St. George debate: House struggles with incorporation

Supporters of an effort to create a new city in East Baton Rouge Parish will likely have as long as they need to collect signatures to get incorporation on a ballot, after an effort that would have given them a July deadline appears to have stalled in the Louisiana Legislature.

Efforts to narrow the window of time for St. George incorporation efforts turned into a political farce Thursday on the Louisiana House floor, prompting a Sulphur Democrat to abandon the legislation, at least temporarily.

State Rep. Mike Danahay was tasked with shepherding Senate Bill 674 through the House. The bill would put a moratorium on incorporation efforts across parts of the state but allow St. George organizers to continue collecting signatures until July 23 in hopes of a November vote. Without legislation, they have no deadline for securing the nearly 18,000 signatures needed from registered voters who live in the proposed city’s boundaries.

The bill already exempted a number of parishes from the proposed moratorium. Soon, legislators started adding their parishes to the exemption after Baton Rouge legislators began battling over the St. George efforts and lobbing accusations that the bill really just sought to affect East Baton Rouge Parish. Legislators in other parts of the state wanted an escape hatch, saying they didn’t have a dog in the fight.

West Feliciana Parish was taken out. St. Tammany, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes followed. Pointe Coupee, West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes soon joined the fleeing fold.

Danahay protested each time, saying the state’s incorporation laws and procedures need to be studied because carving out new cities causes problems for parishes that lose the revenue. Each time, his protest fell on deaf ears.

Finally, House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, told Danahay: “It’s not getting any better” as more and more legislators voted in favor of the exemptions. Danahay stopped debate, tossing the bill back onto the House calendar with few days remaining in the legislative session. It’s scheduled to come back up for discussion Friday.

St. George organizers repeatedly have withheld how many signatures they currently have but recently claimed to be mere weeks away from having enough.

The original impact of SB674 would have been to halt incorporation efforts in order to create a timeout for legislative study. An amendment gave St. George organizers until late July to gather signatures. Black legislators in Baton Rouge have fought the incorporation efforts, as have city leaders.

Under the bill, new cities could not spring up in many parishes, including East Baton Rouge, between Jan. 1, 2014, and Dec. 31, 2015, while legislative committees study the issue of municipal incorporation. Bossier, Caddo, Concordia, Claiborne, East Carroll, East Feliciana, Jefferson, Lincoln, Livingston, Madison, Morehouse, Ouachita, Richland, Tensas, Union and West Carroll parishes were given an exemption to the moratorium.

Debate in the House quickly ignited into a tussel over St. George.

Some legislators objected to putting any restrictions on the St. George efforts. Others argued that St. George organizers have had enough time, noting that the petition drive began last year.

State Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, said the legislation would take away voters’ rights if enough signatures aren’t gathered in time. He said people have a right to bring a ballot issue.

“Isn’t this basically about politics in Baton Rouge?” Ivey asked.

State Rep. Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge, asked why some parishes were excluded. “Why are 50 parishes in dire need of reform?” he asked.

Danahay said any changes brought about by the study would impact all 64 parishes.

After talking heatedly with Danahay from his desk on the House floor, state Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, strode to the podium and addressed the chamber. Greene said he planned to propose an amendment to exempt East Baton Rouge Parish. He characterized the bill as a pointed attack. He said he’s fed up with the “bull.”

“This is targeted at my district. I’ve lived in the St. George area for almost 30 years,” Greene said. “Please don’t do this to the people of East Baton Rouge.”

Rising to his feet, state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, said he’s fed up with the “bull” as well. James represents one of the poorer areas of the city that wouldn’t be pulled into St. George.

“You’re telling me the area where you live is underdeveloped? Do you want to come to my area?” James asked.

Greene said he never claimed his district was underdeveloped.

Legislators then began lining up to exempt their parishes, prompting an end to debate on the bill for the day.

Elizabeth Crisp with the Capitol News Bureau contributed to this report. Follow Michelle Millhollon on Twitter @mmillhollon. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/