Behind the committee table ready to testify is a balding Cajun hell-bent on nickel-and-diming the state for every levee, floodgate and canal lock its coffers can support. He's an old-school Democrat, mais cher, a staple of the south Louisiana courthouse gang that still carries on breathlessly in French over endless cups of Community Coffee.
Terrebonne Parish Sen. Reggie Dupre tells the Senate Finance Committee that he was coastally aware "before coastal was even cool," which is true. He was the Senate's first coastal floor leader under former Gov. Mike Foster, strapping life preservers on his portly frame during speeches about land loss. Today, he does the same for Kathleen Blanco, only without the orange jacket and in a slimmer form, having shed several suit sizes thanks to recent gastric-bypass surgery.
As he has done every year since he was first elected in 1996, Dupre is pushing a set of bills during the current session that diverts dollars from existing destinations to shore up the coast. One measure creates the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Financing Corporation, which could borrow about $500,000 immediately against an expected increase in oil and gas royalties. Another bill would slowly boost the annually dedicated $25 million from mineral resources for coastal activities by siphoning some cash away from road programs.
"I know all of that sounds like a lot of money," Dupre tells the committee with a smile, "but remember that the (state's coastal master plan) is $50 billion or $60 billion."
Directly across from Dupre sits a glaring Sen. Joe McPherson, a profoundly mustachioed Democrat from Rapides Parish who is ready to pounce. A successful businessman back home in Woodworth, McPherson is a stickler for numbers. He also has a military presence he isn't afraid to use. Lately, McPherson has been bearing down on Dupre's funding proposals -- the money, not the concept -- arguing north Louisiana isn't getting a fair shake.
"You always take the cream off the top for coastal restoration," he barks at Dupre in his Mayberry twang. "You should be able to build a wall around Montegut with all the money you got. You're not giving up."
The issues that traditionally have set lawmakers from the piney woods north of Highway 190 against those from the swamps and bayous in the state's southern regions constitute a timeless set of political rivalries: Protestants in the north versus Catholics in the south; conservatives versus liberals; urban versus rural; and on and on. Entire chapters of history books have been written on such political feuds, but they tend to play out differently for each succeeding generation. In the wake of the 2005 hurricane season, the schism has manifested itself in matters of coastal restoration, construction and insurance relief.
With the state seemingly no closer to recovery than it was two years ago, the animosity could grow worse before it gets better. It doesn't take much; the two sections of the state were never much in synch anyway. Upstate lawmakers never really bought into the notion of a recovery over the long haul, and some coastal lawmakers were clueless last week when dozens of Shreveport residents stormed the Capitol to rally for I-49's northern reaches. Until then, the south Louisiana lawmakers were only tracking the southern portion. Likewise, northerners asked few if any questions during hearings on the state's landmark plan for the coast. Even Blanco admits the levels of enmity and ignorance are troubling and that and divisions could grow increasingly bitter. "There's always that possibility, but that's why I pay attention to the needs of north Louisiana," Blanco says, adding that northern priorities hold as much weight on her desk as those of her native Acadiana.
The territorial grudge match resurfaced again when both chambers of the Legislature voted on bills to ease the burden caused by ever-increasing insurance rates, especially for hurricane-prone parishes. House Bill 962 by Rep. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat, proposes to cut the rates the Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp. charges to policyholders in parishes where a majority of residents use the state-run insurer of last resort. In short, there would be very little relief for residents north of Baton Rouge. "People in north Louisiana, which no one seems to care about, are paying higher rates than anyone," argues Rep. Rick Farrar, a Pineville Democrat.
Meanwhile, Senate Bill 242 by Sen. Walter Boasso, D-Arabi, would establish $500 million in refundable tax credits aimed at residents and businesses still recovering from the 2005 hurricane season, or those forever preparing for the next disaster. Some worry the bill will position Citizens to become more competitive with pure-market insurers, forcing up rates for parishes with fewer policyholders. "(The legislation) is an incentive to get more and more with Citizens," says Rep. Kay Kellogg Katz, a Monroe Republican.
On the community level, where sentiment becomes action, Dr. Jeffrey D. Sadow, an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University in Shreveport, says, "barely anyone up here even knows all those different bills are out there," but voters in the region are scrutinizing funding for roads and highways. There has also been a bit of grumbling amongst local officials, he says, over the state's new building codes, which impose stricter guidelines on most parishes, whether they border Texas or the Gulf of Mexico. "'Why should we have to pay for everyone else?' is one of the questions I hear," Sadow says.
Could that sentiment snowball and wipe out pet projects in all corners of the state? Sadow fears it might: "When all is said and done in the coming weeks and the session is over, if there's a perception that nothing was done on I-49 or anything else, that is something that could very well turn into an election issue this cycle."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.
- Karron Clark
- Terrebonne Parish Sen. Reggie Dupre fights for every available dollar for coastal restoration projects.