#LaLeg: How Coastal Issues Fared During This Year’s Session
|The scoping meetings for the Mid-Breton Sediment Diversion are next week and the Army Corps is looking for your feedback. Be a part of the process, and learn more about how you can get involved!|
No legislative session is the same, but this session took it a step further.
The session also began right as coronavirus cases were on the rise in the U.S. The day the session opened, Louisiana recorded its first COVID-19 case. By week’s end, there were more than 1,000 cases. As the situation continued to worsen, the regular session was suspended on March 16. The session resumed on May 4, with less than a month before the law required it to adjourn. With a shorter session, many bills were either not considered or didn’t advance as expected. When the 2020 regular session convened on March 9, the chambers held the largest number of first-term legislators in more than 30 years. Close to half of the Legislature were new to their seats this year.
Additionally, lawmakers called themselves into a special session beginning one minute after the regular session ended on June 1 to pass a state budget that was not finalized during the regular session. In the past, special sessions have been called by the Governor, but this Legislature indicated the strength of its majority. The 2020 special session ended on June 30.
In each session, our groups track bills that directly or indirectly affect the state’s coastal restoration and protection program. Here’s a rundown of some of the most important coastal bills during the 2020 regular and special sessions.
HB 2 – Passed
Introduced by Rep. Stuart Bishop early in the special session, this bill provided for the state’s capital outlay budget. We followed the bill’s capital outlay allocations and FY18-19 surplus funding that would be directed to the Coastal Protection and Restoration’s trust fund. Earlier this year, the Governor requested $117 million in surplus dollars to be spent on a variety of coastal protection and restoration projects. The requested funding was not initially included in the original House version of HB 2, but was amended in the Senate to include over $73 million for coastal projects. Of that, $62.5 million in surplus cash will go to the Coastal Trust fund.
Most of the funds added for coastal work will provide the state’s cost share for the Federally-led West Shore Lake Pontchartrain levee project, which is being planned and constructed in tandem with the Reintroduction of the Mississippi River to Maurepas Swamp project. These funds will allow the state to start issuing contracts for these critical projects.
SR 14 and HR 19 – Passed
Two separate resolutions moved in tandem—one in the Senate (SR 14, authored by Sen. Bob Hensgens, Chairman of Senate Natural Resources) and one in the House (HR 19, Authored by Rep. Jerome Zeringue, Chairman of House Appropriations Committee) to pass the FY 2021 CPRA Annual Plan. Both of these resolutions passed unanimously, approving the Annual Plan.
Had the annual plan not passed, CPRA would have been unable to fund ongoing projects or to begin new ones. We, along with fellow coastal advocates, strongly supported this measure along with its House companion and helped marshal public support for its passage.
HB 592 – Passed (became Act 89)
Speaker Pro Temp Tanner Magee authored this bill to allow CPRA to incur debt or issue bonds, a power already possessed by other state agencies. This was a bill requested by CPRA, granting it a fiscal authority that was missing.
HR 24 – Passed
Authored by Rep. Bill Wheat during the special session, this resolution urges and requests CPRA to work with LDWF to develop integrated coastal protection projects aimed at preserving and maintaining important estuarine habitat in and around Lake Pontchartrain.
Oil and Gas Lawsuits Bills
SB 359 – Did not advance
Authored by Sen. Bob Hensgens, this bill was one of several bills offered during the regular session that sought to disrupt ongoing oil and gas parish lawsuits. This bill drew widespread attention–and opposition–and was one of the most-watched and debated bills of the session. Our groups opposed this bill because we believe that these lawsuits should continue to advance within the judicial system and not be derailed by politics. This bill didn’t advance in the session, though the author indicated he would likely bring it back next year.
SB 440 – Did not advance
Authored by Sen. Mike Fesi, this regular session bill passed the Senate and was amended in the House to include the most objectionable aspects of SB 359 designed to derail the parish oil and gas lawsuits. We also opposed this bill. After widespread opposition, this bill also failed to advance.
SCR 7 – Passed
Authored by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, this resolution was the sole piece of legislation regarding the parish oil and gas lawsuits that passed during the regular session. It urges and requests certain government officials (including the state) and coastal parishes to dismiss the coastal lawsuits.
Other Bills That Didn’t Advance
Waterways Access: There were several bills regarding public access which continues to be an issue for recreational fishermen (HB 40, HB 627, SB 176, SB 177, HB 650). However, these bills were held back during the abbreviated regular session and didn’t resurface during the special session. The issue will likely return next year.
Mid-Basin Sediment Diversions: There were several bills regarding the mid-basin sediment diversions (Mid-Breton and Mid-Barataria) that have yet to be permitted. They covered a variety of topics – mitigation options for the projects (HB 794, HB 796), levee completion (HB 795), and the environmental impact statements (HB 724). None of these bills advanced.
This session, our coalition engaged with legislators in a more focused and organized way than past years. Constituents also played a key role in offering support for the Annual Plan and surplus funding vital to getting coastal projects off the ground. With the possibility of another special session in October, it’s critical for the public to continue to actively engage with the process in the ongoing fight for Louisiana’s coast.