Resolution passes Senate to help fund public defenders

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Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge

Published: June 25, 2020

By: By Kathleen Peppo, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE — The Senate Judiciary B Committee advanced a resolution with bipartisan support to study improved ways to fund the Louisiana Public Defender Board.

Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, brought the resolution to address the chronic funding issues facing the board.

The board also is facing drastic budget cuts due to the COVID-19 crisis.

“What I’ve decided to do is put together a board that can look at best practices across the country and look for a steadier funding stream so that we are able to help those individuals who find themselves in these situations,” Barrow said.

Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco, the chairman of the committee, voiced his support for the resolution.

He said that the vast majority of defendants that come before the criminal justice system seek assistance from public defender boards, and the defenders are “woefully, woefully underfunded.”

Barrow noted that public defenders around the state are mostly funded by money from traffic tickets, which isn’t “a good funding mechanism” because the levels fluctuate.

Read more at houmatoday.com

 

Debate over policing leads to tension in Louisiana House

Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, shared his own difficult experiences with police in supporting a resolution to study policing in the state.
Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, shared his own difficult experiences with police in supporting a resolution to study policing in the state.(Sarah Gamard / LSU Manship School News Service)

Published: June 24, 2020

By: Kathleen Peppo, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE, La. (LSU Manship School News Service) – A racially charged debate on the House floor about a resolution to establish a task force to make recommendations about policing ended with remarks from Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, about his own experiences with law enforcement.

The House approved the resolution 99-0, but only after Republicans had pushed privately before the debate to remove references to George Floyd, a black man who died when a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for more than 8 minutes.

Rep. Blake Miguez, R-New Iberia, proposed the amendment to remove any mention of Floyd’s death. House members passed it with 67 yeas and 32 nays.

“The first piece of legislation only mentioned George Floyd,” James, who is African American, said, referring to the recent event that inspired the public outcry to which the resolution was responding. “Blake, we could have filled five pages with names.”

In an effort to ensure approval for the study that could lead to police reform, however, James reluctantly agreed to the amendment.

The resolution, written by Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, had been approved by the Senate with the reference to Floyd’s death. Since the House amended it to remove that reference, the resolution will be returned to the Senate for consideration. Under the resolution, the task force would be called the Police Training, Screening, and De-escalation Task Force. It will study law enforcement training and practices and make recommendations to the Legislature.

James had agreed before the debate to delete the references to Floyd, but Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, was not privy to the conversation. When the resolution came up for debate on the floor, Bacala, who had worked in law enforcement, said language in the resolution about blacks being three times more likely to be killed by law enforcement officers than whites addressed only one side of the issue.

Read more at KALB

New state budget proposal could freeze pay raises for state workers

Published: June 24, 2020

By: Catherine Hunt, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE, La. (LSU Manship School News Service) – A Senate committee on Wednesday passed a version of the state’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year and several other bills that could impact the state’s finances, including freezing pay raises for state employees. The bill, approved by the Senate Finance Committee, would use $90 million from the state’s rainy-day fund to fill budget shortfalls caused by nearly $1 billion in lost revenues estimated by state economists.

The Legislature is expected to use more than $1 billion in federal coronavirus aid to fill budget gaps. About half of those funds were used in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and the rest will be used in the fiscal year starting July 1.

The committee also passed three other bills Wednesday that would give about $9.6 million in tax breaks next year to hotels, retailers and restaurants trying to recover from the shutdown from the virus, which has caused more than 300,000 Louisianans to file for unemployment.

Meanwhile, the House gave final legislative approval to a tax break for the gambling industry which could cost the state $11 million next year and $83 million over five years.

Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, the chairman of the finance committee, said the various business tax breaks could total between $20 million and $25 million next year.

The Senate committee also included language in the budget bill that would temporarily freeze pay raises for state employees. That would save the state about $60 million. The money would be set aside in a separate fund, and the Legislature would consider whether to issue the pay raises later if the economy improved. If not, the money would be used to fill budget holes. Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, supported the freeze, saying layoffs could be prevented “if we make wise decisions now as a Legislature.” The committee unanimously approved the plan. But Gov. John Bel Edwards, who also would have to sign off on the bill if it makes it out of the Legislature, opposed the move.

Read more at KALB

 

 

La. casinos get $83 million tax break

Published: June 24, 2020

By: Kathleen Peppo, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE — The House voted 73-18 Wednesday to approve a tax break for promotional play wagers at casinos. It would cost the state $11.2 million in lost revenues in the next fiscal year, starting July 1, and a total of $83 million over five years.

The bill is designed to help the casino industry after the major hit it took from the COVID-19 shutdown. It would allow each casino to give customers $5 million in free promotional play wagers without having the casinos having to pay state taxes on those amounts. Anything above $5 million would be taxed at the normal rate, 21.5 percent.

The Senate also had passed the bill, written by Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles. It now goes to Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Here is how Houma-Thibodaux representatives voted Wednesday on the casino tax break:

For: Tanner Magee and Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma and Bryan Fontenot, R-Thibodaux.

Against: Beryl Amedée, R-Gray.

As of May 17, gaming revenue was down by $122 million from a year earlier. Casinos and other forms of gaming, including the state lottery, normally bring in more revenue for the state than any other industry.

In May, the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs committee rejected a resolution to suspend taxes on all promotional play wagers in the gaming industry. That would have cost the state $29 million in tax revenues next year and $217.9 million over five years.

Read more at houmatoday.com

State Senate passes bill aimed at dedicating tax revenue from fantasy sports to early childhood education

Photo credit: AP images

Published: June 23, 2020

By: Kathleen Peppo, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE, La. (LSU Manship School News Service) – The Senate voted 36-0 Tuesday to give final passage to a bill to levy an eight percent state tax on the net revenue from fantasy sports contests. The aim is to dedicate that tax money to early childhood education, though it might only total about $375,000 a year.

A 2018 law allowed voters in each parish to decide whether or not they wanted to be able to bet on fantasy sports. Forty-seven of the 64 parishes approved it.

When fantasy sports betting was legalized, legislators said that it could not take effect unless it was taxed. The enactment of this tax is the last step in allowing citizens to bet on fantasy sports.

Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, said that many people are supportive of the bill “specifically because they understand the significance of providing resources to early childhood education.”

A revenue explanation attached to the bill gave a rough estimate of what the state will gain from the tax based on a report of New York’s income from a 15 percent tax on fantasy sports contests. The estimate suggests that Louisiana’s eight percent tax would result in about $375,000 of yearly tax receipts.

Read more at KALB

 

Potential compromise bill seeks to lower Louisiana car insurance

The House passed a bill by Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, who is seeking a compromise on so-called “tort reform” legislation.
The House passed a bill by Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, who is seeking a compromise on so-called “tort reform” legislation. (Photo: Courtesy)

Published: June 24, 2020

By: Catherine Hunt, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE–The House passed a potential compromise bill Tuesday aimed at winning support from Gov. John Bel Edwards, who vetoed an earlier effort that sought to lower car insurance rates by limiting injury lawsuits.

The bill, by Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, passed 82-9, with 21 Democrats voting for it. Nelson said he was trying to break the logjam on an issue that Republicans have billed as one of their biggest priorities during this legislative season.

In other action Tuesday, the House voted 82-17 to pass a bill that would prevent students and teachers who contracted infectious diseases, including COVID-19, from suing K-12 schools and colleges unless they can prove “grossly negligent or wanton or reckless misconduct.”

Earlier this month, Edwards vetoed a bill by Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge that had addressed several components of Louisiana’s tort laws that Republicans say lead to high auto insurance rates.

Republicans appear to be short of the votes needed to override the veto, so they are trying to pass replacement legislation before the special session ends July 1.

Like Talbot’s bill, Nelson’s would extend the time that parties have to file suits and would limit the amount of recoverable medical expenses and insurance premium payments. Nelson’s bill also would lower the monetary amount an injury has to be worth to be decided by a jury rather than a judge.

But unlike Talbot’s bill, it would reduce the default number of jurors to six from 12 to try to lessen the burden on courts and jurors. Judges expressed concerns that Talbot’s bill would overwhelm courts with jury trials and that rural areas could have trouble finding enough jurors for personal injury cases.

Read more at Daily Advertiser

Jockeying for lower car insurance kicks up again in La. senate

Clay Schexnayder
Clay Schexnayder (Photo: Courtesy)

Published: June 23, 2020

By: Catherine Hunt, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE–The Louisiana Senate passed 29-9 another bill aimed at lowering insurance rates by limiting damage lawsuits.

The bill by House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, attempts to change Louisiana’s legal climate that Republicans and business groups say results in Louisiana drivers paying the second highest insurance rates in the country.

A similar bill by Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, addressed several components of Louisiana’s tort laws that Republicans say lead to high rates, but it was vetoed by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Schexnayder’s bill mirrors Talbot’s bill in some ways but leaves out provisions that some lawmakers say are important to lower rates.

Talbot’s bill would have decreased the monetary amount an injury has to be worth to be decided by a jury rather than a judge, called jury trial threshold; prohibited plaintiffs from suing insurance companies directly, called direct action; increased the time parties have to file lawsuits to encourage settling out of court, called prescription; and prohibited using evidence of a plaintiff receiving payment from sources besides the defendant, called collateral source.

His bill also would have allowed juries and judges to hear whether someone was wearing a seatbelt at the time of an accident.

Schexnayder’s bill, however, would only lower the jury trial threshold, prohibit juries from knowing what insurance company is involved in a suit rather than preventing companies from being sued directly and allow seat belt use into evidence.

Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon said Talbot’s changes could have resulted in premium reductions of at least 10%. However, companies could be excused from reducing rates if they can prove that doing so would lead to insolvency. Republicans assume Schexnayder’s bill would also lower rates but could not provide an estimate.

Read more at Daily Advertiser

Deacons group protected ‘outlaw town’ Ferriday’s black community from Klansmen in 1960s

Photo Credit: Alyssa Berry/LSU Manship School News Service

Published: June 22, 2020

By: Karli Carpenter, LSU Manship School News Service

Watch the video by Abigail Hendren

Ferriday, La.—David Whatley, the first black student to integrate Ferriday High in 1966, returned from tortuous days at school only to face just as many threats outside his home. Come nightfall, he’d study his lessons by a spotlight illuminating his grandmother’s lawn while keeping watch for violent Klansmen enraged over his involvement in the civil rights movement.

David Whatley was just a teenager when this photo was snapped a half century ago. By 1965, he was a member of the Deacons for Defense and Justice junior group and in 1966 he became the first black student to attend the all-white Ferriday High School. (Photo courtesy of the Concordia Sentinel)

In 1965, Klansmen had bombed the home of Whatley’s neighbor, Robert L. “Buck” Lewis Jr., who had raced outside with a shotgun to defend his family against the perpetrators. Minutes later, he, not his attackers, was arrested.

Not far from Lewis’ home lived Antonne Duncan, who days later ran through a Klan roadblock when he and other African American men transported Lewis home after his release from jail. Later on, Anthony “Lucky” McCraney’s gas station was firebombed, marking the sixth act of racial violence in Ferriday within a two-month period, according to CORE documents. Klansmen had learned that McCraney was a member of a secret organization of black activists, the Deacons for Defense and Justice.

These men had long been outraged by one horrid memory – the 1964 arson murder of Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris. No one was ever arrested for the killing. Morris, a black man who had operated a business with a devoted interracial clientele for 30 years, had become a role model for young black men, many of whom got their first jobs as children helping Morris around his shop.

David Whatley was among the men inspired by Morris’ life and angered by his murder, and he would become the youngest member of the group that took on Klansmen and bad cops when they organized the Ferriday chapter of the Deacons for Defense and Justice. The Deacons were unlike any such group before or since. Born in Jonesboro before spreading most notably to Bogalusa, Homer and Ferriday, the Deacons’ main purpose was to fight fire with fire and to protect their communities.

Violent Klansmen had long been embedded with corrupt cops, some of whom wore robes themselves. The Deacons believed that arming themselves was the only way to hold off the Klan and protect their homes, neighborhoods and the white and black civil rights workers who came from across the country to help achieve equality.

‘RIFLES ON OUR SHOULDERS’

Ferriday’s population of more than 4,500 residents was roughly half black and half white in the mid-1960s, a time when black citizens quietly celebrated civil rights wins and white supremacists desperately tried to halt legislative and social change.

Read more at brproud.com

La. House rejects bill to limit qualified immunity for police officers

Supporters of the bill said qualified immunity protects “bad actors” in law enforcement

(Photo Credit: wwltv.com)

Published: June 17, 2020

By: Catherine Hunt, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE, La. — A House committee rejected a bill Wednesday that would have prohibited police officers from receiving immunity in civil cases involving abuse allegations.

The bill by Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, aimed to address pushes for police reform after the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.

Members of the House Civil Law and Procedure Committee killed the bill in a 9-7 vote, mostly among party lines. All Democrats on the panel voted in favor of the bill, while most Republicans opposed it. Reps. Thomas Pressly, R-Shreveport, and Richard Nelson, R- Mandeville, voted alongside Democratic members.

Qualified immunity protects government officials from civil lawsuits that claim the official violated a plaintiff’s rights. Suits are only permitted if an official violated “clearly established” rights.

Qualified immunity has been debated at the federal level as Democrats and some Republicans in Congress have called for its end in the wake of Floyd’s death. Congress has debated repealing the doctrine, and the Supreme Court announced Monday that it had declined to hear.

U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond,a Democrat who represents New Orleans and parts of Baton Rouge, wrote a letter to the state House committee urging members to support the bill.

“Many of you here have been upset that contact tracing or wearing a mask could violate your constitutional rights,” he said. “Isn’t the taking of a life a much more egregious violation?”

Read more at 4WWL