Vitter covers wide range of topics at Gonzales town hall meeting

Lisa Yates

U.S. Sen. David Vitter said he spends the majority of his time in Washington pushing back an onslaught of over-regulation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

As the top Republican on the Environmental and Public Works Committee, Vitter said this is important work for Louisiana's economy.

"That obviously impacts a lot of industry in Louisiana, starting with the chemical industry," he said.

Vitter highlighted his battle with the EPA Thursday afternoon during a town hall meeting held at the Ascension Chamber Commerce building in Gonzales. During the meeting, the senator also covered a wide-range of issues talking to an audience of business and community leaders and answering their questions.

The EPA has a transparency problem, according to Vitter.

"This has to do with illegal emails," he said. "The EPA is hiding information the public has a right to know."

Vitter said that administrators within the EPA have been using private email accounts – aliases - to communicate with outside liberal groups. He suggested the EPA was coordinating with these groups, filing lawsuits that ended in settlements.

"The plaintiff's and the defendants were really on the same side," he said. "Nobody was truly representing the other side – the side of industry."

The senator said he has been spending his time on a lot of these types of issues which are threatening to strangle business, and leave a negative impact on the economy as a whole.

Another priority of his has been working to pressure the Obama administration to commit more funding from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for maintaining shipping channels.

Deep-draft channels in the Mississippi River aren't being maintained to authorized depths, according to Vitter.

"This forces ships to short-load, which is an increase tax on commerce," he said. "This is not acceptable."

Vitter said he has made progress on a new water resources bill needed to pass the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.

"I've developed a good working relationship with Senator Barbara Boxer of California," he said.

Boxer, D-Calif, is the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The two senators have worked together successfully on this important project for the state. Vitter said that's because strengthening the nation's infrastructure tends to be a non-partisan issue which crosses party lines.

"We're still working on the highway project," he said.

Vitter was asked to respond to the following statement by Gregory DiLoreto, president of American Society of Civil Engineers, on Aug. 5:

"ASCE's recent economic studies found that if the nation continues to invest at the same meager levels in infrastructure, we will see a drop of $3.1 trillion in GDP by 2020 due to the ripple effect deficient infrastructure has on our nation's economy."

Vitter responded, "He's right."

As a conservative, Vitter said he thinks the nation is spending too much at the federal level. He added infrastructure projects are unique and more needs to be done for infrastructure.

"At it's core, this a national defense issue," he said.

Vitter added he would like to overhaul the gas tax and replace it with something more fair to middle class families.

A series of recent plant explosions also raised questions about the safety of the nation's aging pipeline system.

Vitter acknowledged there have been recent safety incidents in Ascension Parish.

"In general, the infrastructure is adequate," he said. "There are safety plans in place, but the challenge is in the execution."

Ascension Parish Tax Assessor Mert Smiley wanted an update to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

Vitter said that Craig Fugate, administrator of FEMA, will testify at the U.S. Senate Banking Committee hearing regarding the potentially drastic increases to flood insurance premiums under NFIP.

"Some rates could go up, with increases from $600 a year to $125,000 per year," he said. "This could put middle class families out of their houses."

He said the hearing will likely be on Sept. 18.

A business owner in the audience spoke to Vitter concerning the Affordable Care Act, commonly called ObamaCare. She estimated her business would see between a nine to 13 percent increase to cover 15 employees.

"That's not by accident; that's by design," Vitter answered.

He said ObamaCare is designed to drive more people to government-driven health care insurance.

"Delay, repeal, stop, or defund it – I'm for whatever works," Vitter said, when asked what could be done about the new law.

Since the Supreme Court recently upheld Obama's health care law, Vitter said it would not be an easy battle. He said it would likely take one or two more elections before anything could be done to change things.

"The 2014 Midterm Elections are very important," he said. "We need a net pick up of six seats – one in Louisiana."

Vitter said an effort to unseat democratic senator Mary Landrieu would be difficult, but not impossible.

"Mary is a tough candidate," he said.

Some other questions at the meeting centered around energy production, including a question about coal.

A member of the audience suggested environmental groups are targeting coal production in the U.S. – an observation which Vitter confirmed.

"There's an absolute war on coal," he said. "In fact, I would go so far as to say there's a jihad on coal. Next is oil."