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Crouching Pig, Hidden Pork
The public outcry over so-called pork projects in this year's state budget was triggered primarily by a detailed -- and widely circulated -- list of how much each porcine line item would cost and who would get it. The list was picked up by newspapers and broadcasters, and slammed by radio talk show hosts and statewide elected officials. But some of the budget's pork wasn't so easy to find. Senators say they were each given roughly $100,000 to $150,000 in "discretionary money" to plug into the budget as they saw fit. As a result, much of the money they inserted into the budget didn't look like pork -- at least, not at first. That's because some additions were tucked into existing sections of the budget through an amendment that only listed an amount change. For instance, Democratic Sens. Reggie Dupre and Butch Gautreaux say they used their money to bolster nursing classrooms at the L.E. Fletcher Technical Community College. That addition was simply listed in the college's line-item portion of the budget, rather than alone in the pork section or elsewhere for all the world to see. The fact that the additional money was wrapped neatly into a regular budget item doesn't necessarily mean it lost its porcine flavor. -- Alford

 

Broadband Brouhaha
When Gov. Kathleen Blanco vetoed legislation last week that would have amended cable franchise guidelines to allow more competition, a chorus of criticism erupted on Internet political sites. The howls included references to an opinion by the state Ethics Board last November allowing Cox Communications to hire the governor's daughter, Karmen Blanco, to work in Cox's Lafayette outreach office -- as long as she didn't conduct business with her mother. Gov. Blanco says she vetoed the legislation because it could have had a negative impact on local government, which would have been prohibited from negotiating prices with alternative providers. -- Alford

 

Royalty and the Lower 9
The two-day visit last week by Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, offered another illustration of just how surreal life in New Orleans has become since Katrina. Before the storm, for example, it would have been improbable for a visitor meeting the city's elite at the Plimsoll Club of the World Trade Center to remark, as Al-Faisal did last week, "I am heading this afternoon for a tour of the Ninth Ward." Such announcements now seem de rigeur. The Saudi prince's excursion to the storm-shattered Ninth Ward follows similar tours of one of the city's poorest neighborhoods by, among others, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Prince Charles of England. Saudi Arabia has donated more than $250 million to Katrina relief and reconstruction efforts, including the rebuilding of a Shell oil refinery wrecked by the hurricane. The prince told reporters that history, Hollywood and music have deepened his appreciation for New Orleans since his days as a 14-year-old attending school in New Jersey. The ambassador singled out "The Battle of New Orleans," a lighthearted song (written by an Arkansas history teacher) that recalls the defeat of the British in 1815. "That song reverberates in my mind!" Al-Faisal said, snapping his fingers. -- Johnson

 

Midura's Arabic Address
State and local officials took turns welcoming Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, during a luncheon last week atop the World Trade Center, but only District A City Council member Shelley Midura greeted the ambassador in Arabic -- and at length. Local business and civic leaders expressed surprise as the newly elected council member spoke in the ambassador's native tongue, and stoic members of the prince's staff nodded approvingly. "She is good," an aide to the prince said of the council member's Arabic. Midura later said she told the prince she has never visited Saudi Arabia but recalled looking at the kingdom across the Gulf of Aqaba from a vantage point in Egypt during her earlier, 10-year career as an American diplomat. Midura helped found the International School of Louisiana in 2000, the first foreign language-based charter school in the state. A Democrat, she defeated Republican incumbent Jay Batt in the May 20 runoff. Curiously, Midura's list of accomplishments, posted on both her campaign's and the City Council's Web sites, include her completion of the 2004 Mardi Gras marathon -- but not her foreign language capabilities. "She is fluent only in English and French and she can get by in Arabic," said Midura spokesperson Seung Hong. But in a city starved for good news, Midura's "morsels" of Arabic generated a pleasant buzz among some constituents. "What did she say to the prince?," one Uptown resident asked a reporter. "Anybody but Batt,'" the reporter cracked. -- Johnson

 

And They're Off!
With the legislative session adjourned and the great veto saga behind us, the election season can start to stretch its legs and poke at voters. The mud was already flying last week in two statewide races up for grabs this fall. In the secretary of state contest, Democratic state Sen. Francis Heitmeier of New Orleans jumped into the fray with a $800,000 war chest. Meanwhile, former state GOP chairman Mike Francis got the nod from U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is considered a front-runner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. It's an indication that the race could have some national interest -- that, or McCain saw another chance to cozy up to the Religious Right, which historically has not been his base. Francis has been a darling of religious conservatives in Louisiana for years. In the insurance commissioner's race, state Sen. James David Cain, a Dry Creek Republican, showed that he's willing to attack incumbent Jon Donelon, also a Republican. During a speech in New Orleans, Cain said his opponent had a "remarkable lack of common sense" and questioned several of his recent decisions. On the congressional front, flacks were hard at work preparing to spin or promote fundraising totals from the second quarter, which a few camps were planning to release early. Various constituencies are also beginning to explore ways to promote the numerous ballot initiatives voters will have to wade through this fall. -- Alford

 

Mental Health Address
Dr. Kathleen Crapanzano, medical director of the state Office of Mental Health, this week is scheduled to detail efforts to address the post-Katrina mental health crisis in the New Orleans area. "I expect the discussion to be centered around the issues of rebuilding our behavioral health infrastructure and to foster collaboration in the region," says Sarah Hoffpauir, a clinical social worker and mental health advocate. Suicides in Orleans Parish have tripled since Hurricane Katrina, but there are fewer psychiatric beds and mental health care professionals in the city today. And police say they are encountering more combative mental patients who fail to take their medications. In May, police handled 12 reports of suicidal threats and 146 disturbances involving the mentally ill, according to the Orleans Parish Coroner's psychiatric office. Of the 46 Orders of Protective Custody that police executed that month at the request of the coroner's office, 18 (39 percent) involved individuals with a history of fighting cops or possessing weapons. Crapanzano's address is open to the public and begins at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday (July 19) at Lakeside Hospital in Metairie. -- Johnson

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