By Dan Boudreaux Staff Writer
State Sens. Bret Allain and Norby Chabert and state Reps. Beryl Amedee and Jerome Zeringue spoke Tuesday at the Houma Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce luncheon about what they accomplished for the region during this spring’s fiscal and special sessions.
Some of the key points the lawmakers mentioned were fully paying for TOPS, passing criminal justice reform and approving coastal protection and restoration projects. Amedee spoke about reforms needed to education and other key parts of the state’s budget. She also announced that 20 projects have been included in the state’s budget for Terrebonne Parish.
“Terrebonne Parish has 20 projects included in the capital outlay bill. Eighteen of them are Terrebonne specific and two of them are shared with other parishes,” Amedee said. “There are $75 million in projects for Terrebonne Parish, and $27 million of those are potentially going to be funded.”
Amedee also warned about next year’s $1.2 billion fiscal cliff that will arrive with the expiration of the temporary 1-cent sales tax, but she said Louisiana’s economy has officially plateaued, which could lead to recovery in the future.
Zeringue spoke about criminal justice reforms, the fiscal cliff and higher education as well. He said that although TOPS has been paid for this year, it cannot be sustained in its current form.
“TOPS is fully funded, but we recognize that we cannot continue to sustain TOPS the way it is right now,” Zeringue said. “We’d love to keep it. I have a son in college, so I’d love for it to be there as well, but the reality is that we can’t afford to sustain the program as it is.”
Zeringue said that was why a resolution was passed getting a task force to look at TOPS’s history and its relationship to tuition and fees and find a way to ensure the program’s viability into the future.
Allain focused on the major projects passed to protect the area from coastal erosion and flooding, especially the new $80 million flood control structure that he said should be operational some time in late 2019 or early 2020.
“This year we came real close to a real disaster. The river was high. If we would mix that high water mark with high storm surge that could have come from Cindy, you may have seen an increase of at least 7 to 8 feet of water in Gibson, Bayou Black and all of lower St. Martin,” Allain said. “Over 5,000 could have been affected by that.”
Allain said the new project will be a barge-like structure that can be filled with water to sink it and act as a barrier against the water and then pumped out so it can float when not needed. He said it will be similar to the Bubba Dove floodgate that is in use.
Chabert spoke about coastal projects, but he said the session was a failure. He said that was because the state’s tax collection and credit system is broken and will always lead to shortfalls and budget deficits if it is not fixed.
“The way we structurally collect taxes and give away credits and exemptions is fundamentally, completely, utterly and totally broken in this state, and we did zero to address that,” Chabert said. “Until we address that, the legislative sessions are a failure because we’re going to find ourselves in this perpetual fire drill of going through boom and bust cycles.”
Zeringue said a state constitutional convention is the only way to fix the state’s financial problems.
Members of the chamber asked if a petition would help to bring about a constitutional convention. Amedee said that could work, but she also urged anyone wanting to start a petition to make sure it was asking for a limited, fiscal constitutional convention because, she said, the state’s problems are fiscal, not social.