Last Modified: Monday, February 17, 2014 10:41 AM
Special to the American Press
BATON ROUGE — A statewide coalition of churches and community groups gathered here Saturday to build momentum for a series of grassroots reforms they plan to push in the legislative session, which begins March 2.
Some 400 people packed Shiloh Baptist Church for the “issues conference” organized by Together Louisiana, a nonprofit advocacy group composed of churches and community groups in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and northern parts of the state. Group leaders said they plan to reach out to Southwest Louisiana clergy and community leaders over the next month.
The group’s leaders said they plan to push for expanded Medicaid coverage and crackdowns on the payday loan industry and fight an oil industry effort to quash recent lawsuits filed by a southeast Louisiana levee board and some coastal parishes over the industry’s impact on coastal wetlands.
Together Louisiana — which claims to represent more than 150,000 people — bills itself as a grassroots counter to the business and industry lobbies, which exert considerable influence in the Legislature. “We cannot outspend them, and we will not try,” said group leader Edgar Pagwe. “What we can do, and will do, is outwork them.”
Since expanding its lobbying efforts in 2013, Together Louisiana has raised its profile and influence at the state Capitol. The group played a leading role in opposing Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposal last year to eliminate the state income tax and increase sales taxes. Jindal withdrew the plan before last year’s legislative session began amid opposition from a variety of groups, including a coalition of churches affiliated with Together Louisiana.
At Saturday’s conference, attendees broke up into “civic academies” featuring expert speakers on topics ranging from higher education funding to economic inequality.
Among them was David Hood, who served as secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals under the Foster administration. Hood has been a vocal advocate for expanding the state’s Medicaid program for the poor and uninsured. Jindal has refused to take advantage of expanded Medicaid coverage available to states under the Affordable Care Act, arguing that it would cost the state too much and create a culture of dependency on government.
Hood acknowledged that supporters of the Medicaid expansion face an uphill battle in the Legislature because of Jindal’s opposition, but he said it was important to keep pushing the issue.
“My message is that we’ve got to stay in the ring and fight it out,” Hood said. “We’re not going to give up, even though the odds look pretty bad. But you never know what could happen.”
Another discussion group featured author John Barry, who has led the effort to sue oil, gas and pipeline companies for the oil and gas industry’s impact to coastal wetlands.
Barry said state and federal research has determined that oil industry canals carved throughout the state’s coastline have led to saltwater intrusion in freshwater marshes and accelerated coastal land loss. Barry and his group, Restore Louisiana Now, argue that oil and gas companies should be required to repair damage to coastal wetlands caused over the years by the canals and other industry work.
Barry said he expects the oil and gas industry to fight the lawsuit through tort reform legislation, rather than the court system — a move he argued would eliminate the only recourse local governments and levee boards have to recover damages for the lost wetlands.
“The only balance that people have against money and power is the court system,” Barry said.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who garnered international recognition for his recovery work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, used his keynote speech at Saturday’s conference to highlight a number of environmental initiatives his Green Army advocacy group plans to tout in the legislative session.
Honore said Green Army is calling for stricter regulations for salt domes, faster cleanups of abandoned oil wells, and enhanced protections for aquifers that provide drinking water for communities across the state.
In his typically fiery style, Honore criticized lawmakers and urged conference attendees to action for the upcoming legislative session. “We’ve got a legislative body that doesn’t look out for the people,” he said. “They look out for themselves. It’s going to take citizens like you to take actions.”