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From their lips to your ears

Free Income Tax Help

  Taxpayers with low to modest income levels can get free federal tax preparation assistance from the Loyola College of Law Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program once again this year, starting Jan. 31. The Loyola VITA program will hold tax preparation sessions on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Mondays and Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. through April 13. The VITA office is located at Loyola's College of Law, 526 Pine St., in Room 153. Those who attend tax preparation sessions should bring identification, Social Security cards for each person on the tax returns, and all tax documents including W-2 forms, 1099 forms, Social Security statements, etc. The Loyola VITA program will offer tax preparation for Spanish speakers on Saturdays, but this service is strictly by appointment. For more information, call 861-5668.— Clancy DuBos

From Red Stick to Big Easy

  Political operative Christopher Ingram managed the campaign of new Baton Rouge Congressman Bill Cassidy, but he'll soon be working in another GOP lawmaker's office on the Hill. Ingram, who was still serving as a Cassidy spokesperson a few weeks ago, has been hired as the legislative director for freshman Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao of New Orleans. Ingram has long been a part of Baton Rouge's Republican scene, managing legislative campaigns and working for the state party. A native of Troy, Ala., Ingram made Baton Rouge his home while at LSU and is presently writing his dissertation on freedom and international conflict. He should navigate D.C. easily, having previously worked for the House Ways and Means Committee. He also was briefly an advisor to Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. — Jeremy Alford

MINERAL Leases SLOWING

  The state has completed its oil and gas lease sale for the month of January and the results confirm once again that industry interest is dwindling as the national economy continues its downward trend. The Louisiana Mineral Board collected only $881,000 for the month, the weakest January sale on record for at least the past 13 years. In fact, the previous five-year average for January — $2 million per month — was more than double the tally pulled down this month. Of the 76 leases that were up for bid, 58 drew no takers, the worst showing since the sale of January 2004, when 59 of 80 leases received no bids. And this may reflect a trend. The December 2008 sale came in at roughly $1.4 million, which was $1 million shy of the December 2007 take and represents the lowest year-end sale since 2004.

  While it's hard to spin the data, Mineral Board Secretary Marjorie McKeithen says it's difficult to ignore how successful Louisiana has been during the current fiscal year, despite recent activity — or lack thereof. "Historically, January is always a bad start for us, but it's naive not to realize that the credit crunch and the national housing crisis are having an impact at this point," McKeithen says. "Also, I think with all of the money spent on the Haynesville leases there was going to be a tightening of the market. I think you're going to see all these companies start to focus their resources on drilling what they have already leased." For the fiscal year that began July 1, 2008, the state has collected an unprecedented $192 million so far. It's a record-breaking figure, eclipsing all other collections in recent memory, thanks to an impressive run in the Haynesville Shale area from June to October. Each monthly sale ranked among the top six collection days on record, raking in from $35 million to more than $93 million per sale. That peak, however, is clearly over. — Alford

Spirit Chasing FEMA Funds

  The crisis counselors employed by Louisiana Spirit have met with tens of thousands of individuals from the New Orleans area for free, one-on-one hurricane recovery counseling sessions. A state-sponsored mental health agency, Louisiana Spirit relies largely on federal dollars, which keeps funding sketchy at best. For instance, Louisiana Spirit received a pre-Christmas perk in the form of a $2.7 million FEMA grant, which covered the assistance provided by the group during the first few months following Hurricane Gustav's landfall in September. As for funding for counseling conducted since then and for the sessions yet to come, that's anyone's guess. The agency has applied for an additional FEMA grant to bankroll the services provided to hurricane victims since then, but the second round of financing hasn't been announced yet. Pierre Washington, public information officer for Louisiana Spirit, says official word should come down by early February and it could be a major boost to the hurricane recovery program. "It could potentially be more money than we saw in the first round," Washington says. — Alford

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