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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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Baton Rouge attorney J. Arthur Smith, III, has been named president of a new political action committee (PAC) founded in an attempt to stem the growing trend of economic, religious, gender, racial and healthcare discrimination against American employees.

Stand Up for Workers (SU4W) “was established by people who care about the basic rights of the American worker. We seek to protect the right to a fair and livable wage and benefits; to receive fair and humane treatment in the workplace, including work with dignity; and to have full access to justice, including the right to trial by jury,” according to its web page.

A little background is in order here.

The formation of the new PAC is realistically challenged with overcoming nearly a 50-year head start by big business and business-backed Republican elected officials who, indebted to corporate PACs, have given their tacit approval to the more subtle means of employee discrimination. At the same time, open endorsement has been given the so-called Powell Memorandum of 1971 by then-corporate attorney Lewis Powell, Jr., who shortly after writing his memo, was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Nixon.

The MEMORANDUM, written specifically for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was entitled “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System” and served as a master plan for conservative business interests to retake America from the so-called New Deal era. It was supposed to have been confidential, but was discovered an published by columnist Jack Anderson following Powell’s appointment to the Supreme Court.

Powell, who had served as corporate attorney and director on the board of Phillip Morris until his appointment to the Supreme Court, was an unabashed champion of the tobacco industry during his term on the court as well as an opponent of reforms to the automobile industry prompted by Ralph Nader’s expose’ Unsafe at Any Speed, which revealed the auto industry’s higher priority on profits than on safety. Powell called Nader the chief antagonist of American business.

The memo, which foreshadowed several of the Powell court’s opinions served as the blueprint for the rise of the American conservative movement and the formation of a spate of right-wing think tanks like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and lobbying organizations and also inspired the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to become more active in the political arena.

Conversely, as the chamber’s and other conservative organization’s influence gained strength in Washington, the political clout of organized labor weakened, further silencing the voice of American workers.

Following is the full press release announcing the formation of SU4W, as well as a link to the organization’s web page:

 

A group of worker advocates from across the nation has announced founding of a specialized political action committee, “Stand Up for Workers” (SU4W), dedicated specifically to the needs and concerns of American workers.  https://standupforworkers.org/    SU4W is a hybrid PAC, comprising both a traditional PAC and a super PAC.

“Despite recent promises of improvements in work life conditions for working Americans, the plight of middle and lower income workers has, if anything, become more dire,” said Baton Rouge attorney J. Arthur “Art” Smith, III, President of SU4W.

Mr. Smith is a 47 year veteran employee-side litigator in Louisiana. He has litigated numerous trials and appeals in labor and employment on behalf of both employees and unions. He is a fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers, and has served in numerous positions with the Louisiana Association for Justice, including membership on the Board of Governors, and chair of both its employment and civil rights committees.

SU4W Vice President James Kaster, a Minneapolis, MN attorney, is an experienced trial lawyer who concentrates on representing plaintiffs in employment cases. He is one of only a few plaintiffs’ lawyers who is a member of both the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers and the American College of Trial Lawyers, a group limited to one percent of America’s trial attorneys.  Mr. Kaster has also been a frequent lecturer at continuing legal education seminars and has been active in bar activities, including serving as President of the National Employment Lawyers Association.

“Until now there has been no group specifically dedicated to supporting political candidates committed to sponsoring and voting for legislation aimed at concrete measures that will produce better conditions for the American workers whose labor has formed the backbone of our country’s prosperity,” Mr. Smith said. SU4W will support candidates for all federal offices and will engage in other activities in support of working Americans, such as providing accurate information about candidates, proposed legislation and policies.

Most lower- and middle-income American workers have seen stagnant wages for decades, while executive and professional income has risen astronomically, Smith noted. Efforts to better the lives of workers through measures such as affordable health insurance have been consistently attacked and undermined by the current administration in Washington.

SU4W focuses on three goals:

  • more equitable pay for workers;
  • fair and humane treatment in the workplace, and
  • full access to justice, including trial by jury. Trial rights have been substantially eroded by the advent of arbitration agreements extracted from workers through the threat of not being hired.

SU4W will solicit applications for support from candidates, and will engage in a careful vetting process to ensure that the candidates selected satisfy a clear set of criteria showing they will include support for workers among their top priorities.  SU4W will study recent election returns to identify districts where pro-worker candidates will have the best chance of success.

The need for advocacy on behalf of workers extends beyond the issues of income and access to affordable health care, Smith noted. Incidents of degrading treatment at work, including racial, religious and sexual discrimination, are on the rise, and many employers have failed to prevent  abuse or act against it.

Founding members of SU4W are from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.  Among its leadership are some of the country’s most prominent attorneys whose legal practices are committed to enforcing employee rights.

For more information about SU4W, to make a donation, or find out how to apply for support, visit the website at https://standupforworkers.org/

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Over the years, I have taken Troy Hebert to task over his tenure as head of the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC). I even had to give a deposition in a lawsuit filed against Hebert by one of the agents he fired.

But I would be remiss if I did not now point out that we are in complete agreement on at least three issue: the failure of both political parties to represent Americans, lobbyists, and campaign finance.

On August 27, Hebert appeared along with Melissa Flournoy on the Jim Engster Show on Louisiana Public Radio. Both served in the Louisiana Legislature and Engster had them on together to present their viewpoints from the left (Flournoy) and the right (Hebert).

Flournoy correctly pointed out that gubernatorial candidates Eddie Rispone and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham are placing far too much emphasis on their being in lockstep with Donald Trump, who has proven that anyone can indeed become president—even the mentally deranged.

“I’m a little surprised (they) have embraced the President so much. I’m ready for them to talk about their vision for Louisiana and the kind of leadership they can provide,” she said. “I don’t think liking the President is good enough reason to be governor. I’m ready for the governor’s race to pivot to the real issues in Louisiana—education, health care, infrastructure and making Louisiana better.

“People don’t want to talk about solutions. We stand on different sides of the street and shriek at each other when we really ought to be focusing on solutions where we can work together.”

Hebert, a staunch Trump supporter. As a former legislator and member of the Jindal administration, nailed it when he said, “Neither party is getting done what needs to be done in this country.”

Hebert would seem qualified to speak to that issue, having been a member of each party but who now calls himself a “conservative independent. I served on both (parties) and just couldn’t take either one of them.”

He then fired a broadside at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI). “As somebody who was in the legislature for 16 years as both a senator and a representative, I think big business owns the legislature and owns many officials.

“The little man is either dead or on life support in the legislature,” he said. “Why don’t you just pull up the campaign finance reports and find out who gives to these candidates.” LABI, he said, is “so blatant that they hinge their support on … a report card they give every year. And you have to score a certain percentage in order to receive funding from LABI when you run for re-election.

“I can’t tell you how many times I approached legislators with a bill I thought was a good idea to help the little guy and they said, “… This is a really good bill but the problem is LABI is against it and if I vote for it, they’re going ding me on their report card and I’m not gonna get money.”

Flournoy agreed, saying that LABI and the Chemical Association control and big corporations “… control and influence every decision made in Louisiana. They’re looking out for their interest and not for the people of Louisiana.”

Hebert, while agreeing with Flournoy, took his argument a step further by attacking the emphasis on money politics and how it even affects the media.

“The media judges a candidate’s ability by how much month they have in the bank. If you look at every report when the news comes on, when they talk about this governor’s race, they don’t talk about their ideas or what their policies are. They talk about how much money they’ve raised.

“When I ran for the U.S. Senate (in 2016), they had a debate put on by LPB (Louisiana Public Broadcasting) and you had to have a million dollars in order to be on the debate stage. So, the media also is responsible and is guilty for bringing money into play.

“The regular working guy who would want to run for office, the media won’t even let them in.”

Turning to the 2020 presidential campaign, Hebert said Joe Biden is probably the only Democrat in a crowded field who could give Trump a decent run but because he’s more moderate. “But watch the Democrats cannibalize Joe Biden. He’s going to be eaten by his own. The people in charge of the Democratic Party will not allow Joe Biden to be the nominee.”

Flournoy, while agreeing that the Democratic Party is moving too far to the left, said she does not believe we have seen the candidate who will end up running against Trump. “There’re going to be some late entries,” she said.

If I were a TV news analyst, I would sum up that appearance by pointing out that Melissa Flournoy and Troy Hebert are in agreement on more issues than those on which they disagree and that the common culprit is the influence of LABI and its big business membership on the Louisiana Legislature to the detriment of the citizens of Louisiana.

But the really unique aspect of Hebert’s diatribe against the influence of big money and big business on politics is that as he spoke, I found myself nodding in full agreement with someone about whom I had written many negative stories.

 

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If Louisiana’s working citizens—particularly those struggling to pay rent, put food on the table, pay for their children’s educational needs, clothe their families, buy gasoline and pay insurance premiums—are paying attention, they will soon know who their legislators represent—the aforementioned working people or the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

State Sen. Troy Carter (D-New Orleans) cartert@legis.la.gov has introduced SB 155, backed by Gov. Edwards, to raise the state’s stagnant minimum wage from an incentive-choking $7.25 to $9.00, effective July 1, 2020. If approved, it would go to voters in the form of a constitutional amendment.

It’s time. In fact, it’s way past time.

The same goes for the long overdue equal pay for women legislation. Louisiana currently pays women about 60 percent of what men earn for the same job. That’s unthinkable.

Equally unfathomable is that similar bills have failed to gain traction in past legislative sessions.

Gov. Edwards is on record as supporting both measures.

Women are not second-class citizens and should not be treated as such.

HB 289 by Rep. Barbara Norton (D-Shreveport) nortonb@legis.la.gov provides equal pay for women and HB 63 by Rep Joseph Bouie, Jr. (D-New Orleans) bouiej@legis.la.gov would require any contractor who enters into a contract with a public entity to comply with the Equal Pay for Women Act. Both bills are pending before the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee.

That committee membership is weighted 9-6 in favor of Republicans. Members include Reps. Patrick Jefferson, Chair (D-Homer) jeffersonpo@legis.la.gov, Kenny Cox (D-Natchitoches) coxk@legis.la.gov, Royce Duplessis (D-New Orleans) duplessisr@legis.la.gov, Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) james.ted@legis.la.gov, Ed Larvadain, III (D-Alexandria) hse026@legis.la.gov, Vincent J. Pierre (D-Lafayette)  pierrev@legis.la.gov, Blake Miguez, Vice Chair, (R-Erath) miguezb@legis.la.gov, Beryl Amedee (R-Houma) amedeeb@legis.la.gov, Larry Bagley (R-Stonewall) bagleyl@legis.la.gov, Raymond Crews (R-Bossier City) crewsr@legis.la.gov, Reid Falconer (R-Mandeville) falconerr@legis.la.gov, Dodie Horton (R-Haughton) hortond@legis.la.gov, Jack McFarland (R-Jonesboro)  mcfarlandj@legis.la.gov, Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport) seabaugha@legis.la.gov, and Scott Simon (R-Abita Springs)  simons@legis.la.gov.

The federal minimum wage hasn’t been adjusted for a decade and anyone who thinks even a single person with no dependents can survive on $7.25 per hour is woefully out of touch with reality.

Anyone who believes that is spending far too much time on the golf course.

Anyone who believes that, you can bet, has never had to do so.

LABI President Stephen Waguespack, a alumnus of the Bobby Jindal administration, will throw all his organization’s resources into an all-out effort to defeat Carter’s bill just as he has with past efforts to raise the minimum wage.

Waguespack can afford to do so, too, because he’s being paid a comfortable six-figure salary to represent the interests of big business over those of working stiffs.

His condescending comment about a minimum wage being being a “one size fits all” approach is both arrogant and deliberately misleading.

Waguespack will be in the State Capitol corridors every day. Legislators are forbidden from accepting campaign contributions from any of the four LABI political action committees, but they know if they vote the way he wants, those contributions will flow in once the legislative session adjourns.

In the meantime, nothing prevents him from wining and dining key members of the legislature. Key members like, say, certain members (read: Republican) members of the Senate Labor & Industrial Relations Committee, which will decide whether or not Carter’s bill moves forward to the floors of the House and Senate.

That committee is chaired by Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia), risern@legis.la.gov

Riser should (but likely won’t) be all-in on raising the minimum wage. After all, it was he who tried to slip that amendment onto a rather benign bill back in 2014 that would’ve given then-State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson a healthy six-figure increase in his yearly retirement.

Carter is vice-chair and he should have allies in Sens. Regina Barrow (D-Baton Rouge) barrowr@legis.la.gov, Wesley T. Bishop (D-New Orleans) bishopw@legis.la.gov and Jean-Paul J. Morrell (D-New Orleans) morrelljp@legis.la.gov.

Republicans on the committee include, besides Riser, include Sens. Ronnie Johns (R-Lake Charles) johnsr@legis.la.gov and Barrow Peacock (R-Bossier City) peacockb@legis.la.gov

Other southern states that have held the line at $7.25 include Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Arkansas has already raised its minimum wage to $11. Shoot, even West Virginia has a state minimum wage of $8.75.

Altogether, 26 other states have a minimum wage higher than Louisiana and 19 of those are already at $9 or above.

The U.S. has an income disparity that should be embarrassing—and it’s only getting wider. The haves keep getting richer and the have-nots keep sinking in poverty and the Stephen Waguespacks of the world couldn’t care less as long as they can keep corporate board members fat and happy.

And many legislators couldn’t care less as long as they can keep the campaign contributions coming in.

So, fight back. The average worker can’t take time off to go to the Capitol to lobby legislators. Stephen Waguespack can because that’s precisely what he’s paid to do. It’s an uneven playing field.

But you can contact your legislator—early and often—and let him/her know that this is an election year and you have a lethal weapon—the ballot.

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