley’s interpretation of what it means.

Adley said he equates the law to public policy. “I believe the policy encompases the law,” he said.

Scott said the change Adley proposed would kill a nominating process that was designed to be apolitical and put qualified people with professional credentials on the authority board.

“If a governor decides he wanted to remove people and use this loophole to do it that would mean the nominating process is meaningless,” said Scott, who serves on the authorities nominating committee.

“You are making it clear the interests of this bill is for him to do that,” he added

“I don’t have a problem with that,” Adley said.

“He is the governor. By the constitution he is vested with these rights. Just don’t break the law, break the policy,” Adley said of authority members.

Ruthie Frierson, founder of Citizens for One Greater New Orleans, one of the local citizens group that pushed to restructure the levee boards after Hurricane Katrina, making them more independent and requiring members with expertise in engineering and flood protection issues. She said people voted for an “independent board free of politics.”

The Transportation Committee shipped the measure to the Senate floor without opposition.