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Session '07: Cell Calls, Recalls and Drug Fiends
Lawmakers are requesting bills by the truckload in preparation for the upcoming legislative session that kicks off April 30. There's no shortage of showmanship in the measures, either, especially with elections approaching. Sen. Walter Boasso, a Republican from Arabi and an announced candidate for governor, wants to change the rules for forcing recall elections. Present state law requires one-third of all registered voters in a targeted official's district to sign a recall petition. Boasso's Senate Bill 22 would lower the number of required signatures on a recall petition to one third of the total votes cast in the most recent election to elect the public official in his or her voting area. The proposed change would certainly makes things easier on voters with a grudge. "With voter turnout terribly low in most elections, the existing one-third requirement is excessive," Boasso says. If adopted, the new law would go into effect on Aug. 15, roughly three weeks before Boasso is scheduled to qualify for the governor's race. In keeping with a grand legislative tradition of creating new crimes during an election year, Rep. Mike Powell, a GOP floor leader from Shreveport, wants to make "retail theft" a special crime because, well, penalties for plain old theft just aren't getting it done. House Bill 113 vaguely refers to "retail property" and offers staggering fines and penalties based on the worth of stolen property -- as much as $10,000 and 10 years in the pokey. Not to be outdone, Rep. A.G. Crowe, a Slidell Republican, wants special penalties for using a cell phone in a school zone while driving. Subsequent violators could face a fine of $500 or 90 days of jail time, under Crowe's House Bill 99. Finally, Republican Rep. Wayne Waddell of Shreveport is pushing for stiffer fines against Cheech-and-Chong devotees. His House Bill 70 would impose a new fine of not more than $5,000 for the third or subsequent conviction of possession of marijuana. -- Alford

 

Prof Sticks to His 'Guns'
UNO criminologist Peter Scharf is standing by his March 16 prediction that murders will fall sharply by year's end, despite a flurry of violence last week. "That's why you make predictions, to see if you are wrong," Scharf says. The professor raised eyebrows last month, predicting the city's murder total would fall from 163 last year to 120 by the end of 2007 -- a 37 percent drop. After a one-week lull, however, the violence roared back. The city appeared poised to reach 50 murders by the end of the first quarter. "The problem may be much more intractable than I thought," a surprised Scharf says. But, he adds, several factors still favor a downturn in the murders, including: an "intense focus" by the feds on locking up violent offenders; a new rapport between District Attorney Eddie Jordan and Police Chief Warren Riley; the stabilization of some neighborhoods; and the tendency of violent criminals to "kill each other off." For his "radical prediction" of 120 murders to come true, Scharf admits the city must suffer no more than eight murders a month for the rest of the year. Even then, New Orleans could still repeat as the nation's "murder capital," with 54 murders per 100,000 people (based on a revised U.S. Census estimate of 223,000) "You're still obscenely high," Scharf says. -- Johnson

 

Letten's 'Survival' Warning
"If you are in academe, you can afford to make predictions. If you are in law enforcement, I don't think you can," local U.S. Attorney Jim Letten says of the city's stubborn violent crime rate. Although UNO criminologist Peter Scharf predicts a new federal-NOPD initiative will dramatically reduce New Orleans homicides by the end of the year, the city's top federal prosecutor demurred. "I don't want to write 'checks' that I can't 'cash,'" Letten told Gambit Weekly. In early March, Letten said it will take months before a new initiative pairing federal agents with NOPD patrol cops will significantly impact local violent crime. "We are in a crisis, there's no question about it," Letten said in under-publicized remarks at a March 12 news conference. Afterwards, Letten told Gambit Weekly of a warning he delivered to a mayoral breakfast forum in July 2005 -- before Hurricane Katrina flooded the city: "'The survival of our city depends on our getting a handle on violent crime, building a top-notch education system, zero tolerance for corruption and diversifying our economy. Absent those [changes] the city is going to have a very rough time surviving as we know it." Letten says his pre-Katrina warning about the critical issues facing the city has not changed. "Katrina simply accelerated those problems to a critical mass," he says. -- Johnson

 

Morial Outshines Nagin
Former Mayor Marc Morial has been out of office almost five years now. Some of his old political allies are heading to federal prison. Yet, Morial last month easily proved a more effective "ambassador" for New Orleans in Washington than incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin. Nagin's embarrassing, well-publicized remarks to black publishers last month did little to dispel national stereotypes of the storm as an urban "black disaster," one political analyst said. Moreover, Nagin's penchant for turning a routine opportunity into a public relations calamity overshadowed Morial's March 6 address to the National Press Club. Speaking as president of the National Urban League, Morial declared a national "homeownership state of emergency." The decline in homeownership has been acute in African-American and Hispanic communities, Morial noted. He recommends changes in national housing policies to help storm-battered Louisiana and Mississippi, including areas with predominantly white populations. "It's not just New Orleans. It's the people in St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish. It's the people in Biloxi, Gulfport, Pass Christian, Mississippi," Morial told reporters. "You've never heard of these communities. They're beautiful communities. You ought to visit there sometime." The Times-Picayune's Washington bureau did not mention Morial's "invitation" in its coverage of the former mayor's speech. Worse yet, the Washington Post "scooped" the T-P, which failed to cover Nagin's "conspiracy" remarks as the National Newspaper Publishers Association's "Newsmaker of the Year." -- Johnson

 

Low Participation Sinking Conservation Program
A federal landowner program that has rehabbed nearly 230,000 acres of bottomland forests and wetlands in Louisiana since 2002 might be in jeopardy of shuttering its local operations. The Louisiana chapter of the Wetlands Reserve Program, administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, is clearly on the ropes after changing the way it handles land appraisals last year. The program makes land restoration efforts easier by providing landowners with technical assistance and financial incentives to convert flood-prone, marginal agricultural land into wetlands and seasonally-flooded forests. In conjunction with nonprofits and other groups, the program protects natural resources for the landowner while conserving or creating habitats. Last year, however, the land appraisal changes adopted by the WRP decreased the amount of easement payments offered to landowners. This has caused a drastic decline in acceptance rates. For instance, in Louisiana, enrollment dropped from 50 cases in 2005, which restored 12,600 acres, to only one case last year, amounting to 280 restored acres. Officials argue that many species in south Louisiana would suffer if the program completely loses momentum -- it isn't far off -- or is closed down. "The WRP land appraisal process needs to be fixed in the 2007 farm bill to ensure farmers, ranchers and other landowners receive a fair payment for WRP easements," says Ken Babcock, director of Ducks Unlimited. "Waterfowl and Louisiana duck hunters are in big trouble if we lose this program." -- Alford

 

New Name, Same Gig
"The older members are not happy about it," Mary Dennis admits. Nonetheless, the New Orleans Council for International Visitors is changing its name to the New Orleans Citizen Diplomacy Council. For some reason, the older name caused more confusion among first-time callers. "Too many people thought we were like a travel agency or a consular corps. (Asking questions like) 'Can you help my cousin who is in Houston?'" says Dennis, executive director of the local nonprofit. The council matches New Orleanians with distinguished international visitors referred by the U.S. Department of State. For example, two jazz musicians from Azerbaijan are scheduled to visit New Orleans this week (April 1-4). The objective of their visit, according to the State Department, is to "consult with professional counterparts in order to explore possible artistic collaboration." (Or as musicians here say -- "jam.") Meanwhile, the renamed Council is struggling to compete with other U.S. cities for foreign guests. New Orleans has one distinct disadvantage. Dennis says that no one in Washington wants to send foreigners here in September (read: hurricane season). Unofficially, the New Orleans program has been hosting international visitors since two Japanese businessmen came to the city in 1958. "They stayed for Thanksgiving dinner," Rosemarie Fowler, the dean of Council hosts, said proudly. To help host, call Mrs. Fowler at 529-1509 or visit www.nocdc.com -- Johnson

 

This Week on the Web
Okay, to restate the obvious again, the Internet is going to play a major role in this year's election cycle in Louisiana. How much of an impact is up for grabs, but each week brings a new slew of questionable and hilarious antics. Former U.S. Sen. John Breaux, the maybe-maybe not candidate for Louisiana governor, has a Web site encouraging him -- tongue-in-cheek -- to run for governor of Maryland, where he moved in 2005. No clue as to who started www.breauxformaryland.blogspot.com, but nonetheless: Go Terrapins! Of course, Breaux supposedly has a bona fide Louisiana campaign site at www.johnbreaux07.com, which was initially launched as www.johnbreaux08.com before someone in his camp noticed they had the wrong election year -- unless he's actually thinking of running for U.S. Senate next year. An email to the media section produced replies from a character known only as "Rex," who doesn't offer much in the way of personal interviews. In related political Internet news, the Louisiana House of Representatives has created a new blog called "In the Loop" for staffers and lawmakers to discuss important issues. The blog, www.hseblog.blogspot.com, currently has articles about term limits and slavery. -- Alford

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