Capitol Views: Dueling 'legacy lawsuit' bills alive in Senate

Capitol Views: Dueling 'legacy lawsuit' bills alive in Senate

On the morning after the House passed a "legacy lawsuit" bill favored by oil companies and opposed by landowners, a Senate committee today passed legislation favored by landowners and opposed by oil companies. After months of negotiations without compromise on a single bill, both sides now have measures they will try to drive through the process.

A key point of difference between House Bill 618 by Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, and Senate Bill 731 by Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, is who can authorize a variance from state regulatory standards for cleaning up contaminated oilfield sites. The House bill vests the authority within the Department of Natural Resources to come up with a feasible plan, including variances, that shall be admissible in court. The Senate bill would let up to six different state agencies review the plan, with any one of them able to object to the plan.

Landowners say Abramson's bill puts too much authority in one office, which can be unduly influenced by the oil industry. Oil companies say Allain's bill introduces more bureaucratic hurdles that will only stall the legal process more. In an odd twist, Vic Marcello, whose Carmouche firm has filed the most legacy lawsuits, opposed the Allain bill for complicating an already "bloated, overloaded procedure" and increasing costs for small landowners.

Allain's bill likely will be debated on the Senate floor next week. The fate of Abramson's bill could rest on a decision by Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, determining which committee to send it to. The author and the oil companies want it referred to Judiciary A Committee, where a similar Senate bill has been referred. The landowners want the House bill sent to Senate Natural Resources Committee, which already has over 20 legacy bills.

—With the tide of laws and culture running against them, smokers prevailed today when a Senate committee deferred a bill that would allow companies to fire or not hire individuals who smoke, even outside the workplace. SB 113 by Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, would remove a 20-year-old prohibition against companies axing employees or weeding out job seekers who refuse to give up the habit. It was pushed by Ochsner Foundation and backed by a lineup of business groups, who want the ability to monitor the workforce, including testing for nicotine, and to reduce their health care costs, which smokers drive up.

But two Republican senators, Robert Kostelka of Monroe and Barrow Peacock of Bossier City, were sympathetic to arguments from labor leaders, who said the bill would deprive workers of their livelihoods for using a legal product in their homes. Louis Reine of the AFL-CIO pointed out that exposure to second-hand smoke could cause a non-smoker to flunk a nicotine test.

Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, said he was told by an Ochsner representative that under current law, the hospital, in hiring someone to run its smoking cessation program, was unable to ask job applicants if they smoked. That opened the door for opponents to say they would agree to replacing the bill with a narrower measure applied only to those anti-smoking programs. Instead, the committee voted to defer the bill, likely killing it for the session.

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