Voters had a lot to consider when they went to the polls on Sept. 30, 2006. The ballot included 13 constitutional amendments, many reflecting the ambitions and anxieties of a state still recovering from the costliest disaster in U.S. history.
Just a year earlier, Louisiana had endured two of the eight most ferocious Atlantic hurricanes in recorded history. They came less than four weeks apart.
One of the Sept. 30 amendments aimed to replace Louisiana’s feckless and politicized parish levee boards with professionally-managed regional flood protection authorities. Statewide, four of five voters approved the flood protection authorities. In New Orleans, the margin was 16 to 1.
But voters have short memories and politicians are always looking for an opportunity to claw back power and patronage. So this year the independence of the flood protection authorities is under attack as never before.
To be sure, much of the blame for the current crisis can be laid at the feet of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, which plotted in secret to sue 97 energy companies for their roles undermining Louisiana’s coastal defenses.
Whether a state should sue one of its leading industries is an important matter of public policy and as such should be subject to open debate. But the flood authority took the easy route, deliberating in secret and declining to conduct a rigorous, public process for selecting its attorneys before giving a group of lawyers as much as 32.5 percent of the money that ought to go to protecting America’s most vulnerable metropolitan area.
As a result, the flood protection authority finds itself nearly friendless in Baton Rouge. Even its counterpart authority on the west bank of the Mississippi has rejected the lawsuit.
Powerful energy interests are understandably upset and they have joined forces with politicians who never wanted to give up their control over flood protection in the first place.
Their first attack was Senate Bill 79 which allows Gov. Bobby Jindal to fire authority members and find willing replacements. But defenders of the 2006 reforms seem to have sidetracked that measure.
Tuesday, lawsuit foes will try another attack with Senate Bill 553, which would require that the authorities get written permission from the governor before hiring special counsel.
The measure is designed to override the lawsuit, but its lasting effect would be to allow this governor and all future governors to hit up law firms for campaign contributions and other favors by withholding the written approvals. That’s hardly what the voters had in mind in 2006.
The Jindal administration, which has supported coastal protection efforts, has admitted that energy firms played some role in damaging Louisiana’s coastline. With more constructive leadership, a solution could be crafted that eliminates the lawsuits and dedicates every dollar to protecting the coast.
Instead, the governor and his allies are taking advantage of public anger over the suit to undermine a significant improvement in the way Louisiana protects its citizens from flooding, and the only way to stop them is to rekindle the reform spirit that made 2006 such an important year in the recovery of our state.