Many of the nearly 200 bills in the ongoing special session of the Louisiana Legislature do not merit the urgency associated with an "extraordinary" session. Two of the bills that do are the "Louisiana Anti-terrorism Act" or House Bill 53 by Rep. Hunt Downer, D-Houma, and Senate Bill 15 by Sen. Reggie Dupre, D-Houma.
Both bills deal with issues flowing from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. As is the case with similar legislation in many other states, these bills consider cherished American rights and freedoms in light of national security concerns. They deserve a full hearing before the special session ends next Friday, April 19. Only fiscal matters may be considered during the upcoming regular session of the Legislature -- so if this important legislation is not considered now, it must wait until next year.
First, some general observations:
· Louisiana legislators are clearly joining other states in attempting to craft responses to the terrorist attacks. Political haymaking should be expected, but discouraged.
· Lawmakers should put a three-year "sunset" provision -- i.e., an expiration date -- on anti-terrorism statutes and any related exceptions to Louisiana's public records and public access laws. We join the Public Affairs Research Council, the Council for a Better Louisiana and the Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper in urging lawmakers to exercise caution before enacting any exceptions to our public records laws.
· Legislators should stress that any anti-terrorism statutes also will apply to domestic terrorism. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh exploded the myth that terrorists grow exclusively on foreign soil. The history of the Ku Klux Klan provides an example of a domestic terrorist organization in our own state.
· The vulnerability of state chemical plants should concern us all. Terrorist ringleader Mohammed Atta expressed a disturbing interest in chemical plants during his flight training in Tennessee. Louisiana has one of the nation's three most densely populated chemical corridors in the Mississippi River's 100-mile stretch from Belle Chasse to St. Francisville. Many plants here have been storage sites for such deadly gases as chlorine, ammonia and phosgene.
· Lawmakers also must consider the vulnerability of Louisiana ports, which have not received the same level of scrutiny as airports and chemical plants.
We turn our attention now to specific legislation.
Sen. Dupre's SB15 proposes shielding public utilities' "vulnerability assessment" plans from state public records laws. Such plans identify populations that are at risk from an ill wind in the event of a deadly plume from individual chemical plants. Dupre wisely pulled his bill for wont of definitions and promised to bring it up later in the special session.
Lawmakers should be cautious. We do not need legislation that allows polluters to hide behind the threat of terrorism. Environmental activist Kathy Wascom has urged legislators to make sure that utilities cannot conceal information the public needs to know, such as plans to stockpile dangerous chemicals. We share her concern.
At the same time, we must not forget -- as if we ever could -- the reality of the terrorist threat. In the main, anti-terrorism legislation must weigh the public's right to know against national and regional security. As we first reported in the week after Sept. 11, some Louisiana environmentalists have admitted they were wrong to discount chemical industry fears that worst-case scenarios for plants could fall into the hands of terrorists.
Darryl Malek-Wiley, chair of the New Orleans Group Sierra Club, is one who has since reconsidered the threat of terrorism along with the potential of accidental environmental disasters. "I think everybody -- the environmentalists, the chemical industry, state governments -- we all want safer hometowns," says Malek-Wiley. He suggests that information that shouldn't be placed in open view -- such as on Web sites -- might be put in semi-private view, such as in secure reading rooms.
HB53 by Rep. Downer -- a potential candidate for governor -- also deserves careful consideration. Some of the provisions in Downer's bill seem silly -- grandstanding, to be more precise -- such as allowing district attorneys to seek the death penalty against terrorists. Terrorism already violates federal law, which calls for the death penalty, and killing more than one person already triggers the death penalty under state law. Elsewhere, we share others' concerns regarding the proper limits of government surveillance powers as well as shielding information of public interest from the public view.
In short, this is no time for industry or environmentalists to draw lines in the sand. When it comes to terrorism, we are all on the same side.
As lawmakers weigh what to keep secret and what to make public, there is one topic that must be discussed openly: community education. As Fire Chief Warren McDaniels acknowledged on Sept. 11, most Orleans Parish residents do not know how to protect themselves in the event of a deadly chemical event. We need statewide education and training for all of our residents. This extraordinary concern should not be neglected in the Legislature's extraordinary session.