One special interest group described the frenetic final hour of the just-ended special legislative session as “fast-and-furious,” which was certainly accurate as regards the session’s closing minutes. However, a better summary of the 25-day session would be “frustrating.” As the late John Maginnis often observed, lawmakers could have done less, but they ran out of time.
Legislators idled away countless hours while some of their leaders negotiated with each other and Gov. John Bel Edwards — to little avail. Enough House members dug in their heels to prevent Edwards from pushing all of his tax plan through, but they offered no concrete alternatives. By the end of Day 25, lawmakers defaulted to a time-honored fiscal Band-Aid: higher sales taxes.
They also hiked taxes on cigarettes, beer, wine and booze, taxed short-term room rentals, and reinstated taxes on telecommunications and car rentals — but that’s a far cry from authentic fiscal reform.
Consequently, my usual recap of “winnas and loozas” includes nothing but loozas this time. That has never happened in the 30-plus years I’ve been assessing the legislative carnage, but nobody can rightfully claim victory after a session that literally left Senate President John Alario in tears and the current fiscal year still some $60 million in the hole — and next year’s budget almost $800 million short. Another special session in June seems unavoidable, which also argues against anyone being declared a winna just yet.
That hissing sound you’ve been hearing lately is the sound of a snake slithering through the halls of officialdom in Baton Rouge. This particular snake is Senate Bill 294, which lawmakers passed on June 2, the final day of the legislative session. Gov. Bobby Jindal signed it into law on June 23, making it Act 859.
As initially presented, SB 294 purportedly dealt with the “rights of law enforcement officers while under investigation,” which sounded innocuous enough — but that was never its true aim. The plan all along was for different versions of the measure to be passed by the House and Senate, forcing it to go to a conference committee, which could rewrite it wholesale and sneak (or snake) the real version through at the last minute.
Which is what happened.
When the bill emerged from conference committee with just hours remaining in the session, it contained a brand-new amendment totally unrelated to law enforcement officers under investigation. The amendment changed the rules governing the Louisiana State Police Retirement System (LSPRS) — for just one or two members of the system.
Specifically, the amendment significantly enhanced the retirement benefits of State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson, who is routinely at the side of Gov. Jindal. According to at least one knowledgeable estimate, Col. Edmonson’s annual retirement pay would increase by $55,000 a year — from $79,000 to $134,000 — which would cost taxpayers more than $1.6 million over 30 years.
None of that was discussed in public, however. Nor was the change advertised in advance, as required of legislation dealing with public employee retirement benefits. Instead, the amended measure was routinely presented as a compromise and summarily adopted by trusting lawmakers in the session’s final hours. That’s how snakes slither through the process.
Then the fertilizer hit the oscillator.
This week saw several bombshells in the local political arena: a Baton Rouge judge nullified the results of last November’s bridge toll referendum, and the feds dropped their years-long investigation into the River Birch landfill and its co-owners, Fred Heebe Jr. and Jim Ward. In a sense, both stories were about tolls.
Let’s take the easy part first.
No matter how you voted last November, there’s no denying the logic of Judge William Morvant’s decision to void the toll referendum’s outcome. The facts are undisputed — indeed, the state didn’t even put on a case in support of the results — and the law is clear.
At least 1,000 voters in Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes were given “provisional” ballots that allowed them to vote only in the presidential election. Dozens of local items were on the ballot that day, including the tolls, but provisional voters could not vote in those contests. Many provisional voters were legally registered, but for some reason their names were not on the Election Day rolls. Registrars need to fix that.
Morvant correctly cited state law, which says if it’s impossible to determine the result of an election because qualified voters were denied the right to vote, a judge may nullify that election. Morvant ordered a new referendum on May 4, which happens to be the second weekend of Jazz Fest.
Suffice it to say the turnout on May 4 will be radically different than that of last Nov. 6, and that means toll supporters have an uphill fight. In politics, the easiest thing to do is kill a tax — and many see the bridge toll as a tax. Last November, toll supporters could count on the presidential election to push turnout, but on May 4 they’ll have to drag folks to the polls. They’ll raise fears of bad maintenance, less grass cutting, lights going out on the bridge and the like, but toll opponents have more motivation to turn out: they’re pissed off and they smell blood.
Which brings us to our next topic: the end of the federal River Birch investigation. The immediate reaction in many quarters was that the lengthy probe was a waste of time because it came to naught. That’s not entirely true. While the feds didn’t nab Heebe, the landfill owner bagged a passel of errant federal prosecutors by exposing Sal Perricone and Jan Mann for unprofessional, unethical and possibly illegal actions in connection with their acerbic — and petulant — online commentaries.
It’s often said that bad luck comes in threes; when two bad things happen, expect a third piece of bad news soon. If that old saw holds true, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten better brace himself, because federal target Fred Heebe appears far from finished with his campaign to discredit top prosecutors in Letten’s office.
Letten already had a major W-T-F moment last March, when Heebe exposed then-federal prosecutor Sal Perricone as the vituperative, vitriolic, verbose online commenter “HenryLMencken1951” on the Nola.com web site.
At the time of Perricone’s fall, many speculated that others in Letten’s office knew about Perricone’s anonymous rants — and maybe even joined in the cyber-fun. Now we know that it was much more than speculation.
On Nov. 2, Heebe filed a defamation lawsuit against Jan M. Mann, the No. 2 person in Letten’s office and his most trusted lieutenant. The suit alleges that Mann, like Perricone, posted venomous, anonymous rants on Nola.com — many of which, like Perricone’s histrionics, betrayed an inside knowledge of federal investigations. Mann’s alleged nom de plume was “eweman.”
Heebe’s suit claims that “eweman” and “HenryLMencken1951” often commented on the same stories, and sometimes within minutes of one another — an online tag team of sorts. Equally interesting, “eweman” stopped posting right after Perricone was exposed as Mencken.
On Thursday (Nov. 8), Letten issued a terse statement admitting only that Mann posted comments, not that she was “eweman,” and that she had been demoted. OPR is once again on the case.
Which brings us to the Rule of Threes: what else (or who else) is out there?
The East is coming back and it's pretty close to what I remember. Ah, the East. Aside from having to live with my Mom's emotionally abusive first cousin and his even more emotionally abusive wife from October 2002-May 2003, after my Mom died and my Paw Paw took ill (He died in February 2003.), I have nothing but fond memories there: shopping at the Plaza as a kid and boy-watching there as a teenager, visiting family and friends of the family since practically every 7th Ward household engaged in the New Orleans East exodus and doing suburban family things like going to Denny's and Wal-Mart without having to go to Metairie, Kenner or the Westbank.
From what I gathered on this bus adventure, the majority of the East is back and there's not much blight — except for businesses. There were so many abandoned businesses and overgrown lots where businesses once stood. And it wasn't Mom and Pop places — these were strip malls, schools and other businesses that, if I had to assume, have the means to rebuild.
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