Local legislators discuss Vidalia Port funding, Common Core and other issues

Published 12:03 am Sunday, May 11, 2014

VIDALIA — While members of Concordia Parish’s legislative delegation say they have closely followed discussions of Common Core, drilling law and farm drones thus far, they’ll be watching the budget and appropriations bills in the last few weeks of the session.

The session started March 10 and will close June 2.

Included in House Bill 2, the proposed appropriations bill is approximately $9.9 million for the Vidalia Port project, $6.9 million of which is considered priority 1, which means it will be immediately available. Three million dollars of that amount is labeled as priority 5, which is the lowest priority.

Email newsletter signup

Some of the priority 1 money has already been awarded, but the legislature still has to approve $1.9 million of it before it becomes available.

Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland said when the funds become available, they will be used to further develop roads and extract dirt to form the slackwater slip in the port project.

The goal of the port is to serve agricultural interests in the parish and the Vidalia Industrial Park. The project was under development for 20 years, and construction has been creeping forward in recent years.

Rep. Andy Anders, D – Clayton, said as the budget and appropriations come up, he has two appropriations he’ll fight especially hard for passage, the Vidalia Port appropriation and $1.5 million in priority 5 funding for the Lake Providence Port Commission to rehabilitate some of its rail connections.

“We can send anything we want in that bill over to the Senate, but until it comes back from the Senate, that is when the scratching starts,” Anders said.

House Bill 2 is scheduled for committee consideration Monday before it heads to the floor for a vote.

“It will be a matter of — in the next month — making sure what I have put in stays in and really getting my point across,” Anders said.

Copeland said he has been communicating with the area’s delegation in the Senate — Senators Neil Riser, R-Columbia, and Francis Thompson, D-Delhi — about the port appropriation and how much money is moved into priority 1.

“After communicating with our people in the Senate, hopefully there will be some tweaking from the House to the Senate in terms of amount of money that is coming to us,” Copeland said.

Riser said the port appropriation should make it through the Senate without too much trouble.

“The port will continue to move forward,” Riser said. “We have people in Concordia and Catahoula Parish — and the Natchez area — who that is going to be an economic driver for.”

But Riser said while the state will focus on big projects as the budgeting and appropriations process moves forward, he will be watching out for smaller appropriations in his district as well.

“Sometimes you see these huge projects come through, but in Clayton they need $15,000 for computers, because right now they’re still doing things with a typewriter,” Riser said. “It is hard for people in Baton Rouge and New Orleans to comprehend that we live in an area where little things like that still matter.”

That was a sentiment Anders echoed, saying, “In some of these small towns, $1,500 to them is like $150,000 in New Orleans.”

Anders said through this year’s legislative session, he has been able to develop the best relationship he’s ever had with the governor’s staff, and has used that to promote the needs of the area.

“I communicated with the governor’s staff yesterday, and though a lot can change overnight with the legislature, I am going to stand for the needs of my district,” he said.

Common Core

Anders and Riser both noted that discussions of the Common Core education standards dominated — sometimes heatedly — earlier portions of the session.

The Common Core initiative is a set of standards voluntarily adopted by 44 states in an effort to promote a continuity of educational standards across state lines. The National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers adopted Common Core standards.

The standards themselves and how they have been implemented — the implementation is state and locally led — has been controversial to some as new classroom methods and accountability standards have been introduced.

Riser said he has openly opposed Common Core.

“I think less government is better, and I think it is more Big Brother getting into our lives and telling us what to do,” he said.

“I think local people know best how to educate their children, and I believe the local teacher knows those children and the best way to address their needs.”

Riser said he believes the standards will ultimately result in more federal involvement and more bureaucracy in general in the educational system.

“Teachers don’t have time to do their job doing paperwork that is mandated as we speak, and we don’t want to mandate more on them than they already have.”

Anders said he wasn’t in agreement with some of the evaluation methods attached to the standards, but he’s also been listening to the five superintendents of schools in his district before forming a final opinion.

“I think it was all in how they wanted to enforce it that has been what has gotten people worked up,” Anders said. “Most of the ones who were dead against it, once they went and listened to what it was about, they weren’t. It was just the kind of way the teachers were pushed into it that really caused the problem.”

Other issues

Riser said he was glad to see bills move forward this session that clarified what types of damages can be recovered in oil and gas drilling legacy lawsuits.

Legacy lawsuits are petitions filed by landowners against drilling operations that may have caused damage to a property years before.

“We have had people not wanting to drill inland because of these legacy lawsuits, and we have a lot of land drilling in my district,” Riser said. “They were not wanting to drill because they couldn’t get clarification on getting sued, and it was impeding and slowing down inland drilling.

“Hopefully that will free it all up, and we will be able to start doing more drilling and get more people to work. Agriculture and oil drilling pretty much drive the economy in the 32nd district.”

Anders said he’s looking forward to a discussion prompted by a Senate concurrent resolution that formed a study group to investigate what regulation farm drones might need.

“With the new technology, you can have a drone fly from Natchez to my farm (in Clayton) and see if my water well is running,” Anders said. “We are trying to get a little forethought on what we are getting into, because there are a lot of uses (for drones).”

Thompson did not return a request for comment about the session.