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Workers' Comp Hits a Wall
Gov. Kathleen Blanco has issued many executive orders since Hurricane Katrina, putting into place some key provisions without legislative approval. One measure, dealing with workers' comp regulations, has some execs scratching their heads. Under normal circumstances, if a workers' comp claimant fails to submit to a medical examination or gets unfavorable results from such tests, the employer can suspend the claimant's benefits and payments. However, the medical exam requirement was suspended for Orleans and Jefferson parishes in September because so many workers were displaced by Katrina. Blanco recently extended the suspension until Feb. 28. What that means ­ in theory ­ is that Louisiana businesses may have been paying some fraudulent claims in recent months. Without medical examinations, the companies will never know. According to Cherie Pinac, general counsel for LWCC, the state's largest workers' compensation carrier, there's very little that can be done about it. "That's the tricky part, because you can't go back against the plaintiff after they've received their benefits," Pinac says. "I don't know how this is going to play out. You can't really recoup something you've already given out." For now, Pinac says most companies are willing to chalk up the losses as hurricane-related, as there was very little they could do about an executive order. In fact, the industry worked closely with the administration when the original decision was made to suspend the requirement, Pinac says. -- Alford

Rooms for Improvement
Restoration of area hotel and motel rooms is progressing faster than expected, says Darrius Gray, acting president of the private Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association. Pre-Katrina, there were approximately 38,000 rooms available in the metro area, primarily in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, according to figures kept by the 82-year-old association. Gray said 21,000 hotel rooms were available in the city as of Jan. 6, and more are being renovated or repaired since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "We hope to have 25,000 rooms available by Mardi Gras (Feb. 28)," Gray told reporters gathered at Gallier Hall for the city's official kickoff of Carnival. The traditional 11-day Carnival parade season has been shortened to eight days (Feb. 18-19) and (Feb. 22-28). Two smaller parades march the previous weekend (Feb. 11-12), and there will be two parades in Jefferson Parish on Feb. 17. -- Johnson

LABI Questions
LRA Lawmakers aren't the only ones grumbling about who will have ultimate control over the spending of $6.2 billion in disaster relief aid. The money arrived recently as part of a federal block grant, and Gov. Kathleen Blanco wants the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which she created in the fall, to have oversight of the cash. Lawmakers have been grousing about that decision because they want a say in the process before spending decisions go back to the feds for final approval. Now the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, one of the state's most influential lobbies, has joined the chorus. LABI president Dan Juneau writes in a recent column that the governor may be using commissions to "avoid making hard choices." Juneau adds, "It is time for the Legislature and the governor to earn their keep. ... They shouldn't hide behind commissions or excuses. And the voters need to judge them critically on the decisions they make." -- Alford

Stalking Political Sites

Web sites dedicating themselves to Louisiana politics seem to be cropping up as often as federal indictments these days. And most have some aspect of anonymity -- forums where no name is required, "news" stories appear without sources, and masked Web masters call the shots. But that shielded activism may hit a brick wall soon, depending on how a new law is interpreted. The measure is an effort in "Preventing Cyberstalking," which is the actual title of the law, which was piggybacked onto an unrelated bill to provide funding for the Justice Department. Apparently there's no bar to bill-stalking by lawmakers. -- Alford


Dove Hawkish
At least one state lawmaker feels that federal hurricane-relief contracts are getting out of control. As soon as he gets the opportunity ­ either the February special session or the regular session in March ­ Rep. Gordon Dove, a Houma Republican, says he may pursue legislation to address growing concerns about "fly-by-night" contractors doing relief work. "A lot of contractors are coming into this state and getting work from FEMA and others without ever getting insurance or workers comp or anything," Dove says. "They use all these subcontractors that are local, and then the subcontractors are having to hunt them down to get paid." Dove says he also wonders whether the federal government is taking the time to get competitive prices, "because Louisiana ends up having to pay a portion of that bill." While Dove says he doesn't have an ax to grind, companies in which he has an interest have collected roughly $75,000 from federal hurricane-relief contracts since Hurricane Katrina made landfall. -- Alford

Cut the Cake
Mayor Ray Nagin almost forgot to cut the city's first king cake at Gallier Hall ceremonies marking the traditional beginning of Carnival season on Jan. 6. An aide reminded hizzoner as he headed for the door that he had not yet sliced the sugar-coated treat. With a battery of TV cameras capturing the moment, Nagin delivered the ceremonial cut. Moving to the side, he took a break to nibble the slice. Nodding to the cake, a reporter asked Nagin, "So, did you divide it up into council districts?" Nagin burst out laughing and answered, "Man, you bad!" -- Johnson

The First and the Last
Thousands of college students and faculty returned to New Orleans last week, many for the first time since hurricane Katrina flooded most of the city on Aug. 29. Most start classes this week. Our Lady of Holy Cross College, the smallest of the city's eight colleges and universities, was the first to have its main campus reopen after the hurricane. Midwinter semester classes for the 1,424 students at the liberal arts college started at 7:30 a.m. Saturday (Jan. 7). The spring semester begins in April. Graduation for the Class of 2006 will be delayed from May until August. Meanwhile, the University of New Orleans will be the last of the city's college-level institutions to reopen when classes resume Jan. 30. Note, however, UNO's innovation in "evacuation education" -- some 7,000 of UNO's 16,000 students attended fall classes on-line during the Katrina diaspora. "One of my students actually finished his dissertation and defended it in a conference call," UNO political scientist Susan Howell said, proudly. -- Johnson

In a "Scuttlebutt" item last week, we listed the wrong date for polling commissioner classes for citywide elections for mayor and the City Council. Classes begin at 8 a.m., 10 a.m. and noon on Saturday, Jan. 28 at the Jewish Community Center, 5342 St. Charles Ave. We regret the error.


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