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White House Budget for Levee Work Riles Many Louisiana Elected Officials

Tue February 12, 2008 - Southeast Edition

NEW ORLEANS (AP) A Bush administration request for Louisiana to pay a share of the multibillion-dollar cost to bolster levees to prevent another Hurricane Katrina-style disaster has upset state leaders, even as Louisiana sits on a $1.1 billion surplus.

Since Katrina struck in August 2005, the federal government has picked up the tab for $3.5 billion in repairs and upgrades to southeast Louisiana’s levee system.

In the president’s budget proposal for 2009, however, the state is asked to pay about $1.5 billion of an estimated $7.2 billion in new funding for Army Corps of Engineers levee work.

Bush’s budget, which amounts to a recommendation to Congress, must be submitted by early February. Congress has power over spending and draws up its own budget, typically approved by April 15. Allocating funds for 2009 will take place toward the end of 2008.

Louisiana leaders are balking at the president’s request despite the state’s $1 billion-plus surplus. Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal has not specified how he wants to spend the money and wants legislators to meet in a special session to divvy it up.

The funding squabble could delay work to upgrade levees and drainage systems. Corps projects have a long history of stalling because of funding problems on the federal and local levels.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., called the Bush budget proposal “too onerous for Louisiana, which is still reeling from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.”

“It’s long past time to stop playing bureaucratic financial games and start turning dirt,” Landrieu said.

Since Katrina, the Corps has rebuilt most damaged levees and strengthened many sections. Many independent experts, however, say New Orleans remains underprotected.

Bush wants the state to pay for work approved but not funded before Katrina struck. Those costs were split, with the state paying between 25 percent and 30 percent.

Last August, though, the White House proposed increasing the state’s share to 35 percent. That is in line with “the standard cost share required for all Corps of Engineers flood and storm damage projects nationwide,” said Donald Powell, head of the federal Office of Gulf Coast Rebuilding.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said “the feds can’t demand a tougher cost share now.”

Vitter also questioned the government’s proposal to seek the funding in the 2009 budget cycle.

“There is absolutely no way we can meet current construction deadlines doing this,” Vitter said.

Powell said the White House has been generous with Louisiana. He said 88 percent of the funding for post-Katrina levee work would be federally paid and that Louisiana is being given the “longest deferral period possible.” Under the Bush plan, the state would not have to pay its share for one year.

Powell said Bush’s plan “prioritizes hurricane protection for this area, consistent with the president’s commitment, while maintaining fiscal responsibility and local partnership on the management of these projects.”

Ivor van Heerden, a Louisiana State University levee expert, said the White House is “acting the way it did pre-Katrina” by not making levee work an urgent priority.

He said Louisiana should not pay anything because saving New Orleans and its oil infrastructure and port system are “a national issue” jeopardized by bad federal policies that led to the destruction of buffer-zone wetlands and exposed the city to flooding from hurricanes.

David Bindewald, an engineer overseeing work on the city’s western flank, said he needs the state and feds to find the money to keep up the steady pace of long-overdue levee work.

“If we lose our momentum, it’s just like a football team: It’s tough to get it back,” Bindewald said. “West Bank projects began in the mid-80s, and we’re still working on closing gaps. That’s 20 years right there. We’re hoping to do all that work in the next four to five years.”

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