Our Views: Turning back levee reforms

As powerful as he is, Gov. Bobby Jindal seems to be having trouble coaxing legislators into letting him fire members of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East and offer their seats to compliant replacements.

Jindal’s ally, state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, postponed a vote Wednesday on Senate Bill 79 and made what he terms concessions in the measure, which would crimp the independence of the flood control agency.

The postponement and the concessions are a sure sign that muscular energy interests are having a tough time in their quest to neuter the flood protection authority for filing a lawsuit against 97 firms who damaged Louisiana’s coast by carving canals through our wetlands.

After the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina, real estate agent Ruthie Frierson led a robust civic campaign to replace Louisiana’s politicized parish levee boards with new flood control authorities, organized by geographic flood basin, rather than by political subdivision. They were staffed by professionals and board members who were chosen for their technical knowledge rather than who they know.

The reforms seemed to satisfy everyone until the flood control authority for the east bank of the Mississippi River filed its lawsuit, angering the governor and Big Oil. The authority erred by plotting its legal assault in secret and offering a group of law firms as much as 32.5 percent of the take without a public selection process.

Energy companies play a key role in Louisiana’s economy, and they provide good employment at fair wages from Shreveport to Chalmette. The people who work for them have a right to be upset about a stealthy legal attack over decisions made, in many cases, before they were born.

But Adley’s bill is a towering overreaction. It proposes that the members of the authorities be removed at will by the governor for violations of law or “public policy.”

Even as it advanced, the vague “public policy” language drew skepticism.

The skepticism ought to extend to the entire goal of SB79.

Do we want this governor, or any future governor, to interfere freely in the levee boards that half a million voters specifically directed to be independent and focused on flood control, not politics?

Adley is offering to remove the “public policy” language, but he would still give the governor unilateral authority to purge members from the authorities.

But there should be no compromising, because SB79 scratches an itch that doesn’t exist.

It won’t improve flood protection in the nation’s most vulnerable region. It won’t solve all of the energy industry’s worries, because Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes have already marched into court with their own claims. And it won’t impress the voters of Louisiana, who endorsed the reforms in flood control by a 4-1 margin only eight years ago.