St. George supporters in a two-front battle for incorporation

Supporters of an effort to create a new city in East Baton Rouge Parish now face two fronts as they try to make St. George a reality: their ongoing attempt to secure enough signatures to put the proposed city to a vote and the long list of bills at the State Capitol that could affect their efforts.

About a dozen pieces of legislation have been filed this session that would have an effect on the incorporation proposal.

“There seems to be a lot of bills that are specifically targeted at stopping the St. George incorporation from happening,” St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey said.

“No one was talking about changing the law before, but now that you’ve got a group of citizens on the path of self-determination to legally incorporate an unincorporated area, all of a sudden you see a flurry of bills,” he said.

Sen. Ben Nevers’ Senate Bill 674 would set a two-year moratorium, from January 2014 through December 2015, on the incorporation of new cities.

Nevers, D-Bogalusa, said his bill would allow legislators time to evaluate the state law that sets the path to incorporation and determine whether any changes are necessary.

He denied it is a direct response to St. George’s incorporation attempt, though St. George organizers say they believe they are directly targeted by it.

“I think it’s naive to say any of these bills surrounding incorporation aren’t specifically targeting St. George,” Rainey said.

The Louisiana Municipal Association is reportedly backing Nevers’ bill. LMA Executive Director Ronnie Harris couldn’t be reached for comment.

The St. George effort needs signatures from about 18,000 registered voters who live in the proposed city’s boundaries, and organizers claim they are on track to meet that requirement by June, though they have stopped disclosing the exact number they have amassed.

Their goal is to get St. George’s incorporation on the November ballot. They started collecting signatures in October.

Legally, they have no deadline to get the signatures needed, and only people who live in the proposed city would be able to vote in the special election if it makes it to the ballot.

Those two issues are among those addressed in proposed legislation.

Rep. Edward J. Price, D-Gonzales, has proposed setting a 180-day time limit for signature collection in the incorporation process with House Bill 768, and Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, authored House Bill 1212 to allow residents of the entire parish to vote on any future incorporation attempt.

Both bills have been referred to the House Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs Committee.

There also are the education-focused bills. One would make it easier for the Legislature to create new school districts; others specifically address East Baton Rouge Parish schools.

Legislation backed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber could affect some of St. George’s momentum by shifting focus to other changes in the school district, including shrinking the School Board and giving more power to principals.

Two other bills, which are supported by St. George proponents, would set up the municipal framework for the city if the incorporation attempt is successful.

Senate Bill 638 and House Bill 1248, sponsored by Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, and Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, respectively, are identical and would create seven at-large aldermen for the new city and set up a tax district to manage the 2 percent sales and use tax collected in St. George.

The legislation also contains language that appears to address a concern over money the parish would lose through St. George’s creation.

In their proposed budget, St. George leaders have promised the city would give $28 million back to the parish to cover costs of constitutional offices and other city-parish operations funded by the unincorporated area. Opponents have questioned that pledge, noting that no law requires the payment. The two transition bills contain provisions for funding to continue through 2018.

While those two bills were expected, the overall blitz of legislation means that St. George supporters are now split between keeping an eye on the Capitol and building momentum on signature-gathering.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” Rainey said. “We’re a grassroots group that doesn’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire lobbyists to work the halls for us.”

Those who oppose St. George, including Mayor-President Kip Holden, have deemed it divisive and harmful to Baton Rouge.

Metro Councilman John Delgado has been a frequent critic of the movement and recently came under fire for calling St. George proponents “terrorists” and the “Baton Rouge Taliban.”

He later apologized to veterans who were offended.

The St. George movement started in the Capitol, with the push to create a new school district in the unincorporated area. After multiple failed attempts to get legislation passed, organizers felt they would have a better shot at creating a school district if they created a city first.

The turn back to the Capitol this session didn’t exactly come as a shock, but Rainey said organizers were surprised by the abundance of St. George-focused bills.

“We did expect some legislation — just not to this extent,” he said, noting that he also was perplexed by legislators from outside East Baton Rouge Parish getting involved.

James, the House member who proposed legislation to make incorporation votes parishwide, said he thinks it’s understandable for others to be concerned.

“It tells me they are concerned about the potential threat to divide their areas, too,” he said.

James said he proposed his bill after receiving dozens of calls and emails from Baton Rouge residents who were concerned they would have no say if St. George makes it to a vote.

“When something has the potential to affect the tax dollars of an entire parish — everyone should have a vote,” he said. “(Baton Rouge) should have a voice in this.”

He hasn’t decided whether he will move forward with the legislation and isn’t sure it’s needed.

“I believe it’s a small number of people making a lot of noise,” he said of the St. George effort. “They are a long way from 18,000 signatures, and even if they do get them, I don’t think it will pass in a vote.”

James said he also agrees with Price’s proposal to set a time limit on signature gathering or other revamps.

The incorporation law, formally known as the Lawrason Act, was enacted in 1898. Louisiana already has a 180-day deadline for attempts to recall elected officials, James noted.

“Sometimes when you see movements like this, you find areas (of the law) that need to be tweaked,” he said.