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The Coast with the Most 

Levee issues, coastal restoration and flood protection were finally pushed to the forefront of the state's agenda this year.

Issues that have long drawn concern from only south Louisiana communities, such as hurricane protection, flood control and coastal restoration, were crystallized as major state policy during the regular session that adjourned last week.

Lawmakers from the northern part of state, far from the Gulf of Mexico, championed coastal issues in greater numbers than ever before, and a standing committee to provide oversight for these matters was considered for both the House and Senate.

While last year's hurricane season was the chief catalyst for this trend, there was also an abundance of indicators during the recent legislative session that statewide sympathy is growing and will only flourish in coming years.

A true benchmark came during the session when the state budget was amended during floor debate at the hands of two Terrebonne Parish lawmakers to include coastal restoration projects.

It happened in both the House and Senate. Rep. Gordon Dove, a Republican, shifted $18 million to fund a barrier island maintenance project, and Sen. Reggie Dupre, a Democrat, dedicated another $150,000 to a levee-elevation program.

Lawmakers not only approved the changes by overwhelming margins, they did so with barely any debate -- even though amendments placed on the session's centerpiece legislation are traditionally hammered out painstakingly.

"That is virtually unheard of," says Rep. Loulan Pitre, a Republican who represents portions of both Lafourche and Jefferson parishes. "But it's a big given now that coastal restoration and flood control are a priority for the state."

Of course, if you're talking about the coast with a modern voice, then the conversation will eventually be steered toward Hurricane Katrina.

The devastating storm single-handedly changed the way levee bills are heard in the Legislature. Otherwise mundane levee measures that would never have received a second look before last fall are now scrutinized closely.

One bill that allows levee districts to take on construction projects in-house if the value is less than $1 million was nearly gutted on the House floor because it would have allowed the districts to abandon public bid law for these limited circumstances.

The concept almost failed because the knee-jerk reaction was that anything dealing with public bid law and levees is automatically controversial, although the bill was extremely limited in its application and scope.

Placing such matters under a microscope is a positive change, according to Republican Rep. Ernest Wooten, a former sheriff from Plaquemines Parish.

"The hurricane opened up everyone's eyes to the fact that there is a lot at stake," he says. "I'm just amazed that it took this long."

Interest is also beginning to spread across geographic boundaries.

Sen. Jay Dardenne, a Republican from Baton Rouge, sponsored legislation directing some of the state's tobacco settlement money to coastal restoration, and Sen. Robert Barham, a Republican from Morehouse Parish, has stumped for coastal issues.

While both were early bloomers in the coastal debate, it is a sign that more will eventually join the ranks, says Rep. Gary Smith, a Norco Democrat and member of the Acadiana Delegation.

"Representatives and senators from non-coastal parishes are beginning to realize that storm surges can impact inland areas and even further," Smith says. "They are starting to see the need to get involved and it is changing the debate."

Coastal restoration also has caught fire as an issue along the state's southwestern shoreline, where interest has been building steadily in the wake of Hurricane Rita.

Lawmakers approved local restoration programs in Vermilion Bay and the surrounding area, and momentum continues to build quietly for an aggressive -- if not outrageously futuristic -- project dubbed the "Louisiana Intracoastal Highway."

The proposal, sponsored partly by the Acadiana Delegation, calls for a 255-mile seawall that stretches from New Orleans to just past the Texas line. The seawall would also double as a major transportation route, complete with tolls, which would help pay for construction.

The Legislature passed an unrelated bill that encourages proponents of the seawall project. The bill would allow "gap funding" or seed money for toll projects around the state using donations and other creative sources. Texas has a similar program that uses funds from increased traffic fines and bonds.

The dominant coastal issue left hanging from the recent session is the proposed creation of a standing committee for coastal matters. Lawmakers overwhelmingly supported forming a panel to pass and recommend legislation, but the legislative leadership turned the bills into one-year studies.

There are high hopes, however, that the committees will be formed in time for the 2007 session.

"That would really put the issue into stone here," says Rep. Carla Blanchard Dartez, a Morgan City Democrat.

Above all, the issue's momentum cannot be stopped, coastal lawmakers say.

"We're going to have to see more and more of this," says Sen. Joel Chaisson, a Democrat from St. Charles Parish. "It has to continue. We have to focus as much as possible on these issues."

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

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