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Louisiana Speaks. Anyone Listening? 

A noble effort to collect opinions from a public inundated with recovery issues is finally complete, but the survey offers results we already know -- and the future seems as foggy as ever.

You almost never see pie charts like this where so many people agree on one thing," Robin Rather says, pointing to a large blue area on the wall during her PowerPoint presentation at Baton Rouge Community College last week. The front row, lined with high-ranking state officials and powerful donors, offered nothing but bobbing heads. This part of the Louisiana Speaks poll that her Austin-based firm, Collective Strengths, conducted seemed quite impressive.

But was it really? The privately funded regional planning poll found overwhelming support for the state's proposed coastal plan, with 93 percent of participants backing increased funding and expedited implementation. The statistic, while abnormally high for any sketch of public opinion, was nonetheless to be expected. After all, more than half of the responses used to compile the survey came from residents in Louisiana's 19-parish coastal zone.

Respondents also answered questions about land use, economic development and transportation. More than 23,000 people submitted responses using the Internet, mail delivery and phone surveys. In what was either a phenomenal lack of original programming or a genuine commitment to recovery, Louisiana Public Broadcasting aired an hourlong documentary on the process some 50 times over the past three months. Numerous editorials were also written urging participation, and newspaper inserts were widely circulated.

More than 200 polling stations were established for the massive effort. In fact, the Louisiana Speaks campaign produced more responses than any similar effort in the United States -- Utah recently netted 17,500 participants for its survey. A team of national experts and local planners are now using this data, along with previous citizen input, to create a master plan for recovery in south Louisiana over the next 50 years. Despite the lofty goal, officials insist it'll be ready to hit the street sometime in May.

But putting the plan on paper is only one of several steps that must be taken. A new state agency needs to be created to make sure the plan is implemented properly, and the Legislature will be asked to pass a controversial package of bills dealing with insurance and land rights in the upcoming regular session that kicks off April 30. Parochial politics will likely play a role in the creation of the new agency, as responses from north Louisiana were few and far between. Additionally, there may be more inquiries about the poll itself in coming months; some already question its vaguely worded inquiries and its methodology.

Andy Kopplin, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the lead government group on the project, says priorities for the northern part of state will, naturally, be folded into the new planning agency if it's approved by the Legislature this spring. Although significantly under-represented in the polling process, north Louisiana will not feel isolated, he says. Lawmakers from the region might think differently during the coming debates. It's unknown if another poll will be taken to cover the topside of Louisiana, and no figures were offered as to how much the new agency, which would be placed in the Division of Administration, might cost.

The call for another agency in post-Katrina Louisiana may be seen as yet one more layer of bureaucracy. Already on the books are the LRA, which Gov. Kathleen Blanco created to lead recovery efforts; the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which lords over all things coastal and flood-related; the Road Home, which distributes federal housing money; a board to oversee new building code regulations; two consolidated levee districts in southeast Louisiana; and now Louisiana Speaks, or whatever agency name is eventually assigned.

All of these groups will surely collaborate with the Louisiana Speaks process, as will the Legislature and public. Everything from light rail transportation to natural habitats will be up for discussion. Kopplin says the goal is to make sure everything falls under one umbrella, admittedly a daunting task. Public money also may pose a challenge. So far, $10 million has been raised through private foundations and donors, with $4.4 million being sunk into Louisiana Speaks thus far. The state coffers will eventually have to tilt. "The coordination has to take place on a mammoth scale," Kopplin says.

LRA board member Sean Reilly said the poll's findings also will be used to push for policy changes in the areas of coastal mitigation, insurance and community revitalizations. The consensuses reached in the survey can and will be leveraged, he says. The LRA might even take stances on controversial topics, such as abolishing the Insurance Rating Commission. The most heated debates could end up being over land rights, although Reilly wouldn't tip his hand to reveal any specifics. Still, it's clear the LRA will be a player in the upcoming session. "We plan on having a legislative package to help the Louisiana Speaks plan," Reilly says.

The poll reports that 88 percent of local citizens want to consider new options for risk management in unprotected flood-prone areas, with only 11 percent holding a preference for emphasizing individual property rights over community risk. That means Louisiana is ready to deal with the tough issues, says Donna Fraiche, chair of the LRA's community planning task force. Of course, the Louisiana Land Owners Association and other Capitol heavies might have something to say about it when political realities come home to roost. "(The poll participants) want more housing choices, more transit options, and they are willing to consider policies, limitations and regulatory changes that will help us collectively reduce risk and create safer communities," Fraiche says.

The big winner in the poll was, again, the coast. Near-unanimous support from respondents was given to the "importance of funding and implementation of the state's proposed coastal plan." When approximately 58 percent of the participants live in a coastal parish, such a response isn't a shocker. One would think the past five years of overwhelming support for constitutional amendments would have been enough of a referendum to chalk the issue up as a priority. The "huge mandate" in this area identified by Rather and others might not be as colossal as first thought, especially since participants were not asked to view a specific coastal plan, nor were they told anything about the plan that is in the works.

Yes, the state is still developing its master plan for coastal restoration, hurricane protection and levee management. The finite details -- funding, federal cooperation, subsidence and land-use policies -- have become sticking points, and the public is far from seeing a final draft. The coastal plan the state has now, which includes dozens of marsh restoration projects, levee alignments and floodgates, is estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars over the next several decades. Before the plan can be implemented by Congress, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must present its own plan for Louisiana. The Corps' plan is months behind schedule. It's possible that the Corps could ignore Louisiana's plan entirely, but state officials hope the Corps will at least include it as an appendix to its own plan.

At least one ballot for the Louisiana Speaks poll was received from every parish and 32 other states. While the coastal issue dominates because of the large number of respondents living in coastal communities, gender and racial breakdowns track traditional population distributions -- with one exception. The 8 percent response in the Lafayette area was significantly lower than expected. The racial breakdown was "great," Rather says, but there is a lingering doubt raised by one telling statistic: 53 percent of respondents used the Internet to complete the survey. That suggests income diversity among respondents might not reflect the state's diverse population; Internet access is usually a not a tool readily available to lower-income families.

While computers used at polling stations could account for that, the poll reports that 61 percent of respondents did not indicate an income level at all. There's no way to tell how many have-nots, the largest income sector devastated by Katrina, were represented in the study. This fact alone could have legislative ramifications. Reporting income is a common problem in market research and political surveys, and the income results in the Louisiana Speaks poll are "unusable due to the low number of participants," according to the poll's summary of findings.

The men (35 percent) versus women (41 percent) ratio was also larger than Louisiana's traditional gender gap, which has women leading men by roughly three percentage points in the most recent U.S. Census count. Rather says many of the women respondents passed over issues, such as commercial fishing and recreational hunting. Whether sections were skipped over due to the broad wording of some questions -- "What is the right mix of property rights and community risk?" -- or because of other factors was not addressed at last week's news conference.

On the issue of economic development, 59 percent pegged "attracting and retaining companies" as a top priority, with expanding job skills and vocational education four points behind at 55 percent. Expanding trade and shipping garnered 23 percent, and fostering knowledge-based businesses, at 29 percent, both fell to the bottom of the pile. Economists and development types consider the areas to be ripe for growth, but the buzz hasn't caught on. "The economic development folks will probably be disappointed with that one," Rather says. "But it indicates that people want to stop the bleeding that's going on in the economy before heading out in new directions."

The entire Louisiana Speaks effort is privately funded, so there is no clamor at this point for public accountability. That will come soon enough, when the Legislature convenes. For now, Louisiana Speaks is relying on its "champions" -- prestigious donors, good government groups and businessmen -- to do the heavy lifting. The champion list contains pages of names, a virtual who's who, including Lee Griffin, former chairman and CEO of Bank One in Baton Rouge. Griffin promises the lobbying will be tough, the plan will be implemented and the poll will stand up to any and all scrutiny. The champions won't have it any other way. "We're serious. We're going to be getting in people's faces," he says.

Complete survey results are available online at www.louisianaspeaks.org.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

click to enlarge A Louisiana Speaks poll shows overwhelming support for - plans to restore the state's wetlands, but that's not - surprising since more than half of the survey responders - came from Louisianas coastal parishes.
  • A Louisiana Speaks poll shows overwhelming support for plans to restore the state's wetlands, but that's not surprising since more than half of the survey responders came from Louisianas coastal parishes.
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