During a tour of New Orleans' devastated Ninth Ward last week, President George Bush uttered the words Louisiana residents have waited six months to hear: "I fully understand ' and I hope our country understands ' the pain and agony that the people of New Orleans and Louisiana and the parishes surrounding New Orleans went through."
More important, Bush added: "Congress needs to make sure that the $4.2 billion I requested goes to Louisiana."
That statement came the morning after the House Appropriations Committee unexpectedly stripped the $4.2 billion earmarked for Louisiana's housing recovery ' which includes Hurricane Rita-affected areas ' out of a $92 billion supplemental spending bill and put it up for grabs between Louisiana and other hurricane-affected states such as Texas and Mississippi.
The timing couldn't have been worse, as Bush's plummeting approval ratings have emboldened congressional Republicans and Democrats to more aggressively challenge the president of late, most notably by killing the administration's Dubai ports deal. It sets up a power struggle in the coming months between Bush and Congress regarding Louisiana recovery funds ' and the political clout of Louisiana's congressional delegation faces its toughest test yet. ' Scott Jordan
GAS-GOUGING CLAIMS YIELD â?¦ NOTHING
Attorney General Charles Foti's office was deluged with complaints about gas stations unjustly jacking up their prices during last fall's hurricanes, but the subsequent investigations yielded nothing. Nearly 1,500 consumers statewide called or mailed in complaints to the office's Consumer Protection Section last year before and after the hurricanes, says Jennifer Cluck, an AG spokeswoman. "But upon further investigation, none of them rose to the level of where they would have violated that pricing statute," she says, referring to a law the Legislature passed last year to regulate such abuse.
The state attorney general is responsible for enforcing the law that prohibits providers of goods and services in Louisiana from increasing prices when a tropical storm or hurricane enters the Gulf of Mexico. Attorneys and economists have slammed the law as vaguely written and difficult to enforce. While Louisiana was unable to find violators following the hurricanes, others did.
New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer launched a three-month probe following Katrina and fined 15 stations a total of $63,500. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue oversaw 15 settlements resulting from Katrina gas gouging, including both consumer restitution and civil penalties ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 depending upon the severity of the violation. ' Jeremy Alford
BLACKBERRY AND A PRAYER
The Washington, D.C.-based newspaper Roll Call, a Beltway staple for political junkies, dished some dirt earlier this month on Congressman Bobby Jindal, a Metairie Republican. While worshiping at St. Peter's Catholic Church on Ash Wednesday, Roll Call reports Jindal "spent a great deal of time on his BlackBerry during service and prayer, both reading e-mails and sending e-mails." The paper also quoted an unnamed eyewitness: "I guess Rep. Jindal couldn't sacrifice his BlackBerry for God." ' JA
EARLY RETIREMENT DANGLED FOR STATE EMPLOYEES?
Another early retirement bill is making its way toward state employees. State Rep. Warren Triche, a Chackbay Democrat, will be pushing legislation during the upcoming session to decrease the number of state jobs by offering some workers early retirement options. In the past, early retirement has been offered as an alternative to workers who had a terminal illness or a spouse taking a job out of state. "But the hurricanes last year changed everything," Triche says. "Many people who want to go back to their jobs can't because the jobs aren't there any more." Others have also been displaced or have lost everything, he adds.
House Bill 45 is nearly identical to two other early retirement bills Triche has pursued in recent years. This year's version would offer early retirement to members of the Louisiana State Employees' Retirement System who are at least 50 years old with 10 years of service. If a state employee decides to take advantage of the program, he or she would receive a retirement benefit equal to as much as 2 percent of their average compensation multiplied by the number of years of creditable service. Only one out of every three positions left vacant by the program would be refilled, Triche says, unless the commissioner of administration and the secretary of state civils service decide to retain the post. ' JA