Daily Report

This Morning's Headlines / Thu, April 05, 2012

News alert: Jindal education overhaul gets final passage

Gov. Bobby Jindal has won his bid to overhaul the shape of public education in Louisiana. The House today gave final legislative passage to a pair of bills containing Jindal's proposals, clearing the way for the governor to sign the bills into law next week. The bills will make it tougher for teachers to reach the job protection called tenure, establish a statewide voucher program for private school tuition, make it easier to create charter schools, expand online schools and restructure public financing of education. Approval of minor Senate changes to the two bills came in 60-43 and 60-42 votes, giving Jindal significant triumphs early in the three-month legislative session, over strong opposition from the teachers unions and several thousand teachers who protested at the Capitol in recent weeks.

Shell considers natural gas-to-diesel facility in La.

Royal Dutch Shell is considering building a giant plant in Louisiana that would convert natural gas into diesel fuel, The Wall Street Journal reports, citing several people familiar with the company's plans. The plant, which could cost more than $10 billion, would be similar in size to Shell's Pearl gas-to-liquids facility in the Mideast nation of Qatar, the unnamed sources say. Pearl, which went into operation last June, turns natural gas into enough diesel to fill more than 160,000 cars a day. Shell declined to comment on its plans. The Anglo-Dutch company is expected to take up to two years to develop detailed engineering plans to determine if the plant is economically viable before submitting the project for approval by the company's board. Shell's plans are the latest sign that companies are seeking new ways to exploit extensive natural-gas discoveries in the United States. The boom in gas production from shale has sent natural-gas prices down 50% over the past year to slightly more than $2 per million British thermal units, the lowest level in a decade. Diesel prices, meanwhile, are near a record high, up 4% from a year ago. In September, South Africa's Sasol Ltd. announced it was undertaking an 18-month feasibility study for a $10 billion gas-to-liquids facility adjacent to its existing chemical plant in Calcasieu Parish. Shell considered locating the facility in Texas and Louisiana but opted for the latter because the state offered better incentives, a person familiar with the matter says. The diesel produced at the plant could be exported to Europe and Latin America.

LaPolitics by Maginnis: Amended, but not really changed

The two major education bills backed by the governor could be on their way to his desk today, pending one more vote by the House this morning to accept amendments added by the Senate, which passed both measures last night by wide majorities after eight hours of debate. While the governor's office said it wanted the bills passed without changes, it signaled it could accept Senate amendments that did not alter the core of the bills. Senators had insisted on putting their own mark on the bills. During the lengthy Senate debate, the House stayed late as well in order to receive the bills when passed and to set concurrence votes for today. The tenure bill passed 23-16, with six Republicans, including four from southwest Louisiana, voting no, and six Democrats voting yes. The choice bill, House Bill 976 by Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, passed, 24-15, with the same six Republicans voting no and seven Democrats voting yes. Though both bills were amended, the two changes to the tenure bill and 11 to the school choice bill drew no objections from the author Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie. On the choice bill, 16 amendments opposed by Appel were all defeated, with Republicans mostly voting against, and seven more were withdrawn. Two of six proposed changes were accepted on the tenure bill.

—The proposed change to state employees' retirement rules that has created the greatest firestorm of protest would push back the retirement age to 67 for those who are not yet 55. But HB 53 would not affect Gov. Bobby Jindal if he seeks and serves a third term. He could still retire at age 55 if he serves 12 years in statewide office, even if the age-change bill becomes law, according to an analysis by the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System. But that hypothetical situation likely won't last. In a statement, governor's press secretary Frank Collins responded, "We will amend the bill in committee so that in the event that the Governor serves a third term or serves again in state government, the reform provisions would still apply to him." Currently, the governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer and legislators taking office before 1996 are under the "Legislative Plan," which has different eligibility rules than for regular state workers. In its current form, the bill does not change their eligibility to retire at age 55 after 12 years of service in elected office. The bill also excludes teachers and hazardous duty personnel.

They said it: "I'm just concerned these bills have more holes than a lace curtain." —Sen. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe, on education bills

(John Maginnis publishes LaPolitics Weekly, a newsletter on Louisiana politics, at LaPolitics.com.)

Louisianans favor 'fracking' description over direct reference

The latest release of survey results from the 2012 Louisiana Survey by the LSU Public Policy Research Lab shows how opinions on a topic can vary based on the words used to form a question about it. Louisianans who were asked how they feel about a controversial method of oil and gas extraction known as hydraulic fracturing gave more positive responses when it was described but not named. They were even more skeptical of the method when it was referred to as "fracking," as most call it in the industry and media. Roughly half of the respondents were given the questions with the word "fracking" included. The other half were asked the same questions, but a description of the hydraulic fracturing process was substituted for the words "fracturing" or "fracking." When neither of those words was mentioned, 43% said they think the drilling method is "somewhat safe" or "very safe." Just 35% said the same when they heard "fracturing" or "fracking." And while 52% said the state should encourage the drilling method, only 39% said the state should encourage "fracturing" or "fracking." "Public aversion to the term likely results from the harsh consonants and perhaps the obvious similarity to a certain … four-letter word," says Michael Climek of the LSU Public Policy Research Lab. "And this research shows that the unpleasant sound of the word is at least partially responsible for residents thinking 'fracking' is unsafe and that it should not be pursued by the state of Louisiana. If businesses and legislators use another word or description, constituents may be more willing to support hydraulic fracturing." See the full survey results and methodology here.

Publisher: CATS tax doesn't deserve your vote

Business Report Publisher Rolfe McCollister says he understands the purpose, necessity and importance of developing a quality mass transit system in a growing city such as Baton Rouge. Nonetheless, McCollister says in his latest column, "This CATS tax plan should be euthanized." The tax plan—which would provide a dedicated funding stream to the Capital Area Transit System via a 10-year, 10.6-mill property tax on those in Baton Rouge, Baker and Zachary—lacks leadership and doesn't ensure accountability if passed, McCollister says. "The mayor, Metro Council, Baton Rouge Transit Coalition and CATS board are all responsible" for the shortcomings of the plan, he says. And because the tax district was drawn up to exclude many voters in East Baton Rouge Parish, it "would essentially benefit the entire community, but, it seems, only some in the community will pay for it," he says. "Voters should turn down the tax and dare [Mayor Kip] Holden and the Metro Council—who are all up for re-election this fall—to let the CATS system come to a screeching halt. You watch, they'll blink. And then we can discuss all our community's needs as a whole for the future, including our priorities, taxes and resources," he says. Read the full column here. Send your comments to [email protected].

Pair of La. parishes among the 10 fastest growing U.S. counties

With 10.2% growth in its population between April 1, 2010, and July 1 a year later, St. Bernard Parish was the second-fastest growing parish or county in the United States, according to new data out by the U.S. Census Bureau today. Orleans Parish—which experienced the greatest percentage loss of residents for the decade ending in 2010—grew at the ninth-fastest pace, 4.9%, between 2010 and 2011. St. Bernard Parish trailed Charlton County in Georgia as the fastest-growing by a mere 0.1%. Among the 50 fastest-growing counties from 2010 to 2011, 38 were in the South, with the remaining 12 split equally between the Midwest and the West. East Baton Rouge Parish was not included on the list of the 50 fastest-growing counties or parishes, nor was the Baton Rouge metro area included on the list of the 50-fastest growing metros. The figures released today on specific population changes in counties and metro areas are the first to come from the Census Bureau since the official 2010 census population counts were initially released a year ago. Get more details on the figures released today at the bureau's website here.

'225 Select': 'Straight' up music

Acclaimed a cappella group Straight No Chaser will be performing in Baton Rouge at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Baton Rouge River Center. Originally formed more than a dozen years ago while students together at Indiana University, the group has reassembled and re-emerged as a new media phenomenon—with a massive fan base, more than 20 million views on YouTube, numerous national TV appearances and multiple CD releases. These 10 college friends will unite their voices to create unique and gorgeous harmonious spins on all your favorite songs. Tickets are $27-$47. Get them and more info here; and read the rest of this week's 225 Select e-newsletter here for more events happening this weekend and beyond.

News roundup: Lafayette leadership development firm opening a Baton Rouge office … B.R. credit unions agree to swap a Chalmette branch … Louisiana wants to know why so many of its babies are born prematurely

Eastward expansion: Lafayette-based leadership development company Excelerant says it will begin offering professional services in Baton Rouge following the appointment of Baton Rougean Manny Valencia as vice president of strategic development. Valencia will be responsible for the growth of Excelerant's business lines, including executive team development, leadership development, executive coaching and meeting facilitation. He will oversee the firm's expansion into new markets, leading the business development and operations of the new office to be established in Baton Rouge.

The union line: Two Baton Rouge credit unions—Pelican State Credit Union and Eagle Federal Credit Union—have agreed to a branch swap at a Chalmette facility that was badly damaged in Hurricane Katrina. The branch sits on a refinery site and was once home to Chalmette Refinery Credit Union, which eventually merged into Pelican, the Credit Union Times reports. Under the deal, Pelican is transferring loans, a lone employee and the branch to Eagle, effective April 17. Pelican management says it's transferring the 600-member branch because it's trying to grow outside the southern part of the state. "We are concentrating our growth on central Louisiana, in Monroe and other communities, and that is the direction we seek to go," says Leigh Porta, marketing manager at Pelican. Read the full story here.

Early arrivals: Louisiana has some of the nation's highest percentages of premature babies and underweight newborns. Now it has begun adding information about why babies are born early to its vital statistics. Louisiana has a Web-based vital records system to collect data about birth, death, fetal death, marriage and divorce. Other medical information already was being gathered for each birth, including risk factors such as the mother's use of drugs or alcohol or maternal diseases such as diabetes. "We know that Louisiana ranks 48th nationally in infant mortality and preterm birth, and 49th in the percentage of low-birth-weight and the percentage of very low-birth-weight babies, but we don't have the data necessary to understand why," says Dr. Rebekah Gee, who directs a state program designed to reduce those percentages. The Associated Press has the full story here.

Today's poll question: Should the Metro Council approve an ordinance that requires food truck operators to get permission from private landowners in order to do business in their parking lots?

No 'Daily Report' on Friday

There will be no Daily Report AM or Daily Report PM on Friday in deference to the Good Friday holiday. Daily Report will return Monday. Have a safe and happy holiday weekend.

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