Let me say at the outset that I think the concept of one levee board is an excellent idea. That said, I have trouble with even the "purist" version of levee board reform that was introduced by Sen. Walter Boasso and supported by so many well-intentioned people -- let alone the "split decision" that was enacted into law.
Post-Katrina, people are angry, stressed-out and fed up. In such times, people often look for simple solutions, the ones that make so much sense at first glance that only a fool -- or a crook -- could question them. But the truth is, nothing is ever as easy as it looks. That's the case with levee board reform.
On both sides of the equation, the debate has seen too much emotion and not enough reason. Now that lawmakers have passed a compromise version of Boasso's proposal, and because that proposal won't become effective until Jan. 1, 2007 (if voters approve a constitutional amendment in September), this is a good time to take a step back and look at the facts.
For starters, the Boasso bill was never as pure as its backers like to portray it. While they hastened to cry "Politics!" in response to any attempt to amend the bill, the fact is politics shaped the bill from the get-go. For example, how can backers of "one levee board" for southeast Louisiana overlook the fact that Plaquemines Parish was never included? Is Plaquemines not part of southeast Louisiana? Of course it is. In fact, every hurricane that hits southeast or south central Louisiana hits Plaquemines first.
So why was Plaquemines Parish left out? The official reason is because Plaquemines has a home rule charter that governs its levee district.
Okay, and their point is ... what?
The fact is, every parish that wound up in the Boasso proposal has a home rule charter -- Orleans, St. Bernard (Boasso's home parish), St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Jefferson, St. Charles and St. John. Moreover, the Boasso plan includes a constitutional amendment, which clearly trumps any home rule charter.
The real reason Plaquemines Parish was not included was ... politics. If Plaquemines had been included in the Boasso plan over local objections, chances are its voters would turn out against the constitutional amendment next September -- and the whole plan would go down in flames. Now, if that's not a political consideration, what is?
Ditto for Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, whose voters and political establishments love their levee boards exactly as they are. Both parishes were omitted from Boasso's original plan.
Don't get me wrong, I love the concept that Boasso was pushing. And no one can question his sincerity -- or that of the Committee for 1 Greater New Orleans. My point here is that "politics" is politics, whether you're using it as a club or as a shield.
Overall, I think the bill that passed is a big improvement over what we've had. But it won't protect us from the next Katrina. Above all, let's not forget that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers caused the flood, not any of our levee boards.
So, what's the answer?
If people really want one levee board, there is a way to do it. Gov. Kathleen Blanco's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), which was enacted in the November special legislative session, offers a statewide, holistic approach to hurricane and wetlands protection. It's the agency that the Business Council trashed for being just another level of bureaucracy.
That criticism was way overstated, in my opinion, but no one challenged it at the time and it became accepted as fact. Now, months later, the facts show that CPRA is best suited to become the one true levee board. Why? Because CPRA's mission is to look at the big picture -- not just levees but also wetlands, where hurricane protection starts. Too many people have placed all their emphasis on levees. Truth is, Louisiana's coastal erosion problems leave us ever vulnerable to future storms, no matter how high we build our levees. If people really want just one levee board (and better flood protection), they should push to abolish all levee boards -- or make them purely advisory boards -- and place all management authority in CPRA.
Boasso's bill was a good start. But, if we want real reform -- and real hurricane protection -- we need to take a clear-headed, unemotional look at the facts ... and the big picture.