A group of lawmakers and experts that advises Gov. Bobby Jindal on coastal matters hasnt met since last year, and many members fear the panel has either lost its influence with the GOP administration or been stripped of its usefulness altogether. Whats certain is that state officials are redesigning the scope of the advisory panel to fit Louisianas ever-evolving coastal master plan. Jindals top coastal aide is heading up the overhaul, and there is talk of an informational meeting of the Governors Advisory Commission on Coastal Protection, Restoration and Conservation before years end.
??The commission was created in 2002 by former Gov. Mike Foster, another Republican and Jindals first political mentor. Back then, land loss and erosion were not yet part of the nations political vernacular, and state-level education was just beginning. Fosters successor, Democrat Kathleen Blanco, gave the advisory commission even more influence. Just two years ago, for example, its members played a lead role in the planned closure of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet.
??ince Blancos final year in office, however, the commission has lost steam. Only two meetings were held in 2007, and no meetings have been held in 2008. Jindal reappointed the commissions members in July of this year six months after he took office. Now, more than ever, I think the commission has a role to play, says Rep. Damon Baldone, a Houma Democrat who was first appointed to the commission by Foster. Were supposed to be advising the governor, but that isnt happening any more.
??The panel currently has 29 appointed members, including representatives from business, industry, academia, agriculture, commercial fishing and the conservation community. Several members are from the New Orleans region. Some nervous chatter about the commissions function has grown louder in recent weeks, but commission members interviewed for this story praised Garret Graves, Jindals top coastal advisor, for keeping an open line even when the commission seemed to be shut down. Everyone is confident that Graves has the situation under control. Hes always just a phone call away, says Rep. Gordon Dove, the Republican chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and one of the newest members of the advisory commission. Were still going to be able to have a lot of input.
??Graves says the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), which meets monthly rather than a few times a year, has picked up the commissions slack. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita forced the state to reassess its coastal strategy, which is why CPRA was created three years ago during the Blanco Administration. A federal task force also regulates coastal projects alongside a new coastal financing corporation. We dont want to have another advisory group meeting for the sake of meeting, Graves says. We want to ensure that the commission is a productive use of everyones time that is what were focusing on. Were taking the commission in a new direction.
??Graves, who also serves as chairman of CPRA, says his marching orders come straight from Jindal, who is done with the era of studies in coastal Louisiana. Despite efforts by lawmakers to abolish the advisory commission during this years regular session, he says Jindal wants the group to remain a valuable tool for the state. That will be represented in the revamped commission, Graves adds. As for when the commissions next meeting will be scheduled and new directives issued, Graves says those details are being hammered out. A redesign plan is also expected to start taking form before the end of the year. Alford