A busy year is in store for state lawmakers, with issues ranging from redistricting to transportation and juvenile justice, according to state Sen. Rick Ward.
A three-week special session in February will focus on redistricting. It will mark Ward’s first foray into the process, which takes place every 10 years.
Ward, R-Port Allen, does not expect much change in the boundaries of his district
There’s been a little shift around in population, but we haven’t had the major population shifts other regions have had.
District 17 spans Acadiana and the Florida Parishes, including all of East Feliciana and Pointe Coupee Parishes and parts of Assumption, East Baton Rouge, Iberville, St. Helena, St. Martin, West Baton Rouge, and West Feliciana Parishes.
While some parishes, including Iberville and Pointe Coupee, saw decreases in population, the growth in West Baton Rouge compensates for those losses, Ward said.
“For District 17, we can tweak some things here and there and keep it looking pretty close to what it is now,” he said.
It’s far from the only issue he will face this spring.
As head of the Senate Transportation, Highways & Public Works Committee, the ongoing discussions for a new Mississippi River Bridge will likely consume a big portion of his agenda during the 2022 session, which begins in March.
Last month, three sites the state Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) previously eliminated found their way back on the list of where a new bridge may be built south of the Intracoastal Waterway in Port Allen and north of the Sunshine Bridge near Donaldsonville.
The pace of the project fueled frustration for Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso, along with his West Baton Rouge Parish counterpart, Riley “Pee Wee” Berthelot.
Ward said he is confident the project will see some forward motion within the two years.
“On the federal side of things, they wouldn’t allow us to adopt a plan based on where the studies have left off, so they had to go back and start at the beginning,” he said. “Even though they have a decent idea of what it will narrow down they’re making them go through the due process.”
By summertime, the DOTD will likely narrow down its choices to three locations, Ward said.
“All that is fine because any money to actually start the project wouldn’t be available until 2023,” he said.
Ward said he plans to focus much of his time on how to improve the state’s infrastructure issues.
As with other challenges that face the state, progress will hinge on funding.
“I see that there will not just be an opportunity to continue what we did last year and add a few dollars to it,” he said. “To draw down on the federal infrastructure package that was passed for that $200 million extra a year for five years, we will need an extra $50 million a year to draw those dollars down.”
Lawmakers could expect a tougher battle on how to curb juvenile crime, which has spiked in most areas across Louisiana.
The cost of housing underage offenders in juvenile detention centers – along with the lack of available space at those facilities – has made it difficult to get a firm grip on those offenders, Ward said.
“We’ve got to figure out some mechanism to do something other than make an arrest and assume there’s nowhere to hold them,” he said. “Right now, they put an ankle monitor on them and send them back out to do whatever they’ve been doing, and a lot of that has to do with how it’s funded.
“They can pick them up put then in an ankle bracelet, but the youth who are arrested know there’s almost nothing they can do that will land them into jail for any amount of time on the front end, so they’re completely emboldened to going back out in the public and doing what they were doing, he said.
Ward believes some adults have caught on to the scenario.
“They’re using the juveniles to send them into doing things because everyone knows there won’t be any short-term consequences for doing that,” he said.
Ward also expects lawmakers to address issues with insurance companies who have lagged on their payment to homeowners after natural disasters.
“There will be issues on insurance and recovery, and the lack of response after the hurricanes,” he said. “People have been strung out for months and months trying to get their insurance carrier to cover damage to homes.”
An insurance company’s slow response and/or outright refusal to pay out damage claims leaves little hope for the homeowner, Ward said.
“If you had it covered and they’re refusing to pay, FEMA won’t help if you’re insured, so you’re left in a bad spot,” he said. “That’s something we will look at collectively.”