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Archive for the ‘Legislature, Legislators’ Category

Something happening here,

What it is ain’t exactly clear

 

The 1967 Buffalo Springfield Vietnam War protest song, For What It’s Worth could be applicable to just about any scenario in Louisiana politics but probably never more so than with HOUSE BILL 727 by State Rep. Major Thibaut (D-New Roads).

Thibaut, posing as a Democrat but appearing to be anything but, apparently wants to repeal the FIRST AMENDMENT which guarantees American citizens the right of peaceful assembly.

HB 727, which has 50 additional co-authors in the House and 14 in the Senate, would amend an existing statute in accordance with the dictates of the AMERICAN LEGISLATIVE EXCHANGE COUNCIL (ALEC), which long ago wormed its way into the Republican mindset as a means of advancing its agenda.

That agenda, of course, works hand-in-hand with that of corporate America—big oil, big banks, big pharma, charter schools, and private prisons, among others—to the overall detriment of those who ultimately foot the bill—the working stiffs of middle America who continue to convince themselves that their interests are compatible.

The bottom line is this: if the corporate giants are shelling out millions upon millions of dollars to lobby lawmakers and to finance their campaigns, you can bet they’re in bed together. And when they whisper sweet nothings in each other’s ear, they ain’t discussing how to make your life easier.

And that’s HB 727 and ALEC are all about. While the seemingly innocuous bill appears only to lay out penalties for trespassing onto “critical infrastructure,” and to include “pipelines” or “any site where the construction or improvement of any facility or structure…is occurring” to the definition of critical infrastructure, the wording of the bill includes subtle landmines designed to discourage otherwise legal protests.

For instance, while criminal trespass and criminal damage has long been considered a violation of the law, the bill adds this provision:

“Any person who commits the crime of criminal damage to a critical infrastructure wherein it is foreseeable that human life will be threatened or operations of a critical infrastructure will be disrupted as a result of such conduct shall be imprisoned at hard labor for not less than six years nor more than 20 years, fined not more than $25,000, or both.”

There’s a man with a gun over there

Telling me I got to beware

The key phrase here is “wherein it is foreseeable…”

This is a pretty subjective call on someone’s part. Just who decides what is “foreseeable”?

And then there is the conspiracy clause that’s added to the bill.

HB 727, which passed the HOUSE by an overwhelming 97-3 vote with five members absent, provides if “two or more” person conspire to violate the statute, each “shall be imprisoned with or without hard labor for not more than five years, fined not more than $10,000, or both.”

Just what would constitute a “conspiracy” in this case? Well, it could mean the simple discussion of possible trespass. Whatever it is, the word “foreseeable” is thrown into the mix again. So, a protest in the proximity of pipeline construction could conceivably be construed by an ambitious prosecutor as “conspiracy” and any discussion during such a protest could become a conspiracy.

Besides being yet another windfall for the private prisons, this bill is nothing more than a means to discourage protests over pipeline construction through sensitive areas such as the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, a joint venture of Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66 (keep those names in mind; they’ll come up again later).

It’s also an obvious effort to placate ALEC and the oil and gas industry that has held this state, its governors and legislators captive for a century. The political leaders of this state, from the governor on down, won’t go to the bathroom without permission from Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, which boasts on its WEB PAGE that it is “Louisiana’s longest-standing trade association” (read: lobbying arm of the petroleum industry).

There’s battle lines being drawn;

Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong

What’s not difficult to believe is the motivation behind nearly half of the bill’s sponsors.

Of the 51 representatives and 14 senators who signed on as co-authors of the bill, 31 (23 representatives and eight senators) combined to rake in $62,500 in contributions from Transfer Partners and Phillips 66 since January 2011.

ENERGY TRANSFER PARTNERS CONTRIBUTIONS

PHILLIPS 66 CONTRIBUTIONS

Phillips also gave $3,500 to Senate President John Alario and Energy Transfer Partners chipped in another $4,000. Additionally, Energy Transfer Partners gave $4,000 to then-Sen. Robert Adley of Bossier Parish who was appointed by Gov. John Bel Edwards as Executive Director of the Louisiana Offshore Terminal Authority, $2,000 to then-Rep. Jim Fannin of Jonesboro who served as Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee at the time.

Energy Transfer Partners also contributed $5,000 to Edwards, who is on record as SUPPORTING the Bayou Bridge project, and Phillips 66 added another $5,500.

Thibaut was not one of those. But he did specialize in accepting campaign contributions from more than 40 political action committees—including several aligned with energy interests. In all, he pulled in $105,000 from PACs since 2008, campaign records show.

Those PACs included such diverse interests as dentists, bankers, payday loan companies, optometrists, insurance, student loans, pharmaceutical companies, sugar, realtors, and nursing homes, to name only a few.

EASTPAC, WESTPAC, NORTHPAC, and SOUTHPAC, four PACs run by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) combined to $13,750 to Thibaut, records show, while the Louisiana Manufacturers PAC gave $11,000.

With that money stacked against them, the Bayou Bridge pipeline opponents are fighting an uphill battle, especially with leaders like Edwards already having publicly endorsed the project.

The end game, of course, is to head off a repeat of STANDING ROCK, the largest Native American protest movement in modern history over the construction of a 1,170-mile Dakota Access pipeline, of which the BAYOU BRIDGE project through the Atchafalaya Basin is a part. Opponents of the 162-mile Bayou Bridge project—from St. James Parish to Calcasieu Parish—say would harm the area’s delicate ecosystem.

Standing Rock was an ugly scene, further illustrative of how this country has time after time ripped land, basic human rights and dignity from the country’s original inhabitants, inhabitants who weren’t even recognized as American citizens until 1924 even though more than 12,000 fought for this country in World War I.

Standing Rock apparently was such a national emergency that St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne, at the time President of the National Sheriffs’ Association, found it necessary to visit Standing Rock in 2016 and to write a lengthy self-serving account in the association’s online PRESIDENT’S PODIUM of the carnage he witnessed at the hands of the protestors whom he described in less than glowing terms.

His article prompted a lengthy REBUTTAL by Cherri Foytlin, state Director of BOLD LOUISIANA in Rayne and Monique Verdin, a citizen of the UNITED HOUMA NATION, who also were at Standing Rock. It’s difficult to believe, after reading the two missives, that they were at the same place, witnessing the same events play out.

What a field day for the heat;

A thousand people in the street

Singing songs and carrying signs

Mostly saying, “hooray for our side.”

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Legislators and leaders of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) would do well to pay attention to the rumblings of discontent that began in West Virginia and rolled westward into Kentucky and Oklahoma.

Those same rumblings, though faint and indistinct for now, are being picked up by those in tune with the times.

Louisiana’s public school teachers, a group to whom I owe so very much from a personal perspective and to whom I shall ever remain loyal, are quietly receiving copies of a “Teacher Salary Satisfaction Survey” being distributed by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT).

It could just as easily be called a “Teacher Salary Dissatisfaction Survey.

The flier opens with the question: “What are you willing to do for a pay raise?” and goes on to note that education funding in Louisiana “has been frozen for the past decade. Our teacher salaries are now about $2,000 below the Southern regional average.”

How can that possibly be? How could we have allowed ourselves to neglect the most dedicated, the most heroic among us for so very long?

We gave state police huge salary increases and while I don’t begrudge their pay increases, they certainly should not have come at the expense of teacher salaries.

Teachers should never have to bow down at the sacrificial altar of political servitude, yet that is precisely what has happened.

I can still remember that little presidential wannabe Bobby Jindal telling LABI that the only reason some teachers are still in the classroom was by virtue of their being able to breathe. That was just before Sandy Hook when a teacher stood between a gunman and a student and took a bullet that ended her breathing ability but which allowed a child to go on living.

I still remember teachers at Ruston High School taking an interest in the well-concealed abilities of a poverty-stricken, less-than-mediocre student and nurturing and cultivating those latent talents into eventual college material and a career in journalism. They didn’t have to do that; they could have let him slip through the cracks. But they didn’t. Thanks, Mrs. Garrett, Miss Lewis, Miss Hinton, Mr. Ryland, Coach Perkins, Mr. Peoples, Mr. Barnes. Thanks so very much. You never knew (or maybe you did) what your compassion meant to that kid.

“Another budget crisis is looming, and yet our legislature has taken no steps to avert it,” the flier says.

True. So true. The legislature has taken no steps because legislators, for the most part, are in bed with the special interests who are slowly bleeding this state to death with overly-generous tax breaks even as benefits are being ripped from our citizens. Benefits like health care, education, decent roads and bridges, flood control, the environment—benefits that we rely on our elected officials to provide.

Oh, but they haven’t forgotten the tax breaks for the Saints, the Pelicans, the Walmarts, the Exxons, the Dow Chemicals, pharmaceuticals, the movie industry, the utilities, the banks and payday loan companies, the nursing homes, the private prisons, the Koch brothers, the Grover Norquists, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), or chicken-plucking plants.

But teachers? Nope. They don’t need raises. Besides, we have virtual academies and charter schools, so who needs public education?

“In some states,” the flier reads, “teachers and school employees have acted to demand pay raises and better funding for schools. Actions in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky had positive results for educators.”

LABI, of course, would beg to differ. After all, LABI was created back in the 1970s for the express purpose of destroying labor unions in Louisiana through passage of the right to work law. I got that straight from the mouth of Ed Steimel, one of the moving forces for the creation of LABI, shortly before his death.

But let’s back up a minute and pause for reflection before you try to label me as some ranting liberal or even worse, a (gasp) communist.

Do you approve of:

  • Your annual two-week (or whatever the length of time) vacation?
  • How about the eight-hour work day?
  • The 40-hour work week?
  • Overtime?
  • Retirement?
  • Minimum wage?
  • Health benefits?
  • The abolition of sweat shops where children as young as seven or eight are required to work 12- or 14-hour days for pennies?
  • Workplace safety reforms that have drastically reduced injuries and deaths at work?
  • Sanitation laws that have cleaned up the meatpacking industry?

Well, gee, if you approve of all that, you must be a ranting liberal yourself. Or worse, a (nah, better not say it).

But just who do you think brought about those reforms? It certainly wasn’t management. Okay, the guvmint was largely responsible for the meatpacking industry reforms but for the rest, you can tip your hat to organized labor.

“Please complete the Teacher Salary Satisfaction Survey,” the flier reads. “Let the Louisiana Federation of Teachers know what you think about salaries in our state, and what you think will help correct the situation.”

The second page is an authorization form requesting the local school board (in this case, Livingston Parish) to deduct dues for the LFT.

Legislators and LABI are being taken to class here and they’d be wise to pay attention lest they get a failing grade.

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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 four-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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Physicians Health Foundation (PHF), which for years has abetted the Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners in targeting vulnerable medical practitioners in a manner reminiscent of the tactics employed by the Louisiana State Board of Dentistry, now finds itself in the crosshairs of State Sen. John Milkovich (D-Shreveport).

Both boards have for years flown under the radar of governors, legislators and the media but more and more, attention is being given to their near-autonomous rule by intimidation and extortion.

PHF, also known as the Healthcare Professionals’ Foundation of Louisiana (HPFL), is located on Bluebonnet Boulevard in Baton Rouge and it currently is about halfway through a three-year, $1.35 million contract with the Board of Medical Examiners to run a “Statewide Operations of Physicians Health Program.”

And, since the Board of Dentistry has been mentioned, it might be worth noting that PHF also is just over a year into a three-year, $287,000 contract with that board to “develop, create and administer the Dental Health Professional Monitoring Program.”

By its own admission in a lawsuit to be discussed later in this post, it is not a treatment facility. So, just what does PHF (or HPFL) do to earn its money?

Well, for the Board of Medical Examiners, it appears to extract huge fees from medical professionals (which includes doctors, physician assistants, podiatrists, medical psychologists, dentists and dental hygienists) who are found to have addiction problems or who the board deems to have committed other transgressions.

And since its contract with the Board of Medical Examiners includes dentists, it is unclear why there is a need for a separate $287,000 contract with the Dentistry Board.

But like the Dental Board, the Board of Medical Examiners has set itself up as accuser, prosecutor, judge and jury in investigating complaints and handing down its decisions. Again, like the Dental Board, the Board of Medical Examiners even conducts its own hearings whenever a doctor appeals one of its decisions.

And the board remains a stellar undefeated record in 20 years of reviews of its decisions that are appealed.

Which probably is the reason Sen. Milkovich feels the need for his SB 286, which would establish a Physicians’ Bill of Rights designed to protect their rights whenever they are brought under the scrutiny of the board. More about that shortly.

In addition to its ability to suspend licenses of medical professionals, the board wields a big stick in its ability to coerce licensees into signing consent agreements to enter into rehab.

And those consent agreements often come with large price tags in the form of fees and penalties. Many state regulatory boards, the Board of Medical Examiners and the Dentistry Board included, receive their budgets not from legislative appropriations but from membership fees and financial penalties assessed against members accused and convicted of violations, some of which, though minor, still carry large fines.

Doctors and other medical practitioners apparently are referred to the rehab centers by PHF (or HPFL) whose spokesperson indicated to LouisianaVoice that it has a list of approved facilities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, among others.

PHF’s $1.35 million contract with the Medical Board runs from Aug. 1, 2016 through July 31, 2019.

One of those rehab centers is PALMETTO Addiction Recovery Center in Rayville.

That facility became involved in a lawsuit in 2009 after one of its staff members. Dr. Douglas Wayne Cook became sexually involved with one of the center’s patients. The husband of the victim sued Cook, who is no longer with Palmetto but who does continue to have a private practice in Richland Parish.

 

Milkovich’s bill, already reported out of committee favorably, is scheduled to be brought before the entire Senate on Monday.

“Under Louisiana’s current board system, physicians often face an uneven playing field, rigged proceedings, and a stacked deck,” Milkovich said. “Licensed, dedicated and highly qualified professionals may have their licenses threatened, suspended, or revoked, based on false accusations, anonymous complaints, and spurious charges. Doctors are often administratively charged by the board without even being informed of the identity of their accusers, the evidence against them, or even the substance of the accusations brought against them. This injustice is compounded by the heavy-handed and inequitable tactics employed by some Board staff.

“We understand that there must be a fair and sound disciplinary process for physicians, to protect the public. However, the goal of board proceedings for physicians should be impartiality, fairness, and integrity—not intimidation, falsification, and inequity.

“The aim of SB 286 is to level the playing field, un-stack the deck and render the Board’s adjudication of doctors more transparent. Everyone deserves Due Process. And that includes doctors.”

The bill, according to the BATON ROUGE ADVOCATE, would require stricter communication requirements during board investigations and would require that the board provide physicians under investigation written notice of complaints within 10 days or receipt. Moreover, the bill would require that the board reveal the identity of the complainant and would prohibit ex parte communications by board members prior to a hearing on the pending investigation.

One critic of the board, Dr. Greg Stephens said criminals and terrorists receive “more due process than we give doctors.” He and his former boss, Dr. John Gianforte, said they were coerced into consenting to voluntary license suspensions and mandated substance abuse treatment without either being allowed to give their side of the story.

They were suspended following claims that Stephens allowed unqualified staff members to write and sign prescriptions in his name while serving as medical director at a clinic in Shreveport when in fact, the prescription pad was stolen by two employees and Stephens’ name forged. Gianforte said the two employees were fired and one was later charged by law enforcement authorities.

Milkovich even cited a case where a New Orleans physician practicing at Tulane Medical Center committed suicide last November. His license was summarily suspended in June following an investigation but was reinstated in October. By then, however, the doctor had lost privileges, positions and future opportunities as a result of the investigation, the senator said.

In another case, the family of another doctor filed suit against PFL when the doctor, informed that he had had tested positive for drug use, committed suicide a few hours later. The doctor’s family was told by PFL that its programs and personnel had statutorily qualified immunity from legal liability regarding their activities and that they were further protected by a release and a hold-harmless agreement with the Physicians Health Program.

RAMEY V. DECAIRE

PHF was successful in getting the Louisiana Supreme Court to rule that it was exempt under the peremptory exception of no cause of action and the family’s lawsuit was dismissed. PHF, apparently not satisfied with merely winning, then went after the family for legal sanctions, claiming their suit was frivolous and without reasonable good faith. The trial court denied PHF’s motion and PHF appealed. The First Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the trial court and assessed costs against PHF.

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Taking their cue from Alabama Sheriff TODD ENTREKIN, several members of Louisiana’s House of Representatives have co-sponsored a bill that would cut food expenditures for prisoners and college and university students while increasing the percentage of prisoner work-release pay that the state receives in an effort to boost revenue as the state rushes headlong toward the June 30 fiscal cliff.

HB-4118, co-authored by a dozen Republican legislators who received the highest ratings from the conservative Americans for Prosperity (AFP), would slash funding for inmate meals three days per week in an effort to help make up budgetary shortfalls.

The bill has been endorsed by AFP, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, and Attorney General Jeff Landry as an effective cost-saving measure that would, at the same time, continue to allow generous tax breaks for business and industry to remain untouched. Also remaining intact would be tax incentives for movie and television production in the state.

In Alabama, existing legislation allows sheriffs to collect a salary supplement as a percentage of savings achieved.

Entrekin, Sheriff of Etowah County in Alabama, recently came under heavy criticism when it was learned that he cut back on his jail’s food budget by eliminating meat for prisoners for all but a couple of days per month but then used the money saved to purchase a beach house for $740,000. HB 4118, while similar to the Alabama law, would have built-in safeguards against any surplus being diverted for personal use.

“Sheriff Entrekin, who runs only a single county jail in Alabama, was able to save approximately $250,000 per year for three years. Granted, he abused the intent of the law by using his surplus funds for personal gain,” said State Reps. Cameron Henry (R-Metairie) and Lance Harris (R-Alexandria) in a joint statement announcing their introduction of the bill. “If surplus funds are properly allocated back to the state instead of to individuals as was the case in Alabama, that misuse of funds can be avoided. With 50,000 prison inmates and more than 200,000 college students in Louisiana, imagine how much we would be able to save by employing the same paradigm.”

HB 4118 would cut servings of meat, milk and juice by three days a week for 50 weeks per year—Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for state-run prisons and all colleges and universities and Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays for parish jails and privately-run prisons. State appropriations for those institutions would be cut accordingly.

“We wouldn’t want to make such cuts for prisons on Sundays or during the weeks of Thanksgiving or Christmas because that would just not be the Christian thing to do,” the statement by Henry and Harris said. “Colleges and universities are out during those weeks anyway, so they would not be affected during those times.”

They said the potential savings to the state, calculated at a minimum of $3 per meal at which meat, milk and juice are eliminated, would be an estimated $22.5 million per year at prisons and $75 million at institutions of higher learning, or a total of $97.5 million per year.

Public schools would be exempted from the more restrictive diets for now, they said.

Operators of prisons and jails typically receive about 60 percent of the earnings of each prisoner who participates in a work-release program. That amount would be increased to 75 percent if HB 4118 becomes law. Additionally, a processing fee of one dollar would be added to the sale of each soft drink and snack to the prices presently charged by prison commissaries, according to provisions of the bill. Currently, prisoners are charged $3 for soft drinks and $5 for snacks.

“These people are in jail for committing crimes,” the two lawmakers’ joint statement said. “They get free housing, food, clothing and they’re learning a trade. There really isn’t any need for them to earn money on top of those benefits.

“This bill will allow the state to protect the valuable incentives for businesses and industry which provide jobs for Louisiana’s honest, hard-working citizens,” they said. “The bill protects the same jobs that will be available to the college students when they graduate. We’re asking students to sacrifice a little now for greater rewards in the future.”

Though the bill’s language doesn’t specifically say so, the same cuts could also be applied at hospitals now operated as part of the public-private partnerships implemented by the Jindal administration, which would produce additional savings although no estimates were provided for the medical facilities.

If approved, the new law would go into effect one year from today.

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