Municipal lawsuit legislation advances

Legislation that opponents say would sidetrack lawsuits filed against the oil and gas industry by a levee board and some local governments advanced to the full Senate on a 6-4 vote by the Senate Finance Committee.

Senate Bill 547 “does nothing less than bring a little sunshine into the contractual business of the state,” said state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton.

SB547 would require state agencies to detail the terms of the contract, who it is with, the scope of the work and whether the entity has the ability to pay.

“If it is a contingency fee contract, say what the amount is,” Adley said.

Adley said state and local government agencies would have 60 days to get into compliance or the contract would become void.

“Why would it do that?” asked Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans. “Why make it retroactive?”

“It’s not a new policy for this state to determine what the contract is worth, who gets paid and how,” Adley responded.

Murray said he was concerned that should SB547 become law, lawsuits filed by government agencies against BP for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill could be endangered.

Opponents contend this is one of several bills, backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, that would stop lawsuits filed by levee districts and some parish governments against oil companies.

In July, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East filed a lawsuit in Orleans Civil District Court against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies.

The litigation seeks damages for the extensive network of canals cut by energy companies through wetlands areas. The canals allowed increasing amounts of saltwater to intrude into the marshes, which weakened the vegetation and resulted in land loss, the suit says.

The authority oversees the massive levees and complex flood control system that protects much of the New Orleans area.

Governments in Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes then filed a set of nearly 30 lawsuits alleging dozens of energy companies and their contractors destroyed and polluted the parishes’ coastal areas.

Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, said much of the wetlands problems are caused because the Mississippi River is no longer allowed to replenish the marshes with sediments.

Instead, the river runs through a channel and deposits silt offshore.

But that factor is not being challenged in any lawsuit, he said.

“Sometimes we need to look at how these contracts are done,” White said.

Voting FOR the contract legislation (6): Finance Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, and Sens. Norby Chabert, R-Houma; Bret Allain, R-Franklin; Sherri Buffington, R-Keithville; Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles; and White.

Voting AGAINST SB547 (4): Sens. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge; Fred Mills, R-New Iberia; Murray; and Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport.