Money Forces Political Tides To Rise

“Before the BP settlement, this whole master plan was an academic exercise.”

Those were the words Gov. John Bel Edwards shared during a recent meeting with coastal stakeholders. For their part, the local levee board members, advocates, legislators and state officials who were in attendance knew exactly what the governor was attempting to communicate.

After years of trying to convince the world that Louisiana was washing away, and following countless hours of public meetings and policy summits, the gigantic pile of money needed to jumpstart the state’s coastal master plan is finally on its way.

There are two substantial pots of money driving this transition:

— Roughly $10 billion will be paid out to the state over the next 15 years for legal settlements reached with BP over its 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.

— There’s also $140 million annually that will be gleaned from offshore oil revenue, beginning next fiscal year through the federal Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, or GOMESA.

The combined cashflow has contractors, parish governments, engineers, landowners and many others beating their chests ahead of the competition to come. Elected officials, meanwhile, are looking and sounding more serious when it comes to their oversight roles.

Spending priorities are being questioned with a fresh intensity and bills have been introduced at the Capitol to address how some of the incoming revenue should be distributed. On another front, protection advocates are facing off against restoration supporters, with both arguing that their respective projects are critical to the state’s core mission.

As erosion and subsidence relocate the coast and its byproducts further north, the proverbial table where deals are made seems to be growing larger. Occurrences of saltwater intrusion have been found as far north as Baton Rouge and officials in the River Parishes region are reporting unprecedented backwater flooding connected to lower-lying areas.

Edwards, convinced that we’ve reached a turning point, even declared an official state of emergency last month for Louisiana’s coast. It was a public relations tactic, to be certain, but the urgency stated above the governor’s signature couldn’t be more real.

Make no mistake — the state’s plan to save the coast is being funded and implemented on a grand scale that promises high hurdles.

How grand is the scale? The National Wildlife Federation, for one, believes Louisiana is “embarking on the largest restoration effort in U.S. history.”

How high are the hurdles? The Public Affairs Research Council recently compared the process of putting the state’s blueprint into action with tackling a “five-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.”

But before history can be written and puzzle pieces can be placed, lawmakers this session have to approve two important plans.

That includes the 50-year, comprehensive master plan ($50 billion), which lawmakers only get to weigh in on every five years. So this session will give the Legislature its last look at the master plan for this term.

There’s also the annual master plan ($644 million) that requires approval this year and every year. This go around, though, there’s a slightly new twist. While in the past the annual plan was hosted in a single resolution, there are now two duplicate resolutions pending action in the session — one in the House and another in the Senate.

Few can offer a straight reason why this has happened, but there’s speculation that each chamber has its own copy just in case one of them is held for political ransom. In other words, no chances are being taken this year. If the BP settlement and GOMESA cash represent a room full of promise, then the annual plan is the key required to open the door.

Elsewhere in the halls of the Capitol, Senate Natural Resources Chairman Norby Chabert made a push recently to redirect most of the state’s share of the GOMESA revenue stream for next fiscal year. Chabert originally wanted to give the cash to local levee districts, rather than allowing the pursestrings to be controlled by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, the state’s guiding coastal board. (The legislation has since has since been amended as part of a developing comprise deal.)

Rep. Jerome Zeringue, the former chairman of the CPRA, is interested in local funding formats as well, particularly when it comes to levee boards and parishes that tax themselves for restoration and protection needs. Zeringue is leading policy discussions about how these tax dollars are applied to projects and how spending, more generally, can be spread across different jurisdictions.

As the years start to roll by and the money continues to roll in, proposals like those being authored by Chabert and Zeringue will become perennial topics. Or at least they should be, given the dollar signs involved.

That said, the governor was right. The fight to protect the coast has evolved well beyond an academic exercise. It’s now an administrative and political battle that the entire state should be paying attention to this year.

If you’ve already missed some of the unfolding saga, don’t worry. The story of Louisiana’s coastal cash is only just beginning.

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