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Archive for the ‘House, Senate’ Category

With a flurry of (count ‘em) 37 bills dealing with gambling gaming, there is probably none more interesting to the folks in Tangipahoa Parish than identical bills introduced in the Senate (SB-417) and House (HB-438) that would facilitate the move of a Bossier Parish casino to property along the Tangipahoa River.

Brent Stephens is owner of the current license for Diamond Jacks in Bossier City. He and his company, Peninsula Pacific, acquired the license for Diamond Jacks in June 2016 after Legends, the previous owner, was released from bankruptcy the previous year. Stephens operates at least two other gaming properties in Louisiana—the Amelia Belle in Amelia in St. Mary Parish following Hurricane Katrina, and Evangeline Downs in Opelousas in St. Landry Parish.

His first choice for relocating Diamond Jacks was Lake Pontchartrain in St. Tammany Parish but he encountered a couple of insurmountable snags: he couldn’t get political support and he couldn’t find any landowners willing to sell.

He then turned his attention to Tangipahoa Parish and was initially looking at sites around Manchac adjacent to I-55 but abandoned that idea for reasons known only to him.

He then settled on an area south and west of Hammond along I-12.

And though the governor has made a point of staying out of all the gaming legislation (with the exception of two: a non-gaming-related proposal involving Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans and one to permit gaming on land within 1200 feet of an authorized berthing site, both of which he supports, he has said he would sign the Tangipahoa Parish bill if it made it to his desk.

And that is one great big IF—as in, not likely.

Despite strong support from Parish President Robby Miller, the parish council, and 48 percent and a large contingent still undecided among Tangipahoa Parish voters, there remains two chances—slim and none—that the Tangipahoa River will become a Mecca for casino gamblers.

That’s because of the formation of a rather unique alliance against the proposal: Tangipahoa Parish churches and video poker.

Whoever coined the phrase that politics makes strange bedfellows was dead right. There can be no stranger bedfellows than fire-and-brimstone-breathing protestant ministers and video poker operators.

And while ministers can exert considerable influence, video poker operators are every bit as powerful, if not more so. That’s because while casino operators are prohibited from making political contributions, there are no such restrictions on the video poker industry.

Video poker interests are well-represented on both sides of the legislative aisles, meaning they spread a lot of campaign money around and enjoy substantial influence at the capitol.

Throw in State Rep. Sherman Mack and you have some formidable opposition.

  • Mack, from the Livingston Parish town of Albany, just happens to be Chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee.
  • Mack is casting a lustful eye at the district attorney’s office for the 21st Judicial District which includes the parishes of Livingston, St. Helena and….Tangipahoa.
  • That office is currently occupied by three-term DA Scott Perrilloux who is considered vulnerable.
  • Mack does not want to be labeled as a “pro-gaming” legislator should he decide to challenge Perrilloux.

HB-438 was introduced by Rep. Stephen Pugh (R-Ponchatoula) and SB-438 by Sen. Bodi White (R-Central). Only White’s bill has made it out of committee (on March 20) and it now awaits debate on the Senate floor. Should it pass the full Senate, it will then be sent to Sherman’s committee where in all likelihood, it will die an ugly death.

And therein lies the real political story.

The bill does two things:

  • It authorizes the Tangipahoa River as a designated waterway on which gaming may be conducted, and
  • It calls for a parish-wide referendum.

But in case it passes the full Senate, makes it out of Mack’s Criminal Justice Committee, and gains approval by the full House, then and only then does the proposal move onto the State Gaming Board which would have to approve the move.

Because the Tangipahoa is barely large enough to entertain tubers and the occasional Bateau boat, it ain’t about to accommodate a full-blown floating casino. The alternative would be a “free-standing” casino and the odds of that getting approved are pretty long.

Just another example of the interesting political issues that color Tangipahoa Parish.

 

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In case you’ve ever taken the time to wonder why our legislature has been unable—or unwilling—to effective address the looming fiscal crisis for the state, here’s a quick lesson in civics that may help you understand the real priorities of our elected officials and the forces that motivate them.

Members of Congress are advised to spend four hours per day FUNDRAISING, or on “call time.” That’s time to be spent on the telephone raising campaign contributions—if they want to be re-elected.

They are also told they should spend one to two hours on “constituent visits,” which often translates to meeting with lobbyists and campaign contributors. That leaves two hours for committee meetings and floor attendance, one hour for something called “strategic outreach,” or breakfasts, meet and greets, press interviews (read: Sen. John Kennedy), and one hour “recharge time.”

It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that we’re paying big salaries for these guys to actually work only about two hours per day for only part of the year.

Another way of putting it is we’re paying big bucks for them to spend twice as much time raising campaign contributions as actually doing the work of the people who, in theory at least, elected them.

That’s in theory only, of course. The truth is special interests such as banks, hedge funds, big oil, big pharma, the military-industrial complex, the NRA, and other major corporate interests—especially since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision—turn the gears of democracy while letting the American middle class delude itself into thinking we actually affect the outcome of elections.

Now, take that image and move it down to the state level and you have a microcosm of Congress.

The numbers are smaller, of course, given the smaller House and Senate districts from which candidates run but the model is the same.

And that is precisely the reason nothing gets done in regard to resolving the financial plight of the state.

Corporate tax breaks, tax exemptions, and tax credits have eroded the state budget until the onus now falls on the individual taxpayers while companies like Walmart enjoy Enterprise Zone tax credits for locating stores in upscale communities across the state.

Petro-chemical plans along the Mississippi River and in the southwestern part of the state enjoy millions of dollars in tax breaks for construction projects that produce few, if any, new permanent jobs.

And who is front and center in protecting the interests of these corporations?

That would be the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), first created with the intent of breaking the stranglehold of organized labor back in the 1970s and now focused on maintaining lucrative tax incentives for its membership.

LABI has four primary political action committees: East PAC, West PAC, North PAC, and South PAC.

LouisianaVoice has pulled the contributions of LABI, its four PACs.

For lagniappe, we’ve also thrown in contributions from pharmaceutical and oil and gas interests. The latter list offers a clear-cut explanation of why efforts to hold oil and gas companies accountable for damage to Louisiana’s coastal marshland have died early deaths.

You will notice in reviewing the reports that LABI, while making individual contributions, pours most of its money into its four PACs, which then make the direct contributions to the candidates.

Enjoy.

LABI CONTRIBUTIONS

EAST PAC CONTRIBUTIONS

WEST PAC CONTRIBUTIONS

NORTH PAC CONTRIBUTIONS

SOUTH PAC CONTRIBUTIONS

PHARMA CONTRIBUTIONS

OIL AND GAS CONTRIBUTIONS

 

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If there was any lingering doubt as to the political stroke of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, one need only watch House Bill 218 do its imitation of Sherman’s March to the Sea.

The bill, authored by State. Rep. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe) and which gives Louisiana’s sheriffs a 7 percent pay raise, has already sailed through the House with a convincing VOTE of 79-9 with the remaining 16 managing to skip out on the vote.

It now moves on to the Senate Judiciary B Committee where it will be rubber stamped before going to the Senate floor where it is virtually assured of a similarly overwhelming majority approval as it enjoyed in the House.

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that neither the sheriffs’ current salaries nor the proposed increase will come from state funds. All sheriffs’ salaries come from their individual budgets but any raises must be approved by the legislature.

But that doesn’t change the fact that sheriffs are among the highest paid public officials in the state. There is not a single sheriff among the 64 parishes who does not make significantly more than the governor of the gret stet of Looziana.

LouisianaVoice painstakingly perused the latest audit reports for every sheriff in the state and found some interesting numbers that might make even the most ardent law and order advocate blanch a little.

Base salaries for sheriffs range from $105,279 for Assumption Parish Sheriff Leland Falcon to $179,227 for East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux but benefits can—and do—kick the bottom line up significantly.

Several small rural parishes are especially generous to their sheriffs when it comes to chipping in extras.

Take John Ballance of Bienville Parish, for example. Ballance, by the way, is a retired State Trooper drawing a pretty hefty pension from the state. His base salary is $144,904 but he gets an additional $82,607 in benefits that bump his overall pay to $227,511. Among his perks are a $14,504 expense allowance, $10,957 in insurance premiums, $41,207 in retirement contributions and—get this: $13,295 in membership dues for the sheriffs’ association. He has the third highest total in benefits in the state. Bonnie and Clyde, who met their demise in Bienville Parish back in 1934, should have made out so well.

Dusty Gates, the sheriff of Union Parish, pulls down $144,938 in base pay but gets an additional $83,652 in benefits (highest in the state), including $13,766 in sheriffs’ association membership dues (it ain’t cheap being a member of the most powerful lobbyist organization in the state).

Gerald Turlich of Plaquemines Parish comes in second in benefits with $83,530 tacked onto his $159,540 base pay—and he doesn’t even get any membership dues. His perks include $36,825 in insurance and $41,038 in retirement.

Nineteen individual sheriffs currently make $225,000 per year or more after benefits are included—and that’s before the proposed increase.

The top ten overall compensation packages, in order, are:

  • Turlich (Plaquemines): $243,070;
  • Tony Mancuso (Calcasieu): $237,080;
  • Ron Johnson (Cameron): $233,556;
  • Mike Stone (Lincoln); $232,785;
  • Craig Webre (Lafourche): $231,413;
  • Julian Whittington (Bossier): $231,100;
  • Andrew Brown (Jackson): $230,739;
  • Rodney Arbuckle (DeSoto): $230,566 (Arbuckle resigned on March 16);
  • Willy Martin (St. James): $229,951;
  • Ricky Moses (Beauregard): $229,098.

Conversely, only seven sheriffs earned less than $190,000 per year after benefits were included. They included:

  • Falcon (Assumption): $153,637;
  • Sam Craft (Vernon): $171,615;
  • Randy Smith (St. Tammany): $177,367;
  • Eddie Soileau (Evangeline): $180,766;
  • James Pohlmann (St. Bernard): $184,057;
  • Ronald Theriot (St. Martin): $188,003;
  • Toney Edwards (Catahoula): $188,751.

Base salaries are determined by the legislature, according to St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz.

Twenty-four sheriffs have base salaries of $159,540. A 7 percent increase will add $11,167, boosting their base pay to $170,707 before the addition of benefits

Gautreaux’s East Baton Rouge Parish base pay of $179,277 will jump by $12,549, giving him a new base pay of $191826.

Here is a list of all the SHERIFFS’ SALARIES, including base pay and total compensation.

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A handful of distinguished retired journalists (and me) meets once a month at a Baton Rouge Piccadilly Cafeteria (I told you we were retired) to solve the ills of the state, nation, and the world. Occasionally, we even delve into local Baton Rouge politics.

One of those, Ed Pratt, with whom I had the pleasure of working at the old Baton Rouge State-Times back in the ‘70s, is an occasional attendant but because he is still gainfully employed (unlike the rest of the over-the-hill-gang), he doesn’t join us each month.

But several months ago, at a lunch he did show up. The subject that day was the future of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) and the legislature’s failure to adequately address the looming fiscal cliff that will see about a billion dollars fall off the books with the expiration of a temporary sales tax.

On March 9, Pratt, who still does a regular op-ed column for the Baton Rouge Advocate, WROTE a piece that accurately illustrated the direct connection between the continued funding of TOPS and the return on investment of apartment developers and restaurant owners, investments that exist in the immediate orbit of the state’s institutions of higher learning.

And while Pratt’s analysis singled out the spurt in apartment, condo, and restaurant development, primarily in the immediate proximity of LSU, other colleges and universities have also witnessed similar private investment, particularly in student housing.

Those investments could be in peril if the legislature continues to shirk its responsibility in setting the state on firm fiscal footing.

Take my alma mater, Louisiana Tech, for example, and Grambling State University, just five miles from Tech. There has been an explosion of housing construction around those two campuses. And because Tech has embarked on an ambitious program of student recruitment to bump its enrollment to something like 20,000 or so over the next few years, construction workers have been particularly busy in Ruston. (The enrollment at Tech when I was there was something like 4,000. But they had rotary dial pay phones, Cokes in 61/2-ounce glass bottles, manual typewriters, carbon paper, and 8 p.m. weeknight curfews for female students back then, too.)

But the way they’ve gone about with their student housing construction at Tech is quite creative and is being emulated by every other campus in the state, according to Ruston political consultant Dr. Gary Stokley, a retired Tech professor.

The Tech Alumni Foundation approaches alumni and other supporters with an “investment opportunity” that, as long as TOPS is maintained, is virtually risk-free. (And no, it’s not a Ponzi or pyramid scheme.)

Tech, despite having torn down some of its dormitories, is growing and with an increase in enrollment, students need housing. And, of course, students would prefer a home environment with private baths and kitchens as opposed to dormitories with a community bath and no kitchen.

By working with the school’s foundation, which actually negotiates the construction contracts, investors enjoy a generous tax write-off, plus they will own a percentage of the apartments or condos. The school takes care of filling the housing units and collecting the rent and is also responsible for the maintenance of the buildings. The dollars generated by student rent pays off the debt. The advantage to the school is that it is relieved of the burden of having to go through the State Bond Commission to obtain funding for the construction. The alumnus or supporter who ponies up the money does nothing but sit back and reap the rewards of his investment.

If you have the funds to sink into the project, it’s a win-win proposition.

“Tech is one of the first schools to come up with this method of financing construction of student housing,” said Stokley. “Other schools have since replicated that method.

“Tech and Grambling have a tremendous impact on the economy of Ruston and Lincoln Parish as do others schools on their communities,” he said.

“A four-year student at Tech has an economic value of a million dollars on Ruston,” he said, “so the retention of students is critical. If TOPS craters, enrollment will drop and these apartments will sit empty.

“It’s a domino effect. If TOPS is cut or eliminated, it affects not only students’ families, but the ripple effect impacts colleges and the community as well.” Stokley said it was not unrealistic to envision some universities actually shutting down or converting from public to private schools with even higher tuitions—which could further reduce enrollment.

There are already all those extra fees that students voted to impose on themselves—before tuition began rising so sharply seven or eight years ago. “At Tech, we have the $62 million Davison Center that students voted to pay a portion of by assessing themselves fees totaling $8 million,” Stokley said. “That’s an added fee tacked onto already rising tuition. If TOPS is cut, that’s money that will have to be made up by students’ parents or by students taking out student loans. If that happens, the money for private apartments and condos just won’t be in the budget.”

Combined with the threat to TOPS, banks are lobbying Congress to cap the amounts of government student loans which could place additional financial hardships on students.

With federal student loans, the interest rate is fixed and often lower than private loans which can have variable interest rates of more than 18 percent. Plus, with federal loans, students are not required to begin repayment until they graduate, leave school or change their enrollment status to less than half time. Private loans require payments while still enrolled.

For other advantages of federal over private loans, click HERE.

If you are a parent with a kid enrolled in a Louisiana public university who is on TOPS, you may wish to turn your attention from March Madness long enough to give your House and Senate members a call to suggest that they take time away from campaign fund raising long enough to do the job they were elected to do.

Better yet, here are the links to the HOUSE and SENATE. Scroll down and click on the name of your members to get their email addresses to contact them that way.

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State Sen. Dan Claitor (R-Baton Rouge) sometimes seems to be Louisiana’s answer to California Gov. Jerry Brown, aka Moonbeam.

Claitor can sometimes be an example of what we should expect from our legislators but far more often than not, fail to get. He also can do a spot-on Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation.

For instance, it was Claitor who filed a lawsuit to stop fellow Sen. Neil Riser’s sneakier than sneaky attempt to (illegally) inflate then-State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson’s retirement by, it eventually turned out, some $100,000 per year.

Points for Dan Claitor.

Claitor also filed a bill way back in 2012 that would have prevented legislators from leaving the House or Senate and taking six-figure political jobs in order to boost their retirement. That bill caused Sen. Daniel Martiny (R-Metairie) to practically go slightly ballistic—possibly because he could see an opportunity slipping away for himself.

The impetus behind Claitor’s doomed bill was Bobby Jindal, who was handing out those jobs like a lecherous old man giving candy to little kids

Claitor’s bill was defeated even as it became known that Jindal had appointed former legislators to lucrative jobs for which they possessed few, if any, qualifications.

Cases in point included:

  • Noble Ellingtonof Winnsboro, appointed to the second position in the Department of Insurance at $150,000 per year;
  • Jane Smithof Bossier City, appointed to position of Deputy Secretary in the Department of Revenue at $107,500 per year;
  • Troy Hebertof Jeanerette, appointed Commissioner of the Louisiana Alcohol and Tobacco Control Board at $107,500per year;
  • Kay Katzof Monroe, named member of the Louisiana Tax Commission at $56,000 per year;
  • Nick Gautreauxof Meaux, named Commissioner of the Office of Motor Vehicles at $107,000;
  • Tank Powelland  J. “Mert” Smiley, both named to the pardon board at $36,000 per year—Smiley to serve only until he took office as Ascension Parish tax assessor;
  • Former St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis, named Director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness at $165,000, and
  • Former St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro, new Director of Hazard Mitigation and Recovery at $150,000per year.

Points for Claitor for his quixotic tilting at windmills.

So, what’s with his SENATE BILL 276 in the current legislative session? Is he now acting out his Mr. Hyde role?

Claitor, who will be 57 later this year, is trying to push through a constitutional amendment that, if passed by voters, would bar anyone who is 70 or older from serving in the legislature or from holding statewide elective office.

In a magnanimous gesture of goodwill, however, his bill does stipulate that any officeholder who reaches age 70 while in office would be able to complete his term.

Wow. Thanks, I guess, from the Old Geezer Gallery. Claitor can certainly expect a Christmas card from State Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon this year (he’ll be 74 by that time).

It’s uncertain, without time-consuming research, just how many legislators would be disqualified to hold office under terms of Claitor’s benevolent bill, but my State Representative, J. Rogers Pope will be 77 later this year and I kinda like the job he’s done for the citizens of Livingston Parish. Senate President John Alario, considered the most able legislator whether or not you agree with him, is 74 (15 days older than yours truly but don’t worry: I’m not running for office).

And there is a gaggle of legislators well under Claitor’s self-imposed age of demarcation who, based on their collective performance in addressing the state’s fiscal problems, should already be out the door well before reaching their septuagenarian years. As a group, they’ve proven themselves to be inept, greedy, ambitious, petty, obstructionist, partisan hacks—and that’s sugar-coating it.

Apparently, Claitor, an attorney, has never heard of the AGE DISCRIMINATION IN EMPLOYMENT ACT. Which forbids age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older (did I mention that Claitor is 56?).

Initially, I thought Claitor, in a snit of self-righteousness, might be aiming his bill at Secretary of State Tom Schedler, who is embroiled in a dandy sexual harassment lawsuit by a former employee (Schedler admits having sex with the plaintiff, but says it was consensual, which she denies). The entire affair (poor choice of words) has more or less captured the interest of political junkies in Baton Rouge who thought Schedler ran one of the more upstanding, scandal-free agencies until this story broke.

But a quick check reveals that Schedler is 68. He will be 70 on Jan. 24, 2020, only days after the new terms of office for state officials and legislators begin which would mean that Schedler, if he remains in office and is re-elected, would be able to complete his next term under Claitor’s proposed guidelines.

Regardless, Claitor has royally ticked off a few senior citizens who are aware of his bill. Among them is former State Budget Director Stephen Winham of St. Francisville, who just happens to be 70. The bill wouldn’t affect Winham unless he plans to run for office, but he nevertheless was rankled by Claitor’s attempt at slamming the door on those who do aspire to office but have reached the magic age of 70.

“I do not live in your district,” Winham said in an email to Claitor. “I am 70.  I take offense at this bill and I am sure I am not alone. Is this one of those bills where you are trying to punish an individual elected official or do you really believe ALL of us who have reached age 70 are senile or otherwise incapable of serving in public office?”

Claitor was less than diplomatic in his response to Winham:

“I am glad you take offense to SB 276. I will assume that you also take offense to requiring judge’s (sic) to retire at age 70. Please stay tuned to the debate. Thank you.”

Besides his apparent inability to correctly spell the plural of judge despite holding a law degree (it doesn’t take an apostrophe, Dan), Claitor also appears to have a propensity to be a bit snotty with critics. Not a good trait for an elected official.

Stay tuned, folks. The “debate” should be interesting.

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