WAGUESPACK: It’s Almost Summertime At The Capitol

Summertime is right around the corner.

This is the last week of school for my kids and I can tell they mentally already made that switch to summer vacation. Sure, they are still physically going to school every day, but you can see it in their eyes that their focus and effort on schoolwork has shifted to daydreaming about summer plans and sleeping in.

This is similar to the look seen in most of the eyes at the Capitol these days.

A long, contentious legislative session is ending on June 2, and for many in the building, it cannot come soon enough. There have been plenty of tough policy debates and lectures in the committee classrooms, as well as a lot of political games and rhetorical contests on the House and Senate floor playgrounds. Policymakers can see the end in sight and most of them cannot wait to clean out their lockers next week.

However, before we all leave town there is some important work left to be done.

While we all expect the budget battle to take center stage and rightfully dominate the last few weeks of session, we must not forget to address a few other items before we hit the road.

One critical subject that must be addressed is lawsuit reform.

For instance, we must not leave before passing Senate Bill 667 by Sen. Robert Adley (R-Benton), which is compromise legislation that will stimulate cleanup of properties impacted by oil and gas development over the years. This issue has been hotly debated for years in Louisiana and this bill helps fulfill the goals of previous legislative efforts in 2006 and 2012.

In Louisiana, we unfortunately have always put a higher priority on filing legacy lawsuits than implementing reasonable legacy cleanup plans. This is in stark contrast to our neighboring states that have taken the opposite approach.

A total of 360 legacy lawsuits have been filed in more than 40 parishes since 2001, according to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources. Other states aren’t even familiar with the term “legacy lawsuit.”

A 2012 Louisiana State University study noted that our legacy lawsuits led to the loss of 1,200 new wells, $6.8 billion in drilling investments, 30,000 job opportunities, and more than $10 billion in Louisiana economic output. If these economic impacts are not enough motivation to pass this legislation, then the additional benefit of speeding up the remediation of these sites in a responsible way should help seal the deal.

A second proposal to address lawsuit reform is Senate Bill 469, a proposal by Sen. Bret Allain (R-Franklin), which would prohibit a governmental entity, except those that have authority under the Coastal Zone Management Act, from filing a suit based on activities regulated by the state or federal coastal use permits. Current law authorizes the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, the Attorney General, certain district attorneys, and local government to bring certain actions to ensure that only permitted activities are conducted in the coastal zone.

This legislation will reaffirm this language while specifying that any other state and local entities are prohibited from bringing a cause of action from activity regulated by state or federal coastal use permits.

The bill also specifies that money received by state or local government for violations and enforcement of the Coastal Zone Management Act must be used for “improving the resiliency of the coastal area.”

This bill will limit unauthorized lawsuits, such as the case brought by the Southeast Flood Protection Authority-East, while leaving the independence and autonomy of that board intact. The lawsuit brought by this flood authority against 97 oil and gas companies has been criticized by many as an unauthorized attack on an industry that, according to the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, has a $77 billion  impact on the state and supports more than 310,000 jobs for our people.

In addition to the substance of the suit, the legal contract signed by that levee authority has also been roundly criticized. This back-room process selected attorneys in private, without public input and promised those lawyers recovery dollars that should instead go to protecting the people of that region. This behavior has caused great concern across a wide variety of stakeholders.

In fact, in a recent editorial The Advocate wrote, “… the flood authority took the easy route, deliberating in secret and declining to conduct a rigorous, public process for selecting its attorneys before giving a group of lawyers as much as 32.5 percent of the money that ought to go to protecting America’s most vulnerable metropolitan area.”

If that type of secretive and lucrative contracting practice by a public body is allowed to continue, it will set a dangerous precedence and will send ripple effects through our public bodies for years to come.

The public deserves better than that type of behavior. Public recovery dollars belong to the public and any decision to reallocate the funds should be done with the public’s input, not behind closed doors.
As session winds down, it is completely understandable for policymakers to start thinking more about summer vacation and less about the endless committee meetings and floor debates. Nevertheless, before we leave, let’s find the time to tackle a few of these issues that warrant our attention.

One thing we know to be true is that the calendar doesn’t lie. Summertime will be here soon enough. The public deserves our best effort these last few weeks and, quite frankly, our final grade this session depends on it.

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