Capitol Views: Differences on 'legacy' suits aired; constitutionality of retirement age change debated

Capitol Views: Differences on 'legacy' suits aired; constitutionality of retirement age change debated

Discussions have taken place behind closed doors, in Capitol hallways and at legislative crawfish boils, but the high-stakes issue of oilfield contamination claims, or "legacy lawsuits," got its first public hearing of the session today at a meeting of the Joint Natural Resources Committee. No specific bills were considered at the information hearing, at which representatives of oil companies and attorneys for landowners laid out their differences over how to settle the mass of litigation and to clean up land and water that were polluted decades ago.

After two and a half hours, Committee Chairman Sen. Gerald Long, R-Natchitoches, urged the parties to continue trying to reach a resolution.

Both sides agree on the goal of enabling the responsible party, often a major oil company that held a lease decades ago, to accept responsibility for cleanup while allowing plaintiffs to pursue claims for damages separately. The sticking point has been industry's insistence that the Department of Natural Resources develop a cleanup plan that can be introduced as evidence in the trial for damages.

Jimmy Faircloth, attorney for landowner Roy Martin, objects because he believes that the understaffed Office of Conservation would be unduly influenced by executive lobbying to grant variances to regulatory cleanup standards. He only wants the department's report admitted if the state decides to intervene in a suit, which, industry claims, would not happen often to relieve the glut of lawsuits.

Sen. Long said that no bills would be heard in his committee until more discussions are held. Authors of other legacy bills in House Civil Law and Senate Judiciary A committees sought to have them heard this week, but they have not been scheduled.

—The first hearing on one of the governor's major retirement bills, which pushes back the age when employees can retire, focused today on the constitutionality of the change.

"I think there is a grave risk, if plaintiffs bring a lawsuit, it will result in a decision that these changes are unconstitutional," advised Gary Lawson of the Texas firm Strasberger and Price, who explained that courts in other states have ruled that "a contract is made when a job is taken."

The lawyer for the governor, Liz Murrill, said the original bill was constitutional but made stronger by a substitute bill that protects employee benefits earned so far at the current retirement eligibility date. Going forward, full benefits would be paid at the new proposed retirement age.

"Sixty years of jurisprudence say there is no vested right prior to the age of eligibility," she said.

As amended, employees who have worked 25 to 30 years can retire at 55; 20-25 years, at 58; 15-20 years, at 61; 10-15 years, at 64; less than 10 years, at 67.

Governor's Deputy Chief of Staff Kristy Nichols said the bill reduces the unfunded accrued liability, slows its growth and reduces the state's retirement costs, which currently run about $500 million per year.

The committee received a substitute for Senate Bill 51 before the meeting, which prompted a protest from Maureen Westgard of the Teachers State Retirement System. Chairman Sen. Elbert Guillory, D-Opelousas, promised her there would be ample opportunity to review the bill as it goes through the process. Westgard was not completely reassured.

"After these things get legs, they seem to get going," she said, a reference to the governor's education bills that sped through both houses in three weeks.

The debate continued as of press time, while another bill in the governor's package—to increase employee retirement contributions from 8% to 11%—was waiting on the agenda.

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