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Merger of Louisiana Levee Boards OKd

Times Staff Writers

The state’s House of Representatives unanimously passed a measure Thursday to merge southeast Louisiana’s levee boards -- a move that lawmakers said would boost residents’ safety and send a strong signal to the White House that they were serious about reform.

The bill calls for the state’s numerous independent boards to be divided into two groups, one for the west bank of the Mississippi River and one for the east.

Both would report to the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which will handle all future negotiations for project funding with the federal government.

“We’ve just undone more than a century of history,” said state Sen. Walter J. Boasso, the bill’s author. “It’s proof that even we can change.”

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But critics insist the bill -- and its arduous path to passage -- underscores the depths of the political rivalries and economic rifts that have long divided the state.

The tone of the legislative special session has grown so acrimonious that several other high-profile proposals, including one to consolidate New Orleans’ government, have been put on the back burner or shot down.

“This all started off really ugly,” state Rep. Charmaine L. Marchand said of the legislative session. “When it comes down to it, sometimes people are afraid of change.”

The 99-0 vote came after a long afternoon of heated debate, preceded by weeks of arguing the issue.

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The measure, which passed in the Senate unanimously this week, is scheduled to return there today for small language changes.

After Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco signs it, the measure will go before voters in September.

When Blanco opened the special session in New Orleans last week, the core of her plan was to merge all of southeastern Louisiana’s locally operated levee districts -- from both sides of the Mississippi River -- into a single board run by professionals.

Though the city’s hurricane protection system was authorized by Congress in 1965, it was only 90% complete when Hurricane Katrina struck. Engineering experts say the unfinished work created many weak links in the storm protection system.

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Blanco supporters insisted that having one board would help curtail the disjointed nature of the region’s independent boards, many of which have earned a reputation for being poorly managed and rife with patronage.

The board for Orleans Parish, for instance, has been spotlighted as an example of the ills of the levee system, and board members have been accused of disregarding their safety responsibilities in favor of real estate ventures, including an airport, two marinas and numerous lakeshore rental properties.

“We want competent, accountable people making decisions,” said Merritt Lane, a member of the New Orleans Business Council who lobbied for changes in the way the levee boards were run. “The levee boards have over time become a place where there’s been a significant amount of cronyism. This parochial view doesn’t seem to us to be the right way to govern.”

But Blanco’s proposal for a single board was derailed, in part by suburban New Orleans legislators.

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They insisted that such a unified board would become a practical headache, given that the west and east banks of the Mississippi River sit in different flood plains.

It would also have prevented local leaders from dealing directly with Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Rather than give up, Blanco agreed this week to support measures to create two separate boards.

For most of Thursday, legislators bickered about the benefits and the flaws of changing a system that had been in place for decades. Often, the heated discussions revolved around who would have control of the boards and who would oversee flood control for the hurricaneravaged areas.

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Later in the day, Donald E. Powell, the federal official coordinating Gulf Coast rebuilding, stood before lawmakers and gave them a stern warning: Such political haranguing could undercut the state’s chances of collecting the billions of dollars being set aside for Louisiana in federal aid.

Powell reminded them that although the Bush administration was asking Congress for $4.2 billion more to help Louisiana residents whose homes had been destroyed, Congress hadn’t approved such a request.

“There are a lot of people who would like to have part of that money,” Powell said. “It is terribly important that the people of Louisiana have a unified plan of how the money will be spent, a plan that is bold, detailed, transparent, with checks and balances and not swayed by the winds of political whims.”


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