By Kyle Barnett
A bill supported by the oil and gas industry that would change the way legacy lawsuits are handled is being "held hostage," according to one of its staunchest supporters.
"(A) similar bill was already assigned to Judiciary A, so rightly it should go there," said Don Briggs, President of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association. "However, they have been saying that it was going to go to the Senate Natural Resources Committee and die very quickly."
HB618, sponsored by Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, passed the House and moved to the Senate on April 26, but it has yet to be assigned to a committee.
"The debate is will it go to Natural Resources or will it go to Judiciary A, or where it should go?" said Briggs.
The issue pits landowners and trial attorneys against the oil and gas industry over how cleanup of environmental damage from oil drilling years ago should be handled.
Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, is in charge of committee assignments.
Alario, who was Governor Bobby Jindal's pick for Senate President, was a Democrat until changing his party affiliation in 2010. Alario formerly served as the state's Speaker of the House for two terms under Democrat Governor Edwin Edwards who was recently released from prison. (Edwards was sentenced to 10 years in prison on racketeering charges in 2001).
Briggs said part of the reason for the hold-up has been renewed talks of compromise, but the end is still not yet in sight.
"They are trying to see if they can make something like that work so maybe they are going to hold it there until that happens," he said. "We have been negotiating for a very long time and consequently we are always very hopeful something can happen."
Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, passed a competing measure out of the Senate Natural Resources Committee last week. The bill, now know as SB760, was seen as a last minute attempt by landowners to combat the successful HB618.
U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who has harshly criticized Jindal for not providing leadership in the high stakes legacy lawsuit issue, lashed out over tactics that may derail HB618.
"I've urged the Governor and members of both bodies to support Rep. Abramson's bill, and not allow them to do the trial lawyer's dirty work by running out the session clock, or worse yet, by passing other provisions that actually expand the lawsuit bonanza - like Sen. Allain's bill," Vitter said.
"For instance, Allain's bill doesn't affect the more than 250 existing lawsuits."
Briggs said Allain's bill, SB760, is not salvageable and should a compromise be struck, a new bill that includes the reforms of HB618 would have to be drafted.
"It can be put into a compromise bill, but as far as taking HB618 and changing the language and changing the purpose of it is non-negotiable," Briggs said. "[Allain's bill] is totally unacceptable. It doesn't even catch all the current lawsuits."
If any reform is to occur it must happen before session adjourns on June 4.