Lost in all the excitement the Louisiana Legislature’s historic veto session were two significant wins for Bossier Parish brought home by Republican state Sen. Barrow Peacock and GOP state Rep. Dodie Horton.
For years, south Bossier City in particular has agitated for a new Jimmie Davis Bridge, ideally replacing the decades-old two-lane purveyor of traffic with a new four-lane structure. The current bridge can’t be refurbished because federally-protected barn owls refuse to stop nesting on it.
Throughout his decade in office, Peacock, who represents both ends of the bridge, had fought to make the new doubled span a reality. Costing an estimated $125 million, about a fifth of that had been secured for the canceled refurbishing, meaning around $100 million more needed funding.
At the same time, northwest Louisiana had other transportation needs, most prominently finishing the Interstate 49 connector project that would link ends of that highway in north and south Shreveport. Most politicians and interested parties have advocated that occur nearly in a straight line through the city west of downtown, which would cost around a half-billion dollars.
As a part of the settlement from the Macondo well disaster, the Legislature essentially apportioned $100 million for use on area transportation mega-projects. Peacock consistently championed for the money to go to the connector, counting on that seed money providing a state match for federal highway dollars to complete it.
But others with different political agendas resisted. Some special interests wanted the connector to meander around Shreveport in a bid to keep intact the economically-depressed area, and they found an ally in Democrat state Rep. Cedric Glover, who kept attempting to move the $100 million Peacock had the Legislature put towards the connector to the new bridge as a poison pill preventing the connector from completion with its best and highest use route. Despite a full court public relations press from these interests, Peacock remained resolute and convinced legislators to reject such overtures, hoping the nearly $25 million already assigned to the bridge also could serve as future seed money.
Proving that politics makes for strange bedfellows, Republican Bossier City Councilor Scott Irwin, whose district includes the bridge, piled on with Glover. Even though his job responsibilities had nothing to do with bridge funding, Irwin as a tool to encourage enthusiasm for his reelection publicly decried Peacock’s strategy and called for supporting Glover’s repurposing the $100 million to the new bridge.
However, by the end of this year’s legislative session Peacock had the last laugh and Irwin, Glover, and their allies had egg on their faces. The federal government spending orgy of the past year-and-a-half triggered by the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic only set aside a minority of dollars for states to fund transportation infrastructure, but what little it provided allowed Louisiana in this year’s capital outlay bill to shuffle around enough money to commit to full funding of a new bridge in addition to keeping the connector money available. Work on the new span should commence by 2023 and take a couple of years to complete – long after Irwin will leave office after voters decisively booted him out of office this spring.
At the other end of the parish, Horton helped bring increased accountability and transparency to the troubled Cypress Black Bayou Recreation and Water Conservation District. Governed without direct voter approval yet with the ability to tax residents, its five unelected representatives, including its Executive Director Robert Berry holding dual office as a commissioner that has made him subject of legal action as yet unresolved, have overseen a significant decline in services provision to the public while they spend exorbitantly on legal fees related to Berry and pays almost a tenth of taxpayer dollars received to compensate Berry.
This, among other issues, has provoked citizens who found they had no recourse to influence a board full of appointees by other officials (and in the case of the Bossier Parish Levee District, appointed officials themselves). Horton came to the rescue with legislation allowing for that, which creates procedures for the board itself, an appointing authority (besides the Levee District, Bossier City, Benton, Bossier Parish, and the Bossier Parish School District), or 500 property owners subject to district taxation, to remove a board member. The member’s appointing authority then schedules a hearing whether to terminate the member’s appointment.
Perhaps not coincidentally, one commissioner resigned right after the bill made it out of the Legislature. Berry continues his rearguard action, but GOP Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry’s office severely clipped the district’s wings by tightening the purposes on which it can spend on outside counsel, as well as it has stayed the legal course in contesting Berry’s holding two offices.
The new law can’t stop stupid spending, such as the tens of thousands of dollars the district spent on trying to derail the legislation and the resources Bossier City and Bossier Parish unwisely committed to do the same, but at least it increases citizens’ ability to keep the rogue agency in line.