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Archive for the ‘Legislature, Legislators’ Category

If you should peek into the fiscal cortex of a Republican legislator’s brain, you’d see a mish-mash of conflicting ideas that’re reflective of the disastrous Jindal years, more than four years after he left office.

Apparently, the disciples of Grover Norquist learned little of the economic misrule that was emblematic of the Jindal years of consecutive budgetary shortfalls brought about by the eight-year orgy of tax cuts and tax exemptions granted for Walmarts and Family Dollar stores across the length and breadth of Louisiana.

Jindal repeatedly used one-time money to fund recurring expenses—until, that is, he was halfway out the door when it suddenly occurred to the so-called legislative “fiscal hawks” to do what they should’ve done years before—impose limits on how governors could use that one-time money to plug gaping holes in the state budget.

I suggest that they’ve learned little because, believe it or not, they’re at it again.

Exhibit A: Those fiscal hawks, taking full advantage of the drop in state revenue caused by the coronavirus shutdown, are attempting to cut spending for such luxuries as teacher pay, police protection, health care for the poor and housing state inmates. Read Tyler Bridges’s story about that HERE.

Exhibit B: Reps. Rick Edmonds (R-Baton Rouge) and Stuart Bishop (R-Lafayette) have submitted a couple of house concurrent resolutions that would grant an additional $1.1 billion in tax breaks to the oil and gas industry and corporate franchisees.

Edmonds’s HCR 43 would suspend the corporate franchise tax until 2021 at a cost of $413.6 million to the state.  To see the legislative fiscal notes to HCR 43, go HERE.

Exhibit C: Sen. Mark Abraham has introduced SB 272 which calls for a constitutional amendment to allow industrial corporations to establish the amount they pay in local property taxes through private negotiations.

Bishop’s HCR 65 would suspend severance taxes levied on oil, natural gas, distillate and condensate “from the date of adoption of the resolution through the 60th day following final adjournment of the 2021 legislative session” and would cost the state $693.8 million, according to the FISCAL NOTES.

How’s that for fiscal responsibility? In the face of shrinking revenues, we’re going to give huge breaks to the corporations—just like always—while popping it to the middle class.

And we wonder why we continue to wallow in the mud at the bottom of all the good economic indicators while other states stroll past on the nice, dry sidewalk. We in Louisiana are the ragged street urchins of a Dickens novel and the legislature is our Uriah Heep.

Ask yourself, local butcher shop proprietor, do you get the opportunity to “negotiate” your tax rate? Ms. dress shop owner, have you been granted any tax breaks lately?

Ms. dress shop owner, have your taxes been suspended?

Mr. and Mrs. Bakery owners, have you been exempted from paying your annual business license fee?

I’m going out on a limb and venturing the answers to those three questions are no, no and no.

But then, unlike the oil and gas companies, you probably didn’t pour thousands of dollars into legislative political campaigns or hire a team of lobbyists to protect your interests at the State Capitol. And the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) doesn’t speak for you because it’s too busy taking care of the big boys.

Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, pretty well summed it up when he said, “Louisiana is facing an unprecedented economic crisis, and we all need to do our part. But instead of looking out for front-line workers and their families, the Legislature is proposing more than $1 billion in new tax breaks for corporations. These tax breaks would come at the expense of students, families and workers who need Louisiana’s help now more than ever.

“The Legislature’s first priority should be to help those who’ve been hurt most by this pandemic – not the state’s largest corporations. Please join us in calling on the House Ways and Means Committee to reject these ill-considered giveaways,” he added.

To which we can only add, “Amen.”

 

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Loath as I am to pick a fight with or publicly criticize a professional journalist (God knows, we get enough grief from all directions—we’re too far left for the right and too far right for the left, and too everything for the centrists), I have to wonder if Baton Rouge Advocate columnist Dan Fagan has just flat out run out of subject matter or really believes what he writes.

In Thursday’s edition of The Advocate, Fagan seems to actually believe that Governor John Bel Edwards’s mandate that employees with contact with the public wear masks is an infringement upon our personal freedoms. (Read his full column HERE.)

“It’s not about masks,” he sniffs with all the appropriate indignity he can muster. “It’s about freedom,” something he said we had “before the government snatched it from us in broad daylight.”

Good grief.

He should be more offended at the rude manner in which Trump treated New Orleans nurse Sophia Thomas.

Personally, I’m far more offended by the fact that greedy legislators took their per diem pay for the 49 days they were not in session because of the shutdown. If some single black mom had taken a penny of welfare or food stamp payments to which she was not entitled, she would be instantly branded a welfare queen and demand would follow to tighten requirements for welfare recipients and to prosecute offenders. Perhaps Fagan should’ve addressed that little legislative swindle in his column.

What is he, the print edition of Rush Limbaugh? It’s no longer about what we cannot do, he writes, but “what we must do.”

Seriously? Does he understand that there have been 1.3 million confirmed cases in the U.S. as of today and 76,537 deaths attributed directly to the coronavirus so far—that we actually know about?

To put that in perspective, we lost 58,220 American lives in Vietnam and that was over a period of eight years, from 1965 to 1973. The first coronavirus death in the U.S. was on Feb. 26 of this year. Do the math.

Is he aware that 2,135 of those deaths have been right here in Louisiana?

And yes, influenza kills, too. For the six months from Oct. 1, 2019 through April 4, 2020, the Center for Disease Control’s best estimates are between 24,000 and 62,000 deaths from the flu.

Fagan bemoans the shaming of legislators for not wearing masks. Well, I’ve always said our legislators are better known for their avarice than for their common sense and that collectively, they are a few lagers shy of a six-pack.

In his rambling condemnation of what he perceives as an attack on his personal freedom, Fagan is careful to mention that Edwards is a Democrat, that Democrats oppose tort reform (which, of course, has everything to do with face masks), that State Rep. Mandie Landry, also a Democrat, shamed fellow legislators (the Republican ones, of course) for not wearing masks and besides, Landry, an attorney, represents abortion clinics…

To tell you the truth, Fagan’s wasn’t even something one could call circular logic. It was more like meandering logic. But if we’re going to play his game, I think it’s fair to speculate that there are most probably a few Republican lawyers who defend child molesters and ax murderers—or at least they would if a sufficient cash retainer was brought to the table.

But for the moment, let’s just stick to his main theme: freedom.

Do I not deserve the freedom to be presented a meal or any other commodity that I’m spending good money on without the fear that an infected employee may have sneezed on it? It seems only fair to me that I not be unnecessarily exposed by some careless individual who doesn’t really care about me or my family.

But, you say, if I’m that afraid, why don’t I just stay home?

Are you telling me you would impose your demands that I not leave my home? Isn’t that an infringement on the very freedom on which you based your silly argument to begin with?

In most circles, that would be deemed a double standard.

But bottom line is I respectfully disagree that a mandate for those serving the public to wear masks is tantamount to the government coming for my guns, my home, or my first-born or otherwise threatening my freedom.

It is simply an action taken for the greater good of the general public—sort of like restricting livestock in the city limits is a step toward protecting the general public. Like police patrols are for the protection of the public. Like requiring contractors, electricians, plumbers or airline pilots to have a license for their particular craft: you don’t want to expose the public to unnecessary risks.

Let’s leave the conspiracy theories to the experts—like Alex Jones—and let’s stick to informing, not roiling, the public.

There are legitimate concerns about which you can write—concerns like the shooting of innocent joggers, voter suppression and the wrongful convictions of far too many people, just for starters.

 

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The Reconstruction era ended in 1877. Seven years earlier (150 years ago), with ratification of the 15th Amendment, black males were granted the right to vote.

Seventeen years before that, The Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863 said that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

So, by 1880, blacks were not only free, but they had the right to vote. Federal troops had been withdrawn, so the time seemed right to restore the old order of white supremacy in the South.

But how?

Well, the Louisiana legislature had an answer that appeared to solve two problems at once.

Split jury verdicts.

Only one other state, Oregon, had the split jury conviction law on its books, and while still based on race, it had nothing to do with slavery. In that state, the law had been used to convict a Jewish defendant.

LOUISIANA took the lead over its sister Confederate states by passing a law that year which said a person could be convicted of a crime by a jury vote of 9-3. The Louisiana Constitution Convention of 1898 made it official and even went so far as to boast that the stated purpose was “to establish the supremacy of the white race in the state.”

The split verdict law withstood a legal challenge in 1972 when it was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court but in 1973, the Louisiana Constitution Convention did scale back the law a bit when it revised the law to require at least a 10-2 vote in favor of conviction—or acquittal. For capital murder cases, the requirement for a unanimous jury verdict has always remained in effect.

The dual effect was not only to discourage blacks from voting (only eight states allow convicted felons to vote—Louisiana is not one of them), but it also helped alleviate the “hardship” imposed on those poor plantation owners who, suddenly deprived of their slave labor, found themselves short-handed for harvesting cotton and sugar cane.

But a literal reading of the 13th AMENDMENT provided the all-important legal loophole:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. (emphasis added)

Blessed with rare economic foresight, the legislature saw an opportunity to pioneer what would evolve into lucrative prison work-release programs more than a century ago. (It would be the last time any Louisiana legislature would be accused of possessing the gift of economic foresight—except in cases of individual graft and corruption.)

The more inmates the state could crowd into its prison system, the greater the number of warm bodies available to be leased out to the plantation owners to harvest those crops to be shipped downriver to New Orleans and on to the world market.

Of course, a prison facility large enough to house a sufficient number of slaves prisoners was needed.

So, in 1880 (the same year the split-verdict law came into effect—coincidence?), ANGOLA STATE PRISON was erected on an 8,000-acre plantation in West Feliciana Parish, drawing its name from the African homeland of its former slave population. The prison was run by a private firm until reports of brutality against inmates prompted the state of Louisiana to take control of it in 1901. Today, it covers 18,000 acres, making it the largest maximum-security prison in the U.S.

But in October 2018, a brash, young judge up in Sabine Parish, hard on the Texas border, ruled that the split verdict in Louisiana was unconstitutional.

Judge Stephen Beasley, of the 11th Judicial District that borders Toledo Bend Lake on the Texas-Louisiana border, ruled as unconstitutional the case of Melvin Maxie who, by a jury verdict of 11-1, received an automatic life sentence by virtue of an 11-1 conviction of second-degree murder.

Beasley, who had presided over Maxie’s 2017 trial, also ruled that Maxie deserved a new trial on the grounds that prosecutors improperly struck three prospective jurors because of their race. His ruling was challenged by District Attorney Don Burkett.

His ruling came only three weeks before an election on a statewide constitutional amendment which would have struck down the split verdict in favor of unanimous verdicts for non-capital offenses. That proposed was easily approved by 64 percent of the vote.

And though the case decided by the Supreme Court was one out of Orleans Parish where District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro obtained a 10-2 conviction of second-degree murder, the high court opinion, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch and supported by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, cited Beasley’s ruling twice in its first three pages. Both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are appointees of Donald Trump.

Others siding with the majority were justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas. Dissenting were Chief Justice John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan.

The immediate effect of the decision is to void dozens—perhaps hundreds—of split jury verdicts in Louisiana and Oregon.

And perhaps create a manpower shortage in work-release programs throughout Louisiana.

 

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Once upon a time, there were 10 ventilators in a building on East Airport Drive in Baton Rouge that could have been used to treat COVID-19 patients.

Once upon a time, that 22,000-square-foot-building on East Airport Drive also contained four operating rooms, two recovery rooms, a CT scanner, an MRI scanner, oxygen, a lab and sterilization facilities.

No more. Not since 2016 when state authorities raided the offices of Dr. Arnold Feldman at the behest of the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners which decided it would come down hard on Dr. Feldman for offenses that have never been fully explained.

They pulled his license as his punishment. But then, the board has since offered to reinstate him—provided he pays nearly half-a-million dollars in extortion fees.

Why would I call it extortion? Consider this: His fine was $5,000 but the “cost” of the proceeding [court costs, if you will] was a cool $456,980.60. Anyone from the board care to explain that in a way that makes sense?

Didn’t think so.

Could it have been coincidental that Dr. Feldman was considered to be competition for Dr. J. Michael Burdine, who was founder of and a PARTNER in The Spine Diagnostic Promotional Clinic on Flanders Drive?

Could it also have been mere coincidence that Burdine was serving as president of the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners at the time Feldman was shut down?

An added note of interest is that Burdine is an officer in the LOUISIANA SOCIETY OF INTERVENTIONAL PAIN. A fellow officer in the organization is lobbyist Alton Ashy.

Ashy is a power player of some renown around the Louisiana State Capitol. Among his long list clients is the Spine Diagnostic Center of Baton Rouge.

So Burdine, in his capacity as president of the State Board of Medical Examiners, took out one of the main competitors of his Spine Diagnostic Center which is represented before the legislature and the governor by lobbyist Alton Ashy who sits on the board of the Louisiana Society of Interventional Pain with Burdine.

You’d be surprised what small circles some people move in in Baton Rouge. Tight little circles like that are difficult to penetrate and like tightly-formed hurricanes, pack considerable clout.

Meanwhile, 10 ventilators and an assortment of other critical medical equipment are no longer available. They were sold by Dr. Feldman, who now resides in a motor home in Florida when he could be in Baton Rouge treating coronavirus patients.

Only in Louisiana…

 

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Hey, folks, you want to see how your government really works for you? Read on.

In May 2018, House Concurrent Resolution 47 by State Rep. Kirk Talbot (R-River Ridge) was approved unanimously by both the Louisiana HOUSE and SENATE.

The RESOLUTION called on the Louisiana Department of Insurance to “assemble a task force to address the high automobile insurance rates and (to) submit a report with findings and recommendations to the Senate and House committees on insurance by March 1, 2019.”

An 11-person task force was chosen on July 31 and Talbot, who received $19,000 in campaign contributions from insurance interests in 2019, was named chairman and Sen. John Smith (R-Leesville) was named vice-chairman. Also named from the legislature was State Sen. Wesley Bishop. [Smith was term-limited and unable to seek re-election in 2019 and Bishop in January pleaded guilty to making a false statement to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.]

Other than those three, the committee was pretty much top-heavy with members from the insurance industry. Six members represented:

  • The Property Casualty Insurers Association;
  • The American Insurance Association;
  • The National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies;
  • The Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of Louisiana;
  • The Professional Insurance Agents of Louisiana;
  • The Louisiana Department of Insurance.

One of those is Kevin Ainsworth, a registered lobbyist who lists Progressive Insurance among clients he represents before the legislature. He also is an attorney with the politically-connected firm Jones Walker, which has contributed more than $300,000 to political candidates since 2015.

Only two of the 11 members (other than the three legislators) could be considered consumer advocates and one of those has questionable credentials as a former appointee of Bobby Jindal:

  • A representative from the Louisiana Association for Justice, an organization comprised mostly of lawyers who, for the most part, represent consumer plaintiffs in civil lawsuits, and
  • A representative (Chance McNeely) of the Louisiana Motor Transport Association.

McNeely, you may recall, is the son-in-law of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco who was APPOINTED by Jindal as Assistant Secretary, Office of Environmental Compliance at the Department of Environmental Quality at $102,000 even as the Jindal administration was laying off employees by the hundreds. He didn’t miss a beat when John Bel Edwards became governor, moving seamlessly over to the job as Assistant Secretary of the Department of Transportation and Development at $99,000.

Given Chance’s track record on behalf of the general public at DEQ, the wisdom of his appointment to the insurance task force is questionable at best.

The task force met exactly three times— on Sept. 13, Oct. 18 and Nov. 14—for approximately 90 minutes per session to discuss the complex problem of Louisiana’s high auto insurance rates. And while the meetings were recorded, they were not videoed.

An actuarial subcommittee was appointed and was comprised exclusively of representatives of the insurance industry. The task force never investigated the findings of the actuarial subcommittee.

Moreover, the task force’s actuary report is not posted on any public website nor is it posed in the legislative archives, or the Department of Insurance Archives.

So much for transparency.

The March 1, 2019 deadline for the submission of recommendations to the Senate and House committees on insurance came and went with no recommendations being submitted.

Talbot on March 29, 2019, filed HB 372 entitled “The Omnibus Premium Reduction Act,” named for his task force and consisting of four parts which did little to actually lower insurance premiums.

Not only was there no report released by the task force, but the report has never been made public and no further action, meetings or inquiries have been made by the task force or any of its members to the actuarial subcommittee even though the actuary subcommittee has indicated that the four reform components of the Kirk Talbot bill would not lower rates.

No matter. Talbot and the insurance industry, through radio interviews, social media and numerous newspaper editorials, trumpeted the “drastically lower premiums” HB 372 would produce. Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport), though not a member of the task force and though he never attended any of the committee’s three meetings, testified on the House floor that the task force bill had been thoroughly vetted

Even though the task force did not, in fact, “thoroughly vet” or investigate in any other manner the findings of the actuarial subcommittee, and upon information and belief by some observers that the task force was caught off-guard by the results of the actuarial subcommittee, it chose to run with the bill anyway because of political pressure from the insurance industry.

An army of lobbyists was engaged to pushing the bill through the legislature. It did pass the House by a vote of 69-30 but never made it to the Senate floor.

“It is clear…that the bill, heavily marketed by the insurance industry, was designed to increase rates under the subterfuge of reducing rates,” one opponent said of HB 372.

That’s not surprising. Several years ago, I had a legislator introduce a bill that would’ve mandated a 10% premium reduction for anyone who voluntarily took a defensive driving class, the idea being if a person volunteered for a defensive driving class, s/he would become a better driver, thus reducing the accident rate and, in the process, lower the cost of insurance claims. You’d think the insurance industry would welcome such a bill but instead, their lobbyist came out with guns blazing and shot the bill down in committee.

So now, it’s 2020 and as we are set to open a new session on Monday, no fewer than 59 bills dealing with some form of insurance have been pre-filed, 11 of which deal with auto insurance rates. Most of those 11 are redundant, with only about four separate issues actually being addressed.

And good luck getting any of those passed.

All of which goes back to my oft-repeated rhetorical question: Who do our elected officials really represent?

 

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