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Crime Summit, Murder Capital
What better place to hold a crime summit than in the nation's murder capital? Mayor Ray Nagin and the newly elected City Council have scheduled their first crime summit since the spring elections for Sept. 16 at the New Orleans Hilton Riverside Hotel. A local expert says the city is on pace to become the nation's uncontested murder capital, even though less than half its population has returned since Hurricane Katrina and Gov. Kathleen Blanco extended the stay of 300 National Guard troops in the city. "Our murder rate is 20 percent higher than any other city per capita," says University of New Orleans criminologist Peter Scharf. "We've been the leader since the end of March." There were 79 homicides through the end of July, and the latest population estimate for the city is 215,000. Council members first pledged a crime summit after the drug-related slaughter of five teenagers in June. Crime summits usually trigger groans of skepticism in law enforcement circles, but Scharf says he is hopeful. "Will old ideas, racial divides and vested interests dominate? Or will a scientific view and a new approach prevail?" he asks. Southern University at New Orleans and the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation are co-sponsoring the summit. For registration information visit www.neworleanscitycouncil.com. -- Johnson

 

Bring Back BNOB?
Fireworks and comedy on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina were arguably the worst ideas to come out of Mayor Ray Nagin's administration, and critics breathed a sigh of relief last week when the mayor nixed those festivities from a city commemoration of a storm that killed 1,600 people in Louisiana. Meanwhile, some of the best ideas since Katrina -- embodied in the Mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission reports -- are apparently gathering dust, according to one civic activist. "Certain entities may be applying the commission recommendations on an ad hoc basis, but there is no overarching formal effort to implement [the proposals]," says Keith Twitchell, president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans, a racially diverse civic group. "If we brought those plans back to the forefront ... that would be a good thing." Based on months of public hearings, the BNOB report makes recommendations on every facet of post-Katrina New Orleans, from public transit and health to criminal justice and education. Nagin's opponents praised some subcommittee reports during the spring citywide elections, but hizzoner has pretty much ignored the most important -- and most controversial -- recommendations. The final report was posted on the nonprofit BNOB Web site (www.bringneworleansback.org) on May 25. -- Johnson

 

Gunning for Governor
Gov. Kathleen Blanco told the Louisiana Democratic Party that she will definitely run for a second term, but her statement hasn't stopped some Democratic power brokers from seeking alternatives within the party. Even after the media firestorm in the wake of his arrest of a New Orleans physician and two nurses on Katrina-related murder charges, state Attorney General Charles Foti has asked supporters about the idea of his running for governor. Former U.S. Rep. Chris John of Lafayette, now a big-money lobbyist in D.C., told The Shreveport Times he is "very interested in the race" -- but wouldn't run against Blanco. Congressman Charlie Melancon, a freshman from Napoleonville, says "friends" are encouraging him to consider the race. "That's not anything I'm planning on doing," Melancon told the Baton Rouge affiliate of National Public Radio. "But I never say never." -- Alford

 

Economic Smokescreen?
Economic gloom turned into bloom earlier this year when state officials found $750 million in new cash -- mainly from sales taxes and gambling revenues -- to pump into the budget. National media outlets expressed surprise over the windfall, especially when a fiscal nightmare was expected for Louisiana in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Now that every penny of the windfall has been spent, conservative criers like state Treasurer John Kennedy are warning that was a mistake. Kennedy has been giving speeches around that state predicting the post-storm boom will only be temporary and the storms' destructive after-effects will ultimately catch up. To bolster his argument, Kennedy's office cites studies showing that the economies of South Carolina, Florida, Texas and Delaware spiked shortly after storms but later faltered. Following Hurricane Andrew in 1994, for instance, the University of Florida noted job growth due to reconstruction that was spurred by insurance payments and federal money. The studies have prompted Kennedy and others to repeatedly pose an unanswered question: What's next for the state? -- Alford

 

"Legislator of the Year"
Candidates qualify this week (Aug. 9-11) for the Sept. 30 elections. That should make for plenty of backslapping and political gossip at the Alliance for Good Government's annual "Legislator of the Year" awards banquet on Saturday (Aug. 12). Individual lawmakers from four parishes -- Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and St. Tammany -- will be honored at the political group's first soiree since Hurricane Katrina. "It is one of the biggest gatherings of elected officials in the metro area," says Robert K. Moffett, president of the Orleans Parish chapter of the Alliance. "The banquet gives elected officials and politicians a chance to get together on a neutral playing field." Robert Lambert, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Expressway (Causeway) Commission, will deliver the keynote address to the banquet at the Astor Crowne Plaza. The program starts at 6:30 p.m., but the politicking begins at the cash bar at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $45 each. For ticket information, call Moffett at 822-2224. -- Johnson

 

In Good Hands?
If state officials can't reach a compromise with Allstate executives soon, another special session may have to be called to deal with a myriad of insurance issues. Lawmakers on the House and Senate insurance committees called for the session last week, although a few have actually been forecasting it since the spring. At the core of the disagreement are Allstate's attempts to dump wind and hail coverage in south Louisiana. Consumer protection laws prohibit Allstate from doing that, at least on paper, and some lawmakers are willing to go back into session to strengthen the laws. Gov. Kathleen Blanco says she has encouraged Allstate to pursue other options, such as raising deductibles. "I have asked Allstate to seek creative consumer-focused solutions and options that provide consumer choice in coverage," Blanco says. "This will reiterate to their customers that they are indeed 'in good hands.'" Largely, though, Blanco seems to have placed the mess in the hands of Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, who has the unique challenge of standing up for consumers while keeping insurers in the state. In a press release, Blanco said she was waiting to hear the "next steps" from Donelon. --Alford

 

SBA Changes Now Pending in the Senate
The U.S. Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee has passed legislation that would allow private banks to issue disaster loans that are guaranteed by the SBA -- for up to two years after a hurricane. "This legislation makes some positive improvements in the SBA, in particular in the disaster loan program, implementing some of the lessons learned after Rita and Katrina," says U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the Metairie Republican sponsoring the Small Business Reauthorization and Improvements Act. Among other things, the measure would allow states to administer federal bridge loans on their own and allow the SBA to contract for extra staff to help process applications. It also combats fraud and establishes a new policy that limits contract bundling, which is the practice of combining smaller contracts together to form larger, single contracts. This policy will help reduce the need for big mega contracts and ensure small, local businesses get more contracting opportunities, Vitter says. -- Alford

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