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Scuttlebutt 

From their lips to your ears

SCUTTLES 05-12-09

Conflicts Bar Reform —

But Not Patronage Pacts

  New Orleans City Councilwoman Shelley Midura's attempt to inject some objectivity into the council's utility consultant selection process was sidetracked last week when she was unable to get advance commitments from a majority of her colleagues to vote for her motion calling for an independent evaluation of the consultants by Rand. The putative reason some of them wouldn't commit: conflicts of interest. The source of the conflicts: some of the local utility consultants given high-priced contracts by the council have also worked in the campaigns of council members. The conflicts are real, but using them as an excuse not to reform the consultant selection process actually keeps the conflicts in place — because it prevents an objective evaluation of certain politically connected local consultants' work. Funny, but council members never seem to have a conflict when it comes to handing out fat consulting contracts to people who work in their campaigns. The conflicts are said to involve local CPA Ken Pailet and the accounting firm of Bruno and Tervalon, each of which has a utility consulting contract worth $250,000 a year. The council's $6 million annual utility consultant contract costs are fronted by Entergy, which passes the expense on to local ratepayers by tacking the costs onto local utility bills. Although Rand will not be hired to evaluate the consultants' work, Midura announced that she has asked the Office of Inspector General to perform a "management review" of the council's regulatory functions, which should be completed "in time for the next round of RFPs." — Clancy DuBos



Is That $248 Mil in Your

Pocket or ...

  State Sen. David Heitmeier of Algiers says he has "found" up to $248 million in additional federal health care funds for Medicaid and uninsured patients via his Senate Bill 51, which won quick committee approval last week in the Upper Chamber. Heitmeier, an optometrist with a keen interest in health care financing, has sought ways to squeeze more out of federal health care programs since he won election to the Senate in 2007. "My bill allows parishes and other local governments to put up local dollars to receive matching federal health care money, which compounds the local money and translates into a potential for almost a quarter-billion more dollars statewide for health care for the uninsured and those on Medicaid," Heitmeier says, adding that the number will increase as Medicaid funding is cut. His bill requires federal monies obtained via local matches to be "primarily utilized" to enhance health care within the parishes or cities that put up matching money. However, the bill also provides that "any such transfer shall be under the administrative control of the Department of Health and Hospitals" — which means the state still calls the shots on health care spending within the participating parishes. Heitmeier says the matching program will require local governments and the state to sign cooperative endeavor agreements specifying how the money gets spent. He adds that his bill has the support of the Jindal administration. — DuBos



Collegians' Credit Crunch

  The House Education Committee approved legislation last week that would force colleges and universities to prohibit the dissemination of consumer credit card information to undergraduate students. It used to be that college registration day was a blue-light-special day for credit card companies. Students could sign up for university-related debit and credit cards all at once. Lawmakers, however, banned registration-day solicitations a few years ago, leaving credit card companies with the remainder of the school year to hand out free T-shirts and other swag to students applying for credit. House Bill 461 by Rep. Elton M. Aubert, D-Vacherie, closes up the loophole and directs colleges to bar credit card companies from shilling their products on campuses. The bill contains one exception: as long as the information being disseminated "is a component of the student's course of study," it won't be stopped. The bill has support from Ken E. Uffman, CEO emeritus of the Credit Bureau of Baton Rouge and state coordinator for the Louisiana Jump$tart Coalition, both of which have promoted lawmakers' most substantial efforts in recent years to boost financial literacy amongst young people. If HB 461 clears the legislative process, it would take effect July 1. — Alford



CCA Setting the Hook

  Officials with the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana (CCA) say they're taking "very seriously" a proposed constitutional amendment that would abolish the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission. Rep. Billy R. Chandler, D-Dry Prong, is pushing a bill that would scrap the panel, which is responsible for setting hunting and fishing seasons, overseeing enforcement and managing fish and game biological practices. CCA is among the largest lobbies in the state and represents the interests of recreational fishermen. In a prepared statement, CCA declared, "We are not yet ready to call for a full CCA grassroots push, but we are concerned" about any initiative that would revert the commission's policymaking duties back to the state Legislature. Lobbyists for CCA say they plan to speak with Chandler about his bill soon. Chandler's House Bill 529 has been referred to the House Natural Resources Committee. Even if it receives a full-blown committee hearing, it's doubtful that such a sweeping change will gain momentum, lawmakers say. In its statement, even CCA doubted how far the proposed constitutional amendment could go: "While passage of this bill is a long shot, CCA is taking it very seriously." — Alford



One Port, Two Ports,

Failed Port, New Port

  A freshman legislator wants Terrebonne, St. Mary and Assumption parishes to join forces and plan what could become a massive cargo airport and maritime port facility on the site of an abandoned shipyard in Amelia. Despite Louisiana's $1.3 billion budget deficit, Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, says the timing couldn't be better for the state to launch such a venture. Harrison notes Gov. Bobby Jindal's decision to halt state spending on plans for a $4.4 billion cargo airport near Donaldsonville. Stephen Moret, Jindal's economic development chief, told The Associated Press earlier this month that the Donaldsonville project was becoming too reliant on state money and that private investors are losing interest. The Legislature created the Louisiana Airport Authority to purchase the land — some 25,000 acres spanning Ascension, Assumption and Iberville parishes — and drive the proposed airport. As that project falters, Harrison says it's "a great opportunity for us to develop another port on the coast. We already have major highways, shipyard infrastructure, a power source and railroad access." Harrison's bill establishes a tri-parish port authority as a seven-member board, but does not define the authority's powers. — Alford

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