Daily Report

This Afternoon's Headlines / Fri, October 17, 2014

BR needs more data to solve traffic problems, IBM team says

The IBM Smart Cities Challenge consultant team this morning revealed the initial results from its study on ways to improve Baton Rouge traffic, with a full report expected in the coming months. Among the initial findings, the IBM team says, are that decisions need to be more long term and data driven, and citizens need to be more engaged in the decision-making process. To accomplish that, consultants suggested setting up ways for citizens to share their travel data with transportation officials and for governmental bodies that deal with traffic at state and city levels to share data with each other. Consultants emphasized the city's need to "get social," to use social media and apps to analyze where and when those that work and live in the Capital Region are driving. "Capturing that data and then analyzing that data is how you really begin to plan," said Maria Fernandez, a consultant on the team. The team notes that 58% of all adults carry smartphones, which can be tools for collecting that data. When data factors into government decisions, the public builds trust and benefits from real solutions, consultants said. "We all know the saying ‘It takes a village,’" Fernandez said. "We suggest Baton Rouge become the data driven village." The team also recommends establishing another government body to oversee traffic solutions in the Capital Region, made up of officials at all levels, as well as stakeholders and project financiers. They also recommend the city hire a chief innovation officer, who would be in charge of amassing and leveraging data to make better informed decisions, not just about traffic, but eventually crime and business development, among other areas. Baton Rouge is one of just four cities in the U.S. selected by IBM to benefit from its Smarter Cities Challenge competitive grant program this year. The grant award is valued at $500,000. —Kelly Connelly

Research Park Corp. launches $250K grant fund to complement LSU LIFT2

The Research Park Corp.'s board of directors today approved dedicating $250,000 to launch the LSU Re-LIFT2 grant program in partnership with the LSU Research and Technology Foundation. Much like LSU's LIFT2 (Leveraging Innovation for Technology Transfer) fund, the new competitive grant program funds research projects across the LSU System to help faculty members bring their ideas and products to the marketplace. The Re-LIFT2 funds will be available to those who do not received funding through the LIFT2 fund. In July, LSU announced the first 15 grant awards totaling $500,000 to faculty members through the LIFT2 grant program. Those grants are for up to $50,000. The Re-LIFT grant fund will provide up to $5,000 per awardee. It will be a two-year program. The $250,000 dedication in funding by the RPC will support at least 30 projects that were not selected to receive a LIFT2 award. "Re-LIFT2 will assist LSU in advancing its early-stage technologies," says Arthur R. Cooper, CEO of the LSU Research and Technology Foundation, in a prepared statement. "These grant funds can provide competitive analyses, marketing studies or help strengthen other areas that will improve LSU technologies. Re-LIFT2 can provide the stepping-stones toward successful commercialization." The RPC is a tax-funded, nonprofit organization that was formed in 1992 by the Louisiana Legislature to promote and develop high technology industries and research in the state. It operates the Louisiana Technology Park on Florida Boulevard. —Steve Sanoski

LSU flagship campus gets insurance-buying autonomy

Lawmakers gave LSU the authority today to leave the state-run insurance program and buy its own coverage in a first-of-its-kind arrangement for a Louisiana public college. University System President F. King Alexander says the move could save the Baton Rouge campus millions of dollars and allow it to get insurance more suited to its needs. The school plans a phase-in of the new authority, starting in the 2015-16 budget year that begins July 1. The Associated Press reports that approval without objection from the Legislature's joint budget committee was granted for a pilot program that could be replicated across other university campuses. But it first will face annual scrutiny from lawmakers. Alexander says LSU's flagship campus pays about twice as much as similar institutions in other states for insurance coverage. He says insurance provided through the state Office of Risk Management doesn't include unique coverages that other colleges in other states have, like protection against cybersecurity threats. LSU estimates it could save $5 million by 2020 if it takes control of its insurance coverage, though the Legislature's financial analysts questioned the savings estimate. The Legislative Fiscal Office says the university will need to pay off about $5 million in old claims as part of its takeover of the insurance operations for its campus. Read the full story.

'Daily Report' Week in Review: Scott presents positive economic forecast for Capital Region, inaugural Best Places to Work in BR announced and much, much more

The economic forecast for Louisiana over the next two years is so positive that economist Loren Scott says he ran out of superlatives in preparing his annual outlook for the region, which he presented at Business Report's Louisiana Business Symposium Top 100 Luncheon this week. In his annual forecast, which is co-authored by economist James Richardson, Scott notes that Louisiana has $100 billion in industrial projects either underway or in the front-end engineering and design, or FEED, stage. Of those, more than $60 billion are sure bets, meaning they are already under construction or complete. Over the next two years, the Capital Region is forecast to add 19,600 jobs. "We're really in an unusual time," Scott says. "In the past, a good year was $5 billion in new projects. Today, we're talking about more than $100 billion." At an awards breakfast that took place prior to Scott's address, the winners of the inaugural Best Places to Work awards—presented by Business Report, the Greater Baton Rouge Society for Human Resource Management and the Louisiana Workforce Commission—were revealed and honored. Independent national firm Best Companies Group surveyed companies that chose to participate in the awards and compiled the final ranking, in which Methanex came out on top. Rounding out the top five companies on the list of 38 local Best Places to Work are: YP, Sigma Consulting Group, Envoc and Capital Valve & Fitting Co. If your company would like to be contacted in the spring of 2015 when survey registration opens for the second annual Best Places to Work awards, submit your contact details online. —Steve Sanoski Read the complete Daily Report Week in Review.

Lawmakers wait to hear from auditors on surplus

Louisiana lawmakers sidestepped a decision today on whether to accept claims from Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration that the state closed last year's books with a nearly $179 million surplus, a figure viewed with skepticism. The Associated Press reports the Legislature's joint budget committee instead decided to wait until their auditors comb through the numbers. The Legislative Auditor's Office doesn't expect to have its review completed until the end of December. "At this point, I'm going to say that we take no action today on this item. There's no rush to take action on it," said Rep. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, chairman of the budget committee. Barry Dusse, director of the governor's Office of Planning and Budget, presented the surplus figure to the committee. Though Jindal's chief budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, attended the meeting and offered a full presentation, lawmakers didn't want it and spent fewer than five minutes on the entire discussion. The Jindal administration says it identified millions that hadn't been calculated over several years. But the Legislature's financial advisers have been reticent to immediately agree to the numbers submitted by the administration, questioning whether all the dollars exist and whether the money is available for spending even if it sits in state bank accounts. Treasurer John Kennedy says the calculation method used by the Jindal administration strays from Louisiana's traditional accounting practices, which would show the state with a nearly $141 million deficit from the budget year that ended June 30. The difference between the two figures is more than $300 million. Read the full story.

'225': Younger Roemer turns to sports—not politics—to make a difference

Dakota Roemer's last name often precedes him. As the son of former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, he comes with a certain Southern notoriety. Given his father's background, too, it seems as though politics might have been a natural arena for Roemer. After all, children so often follow in a parent's footsteps. Yet, as 225 details in a feature from the current issue, the younger Roemer pursued a different course. "It was interesting, and I wouldn't trade it for the world, but I certainly wouldn't put my kids through it," he says of his political childhood. Roemer's own interests turned, in his younger years, to sports—especially soccer. Whatever political aspirations he now exhibits remain limited to his neighborhood. "The biggest thing I'll run for is my homeowners association," Roemer says, his good-natured demeanor coming through in his laugh. Roemer pursued a rather circuitous route back to his initial athletic interests. He grew up in Baton Rouge but attended Suffolk University in Boston. He remained in that area after graduation, taking a position with Circles, a company contracted by American Express to handle the concierge needs of its high-end credit card members. That level of customer service prepared the way for his Baton Rouge return. He eventually took a job as marketing coordinator at Business First Bank. In 2012, Roemer was approached by Denver Benton to help establish GoAthlete, a company based in Baton Rouge. GoAthlete primarily works with sports organizations that host athletic or competitive events by streamlining those events and increasing revenue potential. Read the full feature.

News roundup: DeSoto Parish a lesson on how to spend gas boom cash … CF Industries, Yara terminate merger talks … La. rig count unchanged on the week

Managing a windfall: Environment & Energy reports local officials in the Haynesville Shale believe they've unlocked the secret for successful spending of gas boom wealth. The approach? Invest quickly in health, safety and education, and squirrel away the rest for a rainy day. "Just because we have it don't mean we have to spend it," DeSoto Parish Sheriff Rodney Arbuckle likes to say. The story in DeSoto—which saw its tax revenues rise roughly 600% over three years to $120 million in 2011, only to see revenue fall back to about $40 million last year as drillers left the area in search of more productive shales—is a lesson for community leaders in places like North Dakota and Texas, where fuel extraction continues to drive local growth. Read the full story.

Staying separate: Deerfield, Illinois-based CF Industries Holdings Inc. says its merger talks with Norway's Yara International to form the world's largest nitrogen fertilizer company have ended after the companies couldn't agree on terms. The Wall Street Journal reports the deal would have created a company with $18 billion in annual sales, but some analysts had said it could encounter regulatory hurdles and questioned whether it would bring significant benefit for CF Industries. CF Industries' Donaldsonville nitrogen complex is undergoing a $2.1 billion expansion that is expected to be finished in the middle of 2016.

One weak week: Oilfield services company Baker Hughes Inc. says the number of rigs exploring for oil and natural gas in the U.S. declined by 12 this week to 1,918. The Houston firm says in its weekly report released today that 1,590 rigs were exploring for oil and 328 for gas. A year ago there were 1,739 active rigs. Of the major oil- and gas-producing states, Texas gained two rigs, while West Virginia and Wyoming each increased by one. Oklahoma decreased by seven rigs, New Mexico was down four, Alaska was off two and Arkansas, California and North Dakota each dropped one. Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah were unchanged.
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