Quote of the Week
"Who wouldn't want to be mayor of this great city? I'm not a candidate, just let me say that. I'm fighting crime." — NOPD Supt. Warren Riley, at a news conference June 2
Credit Card Crackdown
The state Legislature was poised last week to endorse a congressional act recently signed by President Barack Obama. The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act is the first consumer-protection law of its kind. Among other functions, the act shields consumers from arbitrary interest rates, protects students from aggressive solicitations and requires more detailed billing and disclosure information.
Last week, state lawmakers on the House Commerce Committee unanimously passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 47 by Sen. Butch Gautreaux, D-Morgan City, which expresses support for the act. The full Senate already appoved the resolution, which is now pending action on the House floor. Gautreaux says he's drawing attention to the federal act because almost 80 percent of American households rely on credit cards, and the average outstanding balance is roughly $10,000. Additionally, credit card delinquency rates have risen by more than 60 percent since 2005. He also says the act is the very least the federal government can do to help consumers, especially in light of the assistance offered to the financial sector earlier this year. "Many of the largest credit card issuers have received billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded federal bailout funds," Gautreaux writes in his resolution. Meanwhile, Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, is pushing House Concurrent Resolution 169, which directs the Louisiana Law Institute to study the feasibility of incorporating the federal act into state law. Connick's resolution likewise cleared the House Commerce Committee last week. His resolution, along with Gautreaux's, could be the foundation for proposed legislation next year to strengthen Louisiana's consumer-credit and consumer-protection laws.
In related action, legislation that would have forced UNO, Tulane and other higher-education institutions to keep a closer eye on credit card marketers is dead for the session. House Bill 461 by Rep. Elton M. Aubert, D-Vacherie, would have required universities to prohibit credit card companies from soliciting students on campus. Lawmakers banned registration-day solicitations a few years ago, but never cracked down on the rest of the semester — and they're obviously not going to start now. HB 461 originally was approved by a 10-7 vote in the House Education Committee, but was rerouted on the House floor. Arguing that the bill impacted two industries — education and finance — lawmakers sent the legislation to the House Commerce Committee by a vote of 53-46 instead of hearing the proposal, proving once more that there are more ways to kill bills than to pass them. With only a month left in the current session, any bill not over the first committee hump isn't going anywhere without a legislative miracle. — Jeremy Alford
A guidebook for hell
A South African woman who rushed to New Orleans after her husband and mother-in-law were murdered here in 2003 — then stayed to write a free handbook for other "survivors" of the city's nation-leading homicide rate — unveils the work this week. The first 2,000 copies of Rose Preston's Crime Victims' Guidebook: For Those Who Have Lost Their Loved Ones To Violence, are scheduled to arrive by 10 a.m. Friday at Beth's Books (2700 Chartres St., 947-4477). Based on Preston's experience with the city's criminal justice system, the 128-page book guides homicide survivors through the emotional stages, practical needs and legal hurdles they may encounter. A drama professor, Preston met her husband and fellow academe James Saporito 20 years ago, when both were theater students at the University of New Orleans. In 2003, Preston was visiting her hometown of Johannesburg when she was notified that the burned bodies of her husband and mother-in-law Patriana Saporito were found inside the family's Mid-City home. Their throats had been slashed. The accused killer, an estranged tenant, died in jail. "I will never get over it," Preston said last week, adding that writing offered some solace. "There is some healing knowing that I can reach out to other people in my predicament." The book is dedicated to all New Orleans homicide victims. — Allen Johnson
Leges Slow the Roll
The House tax-writing committee has killed legislation that would have prohibited local governing bodies from rolling millages forward more than once a year. House Bill 226, a proposed constitutional amendment by Rep. Dee Richard of Thibodaux, who has no party affiliation, was rejected by a vote of 6-8 by the House Ways and Means Committee. It was yet another example of the Legislature's unwillingness this session to get behind legislation that cracks down on the practice of rolling forward millages. Several similar bills — at least 10 — have also been canned this year. When property values increase after quadrennial reappraisals, Louisiana law requires local governing bodies to roll back their millage rates automatically to produce the same amount of tax revenue. But the constitution also allows them to roll millages forward by a two-thirds vote. In some instances, a millage can be hiked above the original limit approved by voters.
Richard argues that property tax increase votes don't draw much voter attention. Limiting taxing bodies to one election per year would be a fix, he says. "Most of these elections are discreet when they do these things," Richard says. "Even if they advertise them, most people aren't concerned." Dan Garrett, general counsel for the Police Jury Association of Louisiana, says the practice is being overstated and that during the past year 60 percent of all parish school boards chose not to roll their millages forward. Garrett adds that House Bill 380 by Rep. Greg Cromer, R-Slidell, adds new requirements for public notices of millage roll-forwards that are not subject to voter approval. — Alford
Predicting racial 'progress'
Tommy Screen, who succeeded retired pollster Ed Renwick on June 1, 2008, as director of the Institute of Politics at Loyola University, has announced a new IOP Web site: www.loyno.edu/iop. Screen, son of the late Baton Rouge Mayor Pat Screen and a former aide to former U.S. Sen. John Breaux, expressed optimism one year ago this month regarding racial progress in both the city and the state. Roughly six months after Bobby Jindal's inauguration and with Barack Obama still campaigning for president, the younger Screen, then 33, cited a May 2008 Renwick poll showing 58 percent of Orleans Parish voters expected to elect a white mayor in the near future. (Another 63 percent expected to elect a white district attorney.) "To possibly have a black president, an Indian-American governor and a white mayor of New Orleans could be the perfect political storm," he said then. "It could also signal we have moved ahead on issues of race." Later, of course, Obama was elected president and New Orleans elected a white district attorney, Leon Cannizzaro. New Orleans has elected four consecutive black mayors. The city will elect Ray Nagin's successor in 2010. — Johnson
Keeping It REEL
The House was expected to pass legislation last week that would encourage oil and gas drilling projects that have a true vertical depth of 15,000 feet or more. A coalition of business and industry groups are backing House Bill 863 as a way to reduce dependence on foreign resources, create new jobs and, in the long run, generate billions of dollars in new revenue for Louisiana. The legislation, authored by Rep. Nickie Monica, R-LaPlace, would create a special break on the royalty payments that companies send to the state based on the property taxes they pay to parish governments for their deep drilling projects. While the state won't have to spend any money to get the program moving and parishes would probably see an increase in property taxes on the local level, the state would suffer a loss of royalty revenues, based on an estimate by the Department of Natural Resources. According to a review by the Legislative Fiscal Office, that loss could amount to $12 million over the next five years. That reduction, however, would be offset by the new drilling that takes place, argues the Renewed Energy Economy for Louisiana. Also known as REEL, it's an economic development coalition that's pushing an energy package this session. "As U.S. citizens, we must become good stewards of our environment and energy resources," says Michael Hecht, one of the group's organizers and the CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc. "The REEL legislation allows us to bring environmental solutions to the table and, at the same tame, create tremendous additional revenue and jobs for Louisiana." While REEL is also standing behind legislation that ushers in the next generation of carbon-dioxide-enhanced drilling, deeper explorations are the real thrust. Southern Louisiana has an estimated 30 trillion cubic feet of probable natural gas reserves below 15,000 feet, Hecht says. This "virgin territory" is virtually unexplored due to Louisiana's multiple layers of higher taxes. By reducing royalties, he says, the REEL bill makes Louisiana a competitive alternative in the energy field. — Alford