With an impressive display of bipartisan support in the U.S. House, a plan to renegotiate the repayment plan for Louisiana’s share of the cost of metropolitan New Orleans’ levee system, now almost complete, is a potentially huge win for the state.
Because the state is on the hook for an estimated $100 million payments per year, over 30 years, with interest, this is a matter that taxpayers across the state ought to be concerned about.
After the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the New Orleans area, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state undertook to build a state-of-the-art hurricane protection system of levees, flood gates and other work. At $14.6 billion, the system is nearly officially complete, as adding “armoring” to levees was an additional wrinkle in the Corps plans.
Repayment of the cost-share for local governments — essentially, the bill to be sent to the State Capitol — would be a major burden. Louisiana’s delegation in Congress, working with Gov. John Bel Edwards, is pushing a renegotiation of the terms, perhaps including credit for the state’s investment of other funds on coastal restoration projects that also help protect the city and its suburbs, or forgiveness of part or all of the interest owed by the state, which could represent more than half of the annual bill.
The state's repayments will begin after the Corps formally turns over ownership of the two levee systems to the state Coastal Protection Authority, in a year or two. State officials have in the past suggested that some of the annual repayment cost would come from revenue the state receives from federal offshore oil revenue.
But that takes money away from other levee projects around the state and from coastal restoration, like levees a critical way to protect against storm surges.
In the Senate, Sens. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge, and John N. Kennedy, of Madisonville, have a renegotiation plan. In the House, a case of bipartisan clout was particularly helpful in pushing a recent provision, part of a larger water resources bill, that would start a renegotiation process.
The amendment from U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, was successful in the Democratic-controlled House through shrewd advocacy, but also because of the bipartisan support for the plan. Edwards is a Democrat and the renegotiation plan was backed by Louisiana Reps. Steve Scalise, of Jefferson, one of the House’s Republican leaders, and Cedric Richmond, of Orleans, an influential member on the Democratic side.
Louisiana’s coastal needs are so great it seems absurd not to approach the payment plans holistically, without robbing from coastal projects that buttress the Corps systems, even if not formally part of the metro area’s levees.
We applaud passage of the Graves amendment, but it still has a difficult path into law. For the good of the state, we hope that this proposal makes it on to the president’s desk.