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Hall of Fame To Induct Six

Selecting from a smorgasbord that never seems to run short of colorful personalities, the Louisiana Political Museum has chosen six politicos to enter its hall of fame in 2009. The museum, located in Winnfield, the storied home of Huey and Earl Long, will hold its annual induction banquet in February. The 2008 ceremony tilted toward Baton Rouge, as three Red Stick legends were inducted — the late John M. LaPlante Jr., a former reporter for The Advocate; Mayor Kip Holden; and former Congressman Richard Baker. This time the list of inductees will be more geographically balanced. From north Louisiana is arguably the state's most recognizable populist and self-proclaimed champion of the Little Man, Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell. Also on tap is former Acadiana Congressman Chris John, who's now president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association. Then there's Evangeline Parish Clerk of Court Walter Lee and former state Rep. Al Ater, who most recently served as acting secretary of state. Representing New Orleans is late philanthropist and businessman Pat Taylor, who created a program that continues to send millions of American children to college. Former Iberville Parish Sheriff Jessel Ourso rounds out the bunch and is possibly the most politically lucky (he once survived in office while facing federal extortion charges and 33 state criminal charges). The banquet is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 7, at the Winnfield Civic Center. Tickets can be purchased from the museum for $50 by calling (877) 628-5928 before Jan. 23. All tickets must be reserved and paid in advance. — Jeremy Alford

Leases Hit Four-Year Low

Louisiana officials are trying to put a positive spin on the state Mineral Board's most recent oil and gas lease sale, which came in at $1.4 million — $1 million shy of last December's take — and is the lowest year-end sale since 2004. Sliding crude prices and a dismal national economy have been pegged as culprits for the December slump. The previous months brought historically high sales, bolstered by activity in north Louisiana, which make the drop even more noticeable. One would have to look back to December 2004 to find a smaller year-end sale, about $952,000. Of the 144 tracts nominated for leasing last week, only 44 drew bids, equating to about 31 percent — also a major dip. Exploration companies typically nominate more tracts than they intend to bid on, but the average monthly activity rate ranges anywhere from 34 percent to 40 percent. Department of Natural Resources Secretary Scott Angelle says this unpleasant news is offset by the impressive run the Haynesville Shale area in northwest Louisiana enjoyed from June to October. Each monthly sale ranked among the top six collection days on record, raking in $35 million to more than $93 million per sale. Although leasing activity has slowed from the summer and fall spikes, 2008 "has still been an exciting year for lease sale collections," Angelle says. "What should not be forgotten is that the exploration companies that spent all these dollars on leasing will soon be preparing to drill and produce, meaning the potential of jobs, royalties and new taxes in coming years." Despite the continued fall of oil and gas prices and mounting concerns about the national and global economies, state officials contend the most recent December lease sale is well within the normal variations that were seen in the monthly figures during the five months that preceded the Haynesville Shale boom. For instance, during the first five months of 2008, before Haynesville heated up, the average lease sale collection was slightly less than $2 million. Mineral Board Secretary Marjorie McKeithen says that average is proof that the industry still wants to do business in Louisiana. "The oil and gas industry's recognition of the changing economic times is evident in its leasing activity," she says, "but we are still receiving bids and interest in our state." — Alford

Banks Binging on Bailout

Until recently, the idea of the federal government bailing out financial markets and buying bank stocks was unthinkable. Times have changed. Stop at almost any bank in Orleans Parish, especially those with regional or national names, and the upper brass will attest to that. The sub-prime mortgage bubble burst this fall, threatening credit markets and investment banks. In response, Congress approved a controversial $700 billion bailout package in October and the U.S. Treasury Department has kept busy since then, pledging all but $15 billion of the aid as of press time. The over-arching goal was to bolster the nation's capital markets with just enough money to help small businesses with loans, lines of credit and other services through regional banks. Those original objectives, however, have fallen short of the mark.

While many financial institutions simply need help, some banks that received bailout funds are using the cash to expand operations. Others have actually made lending policies more stringent. For instance, Bank of America is using its $15 billion to double its holdings in the China Construction Bank Corp. It is China's second largest lender, and Bank of America will soon hold a 20 percent stake, worth roughly $24 billion. Closer to home, Lafayette-based IberiaBank is slated for a $90 million share of the bailout, which company officials say they will use to acquire other cash-strapped banks. IberiaBank's third-quarter earnings dropped 27 percent after a similar acquisition earlier this year of ANB Financial, an Arkansas bank that was shuttered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. New Orleans-based regional banking company Whitney Holding Corp. likewise announced last week that it has sold $300 million in newly issued preferred stock to the U.S. Treasury as part of the federal financial-system bailout. The federal government also received a 10-year warrant to purchase about 2.6 million shares of common stock at $17.10 per share. The bank reported third-quarter earnings of $7 million, compared with $48.8 million in net income during the same period in 2007. Property values have plummeted in Florida, where Whitney holds a portfolio of real estate loans. Analysts view Whitney's acceptance into the bailout program as a sign of government confidence in the bank. — Alford

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