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Houston Chronicle

Louisiana votes on new levee boards

Ballot proposal would combine 10 panels into 2 and set qualifications for their members

Sept. 29, 2006

By DOUG SIMPSON, Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana voters this weekend will decide the fate of the New Orleans area's levee boards, the groups widely accused of patronage, incompetence and failure to inspect the flood protection structures that allowed Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters to inundate the city.

Appearing on today's ballots will be a proposal to dissolve the boards, made up of political appointees who often have no expertise in flood protection or hydrology.

The boards are responsible for levee upkeep and inspections, but critics say they've become distracted with other projects: The board in New Orleans leased land to a riverboat casino and also runs marinas, an airport and a police force.

Also on the ballot: a bitter election between two Republicans running for state insurance commissioner; the race for secretary of state, with three major candidates; and another 12 constitutional amendments, dealing with topics including judges' qualifications, eminent domain and funding for coastal restoration.

Amendment No. 3
Supporters of the levee measure — constitutional amendment No. 3 on the ballot — say its passage would signal to the nation that Louisiana is improving its flood protection, not relying solely on the federal government, and moving away from its history of cronyism and corruption.

"It is an issue I hear about up here on a regular basis," U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said Friday, in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. "I think it absolutely builds credibility and support up here, when Louisiana takes on these important reform measures."

State Sen. Walter Boasso, R-Chalmette, fought to dissolve the 10 boards by proposing a change to the state constitution that would merge them into two, one for each bank of the Mississippi River. The measure would require that the new boards' members have broad expertise in engineering, geology and hydrology.

The measure attracted no active opposition in the weeks running up to today's vote.

State lawmakers from the New Orleans area tried to block it in the Legislature, arguing that the existing boards must be allowed to finish the million-dollar flood-protection projects that are under way.

To take effect, the measure needs support from more than 50 percent of Louisiana voters today.

With few high-profile races, Secretary of State Al Ater has predicted that voter turnout could be as low as 25 percent.

"The level of interest is particularly lower. I think in some sense the level of interest is lower perhaps than even the turnout will be," said Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.

Insurance commissioner
In the insurance race, voters are choosing a commissioner to serve the final year of the term of Robert Wooley, who resigned months ago. James Donelon, who as Wooley's chief assistant took the position until the election, faces state Sen. James David Cain of Dry Creek.

The Cain-Donelon race has become a series of nasty attacks against each other and allegations of wrongdoing on both sides.

Secretary of state
The three major candidates running for secretary of state are Mike Francis, a Republican businessman from Crowley; and state Sens. Jay Dardenne, R-Baton Rouge, and Francis Heitmeier, D-New Orleans.

The election will fill the position left open with the death of Fox McKeithen, who died in July 2005. McKeithen resigned a day before his death, moving his first assistant, Ater, into the job.

Ater chose not to seek election to the position, saying it should be appointed, not elected.


September 2006