House committee allows airport panel more time

Peter Silas Pasqua
Former Gov. Mike Foster and State Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, speak on behalf of a bill that would abolish the Louisiana Airport Authority Monday at the State Capital.

Galvanized by former Gov. Mike Foster, a House committee voted to give a one-year amnesty to a state panel that has spent 16 years trying to build an airport near Donaldsonville.

The Senate voted 36-0 last month to abolish the body under scrutiny, which is the Louisiana Airport Authority, known as the LAA

The Committee on Transportation, Highways and Public Works approved amendments to Senate Bill 212 liking the fate of LAA to studies to be conducted by the Department of Economic Development on whether the proposed project is feasible.

If the studies, which must be completed by May 1, are returned favorable the board will survive. If not, the panel would be abolished on July 1, 2009.

SB 212 moves on to the full House.

Foster told the committee that he intervened because landowners in the area have gone too long without answers.

"You have an area of the state sitting there not knowing what is going to happen," Foster said. "That is not fair.

"It is a heck of a concept if it works but the reason it has got to this point where we are talking about abolishing it is because it does have to have finality to it."

Foster said the key will be the advent of foreign investors, which he said included four firms during his two terms in office.

"I was skeptical at first," Foster said. "I know that there is something real there."

Foster said the project was stymied after the 9/11 attacks and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The 25,000-acre site would cover parts of Ascension, Assumption and Iberville parishes.

Foster told the committee that Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration has assured him three times that funds for the studies will be provided.

"That is on the record," Foster said. "This is a practical way to handle it. You have to complete the studies if you are going to move forward."

Foster also said he believes it makes no sense to abolish the panel upon completion of the studies.

"It just doesn't make sense for them to fund something and do away with the group that would have to be there to administer it," Foster said. "The Department of Economic Development can't run an authority."

State Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Grosse Tete and SB212 sponsor, backs the latest version, said state Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part and handler of the bill in the committee.

The LAA has spent years trying to muster support for a $4.4 billion airport with links to water, rail and highways

Glenda Jeansonne, executive director of the LAA, said it would cost the state about $900,000 to finish studies needed for a final decision. Jeansonne said initial studies have cost $1.06 million.

The bill would require reports that, spell out key needs to make the airport successful, outline financial, marketing and other issues and recommend whether the airport is feasible.

Marionneaux has said the state has spent more than $7 million for studies, operating costs and other expenses without making any final decisions.

"This has been a long thought process," St. Germain said. "We think we have a great compromise. I think we need to take that property and make sure that we do something with it."

St. Germain and state Rep. Elton Aubert, D - Vacherie districts lie within in the site and both believe the project would be an economic boost for the area.

"I think it is time we take the bull by the horns and make it work," Aubert said.

The amendment would also shrink the panel from 27 members to 11 concentrating on the members to the area of the proposed site.

Opponents of the project, Anthony Marino, Metro Airport Aviation director and George Woods, a lobbyist representing Citizens Against Landgrabbers Inc. said they want the amendment to specify consultants conducting the studies have no vested interest in the project suggesting it be bidded.

"We spend a lot of money trying to keep the project alive when two studies have already said it is not feasible," Wood said. "No more after this one."

Jeansonne said Foster made his presence on his own account.

"I did not call Gov. Foster," Jeansonne said. "He called me."

Although Jeansonne admitted the panel will be more manageable with a smaller body she said she will regret the loss.

"I hate losing my commissioners," Jeansonne said. "I don't like the regionalism of the board because we represent the state of Louisiana."

One commissioner who will no longer sit on the panel is Roy Gross of St. Bernard Parish.

"I understand the project and now they are going to start with a new board," Gross said. "It is a difficult task."

Former Gov. Mike Foster, State Rep. Elton Aubert, D-Vacherie and State Sen. Rob Marrionneaux, D-Grosse Tete, discuss amendments to a bill that would abolish the Louisiana Airport Authority.