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The Official Two Cents 

Sure, everybody has an opinion. But when it comes from the attorney general, it represents a final answer of sorts (no matter how ridiculous the question).

Former state Rep. Warren Triche, a wily Democrat from Chackbay, was fond of comparing elbows to opinions from the office of Louisiana's attorney general. Everybody has at least one, he would say — hell, some folks even have two. When public officials have a burning question, usually one that could potentially get them into hot water, the AG's office is where they inevitably turn. It's either that or seeking a ruling from the headline-grabbing state Ethics Board — and few politicos relish a well-documented letter from that bunch. But before you go and get any grand ideas, you should know that the attorney general's office doesn't provide opinions to the average citizen, except under "extraordinary circumstances," according to state law. The privilege of asking for official legal opinions is reserved for lawmakers, some state employees, commission members and others inside the bureaucratic belly of Louisiana's governmental beast.

In the end, though, an AG's opinion is nothing more than what the term suggests — it is advisory only and does not have the force or effect of law. That kind of wisdom is handed down by the courts or legislated by lawmakers. Furthermore, AG opinions are limited to the facts presented by the requesting official, no matter how narrowly or arcanely drafted, and they can be altered or recalled without notice because of intervening court decisions or legislative enactments.

Still, the opinions, which are issued every few weeks or so, offer an inside peek at what public officials are thinking about. In some cases, it's an advance warning system for legislative proposals that might be coming down the pipe or controversial issues ready to boil over. As proof of that theory, here's a sampling of what's been stirring around the state, based on recent opinions released by the office of Attorney General Buddy Caldwell.

Guerilla Marketing = Political Capital — The way in which certain elected officials promote themselves to the public using taxpayer money is a perennial issue, whether it's brought up by the press or by political opponents. Members of Congress engage in it when they mail newsletters to their districts during election years. The underlying issue is simple: Are such mail-outs a political tool or a way to keep voters informed? In reality, it's a little of both, but the Beltway pros know how to toe the line.

Closer to home, local officials face similar challenges. Apparently, Louisiana's sheriffs have it better than most. In a letter to Hal Turner, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association, the AG's office opined that sheriffs are allowed to place their names on public vehicles, giving each of them a rolling billboard across their respective jurisdictions.

Assumption Parish Assessor Wayne P. Blanchard, however, is not allowed to use public funds to "erect public information billboards bearing (his) name and photograph," states another opinion. The district attorney's office in Washington Parish didn't have any better luck. The AG's office told the local prosecutor that he couldn't "use public funds to publish and disseminate an informational report bearing the photographs and names of the district attorney and his employees."

The lesson? It's good to be the sheriff — unless your name is too long to fit on the passenger-side door.

Up in Smoke — To both fanfare and griping, former Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco signed into law last year a far-reaching smoking ban. Only casinos and stand-alone bars escaped the prohibition. Ever since, restaurants and other establishments have explored ways to circumvent the law.

In an omnibus opinion to district attorneys around the state, the AG's office states that "it is the court's job to determine what is the "primary purpose' of the business and whether the sale of food is "only incidental' as contemplated by the Louisiana Smoke-free Air Act." That pretty much clears the air, right?

The AG's office also had to issue direct opinions to certain entities. The most comical went to the District 5 Denham Springs Fire Department, which was told that its employees couldn't smoke in the "bay area of the fire department building." Additionally, the Livingston Parish Literacy and Technology Center was told that smoking would not be allowed "in the Technology Center's building or other parts of the campus."

On the horizon, the inside-only ban on smoking may be just the beginning. The AG's office told DeRidder Mayor Ron Roberts that a "city may enact a ban by local ordinance on the use of smoking tobacco in unenclosed areas of the city-owned parks."

The lesson? Joe Camel could be poised to take another hit as even four walls aren't good enough anymore for the quasi-powerful, sort of well-heeled anti-tobacco lobby.

Follow the Prices — There must be a shortage of Exxons, Shells and RaceTracks in Maringouin. That's the only logical reason for an opinion that recently was sent to Mayor John F. Overton of that Cajun hamlet. The opinion directly prohibits the town of Maringouin from "purchasing gasoline for resale and from acquiring, operating and maintaining a retail gasoline station." Even if the town has a stellar business plan that offers money and jobs to residents, or cheap gas to its employees, the state Constitution forbids such commercial activities.

The lesson? Government should stay out of the business of selling gas to the general public and get back to complaining about gas prices — and doing nothing about it.

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