While some efforts to merge state departments and services are foundering in the current legislative session, a bill that would place a new, consolidated coastal agency in the executive branch is gaining momentum. Several parties, including department heads, legislative leaders and Gov. Bobby Jindal's top staffers, have come together to draft House Bill 833.
The measure is so far-reaching it must pass muster with two committees (natural resources and transportation) before moving to the opposite chamber. As of last week, it was nearing final approval in the House. It seeks to create the Office of Hurricane Protection, Flood Control and Coastal Restoration, which essentially would serve as the umbrella department for a number of existing state agencies.
HB 833 is authored by Rep. Gordon Dove, R-Houma, and Sen. Reggie Dupre, D-Bourg, who chair the Legislature's respective natural resources committees. Several members from the House panel also signed on as co-authors earlier this month when the legislation was unanimously sent to the full House for further debate. "There are a lot of people getting behind the idea of one arm of government just for coastal matters," says Dove. "It shows that the coast truly is a top policy issue and it sets out guidelines and parameters that have been in the works for years."
The 72-page bill details how several existing agencies would interrelate, including the Governor's Office of Coastal Activities; the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority; the Department of Natural Resources (DNR); the Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD); and the Governor's Advisory Commission on Coastal Protection, Restoration and Conservation.
Among its proposed changes, the legislation removes coastal restoration responsibilities from DNR but leaves that department with coastal management oversight, such as permitting. Meanwhile, it yanks flood protection (read: levees) from DOTD. It also waters down the few charges currently held by the governor's advisory commission, which has played a less visible role in the administration in recent years.
The real power would remain with the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, the state's leading coastal board. The legislation would make CPRA the nonfederal partner on most major projects, and its chairperson would be allowed to personally negotiate contract terms with the federal government on behalf of the entire coastline and state.
Moreover, an entire office within the proposed agency would be established to support CPRA, a framework that would require hiring an executive director. Primarily, the Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration would be the "implementation and enforcement arm" of the CPRA and administer its programs.
Most of these changes are proposals; there are no immediate plans to build a physical hub for the agency. For instance, the Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration would still have to use DNR's personnel for financial management and budget control, the bill states.
There are also several instances in the legislation where the word "integrated" is inserted. Dove says the intent is to have the state looking at hurricane protection, coastal restoration and flood control all at once when approaching challenges. More specifically, the bill calls for the following to be included in all comprehensive plans, if applicable: coastal restoration, coastal protection, infrastructure, storm damage reduction, flood control, water resources development, erosion control measures, marsh management, diversions, saltwater intrusion prevention, central wetlands, conservation, enhancement, mitigation, storm surge reduction and beneficial use projects. There's also language emphasizing a new focus on marshes, chenieres, ridges and coastal forests.
The term "integrated" has become the newest coastal buzzword. For example, House Bill 787, which is expected to sail through both chambers, grants special conservation powers to levee districts across the state, based on input from regional sources. The aim is to focus on the overall potential impact of any given project. Garrett Graves, executive assistant to the governor for coastal activities, says the state has embraced this new management system, which calls for an "integrated" approach to hurricane protection and coastal restoration. "But there are no actual requirements that levee districts do this," Graves said. "[House Bill 787] is discretionary."
Dove says it's a huge undertaking — and it may just be the beginning. He says a time may soon come when the agency proposed in House Bill 833 will require an upgrade to a full-fledged department. "It really should be an entire department to itself, but the Louisiana Constitution only allows for 20 departments," he says. "If we end up in a constitutional convention after this session, I think this is one of the things we should look at."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.