Advancing incorporation bill could upset St. George plan

St. George issue would be decided by full parish, not one area

A bill that opponents fear could doom efforts to create a new city in East Baton Rouge Parish cleared a Louisiana House committee Thursday.

House Bill 1212 would allow all registered voters in the parish to cast the ballots that would decide if an area can incorporate into a new city. Existing law puts the vote only to those registered voters who live in what would be the confines of the new city.

The House Committee on Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs advanced without objection HB1212, by state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge.

It next will be debated by the full House.

For the controversial bid to form the city of St. George, HB1212 means all registered voters in East Baton Rouge Parish would vote on incorporation, not just those voters who live the unincorporated neighborhoods in the southern and southeastern part of the parish.

Local debate on St. George has often been bitter, with name-calling and legislative attempts to sidetrack the effort.

St. George organizers are in the middle of a petition drive to get the issue before voters on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Lionel Rainey III, one of the volunteer organizers of the movement to create the new city, says he just doesn’t know if expanding the vote to the entire parish would be bad for the St. George effort.

A December poll by the LSU Public Policy Research Lab showed 50 percent of the registered voters parishwide opposed St. George becoming its own independent city.

Another 29 percent of East Baton Rouge Parish voters supported the movement and 21 percent were unsure.

In just the neighborhoods that would form St. George, the survey found 40 percent of the voters approved.

That poll was taken more than four months ago.

State Sen. Bodi White said he thinks HB1212 theoretically is the “silver bullet” that would bring down the St. George incorporation effort.

But White, R-Central, and the leading legislative ally for the St. George movement, also says more and more people around East Baton Rouge Parish are telling him they have changed their minds.

Much of the support is coming from voters who are angered at the name-calling and the repeated efforts to block the vote.

“All these actions, they’re over the top, and they have really angered a lot of people in north Baton Rouge, Zachary and Central, and in the City of Baton Rouge,” White said Thursday night.

“There’s been no other incorporation in a 100 years that whole parish voted on. So why are we changing it now.”

Rainey ticked off various bills and other efforts that would delay or block the vote.

He points out the organizers are following the procedures as they were laid into state law more than a cenutry ago.

“This is just another bill that tries to change the rules in the middle of the game,” Rainey said. “This is starting to turn into a debate about democracy. We just want to vote.”

HB1212 was approved as a statewide bill. James said he would amend it before next week to only apply to East Baton Rouge Parish.

James said he would not take it up on the House floor without the revision.

State Rep. Johnny Berthelot suggested James restrict his incorporation vote legislation “to the area giving you heartburn.”

“It’s just not fair that everybody in the state would be affected sometime with this,” said Berthelot, R-Gonzales.

Under existing law, only voters in the area that wants to be incorporated can vote.

James said all parish voters should vote on an incorporation that has the potential to take $60 million in taxes out of local government coffers like St. George does.

“There is a crying out among the voters in East Baton Rouge Parish who feel they deserve a voice in this issue,” he said.

James said he sees the potential for the situation happening in East Baton Rouge to occur elsewhere. “It could be detrimental to Ascension Parish, Caddo,” James said.

State Rep. Roy Burrell, D-Shreveport, said a movement occurred about a decade ago in Caddo Parish.

“It would have taken the main part of the tax base which would have devastated both the parish and the city,” Burrell said.

“If you commit to working with Rep. Berthelot I would move favorable,” Burrell said.

James said he was willing to work on an amendment tailored to “what’s going on in East Baton Rouge.”

Meanwhile, White asked a Senate committee to postpone a scheduled hearing on Senate Bill 638, which would detail what would happen if voters approve St. George incorporation.

The legislation would create a St. George Transition District and provide for interim continuation of services as well as interim collection of certain sales taxes.

“There’s some question when this district was created,” White said.

He said he was going to sit down and talk through the situation with city-parish officials Friday.