Walker says he'd declare 'crime emergency' as mayor
Metro Councilman and mayoral candidate Mike Walker has laid out a "9-step action plan to combat crime" on his website and in an email circulated today. Under his administration, Walker says, police training academies would be the No. 1 law enforcement budget priority; the number of Baton Rouge Police Department "street operations units" would be doubled from five to 10; and "larger crimes in the making"—such as prostitution, blight and animal cruelty—would be dealt with more harshly. He also promises to send "BRPD officers assigned to the mayor's security detail back to the crime beat," and says he'd "declare a crime emergency" and "foster a spirit of cooperation" among law-enforcement agencies. District Attorney Hillar Moore III says the last goal already is happening. "In all the years I've been in law enforcement, I've never seen all the agencies come together like they are now," he says. Though he supports Walker's plans, Moore says, the challenge is coming up with the money to fund things like hiring more officers and keeping open the city jail. "The bottom line for the mayor and the council, regardless of who they are, is priority: Where do you want to set your priority for the city of Baton Rouge?" Moore says. "With a $750 million budget, you would think we'd have enough money to take care of the No. 1 problem in the city, which is crime." Walker's statement does not put an approximate price tag on any of the action items, nor does it mention if Walker has pushed for any of the items during his years on the Metro Council. Mayor Kip Holden could not immediately be reached for comment. Check out the full details on Walker's plan at his website here. —David Jacobs
Capitol Views by John Maginnis: Retirement bills coming; scholarship bill passes
Education bills will come before legislators this week, and retirement bills next, according to House Speaker Chuck Kleckley. "We'll give it a shot tomorrow," he said of the House Education Committee's consideration of the governor's reform package, which is compressed into three bills. In a lunch with reporters at his Pentagon Barracks apartment, the Lake Charles Republican said he expects the controversial retirement bills to clear the Retirement Committee the following week, relatively intact. Both panels are stacked with Republicans. There are 11 on House Education, with six Democrats and conservative independent Dee Richard of Thibodaux. On House Retirement, there are eight Republicans and four Democrats. Kleckley defended the early timetable for the education bills, one of which, dealing with taxpayer-funded scholarships and other items, runs 47 pages. He said all committee members have had time to review the bills offered by committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge. He wants the House to hear the retirement bills before the budget bill begins moving through the process, because $120 million of funding is contingent upon passage of bills that would increase the retirement age and employees' payroll contributions. Legislators question if those bills can pass as is or will be amended to apply to future hires only, which would affect the budget.
—In advance of the major education bills to be heard tomorrow, the governor's agenda got a head start when the House Ways & Means Committee approved a bill to give rebates to individuals and businesses that contribute to non-profit organizations to give private-school tuition scholarships to students now in public schools. HB 969 by Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, provides that the scholarships would be limited to the 80-90% of the state portion of education funding and not affect local parish funding. The contributor would receive a tax rebate in the amount of the contribution, even if no state income taxes were owed. Governor's aides testified that a similar program that began in Florida in 2001 now serves 37,000 students, though initially the number of enrollees was very small. This is separate from the voucher bill by Rep. Steve Carter that would use state and local Minimum Foundation Program funds for scholarships for students in schools rated "C," "D" or "F" and whose family income is under 250% of the federal poverty level. HB 969 includes the means test but is available to students in all public schools.
(John Maginnis will publish a daily update throughout the legislative session on Daily Report PM. The report is also available to LaPolitics Weekly subscribers on the Subscribers Only page at LaPolitics.com. Registration is available on the homepage.)
Louisiana Public Broadcasting is providing a daily video update featuring highlights of the session, which you can see beginning at 6 p.m. here.
Editor's note: This story has been changed since its original publication.
'Real Estate Weekly': B.R. home prices buck national retreat
At the close of 2011, average U.S. home prices reached lows not seen in a decade, according to the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller index tracking 20 metros around the nation, not including Baton Rouge. While prospective homebuyers who are calling local real estate agents such as Jerry del Rio have obviously read the widespread media reports about rock-bottom home prices that followed the report's recent release, del Rio says the national headlines don't reflect what's happening in the Baton Rouge market. "People are reading the paper and coming in here thinking they're going to get an unbelievable deal," she says. "They're not. If you're talking about a foreclosure or a home that's been on the market for a long, long time, then maybe. But if it's a new house or a recently built home in good condition, [the seller's] going to get their price." Home prices in the Capital Region have remained relatively stable, del Rio says, because the local market never experienced the dramatic pre-recession price jumps that occurred in nearly all of the nation's 20 largest metros. Put simply: No bubble, no bust. The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller index says the United States saw an overall 4% drop in home prices last year. The Greater Baton Rouge Association of Realtors reports the average sales price in the eight-parish region it tracks dipped to $190,340 in 2011, down about 2.7% from $195,594 in 2010. Check out the rest of this story and all of the new Real Estate Weekly e-newsletter here. —Steve Sanoski
Metro Council to take up Municipal Dock work Wednesday
Engineers have five weeks to get the downtown Municipal Dock ready for the return of cruise ships to Baton Rouge. Beginning April 19, four new vessels—two paddle wheelers and two small cruise ships—will make regular stops in downtown Baton Rouge as they cruise up and down the Mississippi. "This is a whole new economic engine to come to town," says Downtown Development District Executive Director Davis Rhorer, who got an update on the progress of the dock work at this morning's monthly DDD meeting. "These companies are also bringing a tour bus, so when the boats disembark, the buses will bring the passengers around the city to various sites." Rhorer says he's confident the work on the dock, which includes painting, minor repairs and improved lighting, will be done when the first of the season's 25 vessels docks next month. The Metro Council is expected to vote on the engineering contract for the repairs, which are being done in phases and total about $900,000, at its regular meeting Wednesday. The council meets at 4 p.m. on the third floor of the Governmental Building, 222 St. Louis St. See the council's full agenda here. —Stephanie Riegel
Saints, WR Colston agree to 5-year deal
Wide receiver Marques Colston has decided against testing free agency and will remain with the club that gave him his first chance in the NFL as a little-known seventh-round draft choice out of Hofstra. Colston and the Saints agreed to a new contract today that runs up to five years, giving the 28-year-old receiver a chance to break several of the club receiving records he has approached in his first six seasons as a pro. "This was important to me, to be back with this team in this situation," Colston says in a statement released by the club. "I was not looking to chase free agency. It was more important for me to be back in our program, a program we have been building and a program I believe in." Colston was a key part of the Saints' only Super Bowl-winning club in 2009-10. "Now it is time to get back to work and win some more rings," he says. After completing the deal with Colston's agent, Joel Segal, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said Colston deserved credit for working to get a deal done before the opening of free agency on Tuesday afternoon. Financial terms of the new deal were not disclosed. The Colston deal removes what would have been among the Saints' top priorities in free agency. The Saints also hope to reach a long-term extension with quarterback Drew Brees but in the meantime have placed their franchise tag on the star quarterback to prevent him from going elsewhere in 2012.
Maginnis: Boss Jindal vs. state workers
Martha Manuel is not the first political appointee to be fired for criticizing a governor's policies. Bobby Jindal is not the first governor to be unpopular with state workers. But the combination of issues affecting state employees and teachers, including pay, privatization, retirement and tenure, has the legislative session starting with the most contentious and soured relationship between a governor and the state workforce in memory. Manuel's complaint went beyond personnel issues to the administration's planned transfer of the Governor's Office of Elderly Affairs, which she headed, to the Department of Health and Hospitals. The budget item already had caused an uproar among councils on aging across the state. Manuel claims she was not consulted on the move and doubted that it would improve services to seniors, as claimed by the administration. She would have been fired that afternoon had she not waited until the next morning to answer her phone. The dismissal of Manuel has been criticized for the chilling effect it will have on agency heads testifying before the Legislature. But, then, political appointees already know to chill in expressing policy views different from the governor's. Manuel knew, too, but figured she was a short-timer anyway and didn't care. Classified workers and teachers meanwhile are reviewing their own rights to express their opposition toward administration proposals to lawmakers and the general public. Read the full column here.
(John Maginnis publishes LaPolitics Weekly, a newsletter on Louisiana politics, at LaPolitics.com.)
News roundup: Staring Lane to close for 3 weeks beginning March 24 … Woman's receives 2012 Hospital of the Year Nightingale Award … Pro-Romney mailer tells voters wrong primary day
Choose your detour: Staring Lane will be closed for three weeks between Highland Road and Kingcrest Parkway for three weeks beginning at midnight on Saturday, March 24. This closure is necessary to install and test new sewer pipeline along Staring Lane. Improvements in the area fall under both the Green Light Plan targeting roadwork and the parish-wide Sanitary Sewer Overflow program. The roadway is to reopen on or before Sunday, April 15, at midnight, weather permitting. Motorists are advised to use Highland Road, Bluebonnet Boulevard, Kenilworth Parkway and Perkins Road as primary detours during the three-week closure. Access to the closed segment of Staring Lane will be limited to local traffic and residential service providers.
Top honors: Woman's Hospital has been named the 2012 Hospital of the Year by the Louisiana Nurses Foundation and Louisiana State Nurses Association. The hospital was given the Nightingale Award at the annual Louisiana Awards Gala for Nursing and Healthcare held in late February in Baton Rouge. The annual Nightingale awards recognize quality service in the nursing profession and healthcare industry. Woman's President and CEO Teri Fontenot says the award is "a reflection of Woman's vision to provide exceptional care by extraordinary people. It recognizes the unwavering dedication of our nursing staff and the entire team who supports them to deliver the best care experience to women and infants in our community."
Oops! An independent group backing Mitt Romney for the GOP presidential nomination has started sending out mailers to Louisiana voters in advance of the state's March 24 primary—but didn't quite get the details right for advising voters. Restore Our Future, a super PAC helping to finance television ads, automated phone calls and direct mail to support Romney, told voters in the Louisiana mailer they should vote for Romney on Tuesday, March 24. But the primary actually falls on a Saturday, not Tuesday. The mailer went out around north Louisiana, criticizing Rick Santorum as a big-spending Washington insider and calling Romney, the front-runner, a strong conservative leader. No word yet on whether a new mail piece will go out to the same homes to tell people the correct voting day.