NCSL Conference Focuses on Floods, Energy

By: - July 22, 2008 12:00 am

As state lawmakers gather in New Orleans this week for a policy conference, they’ll be reminded often of what can happen if public works are allowed to deteriorate.

About 1,000 lawmakers and 5,000 staff, policy experts and lobbyists are expected to attend the National Conference of State Legislatures’annual convention July 22-26 to discuss issues affecting their states, ranging from finding cleaner energy sources to the mortgage crisis to the federal government’s role in improving schools.

The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina nearly three years ago – and New Orleans’ rebuilding efforts – will be a hot topic of discussion. “We think New Orleans is a very appropriate place to talk about infrastructure and energy,” said Gene Rose, NCSL’s director of communications. “There’s a lot of curiosity by legislators and staff about what happened during Katrina and in the recovery.”

Those attending will get the chance to inspect Crescent City levees that failed in several places, flooding 80 percent of the city and leaving nearly 2,000 people dead. While many of the levees have been rebuilt, whether they can withstand another severe storm is still unknown, and much of the city remains abandoned.

Minnesota state officials will report to the lawmakers on their response to another deadly infrastructure failure, last year’s Minneapolis bridge collapse, which killed 13 people and shut down a major Mississippi River crossing. Experts from Asia, Germany and France will be on hand to compare foreign road and rail systems to those in the United States.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) plan to rally the legislators to support an effort to spend $1.6 trillion over five years on infrastructure. The unusual appearance by a governor at a legislative gathering is part of a campaign by Rendell, Bloomberg and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to prod the federal government to fund more construction projects.

At a meeting of the National Governors Association earlier this month, Rendell said money spent on infrastructure is at an historic low.

When Dwight D. Eisenhower was president in the 1950s, 11.5 percent of nonmilitary federal spending went for infrastructure, compared with less than 2.5 percent today, Rendell said. Other developed countries spend far more on infrastructure than the U.S., he said, and have high-speed transit systems that American motorists, who are paying $4 for a gallon of gas, would envy.

Energy policy is another top agenda item for the convention, with lawmakers’ interest fueled by record-high gas prices and growing concern about global warming. And Louisiana, as the nation’s top producer of crude oil and second-biggest producer of natural gas, has a major stake in the outcome.

Louisiana relies heavily on off-shore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, an issue that flared in June when U.S. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, called for the federal government to lift an off-shore drilling ban for coastal states outside of the Gulf Coast. Now state officials from New Jersey to Florida to California are embroiled in the debate over whether the need for new energy sources justifies the environmental risks. Shell Oil President Marvin Odum and Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Trust Fund, will debate the issue at a joint appearance at the NCSL meeting.

The legislators will also hear how presidential politics could affect their jobs. Education experts from the camps of McCain and Democratic presumptive nominee U.S. Sen. Barack Obama will argue the federal role in education policy. Democratic and Republican national committee representatives will discuss how to improve the presidential primary calendar. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) will suggest ways to make health care more affordable.

About 100 Louisiana lawmakers were expected to attend, following a backlash over raising legislative salaries from $16,800 to $37,500 a year. Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) vetoed the pay hikes after public pressure mounted.

NCSL’s incoming president, North Carolina House Speaker Joe Hackney (D), has earned plaudits for restoring confidence in his chamber, following a corruption investigation that earned his predecessor a five-year jail term. Hackney, a farmer and lawyer, just wrapped up his first two-year term as speaker.

He replaces Delaware Rep. Donna Stone, a Republican and a real estate broker, as the head of NCSL.

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