QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"It is August of 2009, but it might as well be George Orwell's 1984. The author's nightmare vision of an oppressive government is coming true in Barack Obama's America." — Political analyst and radio host Jeff Crouere, taking to his fainting couch (Source: Bayoubuzz.com)
Session Still Making Waves
More than 250 new laws went on the books Aug. 15, ranging from perks to stimulate economic development to new animal cruelty penalties. The new laws were passed during the recent legislative session and are going into effect because Gov. Bobby Jindal either signed them or allowed them to pass with no action on his part. On the oil-and-gas front, the validity of drilling permits will be extended. Under previous law, oilmen and independent producers were allowed to drill for only 180 days when they secured a permit from the state's Office of Conservation. Once that deadline passed, the permit had to be renewed if the driller wanted to continue exploration activities. Now the permits will be good for up to a year. Elsewhere, one new law addresses severe animal abuse, such as torture and starvation, and a related act requires psychological counseling for repeat offenders. "Increasing the penalties for animal cruelty will hopefully make people think twice before abusing an animal in Louisiana," says Julia Breaux Melancon, state director for the Humane Society of the United States. To take a look at all of the new laws, visit www.legis.state.la.us and click on "Effective Dates of Acts." — Jeremy Alford
Eye Food-Safety Bill
The U.S. House has approved legislation that would exempt commercial fishing vessels from a proposed food-tracking system, but the Senate may not take up the issue until next month. The commercial fishing exemption was part of the Food Safety Enhancement Act, which the House passed by a partisan vote of 283-141 at the end of July. The bill is intended to prevent food-borne illnesses, which sicken approximately 76 million Americans, or one in four, each year. Of those who become ill, an estimated 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The House-backed version originally included a number of safety initiatives, such as requiring the Food and Drug Administration to develop in two years a new system for tracing contaminated food items to their sources within two business days.
The Southern Shrimp Alliance, a nonprofit partnership of shrimp-producing states (including Louisiana), weighed in during the drafting process and advocated for critical control points in the imported food chain and improving registration guidelines. But one point hit home with coastal lawmakers: the push to remove fishing vessels from the proposed interoperable food-tracking system. The legislation initially called for "each person who produces, manufactures, processes, packs, transports, or holds food" to participate in a new "traceability system." Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., attached an amendment excluding commercial shrimpers and fishermen from the provision. Noting that seafood is one of the few FDA-regulated food groups already watched strenuously under the current system of controls, Melancon said including fishing vessels in the new traceability requirement would not be practical or enforceable. "Would commercial fishermen be required to tag every fish before they put the fish in the hull?" Melancon asked. "Would shrimp fishermen have to tag every net that they trawl with the longitude, latitude and depth of where they caught the product? Would this provision also apply to foreign vessels that sell product to the United States?" Melancon said strapping commercial vessels with the requirement would be an "over-regulation" because commercial fishermen are already working with the federal government to make fresh seafood even safer.
Meanwhile, the Senate is still working on its own version of the act. Upon the Senate's return, commercial fishermen won't be the only ones watching the process, because farmers got several exemptions added to the bill before the House passed it. — Alford
Budget Review Process Begins
A special committee created by legislation authored by state House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, to outline the future of higher education in Louisiana convened for the first time last week. The Postsecondary Education Review Commission is charged with investigating ways to reduce state funding for colleges and universities without negatively impacting the institutions. The $1.3 billion shortfall in the current fiscal year has already stripped some services and positions, but budget forecasters expect more billion-dollar slumps in the next two years. Commissioner of Higher Education Sally Clausen was the first to welcome the group and provided a brief overview of the system. "You're certainly going to have a lot of questions, and I encourage you to ask them during this process," she told the committee. Dr. David Longanecker of Colorado, one of a handful of committee members from outside the state, likewise weighed in early on the bigger picture for Louisiana. "All of the evidence suggests that the return from this recession, at least in the West, is going to be slow," said Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. For more on the Tucker commission, check out www.laperc.org. — Alford
The federal Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) for thousands of people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina ends Aug. 31. However, worries abound for renters, landlords, government officials, and nonprofit agencies seeking to avoid a new wave of homeless four years after the storm. "That's what keeps me up at night," Paul Rainwater, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said March 18. Beginning at 9 a.m. Aug. 19 at the state capitol, Rainwater is expected to update the LRA on efforts to build hundreds of new rental units statewide. Critics say building more apartments in the metro area is not the answer to rental housing woes. Donald Vallee, former president of the New Orleans Landlords Association, says, "Frankly, we're overbuilt," with one exception. "Where we do need additional housing is for the elderly and for people with disabilities." LRS spokeswoman Christina Stephens says 6,439 families are still in DHAP. So far, Vallee says LRA has failed to provide the kind of in-depth housing survey the area needs. Meanwhile, LRA is working with nonprofits like All Congregations Together to inform DHAP residents of their housing options through outreach fairs. The next fair runs from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Holy Faith Temple, 1325 Gov. Nicholls St. — Allen Johnson Jr.
Let's talk — Chinese drywall
The final agenda for this week's regular monthly meeting of the Louisiana Recovery Authority was unavailable at press time. But consumer alarm over toxic Chinese dry wall may make list at the meeting, which begins at 9 a.m. in House Committee Meeting Room No. 1 in Baton Rouge on Aug. 19.
LRA spokeswoman Christina Stephens told Gambit that authorities, including New Orleans state Reps. Jim Tucker, speaker of the House, Ed Murray and Karen Carter-Peterson — are expected to vote on funding for recovery programs related to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. LRA executive director Paul Rainwater is expected to give the state recovery board an overview of progess made this year and since Hurricane Katrina hit four years ago Aug. 29. — Johnson