Capitol Views: 'Legacy' bill heads to House floor

Capitol Views: 'Legacy' bill heads to House floor

With a new approach through a friendlier committee, oil companies succeeded today in moving legislation to the House floor that would set up a new procedure for handling so-called legacy lawsuits.

House Bill 618 by Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, passed the Civil Law Committee he chairs, marking the first legislative action on a high-stakes issue that has been negotiated for months with no fundamental agreement between the oil companies, landowners and the landowners' environmental lawyers.

Instead of changing the heavily litigated Act 312 of 2006, Abramson's bill adds an article to the Civil Code to tell courts to admit as evidence cleanup plans submitted by the state. Oil company representatives testified that the bill would lead to speedier cleanup of sites by the companies that polluted them, often decades ago, and would relieve current leaseholders of the legal uncertainty that is thwarting new drilling operations today.

In opposition, Jimmy Faircloth, attorney for the state's largest private landowner Roy O. Martin, argued, "The mechanics of what you are proposing won't work. It's not about making it work. It's about leverage."

He said oil companies could force landowners into expensive administrative pre-trial hearings and would apply massive lobbying pressure on the Department of Natural Resources to grant variances from state regulatory standards.

Abramson has introduced another bill by substitute, HB 460, that he says incorporates negotiating points of both sides into a reworking of Act 312. It also shifts responsibility for developing cleanup plans from the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Environmental Quality, which he calls a concession to landowners—but that Faircloth maintains should not be introduced at this time in the legislative debate.
Abramson said he would hold the new bill in committee for a week or two for both sides to look at it.

Meanwhile, his HB 618 could be up for debate on the House floor as early as next week.

—A bill described by both sides as a "hammer" to prohibit the state Bond Commission from approving bond financing for governments that have failed to pay final judgments for business contracts failed to make it out of committee. By an 8-8 vote, the House Ways & Means Committee did not pass out HB 1001 by its chairman Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette.

He said, "I'm asking to give business just a little bit of a hammer" for some leverage in dealing with municipalities on unpaid judgments.

"This is a hammer, a huge hammer to local government," countered Roland Dartez, director of the Police Jury Association of Louisiana, who warned that the Bond Commission would be forced to hold up projects that had nothing to do with the contracts that had not been paid for.

Faced with voting against their chairman or their local government, committee members began offering amendments to take their parishes out of the bill, which numbered 16 before Robideaux asked for an up-or-down vote on his bill without amendments. The tie vote keeps the bill in committee, but, with several members absent, it could come up again.

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