The Louisiana chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons is still waiting to hear from an administrative law judge as to whether it can represent the interests of residential utility customers in Entergy's ongoing push to recoup the $600 to $800 million in losses the utility is claiming from the 2005 hurricanes. Entergy is in negotiations with the Public Service Commission to increase utility rates over a number of years to help cushion the loss. When no other consumer or governmental organization stepped up to represent the people of Louisiana, AARP filed a motion to get involved, according to AARP communications director Beth Bryant. "Entergy is the only one so far who has opposed our inclusion," she says. AARP made a similar move in Florida and was successful, but the PSC would have to bend its rules a bit to allow the organization to come in at this time -- a routine procedure that Attorney General Charles Foti and others are supporting. PSC hearings are scheduled to start April 24, and Bryant contends that's enough time for AARP to get involved. A decision from the judge could come by the end of the month, she says, adding that concerns that AARP will slow down the process by coming in "late" are unwarranted. "We wouldn't hold up anything," Bryant says. "We'll take the case as it is." -- Alford
Tax Credits Ready, But Is the State?
The Louisiana Department of Revenue will mail out a postcard this week explaining how property owners can claim the Louisiana Citizens Insurance Credit -- one of the only tangible results of the recent special legislative session -- on their 2006 state income tax returns. After the 2005 hurricanes, the Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, the state's property insurer of last resort, took a huge financial hit. To cover some of the losses, the state imposed a 15 percent surcharge on all Louisiana property insurance policies. An unexpected surplus in the state budget prompted lawmakers in December to refund the surcharge to Louisiana taxpayers via a tax credit. According to an analysis by the Legislative Fiscal Office, the tax credit "will likely be taken by a very large share of tax filers." While the amount of each credit will differ, the state expects to issue $239 million in tax credits to offset recent property insurance premiums. As long as the surcharge is levied, the credit will be available. But will the state be ready to process the credits, which require more paperwork from taxpayers, on just a few months' notice? The revenue department recently predicted that as many as 22 new state hires may be needed. "Some of these positions may be temporary during tax season only," the review stated, "but will have to be rehired each season, and some may need to be permanent." From an administrative standpoint, the cost of operations during the first year alone could reach at least $880,000. -- Alford
America's Wetland Garners Praise
PR News, a leading industry trade publication, has presented its top honor for 2006 to Louisiana's public information campaign on coastal restoration. America's Wetland, which is supported by private and public resources, joined the ranks of other high-profile winners, such as the American Veterinary Association, Girl Scouts and U.S. Postal Service. The group's "Campaign to Save Coastal Louisiana" was recognized for its "groundbreaking work," which resonated with national and local communities, association members, volunteers, the media and other stakeholders. Among other issues, America's Wetland was critical in helping the state educate the general public and lobby Congress to get Louisiana a greater share of offshore oil and gas royalties last year. Valsin A. Marmillion, a Houma native and manager of the wetland campaign, says the key has been making people around the nation understand that the bayous and marshes of south Louisiana impact them. "For the past four years we have been informing the nation and world about Louisiana's land loss crisis and how that loss affects the state, the nation and the world," he says. Louisiana has nearly 6,000 square miles of coastal wetlands, but they are being lost at an alarming rate -- more than 230 square miles in the 1990s alone. This vanishing landscape has enormous ecological significance; it supports and protects wildlife, communities and the important energy infrastructure that clings to Louisiana's tattered coast. -- Alford
One Mayor, Two Op-Ed Columns
If Mayor Ray Nagin's guest column in The Times-Picayune last week had a familiar ring to it, you must be reading The Louisiana Weekly, the city's oldest black media voice. Nagin, the city's fourth consecutive African-American mayor, delivered upbeat New Year's messages to readers of both papers, 16 months after Hurricane Katrina: "Many of our residents are returning home, businesses are reopening and new investors are arriving. ... But recovery is far from complete." However, there were subtle as well as obvious differences in each column -- and conspicuous omissions. The mayor's column in The Weekly, a regular feature, appeared first, hitting newsstands early last week. The piece is shorter, more personal, and arguably better written. The column in the T-P ran last Thursday. It was slightly longer, allowing Nagin more room to elaborate on complex recovery problems, such as delays in the Road Home grants for homeowners and the lack of affordable insurance, post-Katrina. Crime, the top recovery issue in New Orleans (according to a recent UNO poll), gets short shrift in Nagin's T-P column and no mention in his Weekly piece. In both papers, the mayor failed to address another major drag on the recovery -- heightened racial tensions since the storm. Ironically, the city's Human Relations Commission recently announced a plan for "One New Orleans." The mayor closes both columns by saying the city is "getting its house in order." But he goes farther in The Weekly: "The last 16 months have been hard, but the fundamentals are finally in place to make 2007 the breakout year for our city." -- Johnson
Louisiana for Obama?
A small group of seasoned Democratic politicos huddled at an Uptown coffeehouse early last week to strategize on how to win Louisiana for U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. -- if the best-selling African-American author runs for president in 2008. "We had about a dozen people," says Russell Henderson, organizer of the first "Louisiana for Obama" meeting. "[In New Orleans], that's a number where people can interact and also get some work done." Among those attending were former mayoral contender Virginia Boulet, former Boulet campaign manager Lisa Edwards, veteran housing activist Jim Hayes and Henderson, who chaired the 2004 Louisiana presidential campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, now chair of the Democratic National Party. Obama, 45, is the first black elected editor of the Harvard Law Review and the author of two best-selling books: Dreams of My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance and more recently, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. Political strategists are watching to see how Obama's candid style plays with voters. For example, he is the first presidential candidate to admit using cocaine (beginning in high school and ending in college). Undaunted, Henderson predicts: "If Obama is still in the race in March of 2008, he will win the Louisiana primary." -- Johnson
Nice to be Courted
Democratic Party activists want an earlier date for the Louisiana closed-presidential primary in 2008. It's a familiar request of the national party that usually falls on deaf ears -- at least before Hurricane Katrina. Louisiana's closed-party primary is typically held in March, and often the race for the Democratic nomination has already been decided. And because the increasingly conservative state offers only a handful of Electoral College votes, Democratic presidential hopefuls have tended to limit campaign time and resources here. "It was real hard to get candidates to come down here," recalls Russell Henderson, who co-chaired the Louisiana presidential campaign for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in 2004. "Howard Dean never came here." This time around, however, New Orleans seems to be a touchstone for presidential aspirants. Former Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards launched his 2008 presidential bid by doing clean-up work here late last year. And U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a possible candidate, visited the city twice, delivering a commencement address to graduates of Xavier University and greeting worshippers at St. Peter Claver Church. -- Johnson
Let the Dialogue Begin
The city's Human Relations Commission late last month kicked off a "diversity and inclusion" initiative -- 20 months after Mayor Ray Nagin called for a "serious dialogue" on race relations in New Orleans. At a press conference outside the mayor's office, commission chair Michael Cowan said Hurricane Katrina delayed the HRC's plans for "public listening sessions" with 13 diverse groups in as many months. Asked how the meetings will make a difference in the city's racial climate, Cowan, a theology professor at Loyola University, said, "[T]he speaking will have to be honest and the listening will have to be good. And then some action will have to follow from what we've heard." After a series of meetings, the Commission expects to make recommendations to the mayor and the City Council in early 2008. Larry Bagneris Jr. , executive director of the HRC, says the One New Orleans sessions are an extension of hearings in 2005 that followed the racially charged asphyxiation death of a black man outside a French Quarter bar. -- Johnson
Nagin: 'Chocolate City' Misunderstood
In his last press conference before Christmas, Mayor Ray Nagin called the Human Relations Commission's "One New Orleans" initiative on racial unity "an incredible gift" to the city. "It is no secret that racial tensions were high in New Orleans before Katrina, and they have been further heightened following the storm," Nagin said. At the same time, Nagin insisted he is not at fault for the racially charged uproar that followed his now-notorious "chocolate city" remarks on Martin Luther King Day last year. Nagin says his remarks -- that God wanted New Orleans to be a "chocolate city" -- were taken out of context. "Everything in my history has been about inclusion and about diversity," he said. He invited reporters to check his history of leadership at City Hall and at Cox Cable, where he was the CEO before his election as mayor in 2002, as well as "any other endeavors that I've been involved in." The mayor added, "Check the makeup of the commissions and the staff that I've hired and you will see a very inclusive group. And that's what we're working toward with One New Orleans." Nagin vowed to monitor the HRC initiative, either by attending its monthly meetings or by reading the transcripts of speaker comments. -- Johnson
Living in Public Housing?
Mention "public housing" and you may conjure up the worst stereotypes of government dependency. But civil rights attorney William Quigley says anyone who has applied for a FEMA trailer or a Road Home grant since Hurricane Katrina is seeking public housing and should reconsider the plight of 4,000 families seeking to return to conventional housing developments in New Orleans. "If people are getting $150,000 from the federal government to fix up their houses, guess what folks, that's public housing. You are in federally assisted housing yourselves," Quigley says. "The tragedy is that our community is stuck in a 'lifeboat triage' [mentality]. People think, 'I am in the boat; the boat is not in that good a shape, and we can't let anybody back in because they'll sink the boat.'" Quigley says reopening 4,000 public housing units would help jump-start the city's housing-starved economy and would free up more units in the area's private housing market. Federal housing officials plan to raze several housing projects in 2007 and replace them with "mixed income" housing. -- Johnson
- Attorney General Charles Foti and others support AARP's efforts to represent residential utility customers in Louisiana during negotiations in which Entergy is seeking utility rate increases from the Public Service Commission to recoup money it lost because of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.