Daily Report

This Afternoon's Headlines / Fri, December 14, 2012

Obama calls for 'meaningful action' after Connecticut school shooting

A visibly moved President Barack Obama told reporters today that he grieved about the massacre at a Connecticut elementary school as a parent first and promised action to prevent such tragedies again, without specifying what that might be. Speaking on behalf of the nation, Obama said, "Our hearts are broken today." The scene in the White House briefing room was one of the most outwardly emotional moments of his presidency. "The majority of those who died were children—beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old," Obama said. He paused, then and later in the talk, for several seconds to keep his composure and wipe an eye. Nearby, two aides cried and held hands as they listened to the president. A gunman opened fire inside an elementary school where his mother worked, killing at least 26 people, including 20 children. The shooter blasted his way through the building as young students cowered helplessly or were gunned down.

Costco files plans for B.R. store, but land deal still not done

Costco Wholesale Corp. has filed a concept plan with the East Baton Rouge Parish Planning Commission to build a 149,000-square-foot warehouse store at the site of the former Coca-Cola bottling plant on Airline Highway. The national warehouse club signed a purchase agreement in April for an undisclosed price to acquire the 28-acre site from Coca-Cola Bottling Company United Gulf Coast. Though the sale has not been finalized, the company is apparently moving forward with plans for its first location in the Baton Rouge market. According to the application for preliminary site plan approval, which the company filed Thursday, Costco plans to build a warehouse retail building that will include an attached tire center and a freestanding gas station. Three outparcels will also be available on the site for future development. The application says if Costco gains all necessary permits and approvals, demolition of the old facility and construction of the new one should take six months and the store could be open as soon as fall of 2013. The store will be open daily and employ between 175 and 200 full- and part-time workers. You can see a few renderings of the proposed warehouse store from the application here; and here. —Stephanie Riegel

Jindal administration makes budget cuts across agencies

Gov. Bobby Jindal's chief financial adviser today announced a mix of cuts, one-time patches and hiring-freeze savings to close a nearly $166 million budget gap, with dollars slashed from hospice care, juvenile justice treatment, colleges, and domestic violence and abuse programs. Doctors and hospitals that care for the poor, disabled and elderly in the Medicaid program will be paid less for those services. Dental benefits to pregnant women through Medicaid will be suspended. Money for state parks' maintenance is being reduced. Public colleges will be hit with a $22 million reduction in state funding. The Jindal administration says the cut to schools should not be a problem because they brought in more tuition than expected and saved millions with a hiring freeze. Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols detailed the plans to lawmakers. The cuts and financing changes will rebalance the $25 billion budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30. It was the fifth year in a row that the state has had to close a midyear budget deficit. This year's budget gap was tied to a $129 million cut in the state's income forecast, with less revenue expected from sales and individual income taxes. Also, the state's funding formula for public schools and the state's free college tuition program, known as TOPS, were short of money needed to cover all students, Nichols says. As many as 63 state government workers are slated for layoffs under the plans.

Privatization plans for LSU hospitals approved

The LSU Board of Supervisors today unanimously approved agreements announced earlier this week to turn over operations of LSU's public hospitals in New Orleans, Houma and Lafayette to nonprofit corporations that run private hospitals in the cities. In a statement released following the vote, the board calls it "the first step in a process that will ultimately turn public hospitals into one, modern and sustainable innovative health care delivery system." The privatization plan is being pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal to cut state costs at the hospitals that care for the poor and uninsured and provide graduate medical training. The companies taking over hospital management will make lease payments to the state, dollars that Secretary Bruce Greenstein, of the Department of Health and Hospitals, says will draw federal matching money to pay for services. Lease terms are under negotiation and haven't been released. The Louisiana Children's Medical Center, which operates Children's Hospital and Touro Infirmary, will lease the Interim LSU Public Hospital in New Orleans and the new $1.2 billion, 424-bed University Medical Center under development and set to open in about two years. Ochsner Health System, meanwhile, will manage the LSU hospital in Houma, the L.J. Chabert Medical Center. Lafayette General Health System will operate the LSU hospital in Lafayette, which is also called University Medical Center.

Officials see no conflict between ideas of administration, Legislature on tax reform

The Legislature is reviewing the state's hundreds of tax credits, rebates and exemptions, and some lawmakers hope to find new revenue, especially now as the state braces for yet another round of midyear budget cuts. Shortly after the Legislature began its effort this summer, Gov. Bobby Jindal declared tax reform his top priority. Jindal says his plan, which hasn't yet been announced, will be "revenue neutral"; but administration officials say, despite media reports to the contrary, there's no inherent conflict between what they're working on and the Legislature's efforts. "It's two separate issues: how much revenue, and how you collect that revenue," says LED Secretary Stephen Moret. The administration hopes a simpler, flatter tax code will be easier for business owners and prospects to navigate and understand. "I think you've got a segment of the Legislature, the fiscal hawks, that still want to say, 'Reduce,' " adds Tim Barfield of the Department of Revenue. "A segment says we need more revenue. … Whatever the revenue number is, there's just a better way to get it." Greg Albrecht, the Legislature's chief economist, was surprised by the suggestion that there's no conflict between the two efforts. "[Legislators are] sitting in committee saying, 'The administration's not going to support elimination of any of these things,' " he says. "The primary package will be the administration's proposals, and anything [legislators] come up with probably won't survive if it conflicts with the primary package." —David Jacobs

La. gas drilling tax incentive highlighted in new Pew Center study

A new study by the Pew Center on the States says Louisiana is among a number of states that have created tax traps for themselves by offering incentives for economic development that are open-ended or lacking sufficient controls. According to the study, called "Avoiding Blank Checks: Creating Fiscally Sound State Tax Incentives," Louisiana's exemption for horizontal natural gas drilling, created in 1994, cost the state just $285,000 in forgone revenues in fiscal year 2007. But at the end of fiscal year 2010, the price tag of the exemption had grown to $239 million, the study says. To avoid creating such tax traps, the study suggests that states do their homework before implementing them, including: gathering reliable economic impact projections, making lawmakers aware of any uncertainties surrounding the potential cost, linking cost estimates to policy making, and making the process transparent. Setting caps on how much the state will provide in tax exemptions through incentive programs each year can also be helpful, says the study. While the study notes Louisiana did not set a cap on the Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit it approved in 2009, it says the state did do well by making a reliable estimate on its cost—$100 million over four years. Such estimates "allow policy makers to make better decisions regarding the design, size, and scope of incentives," the study concludes. The full study is available here.

No decision yet on La. passport requirement for domestic flights

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has said "absolutely nothing" this week on whether Louisiana will receive an extension—or some other compromise—on becoming compliant with the federal REAL ID Act of 2005, says Louisiana Office of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Stephen Campbell, who was expecting a decision by today. The law is poised to take effect Jan. 14 and could mean Louisiana residents will need a passport to fly within the United States. Campbell says he was told last week that Homeland Security would get back to him this week on its decision regarding whether state-issued driver's licenses will continue to be valid identification cards for flying domestically and entering federal buildings. "The governor is waiting for a response," says Campbell, noting even his boss, Louisiana State Police Superintendent Col. Michael Edmonson, is in contact with the feds seeking answers. In an email, Homeland Security spokeswoman Marsha Catron says, "Secure driver's licenses and identification documents are a vital component of a holistic national security strategy," but did not address any potential extension or compromise for any states that are not compliant with the new regulations by the deadline. "Law enforcement must be able to rely on government-issued identification documents and know that the bearer of such a document is who he or she claims to be," Catron says. By December 2014, all individuals under the age of 50 must have a REAL ID driver's license or identification document for official purposes; by December 2017, all individuals must meet those requirements for the same purposes, Catron says. —Adam Pearson

'225': B.R. community theaters offering youth programs to build future audiences

After much-talked-about budget cuts to the arts on the state level and nationally, local community theaters like Playmakers of Baton Rouge and Baton Rouge Little Theater are looking for ways to rally support from audiences. To raise the appeal of theater over the past several years, arts organizations have combined educational elements with their productions to provide access and context—not to mention to develop a love of theater among the youngest spectators. Playmakers, which focuses on young audiences, has implemented a steadily growing educational component in its programs, which helps expose community members and children to types of art they might not otherwise see. "The largest growth Playmakers has seen has been with our educational programs: camps, classes and our education tours," says Karli Henderson, former managing director of Playmakers. Playmakers' Education Director Todd Henry thinks supplemental theater education can also stave off the fast turnaround seen in kids involved with theater, typically occurring around ages 10 and 11. "You have to find projects that interest these kids," Henry says. "We have a great group of kids in our Young Professionals program that have stuck around. Now they are 16, 17, going on 18, and have grown with us because we've grown with them." The hope is that with intensive arts education, both in school and out, more Baton Rougeans might grow to appreciate the arts as essential—and Playmakers is not the only organization working to realize this wish. Read the complete feature from the current issue of 225 magazine by Jessi Stafford here.

Gerry Lane touts biography as 'road map' to success

From humble beginnings in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, Gerry Lane built a car dealership empire in Baton Rouge and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast with just a high school education, "Okie honesty" and an insatiable drive to succeed. That's the abbreviated version of the new biography Gerry Lane—An American Success Story, written by Leo Honeycutt. But Lane says his life story is more than just an interesting read about his many adventures in building a business, such as selling cars to the likes of Clark Gable, Gregory Peck and Milton Berle. The book is "much more than a biography, it's a road map," Lane says. "I started in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma in the Depression, so poor I couldn't afford hope. But if you can embrace change, leave your comfort zone the way I left the Dust Bowl, take a little risk, you can become rich in attitude, relationships, and yes, money. In that order." Honeycutt calls Lane a "rare breed, a larger-than-life character," adding, "His story could change lives." You can learn more about the new biography of Lane and order it online here. Or you can pick up a copy and get Lane and Honeycutt to sign it at one of two upcoming events at Barnes & Noble. The two men will be at the Perkins Rowe store, 7707 Bluebonnet Blvd., on Saturday from 3 to 5 p.m.; and at the store at 2590 Citiplace Court on Saturday, Dec. 22, from 2 to 4 p.m.

News roundup: B.R. company acquires Web-based personal fundraising firm … Many in the Capital Region included on '2012 Silicon Bayou 100' list … Visit Baton Rouge reports 74% increase in occupancy tax collections in September

Come together: Baton Rouge-based Anedot, a fundraising and donor management platform, announced today it has acquired fundraising website YouCanSend.Me from Hivemind Labs Inc., which is also a local venture. As part of the acquisition, the founders of YouCanSend.Me, Josh Ferrara and Jonathan Simmons, will join the Anedot software engineering team. Anedot will continue operating and supporting the YouCanSend.Me site.

Naming names: There's a number of Capital Region professionals who are named alongside the likes of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees as the "top movers and shakers on the Silicon Bayou" by Silicon Bayou News. The online publication's "2012 Silicon Bayou 100" includes Business Report Chief Innovation Officer Curtis Heroman, Louisiana Technology Park Executive Director Stephen Loy, LSU Continuing Education Assistant Executive Director Wendy Overton, and many more. Check out the complete list here. The website notes that more details about each honoree will be released in the coming weeks.

Up and up: Visit Baton Rouge says hotel occupancy tax collections in September were just shy of $461,000, or about 74% higher than they were during the same month last year. The tourism promotion agency attributes the increase to the city's hosting four home LSU football games during the month as well as Hurricane Isaac relief workers and "strong leisure visitation." October collections were about $396,000, an increase of 17.5% over last year. The Visit Baton Rouge board of directors announced the figures at a meeting today, during which they also approved a 2013 budget totaling $3,725,000 and renewed CEO/President Paul Arrigo's contract for 2013. Arrigo will receive a $2,000 annual raise next year, bringing his salary to $152,174.

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