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The BP Session 

Roughly two weeks before adjournment, this year's legislative session has an unexpected title that means lawmakers' work is far from done

click to enlarge Gov. Bobby Jindal and local offcials last week toured the oil-saturated Pass a Loutre at the mouth of the Mississippi River. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE GOVERNOR'S OFFICE

It's hard to believe, but back in late March, when state lawmakers first convened, some predicted this would be an "education session." It was practically a mantra, especially among the higher ed crowd, the target of hefty budget cuts.

  What a difference a day makes. In this case, the day was April 20, the date of the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout.

  Make no mistake: The BP oil disaster will define the entire year. A story on Bloomberg.com recently predicted the gusher could continue until Christmas, based on the current hurricane season. If that happens, Harry Roberts, a professor of Coastal Studies at Louisiana State University, told Bloomberg 4 million barrels of oil will have been spilled into the Gulf of Mexico by Christmas morning.

  With this kind of data floating around and BP's failed attempts to contain the free-flowing oil, lawmakers last week began whispering about the need for a special session. If BP doesn't come up with a solution to the gusher and for the spending needs of local government, those whispers will soon become something much louder.

  "The parishes being affected, we're going to have to come together and help them," says Rep. Gordon Dove, R-Houma, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. "Some parishes will get harder hit than other parishes. And of course, we're going to have to address the shrimpers. And if this (federal) moratorium (on deepwater drilling) isn't lifted, we're also going to have to address all of the people affected by it."

  Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, whose home parish of Jefferson is feeling the impact, says he hopes the state can save a bit of money and handle the crisis without a special session. And if that does happen, he says the next weeks will be among the busiest closing days the Legislature has ever seen. "(The attorney general) needs money to prosecute. The sheriffs' offices in the parishes need money," Connick says. "It's a sad thing. We're going to be going from a fishing industry to a cleanup industry, and our way of life is going to be lost."

  With less than two weeks to go until adjournment, lawmakers barely have enough time to get involved in the issue in any real way — and in hindsight, the House and Senate may have waited too long to become agitated.

 "The Legislature isn't doing anything about BP," says Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Livonia. "We don't even want to talk about it."

  Freshman Sen. Norby Chabert, D-Houma, held forth on the floor for two consecutive weeks. "We've stood idle long enough," he shouted to his fellow senators. "In some cases, it may be too late. But we cannot wait another minute, as an unprecedented environmental Armageddon is upon us."

  While lawmakers may have to wait for a special session to get more involved with the spill and its repercussions, a number of issues in the ongoing session are taking on a new shine because of the environmental tragedy. A bill filed to permit the attorney general to hire lawyers on a contingency-fee basis is now being framed as a bill to help the AG battle BP. A proposed constitutional amendment that was introduced to create an oil and gas processing tax is now sold as a tool to level the playing field.

  Bloggers and columnists nationwide are beginning to dissect the legislation coming out of the State Capitol in search of any connection to the Gulf disaster. Of particular interest are some alternative and renewable energy bills creeping through the process. Some of those on the outside looking in have labeled the green bills as a knee-jerk reaction to the BP incident, but in actuality the measures were advancing well before the drilling platform exploded, and previous sessions have paved the way for such ideas.

  In some ways, the movement started when this new, younger Legislature was seated in 2008. Sen. Nick Gautreaux, D-Abbeville, has Senate Bill 183 to let the state lease land for renewable energy such as wind, solar, hydrokinetic and geothermal. He also has Senate Bill 103 for local governments to establish special funds to purchase vehicles that run on alternative fuels. Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, has House Bill 751, which makes it easier for homeowners to meet the requirements for installing solar panels, and House Bill 793, which reorganizes the framework for Sustainable Energy Financing Districts so homeowners could direct their property taxes toward making residential energy improvements.

  While Treasurer John Kennedy has proved himself adept at hijacking attention during legislative sessions with his fiscally hawkish ways, this year's man of the hour is Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, who estimates Louisiana eventually will need up to $65 million to fight all of the parties responsible for the BP disaster. He has asked lawmakers to pony up the cash now. (Kennedy is still around; he says Louisiana already has enough money in various budgetary pots and that the Legislature needs only to pull dollars together from those sources — and then pray that the feds and/or BP will foot the bill down the line.)

  As for Gov. Bobby Jindal, his fate remains as elusive as ever. He's getting hit by Democrats, including former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, for not spending money sooner and cheered by Republicans and columnists for pushing his own plan to build up temporary barrier islands to keep out the oil. Even some who support his idea, however, wonder what's taking him so long to act on it.

  What hasn't changed since the April 20 explosion is the state's unprecedented, two-year, $3 billion budget shortfall. The budget crunch begins at midnight at the end of this month — and no amount of political boom can curtail the impact of that fiscal implosion, which lawmakers will have to address one day soon — with or without BP.

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

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