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Dear Mr. Mayor
A group of Lower Mid-City residents and business owners has written an "open letter" to Mayor Ray Nagin and City Council members demanding a voice in the decision-making process relating to property acquisitions for the LSU-VA Hospital. The hospital, which Bobby Jindal's Administration recently approved at 424 beds, is slated to occupy some 37 acres between Canal Street and Tulane Avenue, from South Claiborne Avenue to South Rocheblave Street. The city and state have partnered to acquire private properties in the area, by expropriation if necessary, and the land assembly will include demolition of scores of old homes and some local landmarks.

"Our historic neighborhood has been designated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Sites in the U.S. today," the letter states. Citing documents that Nagin executed as authorizing "the wholesale bulldozing and destruction of our neighborhood" and alleging that one of the agreements expired in April, the residents and business owners demand a "full and open debate in a public forum with our elected officials" before any agreement is renewed. The alleged failure to have such an open debate is "unconscionable," the property owners claim, adding that they support the development of "a comprehensive, quality health care delivery system for our residents and veterans" — somewhere else.

The letter also poses a series of questions, including why the old Charity and VA buildings were not brought back after Katrina, and why the "preferred" site for the new LSU-VA complex is a historic neighborhood. "We are asking our elected city officials to re-affirm and put into practice their stated support for open, accountable and transparent government," the letter concludes.

As of press time, Gambit Weekly had not heard back from Nagin's office after requesting comment on the letter. — DuBos

Pay Raise Defines Session
Five months of legislative sessions and more than a year of gubernatorial jawboning have been distilled in roughly one week's time into a singular issue: increased pay for lawmakers. While the 2008 regular session adjourned last week, its aftereffects are likely to be with us for quite a while. At a minimum, the votes to boost legislative salaries from $16,800 to $37,500 will serve as a flashpoint for this generation of lawmakers and the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal — an early indication, if you will, of how they got to where they're heading. "This could possibly become a defining moment," says Barry Erwin, who covered state politics as a reporter for nearly 10 years before taking over as head of the Council for a Better Louisiana. "Right now you have a situation where the bases are loaded, there are two outs and there's a tie score. Everyone is in a jam."

Many of the lawmakers who supported the pay raise are facing harsh criticism — and recall drives, in a few instances — back in their districts. A public protest is planned for next week (indicating the session isn't completely over) and voters are expressing their outrage through Web sites, newscasts, talk radio, letters to the editor and in everyday conversations. "Historically, a pay raise by lawmakers is among the toughest challenges for incumbents to explain come election time," says Joshua Stockley, former president of the Louisiana Political Science Association and professor of government at Nicholls State.

Erwin says it's a flare-up like he's never seen before, thanks largely to the influence of the Internet, email alerts and witty bloggers. As for Jindal Watch 2008, the governor was still promising last week not to veto the pay raise. — Alford

Legislative Retribution
Legislators' vote to increase their base pay to $37,500 a year hit a few nerves on the House and Senate floors, not just among voters back home. Lawmakers who voted against the raise felt the ire of their colleagues. Rep. Jerome "Dee" Richard of Thibodaux, who has no party affiliation, says a $100,000 earmark he secured for a dyslexia program at Nicholls State University was pulled from a budget bill days after he voted against the raise and signed an affidavit not to accept it. The earmark has since been restored, but some other lawmakers weren't as fortunate. "Whether the two are connected, I can't say for sure, but that's what happened," Richard says. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, saw similar treatment in the House when an amendment was introduced to block lawmakers from working as doctors in the Charity Hospital system. Cassidy, a candidate for Congress who voted against the raise, is a physician at Earl K. Long Medical Center. — Alford

Self-Promoting Earmarks
Rep. Elbert Guillory, an Opelousas Democrat, has requested $450,000 in taxpayer money for a nonprofit group that teaches young people homemaking and workforce skills. In previous years, such earmarks may have been called slush funds or "development grants," but these days they're simply called NGOs, or nongovernmental organizations. Lawmakers insert the earmarks into the state's operating budget, which can be found in House Bill 1, which is now on Gov. Bobby Jindal's desk. Jindal has power under the state constitution to "line item veto" specific appropriations he does not like. He'll have no shortage of targets this year, with money slated for a fishing tournament, a hot-air balloon foundation, high school alumni groups and more. Guillory's earmark holds a special place in House Bill 1 because it supports "Serving People in District 40." It should come as no surprise that House District 40 is represented by Guillory. He is not alone in wanting to control the pork once it leaves the Capitol. Sen. Ann Duplessis, D-New Orleans, has a $550,000 earmark for the "District 2 Community Enhancement." It doesn't take a legislative analyst to figure out which district she represents. She uses the group as a youth outreach vehicle, holding fashion shows and other events, and to spread money around the community, like providing local police officers with bulletproof vests. Duplessis also is the author of Senate Bill 672, the measure that increases lawmakers' annual salaries. — Alford


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