Senate panel backs airport *** Supporters tout potential of economic development project

Aug. 20, 2007

Despite lingering criticism of a secrecy provision, a Senate panel Thursday approved a bill aimed at improving chances for construction of a cargo airport near Donaldsonville.

The measure, House Bill 841, next faces action in the full Senate. The legislation has already passed the House.

The proposal revamps some of the powers of the Louisiana Airport Authority, which is leading the push for the airport, and would expand the panel from 27 to 30 members.

The bill stems from the longtime push to build a $4.4 billion cargo airport that spans parts of Iberville, Ascension and Assumption parishes.

Backers say it could be the biggest economic development project in state history. Opponents contend the plan enjoys little support and has failed to attract private dollars needed to make it happen.

The legislation triggered heavy criticism in the Senate Transportation Committee last week, including charges that it would put too much information off limits to the public.

The bill passed the House with a provision that would allow state records that deal with negotiations on land acquisition, planning, design, construction and leasing to remain secret until talks are concluded.

Most of that language was stripped from the bill.

However, the committee approved a new section sought by the authority that would permit an exception to the state's public records law.

It would allow the identity of a firm involved in negotiations related to airport construction, and that firm's trade secrets, to be put off limits to the public.

LAA officials said the exception is needed to prevent a company from having key information exposed to competitors in the course of talks on the Louisiana project.

Rep. Roy Quezaire, D-Donaldsonville and sponsor of the bill, said he was willing to drop most of the earlier secrecy provisions in the measure.

"We don't see any problems with it," Quezaire said of the latest version.

John Evans, president of Citizens Against Land Grabbers, asked the committee to shelve the measure.

"I believe this is just bad legislation," Evans said. "Even amended, even run through the washing machine, we think the entire bill should be done away with."

Carl Redman, executive editor of The Advocate newspaper, also criticized the revamped bill.

"We still don't like the idea of the secrecy," said Redman, who also represented the Louisiana Press Association.

Redman said language in the bill aimed at helping companies protect trade secrets needs more work. He said it could be interpreted to mean that the firms do not have to be identified.