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Jason Leopold: The President’s Priorities

The President’s Priorities: State of Marriage Took Precedence over State of Louisiana


By Jason Leopold

Why is President Bush more concerned with the state of marriage than the state of Louisiana?

That’s what the New Orleans City Business paper asked in early February, a couple of weeks after Bush’s State of the Union address, in which the president called for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages, upon learning that Bush’s budget proposal recommended slashing $34 million from the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, leaving the city with a $581 million shortfall for flood control and coastal erosion improvement projects.

Despite more than four hurricanes that have whipped through New Orleans since 2002, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, and personal pleas to the president by Louisiana’s local and state officials to provide much needed funding to rebuild the state’s rapidly disappearing wetlands, the Bush administration declined, shifting its priorities—and federal funds—into its foreign policy initiatives.

Bush said Thursday no one expected the levees in New Orleans to break after Hurricane Katrina. There were warnings.

“Coastal erosion [is] swallowing Louisiana whole at a rate of a football field every 30 minutes,” said the Feb. 14, 2005 story in New Orleans City Business.

The erosion has a direct impact on New Orleans' ability to absorb the blow of a storm like [Hurricane] Katrina. For every 2.7 miles of wetlands, storm surges are reduced by about one foot, said Sidney Coffee, executive assistant to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, in charge of coastal activities, in an interview with MSNBC.

About 1,900 square miles of wetlands have disappeared from the area since the 1930s, and the receding continues at a rate of about 24 square miles per year. Most of the erosion in Louisiana is blamed on the levees, which faithfully steer all the water from the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico. That prevents occasional flooding, keeping area residents above water most of the time. But one unforeseen consequence of the levees has been to cut off wetlands from their life force.

“How is losing vast tracts of valuable state property less important than the nebulous goal of somehow trying to restrict immigration?” the New Orleans paper asked.

Bush’s domestic priorities were dwarfed by the war in Iraq and the so-called war on terror.

The lack of federal funding became so dire that last November Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, at the urging of Louisiana levee districts, considered suing the federal government for a larger share of the $5 billion in royalties from offshore oil and natural gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico just so the state could pay for the work needed to repair its deteriorating coast.

A lawsuit, the levee district said, would grab the nation’s attention and advance the issue of coastal restoration in the federal court system as opposed to being bogged down in legislation on Capitol Hill. The money from the Gulf of Mexico is, after income the Internal Revenue Service brings in, the second largest source of revenue for the federal government.

Blanco said that every year state officials plead with lawmakers to fund ongoing projects to preserve what’s left of the coast and to help fund other endeavors to replace what’s no longer there. Yet every year the state is shortchanged which threatens the very existence of historic cities like New Orleans.

Lawmakers included the proposal in the national energy bill. The legislation called for carving out $540 million—a 10 percent—royalty from oil and gas revenue at the Gulf of Mexico on top of the $800 million or so Louisiana already receives from drilling revenues to fund the coastal restoration project. In June, the Bush administration took the unusual step of sending a letter to House and Senate negotiators advising them to kill the revenue- sharing plan in the final version of the energy bill. It was.

New Orleans resident David Morris was none too happy when he got the news, particularly because a majority of Louisianans voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004.

President Bush has just told Louisiana to go jump in the Gulf,” Morris wrote in a June 17, letter to the Times-Picayune. “This is our president, Louisiana. We helped him win his second term in office, and this is how he thanks us. Our dwindling coastline just isn't Bush's concern. Nor is the prospect of New Orleans under 20 feet water.”

*************

© 2005 Jason Leopold

Jason Leopold is the author of the explosive memoir, News Junkie, to be released in the spring of 2006 by Process/Feral House Books. Visit Leopold's website at www.jasonleopold.com for updates.

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