Published February 19, 2006
BATON ROUGE, La. – Louisiana lawmakers have overhauled the state's patronage-laden system of managing its flood-control system, but it remains to be seen if it's enough to get Congress to agree to spend billions to prevent another Hurricane Katrina-like catastrophe.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco and other state officials say they're confident the reforms approved this past week are what Congress wanted from Louisiana.
"None of us know for sure, but I'm very hopeful that it will be good enough," said U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La.
The stakes are high -- state government doesn't have the cash to pay for what Blanco and other leaders envision as a flood-control system strong enough to withstand the most powerful hurricanes. The state's estimated price tag for those projects is upward of $30 billion.
Congress last year gave Louisiana a choice: If it wanted federal money for the projects, it had to get rid of the 19th-century levee control system with its patronage and cronyism and replace it with expertise and professionalism.
Blanco failed to support levee reform last year, but reversed course and made it the centerpiece of the special legislative session that ended Friday.
Under the old system, five levee governing boards in and around New Orleans have been responsible for maintaining and inspecting the system of flood walls and levees built to protect the region -- much of it well below sea level -- from storm surges.
The boards are made up of campaign contributors and lawmakers' relatives, friends, business partners and political allies. Some members, not all, have expertise in the mechanics and science of building levees.
One, the New Orleans board, is responsible for upkeep of the levees that collapsed during Katrina and it got the most scrutiny. Critics noted that the board's members boosted their own salaries, created their own police force and managed two marinas and an airport for private and corporate jets.
The reform plan bars the boards from anything other than flood protection.
"There will be no marinas, no parks, no airports, no outside investments or interests to distract their authority," Blanco said. "No politics, no patronage, no brother-in-law deals."
Blanco had wanted just one board to oversee the region, but agreed to a compromise with powerful lawmakers who wanted two regional boards -- one for each side of the Mississippi River.
"We did not compromise our overriding goals: that of safety and bringing public confidence back into the process," the governor said at a news conference after the Legislature adjourned.
Congress also had demanded "one state or quasi-state agency" to handle flood control, but Vitter said he still thought the changes would inspire trust from Congress.
"When you look at what the legislation does, it does accomplish some major consolidation on a regional basis and it does a lot of reform, replacing cronyism with blue-ribbon professionalism," Vitter said.