St. George election window narrows

Organizers of the proposed city of St. George are angered at the deal cut in a Senate bill that advanced Wednesday and would put a moratorium on Louisiana incorporating new cities.

“I’m a little disappointed that the committee took that route,” said Norman Browning, an organizer of the effort to turn unincorporated neighborhoods in the southern and southeastern portion of East Baton Rouge Parish into one of the state’s largest cities.

Organizers thought they would be given until the end of the year before a moratorium started. That would give them several months to get the number of signatures needed to put the St. George incorporation on the ballot.

Instead, the Senate Committee on Local and Municipal Affairs amended the legislation to bump up the election deadline, then approved it without objection.

“That was not what was discussed,” Browning said about meetings with state Sen. Ben Nevers, the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 674.

The dates of the two-year moratorium in the original legislation would have been a blow to St. George organizers by basically halting the effort in its tracks. Browning said the deal had been to postpone the moratorium until January.

Proponents of incorporation need signatures from about 18,000 registered voters who would live in the proposed city’s boundaries.

Though the organizers have stopped disclosing the exact number of signatures they have amassed, Browning says they are on track to amassing the necessary signatures by July, in time to add the question to the Nov. 4 ballot.

“Now it’s not a goal; it’s a drop-dead date,” Browning said, taking a few minutes out of an organizers’ strategy session Wednesday night. “This changes the rules in the middle of the game.”

Nevers, D-Bogalusa, told the Senate Committee on Local and Municipal Affairs on Wednesday that he wanted to give the organizers until Jan. 1 to hold their election.

State Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, interjected it would be cheaper to poll voters in November, when U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., is up for re-election and the congressional 6th District seat is up for grabs.

“It will save tax dollars,” said Dorsey-Colomb, who chairs the committee.

None of the St. George organizers asked to address legislators.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, asked the committee to give the organizers time to hold an election in December.

“What they would have is only two to three months left to get the remainder of petitions and get them certified,” White said.

Later in the day, White added: “I didn’t say I didn’t have a problem with it. I always have a problem with putting a moratorium on people voting.”

Dorsey-Colomb refused to budge, and the committee adopted her amendment.

SB674 advances to the full Senate.

“It does shorten the period, but the facts are, in my legislative wisdom, the chairman would not have supported my amendment,” unless the starting date was in November, instead of January, Nevers said Wednesday night. “I feel like they are better off with a November date than no date at all.”

The dates could change as SB674 goes to the full Senate, and then through the House.

“It’s a fluid process, and any senator could bring an amendment to the floor,” Nevers said Wednesday night. “They need to understand that this process is a long way from being completed.”

Nevers said the Legislature needs to find a way to properly handle incorporations and annexations. Because the city lines set by these methods dictate where taxes are paid, such decisions can enrich one jurisdiction at the cost of another, he said.

SB674 would organize a joint committee of senators and representatives to gather information about the state’s incorporation laws and procedures.