Sunday, June 1, 2014

UPDATE: 21 leges side with Big Oil

Posted By on Sun, Jun 1, 2014 at 12:54 PM

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NOTE: This post, originally titled "The Dirty Dozen," has been updated to include the names of ALL area lawmakers who voted for Senate Bill 469, which is designed to kill the regional flood authority's environmental lawsuit against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies. In this update report, I include all metro area lawmakers, not just those whose districts lie in the geographic boundaries of the flood protection authority.

LATER UPDATE: After playing phone tag for more than a day, state Sen. JP Morrell and I spoke and he explained that he was always AGAINST SB 469. He voted against it the first time it was considered by the full Senate. When it returned from the House for concurrence in the House amendment, Morrell said, he was not in the Senate Chamber. However, someone voted his machine in his absence, casting a vote FOR the bill. "I went to the mic to speak against the bill when it came up the first time," Morrell said. "Had I been in the Senate when it came back, I would have voted against it again." It is not unusual for lawmakers' machines to be "voted" for them in their absence, and occasionally it leads to mistaken votes such as Morrell's on SB 469. The story below has been revised to account for Morrell's explanation of his second vote.


Twenty-one state lawmakers from flood-prone southeast Louisiana parishes (Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard, Plaquemines, St. Charles, St. John, Tangipahoa and St. Tammany) voted for a bill to retroactively kill a lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies. Voters in those areas overwhelmingly oppose legislative attempts to kill the lawsuit, which means those local lawmakers put the interests of Big Oil ahead of their constituents’ interests.

Eighteen area legislators voted against the bill to kill the lawsuit, and four area House members were absent for the final vote. Being absent for a floor vote is equivalent to voting "no" because bills require 20 "yes" votes in the Senate and 53 "yes" votes in the House regardless of how many lawmakers are present.

Worst of all, the area lawmakers who voted for the bill more than made the difference in its passage in both the Senate and the House. Seven area state senators voted for the bill, which passed by a margin 25-11. In the House, 15 area representatives voted for the bill, which passed by a margin of 59-39.

The current geographic boundaries of SLFPA-E's jurisdiction include the East Bank of Orleans and Jefferson parishes, plus St. Bernard, St. Tammany and Tangipahoa. Lawmakers recently passed, and Gov. Bobby Jindal signed, a bill creating a separate St. Tammany Levee District outside the jurisdiction of SLFPA-E, but hurricanes and storm surges don't respect political boundaries or acts of the Louisiana Legislature.

The SLFPA-E lawsuit seeks to hold the named energy defendants responsible for their share of damages to coastal wetlands. Contrary to the meme put forth by Big Oil and its political lackeys (Gov. Jindal chief among them), the suit was never intended to make the energy industry solely accountable for coastal land loss. From Day One, supporters of the lawsuit and attorneys for SLFPA-E stated that several factors contributed to coastal erosion. The lawsuit was simply aimed at getting the energy industry to pay its fair share.

Thanks to a slick procedural maneuver in the state Senate — and support from some local lawmakers — that lawsuit now appears doomed, unless a constitutional challenge can restore some sense of fairness and equity to Louisiana’s judicial system. The maneuver was a bait-and-switch that allowed the original version of Senate Bill 469, by Sen. Robert Adley, a Republican from the north Louisiana town of Benton, to be gutted in a Senate committee and reconstituted as a bill to kill the lawsuit. Adley, who is an oil-and-gas businessman, ranks among the leading opponents of the floor authority lawsuit.

Adley’s partner in the bait-and-switch maneuver was fellow state Sen. Bret Allain, a Republican from the coastal town of Franklin, who has profited handsomely from oil and gas activity on his land. Allain had his own bill, SB 531, aimed at killing the SLFPA-E lawsuit, but that bill was stuck in the Senate Judiciary A Committee, which was so opposed to it that Allain declined even to bring it up for a vote.

Instead, Allain conspired with Adley and lobbyists for Big Oil to gut Adley’s SB 469, which originally dealt with nondescript enforcement of coastal resources, and rewrite it as a reincarnated version of Allain’s SB 531. Adley’s bill had been sent to the oil-friendly Senate Committee on Natural Resources (of which Allain is a member), and committee members happily went along with the ruse. They reported the wholly rewritten SB 469 to the full Senate in short order. The committee rewrite of SB 469 was so all-inclusive, so comprehensive, that even the bill’s author was changed — from Adley to Allain.

Bear in mind, the whole point of having legislative committees is for them to consider legislation that is germane to their areas of concentration and expertise. The Senate Judiciary A Committee considers bills that deal with causes of action in litigation. The Natural Resources Committee was never the proper venue for a bill killing a lawsuit, but that didn’t matter to Big Oil and its political lapdogs.

The southeast Louisiana lawmakers who voted for Senate Bill 469 include six senators and 15 House members. An analysis of the vote in each legislative chamber shows that SB 469 would not have passed either the Senate or the House if enough local lawmakers had put the interests of their constituents ahead of Big Oil's interests. Moreover, their constituents are among those most vulnerable to hurricane-related flooding that indisputably has been exacerbated by the thousands of miles of canals that Big Oil has carved out of area wetlands.

The southeast Louisiana lawmakers who voted for SB 469 should pray that no hurricane pushes storm surges into their districts between now and their next election, because surveys show that more than 90 percent of voters in coastal Louisiana oppose legislative efforts to kill the lawsuit. Even if their constituents remain high and dry between now and Election Day, the controversy over SB 469 has raised voter awareness exponentially of how much Big Oil controls the Louisiana legislative process.

Here are the names of the area lawmakers who voted with Big Oil on final passage of SB 469:

Senate — Sens. John Alario, R-Westwego; Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville; Dale Erdey, R-Livingston; David Heitmeier, D-New Orleans; Gary Smith, D-Norco; and Mack "Bodi" White, R-Baton Rouge. (While Erdey and White live outside metro New Orleans, their districts include portions of Tangipahoa. Note that Sen. JP Morrell was recorded as voting "for" the bill on its last trip through the Senate, but he told Gambit he was not in the Senate at that time. He voted against SB 469 — and spoke against it — the first time it cleared the Senate.)

House — Reps. Bryan Adams, R-Gretna; Jeff Arnold, D-Algiers; Robert Billiot, D-Westwego; Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond; Tim Burns, R-Mandeville; Greg Cromer, R-Slidell; Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette; Jerry "Truck" Gisclair, D-Larose; Cameron Henry, R-Jefferson; Chris Leopold, R-Belle Chasse; Nick Lorusso, R-New Orleans; Greg Miller, R-Norco; Steve Pugh, R-Ponchatoula; Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonazales; John Schroder, R-Covington; Scott Simon, R-Abita Springs; and Julie Stokes, R-Kenner. (As in the Senate, some of the above-named representatives live outside metro New Orleans, but their districts include portions of the parishes that are in the metro area and prone to flooding from hurricane-related storm surges.)

On a positive note: Eight area senators and 10 metro area representatives voted against SB 469. Those who opposed Adley and Allain’s bill deserve recognition and voters’ thanks for casting a courageous vote in the face of immense lobbying and political pressure from the energy industry and Gov. Jindal.

The really encouraging thing about those who opposed SB 469 is that they are a bi-partisan group. SB 469 did not pit Republicans against Democrats. It was about integrity, independence and putting local constituents’ interests ahead of the money and influence of Big Oil.

Voters in Jefferson should be especially proud of state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, who returned from cancer diagnosis and treatment in Houston to vote against SB 469 a second time, when it returned from the House with amendments.

Here’s a list of those who voted with their constituents against SB 469:

Senate — Sens. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie; Troy Brown, D-Napoleonville; A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell; Danny Martiny, R-Metairie; JP Morrell, D-New Orleans (see note above); Ed Murray, D-New Orleans; Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa; and Karen Carter-Peterson, D-New Orleans. (Brown's district includes parts of St. Charles and St. John parishes, and Nevers' district includes parts of St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes.)

House — Reps. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans; Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans; Pat Connick, R-Marrero; John Bel Edwards; D-Amite; Walt Leger, D-New Orleans; Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie; Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans; Kevin Pearson, R-Slidell; Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa; Tom Willmott, R-Kenner; and Ebony Woodruff, D-Harvey. (Ritchie lives in Bogalusa but his district includes parts of St. Tammany Parish.)

Absent (equivalent to voting "no") — Reps. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans; Randal Gaines, D-LaPlace; Paul Hollis, R-Covington; and Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge.

NOTE TO READERS: An earlier version erroneously stated that it was Adley's bill that was stuck in the Senate Judiciary A Committee, and that Allain's bill was in the Senate Natural Resources Committee, and that Allain, not Adley, was the original author of SB 469. The story as it now appears has the correct account of the bill's history and authorship, as well as an expanded list of votes on the bill that includes all representatives and senators whose districts in southeast Louisiana are subject to hurricane-related flooding.

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