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Water Commission Flooded — With High Hopes
New members of the Louisiana Ground Water Resources Commission met for the first time recently and were immediately flooded with agenda items. Gov. Bobby Jindal says he wants the commission to become one of the leading ground water regulatory bodies in the nation. The commission was created in 2003, and lawmakers recently expanded its enforcement powers by authorizing it to issue civil penalties. The Department of Natural Resources' Office of Conservation will serve as the frontline for the changes. The commission also is exploring the concept of "areas of ground water concern" for zones that cannot sustain aquifer balance under current levels of use. DNR Secretary Scott Angelle, the commission's chairman, says the group has the opportunity to fulfill Jindal's vision in a very short time. "I want the commission and its staff to be the epicenter of ground water knowledge, data and policy for the state of Louisiana," Angelle says, adding that the commission's goal will be to "properly balance the needs of people and industry with the need to responsibly maintain our ground water resources." — Jeremy Alford

 

Roads Back on Track?
A special interest group with influential backers hopes to divert lawmakers' attention away from the financial crisis long enough to convince them that transportation issues are still important. Driving Louisiana Forward (DLF), a nonprofit advocacy group backed by construction and other business interests, is already touting its legislative agenda for the 2009 regular session — or a special session, should one be called. In recent legislative sessions, Driving Louisiana Forward convinced lawmakers to spend $600 million in one-time surplus monies on transportation projects and eliminate $40 million in expenses in the form of state police traffic control. "We made some good inroads last year in the campaign, thanks to the support of the governor and the Legislature, but there is still a lot of work to be done," says Jennifer Marusak, communications director of DLF. "Louisiana still faces a $14 billion backlog in unmet construction needs, and our current road, bridge and port funding simply does not work."

According to the Reason Foundation, Louisiana's transportation system recently dropped to a ranking of 40th in the nation. DLF's new legislative package would generate about $600 million annually — without increasing state taxes or fees, Marusak says. The specific proposals include dedicating some existing taxes to the transportation fund, off-loading some expenses, and creating a windfall fund using excess mineral revenues.

Sen. Butch Gautreaux, a Morgan City Democrat who sits on the Senate Transportation Committee, says DLF may have picked a bad time to ask for more. Gautreaux says the nonprofit could face some stiff competition for money and attention, despite it being a "worthy" cause. Currently, the state's primary source of road, bridge and port money is a 16 cents-a-gallon gasoline tax, which was approved in 1984 but has never been adjusted for inflation. The buying power of those 16 cents is now less than 8 cents, says Marusak. "That depreciation is the primary reason for the backlog," she says. DLF will discuss its legislative proposals with the governor's office, members of the Legislature and businesses and citizens across the state in coming months. Marusak adds that DLF will fund a paid advertising campaign to coincide with the push. — Alford

Bailing Out the Bailout
Lost in the controversial bill tossing a $700 billion life preserver to Wall Street was a significantly smaller provision that could help flood and hurricane victims stay afloat during their own recovery. The new federal law allows Louisiana families who suffered property damage from hurricanes Gustav and Ike, as well victims from the recent flooding in the Midwest, to claim thousands of dollars more in deductions on their taxes. The break, included by the Senate, changes the way the casualty-loss tax formula is applied to the current year. It's a silver lining to an otherwise tough vote for Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Napoleonville Democrat. According to a Rasmussen Reports poll, 44 percent of Americans opposed the bailout. Back home in Louisiana, editorial writers chastised the proposal as corporate welfare, and constituents sounded off on talk radio about what was in it for them. Lawmakers on the Hill referred to it as a "legacy vote" as many who face re-election — Melancon is unopposed this year — opposed the measure.

Louisiana's congressional delegation was split. Faced with the reality that the nation's financial markets are broken and possibly dragging the country into a recession, Melancon, who bills himself as a fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrat, says he had no choice but to support the package. "This rescue called for a hefty investment from all of us, but it only earned my vote when significant steps were taken to guarantee taxpayers weren't stuck with the bill," Melancon says. He adds that he was swayed by the support included for hurricane victims, especially in light of the out-of-pocket costs some of his constituents are facing. In particular, coastal residents have been shocked to find a special hurricane deductible on their policies that is a percentage of a home's insured value, rather than the traditional deductible of $500 or $1,000. "If you lost a roof during Gustav, chances are you're faced with a very big repair cost and very little help from your insurance company," Melancon says. "This tax change will help a lot of folks in this situation recoup a few thousand dollars at tax time."

Previously, taxpayers would only be able to claim damage that exceeded 10 percent of their adjusted gross income — minus $100. Under the National Disaster Relief section of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, they will now be able to claim all the damage that exceeds $500, with no consideration of adjusted gross income. — Alford

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