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The movies Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Terminator, Jurassic park 4, Ender’s Game, and G.I. Joe: Retaliation were all shot in New Orleans. More specifically, they are all filmed in the Big Easy Studios in New Orleans. http://www.bigeasystudiosneworleans.com/aboutus.php

Geostorm, starring Gerard Butler as a satellite designer who goes into space to thwart climate-controlling satellites from creating catastrophic storms, just started shooting in the Big Easy Studios which are housed, appropriately enough, in the former Michoud Assembly Center which once built the space shuttle’s external tanks before the shuttle project was scrapped by NASA.

All of which begs two single overriding questions: did Big Easy Studios receive favorable treatment in landing the lease of the 1.8 million-square-foot facility and were other Louisiana-based studios afforded the same opportunity to compete for a similar deal with NASA?

Taking the questions in reverse order, we will probably never know what chances, if any, other studios had to vie for the space.

The answer to the first is shrouded in secrecy as lease terms, including rental and payments, as well as the very signatures of Big Easy principals signing the lease were redacted throughout the 28-page lease document. We suppose lease payments may be some kind of protected state secret which fall under the heading of national security.

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Still, with conspiracy theorists out there who still insist the 1969 moon landing was staged, one would think NASA would be a little skittish about leasing out its facilities for movie making.

But there are more serious issues involving NASA’s decision to lease the gigantic facility to a movie production company. For openers, NASA’s rules say that any deal with an outside entity must serve the agency’s mission. NASA’s response was that anything that brings the federal government revenue serves NASA’s mission. Taking that logic to its extreme, it would seem safe to say a meth lab or house of prostitution could conceivably qualify under that definition.

NASA rules also dictate that any lease agreement must recover the full cost of the rented space and must not create unfair competition with the private sector by undercutting its lease terms. Yet, competing studios maintain that first, they were not given the opportunity to compete for the lease and the lease arrangements with Big Easy Studios and second, that they pay higher rent per square foot than Big Easy Studios.

So just how did Big Easy gain such an advantage, if indeed it did?

To answer that, we must take a look at the two principals of Big Easy Studios.

Herbert W. Gains, an independent filmmaker, was in New Orleans in 2010 to film Green Lantern, much of which was shot at the Lakefront Airport.

At the same time, The Lathan Co. of Mobile, Alabama, was under contract to perform major repairs and restoration work to the airport which had been heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina. http://www.lathancompany.com/portfolio/lakefront.html

Lathan Co. President Jerry Lathan, a member of the Alabama Republican Party’s State Executive Committee who had worked in the presidential campaigns for Bob Dole and both Presidents Bush as well as other local, state and national Republican candidates, also had contracts for restoration of a number of other structures, including four others in New Orleans and one at East Louisiana Hospital in Jackson.

http://www.lathancompany.com/projects.html

Lathan, who reportedly likes to boast of his political contacts, would probably have had connections at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, through which he could have assisted Gains in gaining access to NASA.

http://algop.org/jerry-lathan/

Big Easy Studios was incorporated on Nov. 9, 2011, with Gains and Lathan as the only officers, and the lease with NASA was signed by an unidentified officer of the new company (remember, that name was redacted) 16 days later, on Nov. 22, 2011. An amendment to the contract was signed less than three months later, on Feb. 14, 2012, by Robin Henderson of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center but again, the names and signature of the Big Easy officer were redacted.

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Stephen Moret, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Economic Development (LED), said his office had “many conversations” with NASA about the need to offer more competitive lease rates at Michoud to better position the facility to attract “advanced manufacturing projects.”

The director of operations for one competing studio said he had heard from producers that Big Easy received lease rates more favorable than his studio. “The taxpayers didn’t fund Michoud to make movies,” he said. “The lease with Big Easy Studios was a done deal before we even knew the facility was available.”

While, studios located in Louisiana do not normally receive lucrative tax credits, the movies filmed in those studios certainly do, and the system quickly led to widespread abuses that prompted the conviction and a 70-month prison sentence for for Martin Walker of Baton Rouge for his activity involving the buying and selling of Louisiana motion picture investor tax credits. He also was ordered to pay more than $1.8 million in restitution to 24 victims of his fraud.

In 2009, revisions to state incentives guaranteed a tax credit of 30 percent of expenditures provided a production spends more than $300,000 in Louisiana. Major productions like Twilight: Breaking Dawn can receive state tax credits of $10 million to $30 million.

Because most productions don’t owe any taxes in Louisiana, there is no need to claim the credits but they can transfer those credits to the state and the state will cut the companies a check for 85 percent of the face value of the credits. Thus, if a production company earns $1 million in Louisiana tax credits, those credits can be transferred back to the state and the state will issue the company a check for $850,000.

Another option, a variation of which landed Walker in hot water, allows production companies to sell their credits to individuals or corporations who do owe taxes in the state at a discount. Should an individual or corporation owe the state say, $1 million, the production company may sell its credit to an individual for say, $500,000 and that person in turns sells the credit for $750,000 to the individual or corporation who then receives a $1 million tax credit—and each party profits $250,000.

That means when production companies sell their credits to the private sector, state taxpayers end up subsidizing tax breaks for high income individuals and corporations.

In Walker’s case, though, he sold bogus tax credits with a face value of more than $3.8 million to 24 investors for $2.5 million.

Louisiana Inspector General Stephen Street said of the Walker matter, “This sort of blatant fraud undermines the entire tax credit program and cannot be tolerated. We will continue working with the FBI and United States Attorney to make sure that those who engage in this sort of corruption face criminal consequences.”

Former State Film Commissioner Mark Smith described the movie industry in Louisiana as “smoke and mirrors.” He said in Los Angeles and New York, “I can see the headquarters and see who the real players are. In places like Louisiana, who can see it?”

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Peter Schroeder, a writer for The Hill, has drunk the Kool-Aid.

The Hill is a subsidiary of News Communications, Inc. that covers the U.S. Congress with an emphasis on business, lobbying and political campaigns and is one of the first web pages accessed each day by those wishing to stay abreast of events in the nation’s capital.

But Sunday’s story by Schroeder has to leave readers in Louisiana scratching their heads and wondering about his credentials or his sanity—or both.

His story, The New and Improved Jindal, touts the prospects of Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-Iowa, R-New Hampshire, R-Anywhere but Louisiana) as a legitimate challenger for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. http://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/219759-the-new-and-improved-bobby-jindal

Perhaps unwittingly, however, the headline to his story may have provided an insight to what’s in store for the Boy Blunder.

By invoking the term “new and improved,” we immediately are left with the idea that he is being packaged and sold like so much washing powder or toothpaste—or perhaps more appropriately, toilet paper.

To bolster his evaluation of Jindal as a real comer, Schroeder relied on people like Tony Perkins, founder of the Louisiana Family Forum, former legislator, failed U.S. Senate candidate and president of the Family Research Council and Jindal’s former chief of staff, current political adviser Timmy Teepell and Baton Rouge political pollster Bernie Pinsonat.

The fact that Jindal and Perkins are in lock step on family values issues does not exactly make Perkins an impartial observer and Teepell certainly has much to gain if he and his consulting company, OnMessage, can ride Jindal’s coattails into the White House (or as Sarah Palin would say, 1400 Pennsylvania Avenue).

Schroeder also hangs his analysis on a single speech by Jindal last week when he cracked a couple of jokes that actually got chuckles from his conservative audience at the Values Voters Summit in Washington. “Jindal showed a dynamic style as he paced across the state,” he wrote.

What!!? Really? You’re staking your writing career on that thin bit of evidence?

Well, not exactly. There is this from Teepell:

“Most people’s impression of his speaking skills go back to his State of the Union response (of 2009), which was just a terrible speech.

“You’re having to do it (speaking) all the time, and on a number of different issues every single day, and so he just gets better and better.”

So, there you have it. By Teepell’s own admission, Jindal is making these speeches “every single day,” which leaves damned little time for him to devote his attention to the mundane duties of governor—a job to which he was re-elected by 67 percent of 20 percent of the state’s voters, a veritable mandate.

If he’s such a rising star, perhaps Schroeder can explain to us how Jindal managed to finish behind “nobody” in a recent straw poll. Maybe he can tell us why he remains a bottom feeder in the polls, along with Palin who can’t seem to get the address of the White House right.

Jindal’s supporters argue that his low numbers can be attributed to the fact that voters in the heartland don’t know him, not because they don’t like him.

News flash: we know him in Louisiana and his numbers have never been lower here and it’s precisely because we do know him.

Louisiana pollster Bernie Pinsonat said Jindal simply needs an issue that will give him national exposure.

We have several such issues:

  • He was for Common Core before he decided it would be politically expedient to oppose it.
  • He regularly hopped all over north Louisiana handing out stimulus money at Protestant churches and “awarding” military veterans’ pins during his first term but has not visited a single church of any stripe nor has he delivered any military pins since his re-election where only 20 percent of registered voters even bothered to vote.
  • He has bankrupted the state with tax giveaways to corporations while attempting to rip state employees’ pensions from them with a patently unconstitutional legislative bill.
  • He is now attempting to do the same thing with state worker health benefits while at the same time depleting the fund balance of the Office of Group Benefits.
  • He has handed out hundreds of millions of dollars in questionable state contracts to consultants and favored firms.
  • His hand-picked Secretary of Health and Hospitals has been indicted on nine counts of perjury in connection with one of those contracts.
  • He has given away the state hospital system to private entities though the move has yet to be approved by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
  • He has repeatedly cut the budgets of higher education in Louisiana.
  • He has consistently promoted school vouchers and charter schools at the expense of low-income students who are left in the underfunded public schools.
  • He attempted to give the State Police Superintendent a $55,000 a year retirement raise while ignoring rank and file state police and state employees.
  • He has broken his promise not to use one-time money for recurring expenses—not once, but six times.
  • He has enveloped the governor’s office in secrecy.
  • He has cloaked himself in a mantle of self-righteousness that is betrayed by his callous lack of concern for the people of Louisiana.

“People are going to have plenty of time to get a better impression of Gov. Jindal,” Teepell said. “That (2009) speech won’t be the only thing they remember about him.”

The business of remaking or re-packaging of the new and improved Jindal reminds of the wisdom of Mark Twain who said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

As far as we’re concerned, Jindal is going to have plenty to try to remember in his quest for the brass ring that is the GOP nomination.

Or, as we prefer to think, if you’re genuine—if you’re the real deal—there’s really no need for a makeover.

And if ever a person needed a makeover, it’s Jindal.

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Remember the Ted Mack Amateur Hour on the old DuMont television network?

If not, don’t worry. Now that the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal is more than six years into its very own amateur show, it’s doubtful that even the most nostalgic among us would prefer watch those old grainy black and white, out of focus shows.

Not when you have this bunch bumbling and stumbling through botched polices in health care, education, environmental matters (remember those $250 million sand berms Jindal insisted on during the BP spill, the ones that washed away before they could even be completed?). And then there have been questionable contracts and one fiscal disaster after another as Jindal attempts each year to patch together the state’s operating budget with Bond-O and duct tape.

Ah, yes, those fiscal snafus.

And now there may be another looming on the horizon though granted, it probably won’t be on the magnitude of a quarter-billion dollar disappearing berm in the Gulf of Mexico or the massive budget cuts inflicted on higher education.

But it could turn into another of those pesky problems that Jindal just does not seem to be capable of handling. He reminds us of actor Chevy Chase, master of the pratfall where he just keeps falling and falling, wrecking everything in his path.

Remember when the alternative fuel tax rebate enacted by the legislature and signed by Jindal in 2009 went into effect two years ago this month?

When the bill was passed and signed as Act 469 of 2009, it was to give tax credits to purchasers of vehicles which used alternative fuels such as propane, butane and electricity and was projected to cost the state $900,000 over five years.

But then the flex fuel vehicles began hitting the market, catching everyone unprepared for the onslaught of buyers seeking the tax credits and the cost suddenly mushroomed to $100 million. When the true impact of the new law became apparent, Jindal immediately rescinded the act but not before 5,456 returns had been received by the Department of Revenue claiming total tax credits of a tad north of $18 million. Senate President John Alario (R-Westwego), who owns a tax preparation service, filed stacks of applications on behalf of his clients—without, of course, informing the administration of the financial consequences.

Another senator alerted Alario to the potential problem—after purchasing a vehicle and claiming his own tax credit—but neither informed Jindal. And neither did Rep. Jim Fannin (R-Jonesboro), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee—not even after he had filed for the $3,000 tax credit on each of the two vehicles he purchased.

The administration, in finally awakening from its apparent slumber and during one of the few days Jindal was vacationing in Louisiana, voided the law and announced that any new car buyer who had already submitted his or her application to the state would receive the maximum allowable tax credit up to $3,000 but subsequent purchasers would not be eligible.

And therein lies the problem.

The Louisiana Board of Tax Appeals, an independent quasi-judicial entity comprised of three attorneys who are tax law experts who must decide on the merits of appeals, currently has 700 appeals from car buyers who were denied the tax credit.

If all 700 applicants were to be approved for the $3,000 tax credit, the state would be on the hook for $2.1 million.

The next scheduled meeting of the board is in August, though the date was not available because the board’s web page has not been updated since 2013.

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When Louisiana’s favorite Koch-head Bobby Jindal rejected the Medicaid expansion provided under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), aka Obamacare, he trotted Kathy Kliebert, his third secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) before the legislature to proclaim that the state would have to pay $1.7 billion over a decade for the expansion.

The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Officer, however, cut that 10-year estimate by half: $886 million, pointing out that in the first three years, the expansion would actually reduce state spending.

Never mind that his refusal to accept the $16 billion in new Medicaid money would provide health care for nearly a quarter-million Louisiana residents currently without medical coverage.

Never mind that his decision meant that Louisiana residents, like those in the other 20 or so state that rejected the Medicaid expansion, would be paying for its implementation in other states.

Never mind that the $280 million Medicaid expansion would cost the state in 2022 pales in comparison to the $2.2 billion the state is projected to spend on incentive payments to attract private business to the state—some of which would produce no new jobs or at best, low-paying jobs.

Never mind also the $80.6 million Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) federal grant to provide high speed broadband internet to rural areas of Louisiana—also rejected by Jindal in lockstep compliance with the wishes of the Koch brothers-run American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) agenda.

And never mind the fact that despite Jindal’s disdain for accepting federal funds (remember how he, like Queen Gertrude in Hamlet, protested too much about accepting stimulus funds from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and then helicoptered to all those Protestant churches in North Louisiana to hand out the checks?), Louisiana still ranks as the fourth most dependent on the federal government.

That’s correct; Louisiana is still co-dependent on the federal teat and if Jindal, despite all his anti-government puffery, dared slicing and dicing other federal largesse from an already stressed state budget, he may well have open insurrection on his hands.

Apparently the only area where he can safely reject federal funding to satisfy the far right—especially his benefactors the Koch Brothers, Charles and Bill—is in areas where only the poor and disenfranchised—those unable to fight back—are impacted.

Wall Street Cheat Sheet, an online news service with 11 million monthly readers, notes that despite the ratcheted-up rhetoric between red and blue states, it is the red states (Republican) that are more likely to receive help from the federal government—a fact that helps them keep local tax bills lower and unimaginative politicians like Jindal in power.

In computing its rankings of states’ dependency on federal government, the Cheat Sheet report took three factors into account:

  • Return on taxes paid to the federal government. This statistic reflects how many dollars in federal funding state taxpayers receive for every dollar in federal income taxes paid.
  • Federal funding as a percentage of state revenue. This metric tells what percentage of a state’s annual revenue is provided by the federal government. Without federal dollars, states would have to look elsewhere for revenue, most likely via tax increases, or cut services. The steady influx of federal funds allows executives like Jindal to eschew tax increases while at the same time publicly scorn federal money.
  • Number of federal employees per capita. This illustrates the federal government’s role as a nationwide employer and reveals the percentage of a state’s workforce that owes its livelihood to Washington.

Red states are known for imposing lower taxes than blue states, but it appears they are able to do so because they are more dependent on federal funding, the report says.

The only states more dependent than Louisiana on Washington are (in order) Alabama, New Mexico and Mississippi.

Louisiana’s return on taxpayer investment, for example, if $3.35, meaning the state receives $3.35 for every dollar it sends to Washington. That’s the fourth-highest return in the nation, behind South Carolina ($7.87), North Dakota ($5.31) and Florida ($4.57). That compares to Delaware’s 50 cents return for every dollar paid to Washington and the 56 cents of Illinois and Minnesota.

The 6.76 of its citizens employed by the federal government ranked 14th lowest in the nation.

But that positive was more than offset by the negative metric showing that 44.26 percent of Louisiana’s state budget is funded by federal dollars, second highest only to Mississippi’s 45.84 percent.

That’s correct: the anti-federal government, anti-Washington, more-is-less governor, who preaches the mantra of less government is the best government, serves as chief executive of the state that ranks second in the nation in its voracious appetite for federal dollars.

A quick examination of the bigger line items in the state’s current General Fund and Capital Outlay budgets (which will expire on June 30) is quite revealing—something a little north of $11 billion:

FEDERAL FUNDS

General Appropriations (HB1: FY2013-2014)

Agency:

  • Governor’s office of Coastal Activities: $1,163,604;
  • (DOA) Community Development Block Grant: $1,481,607,780;
  • Coastal Protection & Restoration Authority: $64,470,311;
  • Gov. Off. Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness ; $1,275,010,482;
  • Department of Military Affairs: $36,558,254;
  • LA. Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Criminal Justice: $21,430,530;
  • Office of Elderly Affairs: $22,318,669;
  • Louisiana War Veterans Home: $6,837,674;
  • State Veterans Cemetery: $769,767;
  • Northeast Louisiana War Veterans Home: $6,632,146;
  • Southwest Louisiana War Veterans Home: $6,725,639;
  • Northwest Louisiana War Veterans Home: $7,015,855;
  • Southeast Louisiana War Veterans Home: $6,301,319;
  • Criminal Law and Medicaid Fraud: $5,989,344;
  • Gaming: $1,375,911;
  • Lt. Governor: $5,509,255;
  • Agriculture & Forestry: $7,716,818, $4,181,260;
  • Office of Business Development (Business Incentives Program): $4,739,367;
  • State Library: $3,099,513;
  • State Parks: $1,371,487;
  • Cultural Development: $2,059,575;
  • DOTD (Aviation): $26,761,411;
  • Pardons & Parole: $1,480,697;
  • Office of State Police: $10,252,081;
  • Office of Motor Vehicles: $1,090,750;
  • Highway Safety Commission; $34,585,088;
  • Office of Juvenile Justice: $891,796;
  • Developmental Disabilities Council: $1,355,052;
  • Medical Vendor Administration (Medicaid/Medicare): $228,242,058;
  • Medical Vendor Administration (Medicare): $4,794,910,040, $185,066,345;
  • Other Medicaid, Medicare funds: $185,066,345;
  • Office of Public Health: $237,866,451;
  • Office of Behavioral Health: $36,185,361;
  • Disaster Crisis Counseling Services: $2,320,529;
  • Office for Citizens with Developmental Disabilities: $6,376,792;
  • Community and Family Services: $598,538,224;
  • Department of Natural Resources: $27,233,004;
  • Office of Conservation: $1,752,796;
  • Office of Coastal Management: $86,206,980;
  • Office of Charitable Gaming: $883,007;
  • DEQ: $4,913,837;
  • Office of Environmental Compliance: $10,094,810;
  • Office of Environmental Services: $4,572,895;
  • Office of Management and Finance: $3,207,858;
  • Department of Wildlife and Fisheries: $2,781,838;
  • Office of Wildlife: $17,526,411;
  • Office of Fisheries: $50,914,428;
  • Office of Workers Compensation Administration: $165,174,992;
  • Board of Regents: $13,363,873;
  • Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium: $4,034,667;
  • Office of Student Financial Assistance: $67,637,166;
  • Louisiana State University Board of Supervisors: $29,713,934;
  • Huey P. Long Hospital: $945,558;
  • Lallie Kemp Regional Medical Center: $4,800,336;
  • W.O. Moss Regional Medical Center: $7,937,503;
  • Washington-St. Tammany Regional Medical Center: $5,481,167;
  • Southern University Board of Supervisors: $3,654,209;
  • Department of Education: $53,743,617, $1,062,669,284, $4,163,877;

Executive Department:

  • Louisiana Youth for Excellence: $877,185;
  • Juvenile Legal Representation: $328,573;
  • Education Programs: $18,972,982;
  • Medical Vendor Administration: $87,191,390;
  • Payments to Private Providers/Services for Medicaid Eligible Children: $844,368,786;
  • DHH: $148,223,040;
  • Office of Children and Family Services: $426,096,064;
  • Louisiana Workforce Commission: $17,465,074;
  • LSU System: $1,572,622;
  • Department of Education: $1,120,576,778;
  • Community Development Block Grant: $1,828,666,994;
  • Coastal Protection and Restoration: $6,400,000;
  • GOHSEP: $1,275,239,610;
  • Education: $19,072,519;
  • Military Affairs: $17,184,491;
  • Commission on Law Enforcement/administration Criminal Justice: $25,083,035;
  • Governor’s Office of Elderly Affairs: $812,222;
  • Title III, V, VII and NSIP: $21,571,923

Capital Outlay (HB2):

  • Department of Military Affairs: $7,389,000;
  • Department of Veterans Affairs: $6,849,462;
  • DOTD: $30,000,000;
  • Wildlife and Fisheries: $1,660,000;
  • St. Helena Court House: $2,680,000;

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As recently as Jan. 16, a headline on NOLA.com proclaimed, “No mid-year budget cuts will be required as Louisiana revenue dips only slightly.”

For the first time in six years, the ensuing story said, “Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration will not have to make mid-year budget cuts because of less than projected state revenue.”

Fast forward to last Friday, April 4, (late Friday, that is; the tradition of announcing bad news late on Fridays is known in political circles as “taking out the trash,” according to our friend Bob Mann):

Jindal releases a five-page executive order that, says, among other things:

  • Whereas, to ensure that the State of Louisiana will not suffer a budget deficit…prudent money management practices dictate that the best interests of the citizens of the State of Louisiana will be served by implementing an expenditure freeze throughout the executive branch of state government;
  • Now, therefore, I, Bobby Jindal…do hereby order and direct as follows:
  • “All departments, agencies, and/or budget units of the executive branch…shall freeze expenditures as provided in this executive order;
  • “No department, agency, and/or budget unit of the executive branch…shall make any expenditure of funds related to…travel, operating services, supplies, professional services, other charges, interagency transfers, acquisitions and major repairs.”

There followed, as is the case in all such executive orders, a laundry list of exemptions and escape clauses.

But the bottom line nevertheless is tantamount to mid-year budget cuts; the meaning is the same, no matter how the governor tries to spin it.

Oh, there are those who will, of course, argue that a spending freeze is not a budget cut. Those would be the same people (read: Jindal) who said a couple of years back he would veto a 5-cent per pack cigarette tax renewal because he was opposed to new taxes.

Or, taking to its extreme, the administration could trot out Sen. Elbert Guillory (R-D-R-Opelousas—we never know from one day to the next if the announced candidate for lieutenant governor is Republican or Democrat; he’s been both Republican, Democrat and back again) who so eloquently explained the subtle difference between cockfighting and “chicken boxing” during the current legislative session. And yes, he actually did employ that term in defending the activity that is illegal in every single state, including New Mexico, the last to ban cockfighting.

That’s a quick turnaround: less than three months after Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols assured us that a projected $35 million budgetary shortfall could be made up with extra revenue expected to be generated by the state’s recent tax amnesty program.

Apparently not.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley (R-Lake Charles), a member of the state’s Revenue Estimating Conference, blamed Internet shopping for part of the shortfall, saying Louisiana internet shoppers were not submitting sales taxes on their purchases.

Other states—including Arkansas and Alabama who must not have Internet access for their citizens—have experienced increases in sales tax revenues.

All this voodoo economics (to borrow a term from George Bush the First) boils down to one simple yes-or-no question we all should ask of ourselves:

Would we trust this governor or this commissioner of administration to do our taxes?

Here’s the sobering answer to that not-so-rhetorical question: we already are.

Indeed, we have been for the past six years.

 

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An interesting civil trial is transpiring at the 19th Judicial District Court. Though estimates vary, if the plaintiffs prevail, about one taxpayer in five in the Greater Baton Rouge area may eventually wind up with a surprise check in the mail.

The trial involves a group of taxpayers, now represented as a class, who have sued the Amite River Basin Commission (ARBC) over what they claim are vastly overpaid property taxes covering construction of the Comite River Diversion Canal. The project was originally envisioned after the massive 1983 flood which resulted in significant backwater flooding long after rains had stopped. The concept behind the project involves providing a sort of relief valve (the Canal) to divert water from the Comite River into the Mississippi River. By lowering the water level of the Comite River, water levels would also be lowered in the Amite River basin in flood-prone areas such as Port Vincent and French Settlement.

What is in dispute is the amount of funding for which the ARBC (through local property owners) is responsible. The original estimate of the project’s construction costs was approximately $120 million (the current estimate is $199 million). Of that $120 million, the Army Corps of Engineers (through the Federal government) was to be responsible for 70% of the construction costs, or $84 million. The remaining $36 million cost was originally designated to be $30 million to the State of Louisiana, and $6 million to the ARBC.

A sidebar to the whole affair is how a Baton Rouge lawyer is legally or ethically able to represent ARBC when he also served as the plaintiff attorney in litigation against the state that could ultimately cost the state from $60 million to $70 million.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys have indicated that $6 million was the full extent of the construction costs for which the ARBC was responsible. To date, by way of a 3-mill property tax approved by voters in the District in 2000, combined with a renewal (at 2.65 mills) of that tax in 2010, plaintiff attorneys say about $24.5 million has been collected to date. The suit seeks a refund of the alleged $18.5 million overpayment.

At various stages in the trial, plaintiff attorneys have accused ARBC Executive Director Deitmar Rietschier of financial mismanagement and voter deception in order to “keep a project alive that is on life support.”

The attorneys have argued that Rietschier has an ulterior motive for over-collecting on the tax in order to fund his own $93,000+ annual salary along with his executive secretary’s $38,000 salary.  The board’s executive secretary, Toni Guitrau, also happens to be the Mayor of the Livingston Parish Village of French Settlement.

So, basically, the trial boils down to the claim that taxpayers of the district have been tricked into paying around $1.1 million in salaries for Rietschier and Guitrau during a period for which no funding has been appropriated for the project’s continued construction.

Plaintiff attorney Steve Irving argued that it is virtually impossible to accurately estimate the final cost of the project or if, it may even be completed.

Defense attorney Larry Bankston says there never was any intent to cap the ARBC’s contribution to construction costs at $6 million. He argues that the Canal project remains viable and is fully ongoing. He indicated that he has eight more witnesses to call.

Bankston’s roles as both plaintiff and defense attorney in cases involving the state would appear to pose a conflict of interests. Currently, he is:

  • Legal counsel to the State Auctioneer Licensing Board under a $25,000 contract;
  • Defense attorney for ARBC in its ongoing litigation over the overpayment of taxes to that board;
  • Plaintiff attorney in ongoing litigation against the Louisiana Department of Agriculture, and the state’s Rice Promotion Board and Rice Research Board over claims of excessive assessments against the state’s rice farmers.

Employing the doctrine that “the state is the state is the state,” it would appear that Bankston may have a conflict of interests under the code of ethics which governs attorney representation.

But as we discovered years ago, nothing is ever cut and dried in the legal world. And it’s obvious those in charge of attorney ethics or either ignorant of the subject or protective of their peers—or both.

And so it is with this question. We contacted a number of organizations, including the Attorney Disciplinary Board, the Louisiana Civil Justice Center, and the State Bar Ethics Council and each one punted. Eric K. Barefield of the State Bar Association’s Ethics Council did finally respond to our email question about the propriety of working both sides of Litigation Street but his answer did little to shed light on the issue:

“Thank you for your inquiry. The Louisiana State Bar Association’s Ethics Advisory Service is designed to provide eligible Louisiana-licensed lawyers with informal, non-binding advice regarding their own prospective conduct and/or ethical dilemmas under the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct (the “LRPC”).  According to limitations set by the Supreme Court of Louisiana, we are not permitted to evaluate contemplated disciplinary complaints, to serve as the catalyst for potential complaints or even to comment on the conduct of lawyers other than that of the requesting lawyer. 

“As such, regrettably, we are not permitted to help you evaluate whether the lawyer in your scenario has or may be violating the LRPC nor are we permitted to give you legal advice on matters such as those contained in your e-mail. 

“In addition to the foregoing, if you are concerned about protecting and/or asserting your rights and interests in this matter, perhaps you should strongly consider consulting another lawyer as soon as possible with regard to getting an evaluation of your facts and a legal opinion about your rights, interests and options.  Regrettably, no one on the staff at the LSBA is permitted to offer legal assistance and/or legal advice.”

That rendition of the Bureaucratic Shuffle would easily get a “10” rating on Dancing with the Stars.

Bankston, you may remember, is a former staff attorney for the Louisiana Attorney General’s office, was assistant parish attorney for East Baton Rouge Parish and a member of the Baton Rouge City-Parish Commission before his 1987 election to the Louisiana State Senate.

In 1994, while serving as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Bankston met in his law office with Fred Goodson, owner of a Slidell video poker truck stop. The FBI later said Bankston and Goodson discussed a plan to manipulate the legislative process in order to protect the interests of video poker companies in exchange for providing key legislators secret financial interests in video poker truck stops.

Bankston was subsequently indicted and convicted on two racketeering counts, one of which was a scheme whereby Goodson would pay Bankston “rent” of $1,555 per month for “non-use” of Bankston’s beachfront condo in Gulf Shores, Alabama—a bribe, according to prosecutors.

Bankston was sentenced to 41 months in prison in 1997 and ordered to pay a $20,000 fine.

Released on Nov. 6, 2000, Bankston was subsequently disbarred by the Louisiana Supreme Court on Mar. 9, 2002, retroactive to Nov. 19, 1997, but was re-admitted to practice law on Feb. 5, 2004.

So, now he represents two state boards and is suing two others and a state agency.

And there apparently is no one who can—or will—call a foul in this game.

 

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The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) may have suffered a mass exodus of sorts in the wake of its Stand Your Ground mantra that led to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, but ALEC is far too strong to let a few defections stand in the way of its political agenda in such areas as public education (even to borrowing from John White’s playbook), weakening workers’ rights, diluting environmental protections, healthcare and now even in the way U.S. senators are nominated and elected.

For that reason alone, the upcoming legislative session which begins at noon on March 10—less than two months from now—will bear close watching for any bills that might appear to have originated at ALEC’s States & Nation Policy Summit last month in Washington, D.C.

ALEC, while striving to change laws to meld with its agenda, nevertheless denies that it is a lobbying organization. That way, corporations and individuals who underwrite ALEC financially are able to claim robust tax write-offs for funding ALEC and its companion organization, the State Policy Network (SPN).

ALEC has a strong presence in Louisiana. Former legislator Noble Ellington, now a deputy commissioner in the Louisiana Department of Insurance, is a former national president of the organization and Gov. Bobby Jindal was recipient of its Thomas Jefferson Freedom Award a couple of years ago when ALEC held its national conference in New Orleans.

Current Louisiana legislators who are members of ALEC are:

House of Representatives:

  • Rep. John Anders (D-Vidalia), Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force;
  • Rep. Jeff Arnold (D-New Orleans),      attended 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting;
  • Rep. Timothy G. Burns (R-Mandeville), Civil Justice Task Force Alternate;
  • Rep. George “Greg” Cromer (R-Slidell), State Chairman, Civil Justice Task Force (announced he was resigning from ALEC and from his position as Alec state chairman of Louisiana on April 17, 2012);
  • Rep. James R. Fannin (R-Jonesboro), ALEC Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force;
  • Rep. Franklin J. Foil (R-Baton Rouge), Communications and Technology Task Force;
  • Rep. Brett F. Geymann (R-Lake Charles), ALEC Communications and Technology Task Force;
  • Rep. Johnny Guinn (R-Jennings);
  • Rep. Joe Harrison (R-Gray), State Chairman, member of Education Task Force; (solicited funds for “ALEC Louisiana      Scholarship Fund” on state stationery July 2, 2012);
  • Rep. Cameron Henry, Jr. (R-Metairie), ALEC Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force;
  • Rep. Bob Hensgens (R-Abbeville);
  • Rep. Frank Hoffmann (R-West Monroe), ALEC Education Task Force;
  • Rep. Girod Jackson (D-Marrero), (resigned last August after being charged with fraud);
  • Rep. Harvey LeBas (D-Ville Platte),  ALEC Health and Human Services Task Force;
  • Rep. Walter Leger, III (D-New Orleans), ALEC Education Task Force;
  • Rep. Joe Lopinto (R-Metairie), (attended 2011 ALEC Annual Meeting where he spoke on “Saving Dollars and Protecting Communities: State Successes in Corrections Policy”);
  • Rep. Nicholas J. Lorusso (R-New Orleans), ALEC Public Safety and Elections Task Force;
  • Rep. Erich Ponti (R-Baton Rouge;
  • Rep. John M. Schroder, Sr. (R-Covington), ALEC Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force;
  • Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport);
  • Rep. Scott M. Simon (R-Abita Springs), ALEC Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development Task Force;
  • Rep. Thomas Willmott (R-Kenner), ALEC Health and Human Services Task Force;

Senate:

  • Sen. John A. Alario, Jr.(R-Westwego), ALEC Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force;
  • Sen. Jack L. Donahue, Jr. (R-Mandeville), ALEC Civil Justice Task Force member;
  • Sen. Dale Erdey (R-Livingston); Health and Human Services Task Force;
  • Sen. Daniel R. Martiny (R-Metairie); Public Safety and Elections Task Force;
  • Sen. Fred H. Mills, Jr. (R-New Iberia), ALEC Civil Justice Task Force member;
  • Sen. Ben Nevers, Sr. (D-Bogalusa), ALEC Education Task Force member;
  • Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia), ALEC Communications and Technology Task Force;
  • Sen. Gary L. Smith, Jr. (R-Norco), ALEC Communications and Technology Task Force;
  • Sen. Francis Thompson (D-Delhi)
  • Sen. Mack “Bodi” White, Jr. (R-Central), ALEC Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force.

All ALEC meetings are held under tight security behind closed doors. During one recent conference, a reporter was not only barred from attending the meeting, but was actually not allowed into the hotel where the event was being held.

Apparently, there is good reason for that. It is at these conferences that ALEC members meet with state legislators to draft “model” laws for legislators to take back to their states for introduction and, hopefully, passage. Some of the bills being considered for 2014 are particularly noteworthy.

We won’t know which proposals were ultimately approved at that December meeting in Washington, however, because of the secrecy in which the meetings are held. We will know only if and when they are introduced as bills in the upcoming legislative session. But they should be easy to recognize.

One which will be easy to recognize is ALEC’s push for implementation of Louisiana’s Course Choice Program in other states. Course Choice, overseen by our old friend Lefty Lefkowith, is a “mini-voucher” program which lets high school students take free online classes if their regular schools do not offer it or if their schools have been rated a C, D or F by the state.

Course Choice has been beset by problems in Louisiana since its inception first when companies offering classes under the program began canvassing neighborhoods to recruit students and then signing them up without their knowledge or permission. Vendors offering the courses were to be paid half the tuition up front and the balance upon students’ graduation, making it a win-win for the vendors in that it didn’t really matter if students completed the courses for the companies to be guaranteed half the tuition. Moreover, there was no oversight built into the program that would ensure students actually completed the courses, thus making it easy for companies to ease students through the courses whether or not they actually performed the work necessary to obtain a grade. The Louisiana Supreme Court, however ruled the funding mechanism for Course Choice from the state’s Minimum Foundation Program unconstitutional.

Three other education proposals by ALEC appear to also borrow from the states of Utah. The first, the Early Intervention Program Act, is based on Utah’s 2012 law which has profited ALEC member Imagine Learning by diverting some $2 million in tax money from public schools to private corporations. But Imagine Learning did not offer test scores for the beginning and ending of the use of its software, little is known of what, if any, benefits students might have received. The Student Achievement Backpack Act and the Technology-Based Reading Intervention for English Learners Act also appear to be based on Utah’s education reform laws.

The former provides access to student data in a “cloud-based” electronic portal format and was inspired by Digital Learning Now, a project of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education when he was Florida’s governor.

Not all of ALEC’s proposals address public education.

For example, do you like to know the country of origin of the food you place on your table? More than 90 percent of American consumers want labels telling them where their meat, fruits, vegetables and fish are from, according to polling data. ALEC, though, is resisting implementation of what it calls “additional regulations and requirements for our meat producers and processors,” including those that would label countries of origin.

ALEC’s “Punitive Damages Standards Act” and the accompanying “Noneconomic Damage Awards Act” would make it more difficult to hold corporations accountable or liable when their products or practices result in serious harm or injury.

The organization’s “Medicaid Block Grant Act” seeks federal authorization to fund state Medicaid programs through a block grant or similar funding, a move that would cut Medicaid funding by as much as 75 percent. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) has pushed similar block grant systems for Medicaid in several of his budget proposals.

In what has to qualify as a “WTF” proposal, ALEC for the second straight year is seeking approval of a bill to end licensing, certification and specialty certification for doctors and other medical professionals as requirements to practice medicine in the respective states and to prohibit states from funding the Federation of State Medical Boards.

Then there is the “Equal State’s Enfranchisement Act,” which is considered an assault of sorts on the 17th Amendment. For more than a century, U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures, a practice which often led to deadlocks and stalemates, leaving Senate seats open for months on end. But 101 years ago, in 1913, the 17th Amendment was ratified, changing the method of choosing senators to popular vote by the citizenry.

While ALEC’s proposal doesn’t mean full repeal of the 17th Amendment, it does mean that in addition to other candidates, legislatures would be able to add their own candidates’ names to ballots for senate seats. ALEC, apparently, is oblivious or unconcerned with a national poll that shows 71 percent of voters prefer electing senators by popular vote.

To keep track of these and other ALEC bills introduced in the upcoming session, just keep an eye on the member legislators and the bills they file.

And keep reading LouisianaVoice.

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