Stephanie Grace: Bill eliminates board’s independence

Picture, if you will, a hypothetical Louisiana governor.

He or she might be a good, responsible, public steward. Or the person could be a corrupt hack, determined to sell the state out to the highest bidder. Or maybe, just maybe, the governor in question is driven far more by his or her national ambitions than by Louisiana’s long-term best interests.

We don’t know how a governor is going to behave until that governor starts, well, behaving. But we do know that whoever holds the job is the most potent political force in the state, hands-down.

That’s by design; structurally, Louisiana’s governor is invested with more raw power than many of his or her peers, through the ability to appoint a vast array of officials to oversee various public entities, from colleges to hospitals and to take all manner of unilateral administrative actions.

It’s also by tradition; lawmakers usually bristle at the suggestion, but the fact is the legislative branch shows enormous deference to the administrative branch, to the point where legislative leaders often double as the executive branch’s trusted lieutenants.

No matter who’s the governor or what that person’s intention, the office’s power alone makes the checks and balances that exist all the more precious.

The regional levee authorities created after Hurricane Katrina, with the overwhelming support of voters, were created to provide exactly that sort of independence. While the pre-storm levee boards were criticized for a lack of readiness, functionality and focus when it really mattered, these new boards, organized by flood basin rather than political subdivision and staffed by members chosen mainly for technical qualifications rather than insider ties, are supposed to focus exclusively on safeguarding areas in their jurisdiction.

Despite all the criticism of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East’s lawsuit against oil and gas companies, that’s what the board did in filing the suit. The panel decided to ask courts to force industry players who contributed to the loss of coastal wetlands to help undo the damage. Those wetlands help protect populated areas during big storms, reducing the prospect of flooding. The suit’s not about demonizing a politically influential industry or going rogue; it’s about using the legal process to try to solve a widely acknowledged problem.

Yet, both the suit and the board’s very ability to act independently have been under legislative and gubernatorial assault — never more than this week, after a Senate committee headed by a leading levee authority critic approved a measure that would allow the governor to remove board members for the undefined and open-ended offense of violating “public policy.”

With little notice, state Sen. Robert Adley rewrote his original bill to give the governor more control over who makes it on the board; the version that passed out of the Transportation Committee — presumably with the blessing of Gov. Bobby Jindal, a vocal industry advocate — would allow the governor to keep the board entirely in line.

Various witnesses rang the alarm bells, arguing that the term “public policy” is “kind of squishy,” as Bureau of Governmental Research President Janet Howard put it, and that the measure would absolutely politicize the 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 Robert Travis Scott, of the Public Affairs Research Council, who sits on the nominating committee. “You are making it clear the interests of this bill is for him to do that.”

“I don’t have a problem with that,” Adley responded, and the committee passed the bill without objection.

Clearly, Jindal doesn’t, either. While several of his predecessors seem to appreciate the board’s independence and have endorsed its actions — including Kathleen Blanco, who championed the reform in the first place — Jindal has made it clear he’ll resort to any means necessary to kill the suit and keep the board from straying again, whether it means stacking it with like-minded appointees or backing efforts to keep it from pursuing its legal claim in court.

And the Legislature doesn’t seem to have a problem making it easy for him.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes.