1. FUNDING FOR LOUISIANA
CHILDREN'S HEALTH CARE IN JEOPARDY
Gov. John Bel Edwards urged Louisiana's congressional delegation this month to ensure health care for more than 122,000 Louisiana children and pregnant women after Congress missed the deadline to reauthorize funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). In a letter to U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Neely Kennedy and the state's six representatives, Edwards outlines the "clear reasons" why CHIP funding should be reauthorized "as soon as possible."
A report last week by the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute said 13,671 Louisiana children could lose health coverage in January if Congress does not renew CHIP.
2018 funding for CHIP lapsed Oct. 1, putting the program in jeopardy as a Republican-controlled Congress eyes steep cuts to health care following the passage of the GOP's tax overhaul.
CHIP covers children under age 19 in low-income-earning families and offers checkups, immunizations, prescription coverage, dental and vision care, emergency services and hospital care. It also covers pregnant women.
The rate of uninsured children in Louisiana fell to 3.8 percent in 2015, dropping from more than 11 percent in 2003, according to the governor's office.
"It is absolutely imperative that Congress reauthorize CHIP," Edwards said in a statement, "restoring medical care for Louisiana's most vulnerable children and giving them a healthy state at life."
Edwards says Louisiana taxpayers likely will "shoulder at least an additional $126 million per year to maintain the program through 2019" if Congress fails to renew CHIP funding. "With dire budget problems at our doorstep, we would be hard-pressed to maintain current levels of health care access for these vulnerable children," Edwards wrote.
2. Quote of the week
"Just because you've seen My Cousin Vinny doesn't qualify you to be a federal judge, and he has no litigation experience. And my job on the Judiciary Committee is to catch him. I would strongly suggest he not give up his day job." — U.S. Sen. John Neely Kennedy to WWL-TV, discussing his much-watched questioning of prospective U.S. District Judge Matthew S. Petersen at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Petersen, like Kennedy, is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, but was unable to answer some fundamental questions of legal procedure.
Largely as a result of Kennedy's questioning, Peterson, a member of the Federal Elections Commission, subsequently withdrew his nomination. He wrote to President Donald Trump, "I had hoped my nearly two decades of public service might carry more weight than my worst two minutes on television."
3. Race to replace Moreno begins next week
New Orleans state Rep. Helena Moreno leaves her Louisiana House of Representatives seat in May 2018 to step into her new position as a New Orleans City Councilwoman At-Large. She'll replace Stacy Head, who has served on the City Council since 2006, first as the District B council member and since 2012 as an at-large member. Moreno's departure means New Orleans voters will elect a new state representative next year — and the candidate qualifying period is coming up next week: Jan. 3-5.
A special election is set for March 24, with a runoff April 28. Moreno announced on social media this month that she'll remain in the office until the new representative is elected.
Moreno is set to be sworn in as a member of the City Council on May 7. No candidates had announced their intent to run for Moreno's seat as of press time.
4. Council meetings move to West Bank for a few months
The New Orleans City Council Chamber at City Hall is closed for renovations, and meetings will move to the West Bank through March. Full council meetings will be held at the Orleans Parish School Board offices at 3520 Gen. DeGaulle Drive in Algiers, roughly 6 miles and 15 minutes (by car) from the Council Chamber at 1300 Perdido St.
Council committee meetings and other city boards and commissions that normally meet in City Hall will move their meetings to other spaces near or inside City Hall.
City Council meetings for the first quarter of 2018 are scheduled for Jan. 11 and 25, Feb. 8 and 22 and March 8 and 22. Likely on the agenda early in the new year are hearings on the Master Plan and the proposed crime camera and permit plan for businesses that sell alcohol. Both issues are expected to draw large crowds.
The chamber is getting new LED lighting to replace its "theatrical-style" lighting, new paint, new carpet, new seating, an Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant speakers' lectern and electrical and audio upgrades.
5. JBE popular, Trump polarizing in Louisiana, according to new poll
Gov. John Bel Edwards enjoys a 65 percent approval rating in Louisiana, according to a Southern Media & Opinion Research (SMOR) poll of 500 likely Louisiana voters conducted Nov. 28-30. Edwards, a Democrat, received positive job ratings from 82 percent of state Democrats and even 44 percent of state Republicans, the SMOR poll showed.
That number was higher even than Louisiana's two U.S. Senators, both of whom are Republicans. John Neely Kennedy received a 51 percent job approval rating, while Bill Cassidy enjoys 45 percent approval, according to the poll. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, meanwhile, has a 55 percent job approval rating in the SMOR poll.
President Donald Trump's job approval in Louisiana, meanwhile, is almost evenly split, with 48 percent of Louisianans viewing him positively while 50 percent view him negatively. Only 7 percent of black voters view him positively. A plurality of Louisianans also thinks the state and country are both going in the "wrong direction" (45 and 49 percent respectively).
The poll's margin of error is 4.4 percent.
6. Louisiana's 'fiscal cliff' is back for 2018
As Louisiana faces a $1 billion "fiscal cliff" in 2018, Gov. John Bel Edwards urged the Louisiana Legislature to confront the state's budget shortfall after it "failed" to implement tax reform in 2017, despite recommendations from a legislatively created task force.
Edwards may call a special legislative session in February, the sixth special session since he entered office in January 2016, to come up with a plan to plug the shortfall.
Last year, legislators approved a temporary sales tax increase while scaling back some tax credits and exemptions, a stopgap measure touted as a way to give lawmakers time to develop a comprehensive plan for long-term reform — which didn't happen.
"It's critically important we do it and do it now," Edwards said Dec. 18. "What we cannot do is continue to have groups of the Legislature say no to anything [and] don't come with proposals of their own ... Saying no to everything is the biggest part of our problem today."
Edwards proposes rolling back some sales and income tax exemptions as the state's sales tax will drop from a "temporary" 5 percent level to 4 percent July 1, 2018. The decrease in sales tax, combined with other exemptions in the coming year, will put the budget roughly $1 billion short. Edwards' proposed revenue-neutral reforms (which lawmakers previously rejected) include maintaining a 4 percent utilities sales tax for businesses, with industrial businesses paying 2 percent. A 4 percent sales tax also would apply to certain cable and internet subscription services, like Netflix and Amazon.
7. Proposed block-long hotel development in Bywater draws criticism
Developers plan to turn five properties along St. Claude Avenue in Bywater — including several houses and the former art space The Truck Farm — into a block-sized hotel development called the Sun Yard, with plans pending approval by several city commissions.
The plans call for linking the properties together with fencing between them, with an inside area housing a pool and the hotel's interior space. The plans also call for the construction of another unit as well as the removal of steps on the street-facing side of the houses, which would be accessed internally. A restaurant also is planned on one side of the hotel, and a parking lot is planned on the other side of St. Claude. The development includes addresses at 3000, 3014, 3020-3022, 3024-3026 and 3030-3032 St. Claude Ave.
On Dec. 19, architects with the firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple presented initial plans to the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission's (HDLC) Architectural Review Committee, among the first stops at City Hall where developers seek approval for building projects. But committee members voted to defer approving the plans, and residents expressed concerns about the scope of the project and its potential impact on the neighborhood and New Orleans, from rising property taxes and housing affordability to noise. "The bigger picture is this will make New Orleans and this neighborhood less inhabitable for the people who make it interesting," said musician Quintron.
Developers faced a similar round of criticism at a neighborhood meeting earlier this month, where 3000-3032 St. Claude Ave. LLC director Liz Solms fielded complaints about the project's size and impact, among other issues raised by meeting attendees.
Pending approval of their plans before the HDLC, developers likely will seek zoning change approvals in January and February.
8. Governor's sexual harassment task force convenes
Gov. John Bel Edwards' newly created seven-member sexual harassment task force held its first meeting Dec. 18 in Baton Rouge. According to a statement from the governor's office, the task force "will review current harassment and discrimination policies within every state agency that falls under the executive branch, as well as research and identify the most effective ways to create work environments that are free from any form of harassment or discrimination."
At a year-end news conference in front of a Christmas tree, Edwards said he had no knowledge of sexual harassment by his former deputy chief of staff, Johnny Anderson, who stepped down last month after allegations were made. Anderson maintains his innocence.
The task force is charged with submitting a report to Edwards' office no later than March 1, 2018.
9. NOMA Sculpture Garden to undergo year-long expansion, double in size
The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) will more than double in size by the end of 2018 as NOMA embarks on an expansion that will take the popular attraction to 11 acres of space next to the museum's main building. The expansion will connect the existing Sculpture Garden to the Big Lake and will include an amphitheater and stage, an outdoor classroom and hundreds of new plantings, including palmettos, according to schematics provided by NOMA. The cost will be $15 million, which will be paid for by private donors, according to the museum.
The Sculpture Garden, which opened in 2003, now has 64 large-scale permanent sculptures by artists including Louise Bourgeois, Robert Indiana and Claes Oldenburg. Admission is free. The existing garden will stay open during the expansion.
10. Ashe Cultural Arts Center to expand for its 20th anniversary
Ashe Cultural Arts Center will turn 20 years old in December 2018, and Executive Director Carol Bebelle says the community space will undergo its first major renovation during the next year. A grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is funding the construction of a nursing station for mothers, and Ashe will be able to add more restrooms. There will be a large welcome desk in Ashe's main space and windows will display African art, artifacts and products. A decorative wooden "bamboula wall," with an undulating design based on the bamboula rhythm, will extend the length of the space.
This is the first major renovation of the Ashe space, Bebelle said. The former department store has an open ground floor, and Ashe has used temporary walls to block off space for performances, art shows and community events. Ashe's 18,000-square-foot space on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard hosts art shows, community events, theater and dance productions, film screenings, youth and wellness programming and more.
"Culture is taken for granted," Bebelle said. "It needs a home as well. It needs a place where people are praying, planning and working on it."
Ashe is beginning a fundraising campaign for the renovations, which will address structural issues, the roof, plumbing and other issues. Its goal is to raise $500,000 in the next year.