LABI talks state budget, Obama's energy plan

by Heather Miller

State business lobby's annual issues breakfast weighs in on factors that could impact Louisiana's economy. Despite Gov. Bobby Jindal's pledge to not raise taxes and no revenue-raising agendas for state House leaders, the state's largest business lobbying group says "tax bills will be filed" during the upcoming legislative session in an attempt to balance the state's $1.6 billion budget deficit.

"Any tax increases on the private sector are going to jeopardize the state's recovery," Louisiana Association of Business and Industry Finance Director John LeBlanc stressed at this year's LABI Legislative Issues Breakfast, a Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce event held Thursday morning at The Petroleum Club.

LABI executives kept the focus on the state's fiscal position and federal energy policy at their annual pre-session gathering, pointing out the loss of one-time federal stimulus dollars in next year's budget and a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study that could slow natural gas drilling permits at the Haynesville Shale, north Louisiana's natural gas hot spot that has carried natural gas production levels to the highest the state has seen in more than 25 years.

LABI President Dan Juneau says a five-year EPA study on the "fracking" process to tap in to natural gas found in shales was released in 2004 and found no environmental hazards. But new reports have EPA on guard, Juneau says, and "taking a second look."

"If EPA takes over permitting for shale drilling from the states, it will likely be bad news for Louisiana's economy," Juneau says.

State Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, one of seven members of the Acadiana delegation who briefly spoke at the issues breakfast, warned that the sale of state buildings, such as two state prisons up for a possible sale, is another one-time fix for a budget crunch that will only increase the state's spending in coming years.

According to The Advocate, Jindal's administration is looking into the sale of two prisons in Winn and Allen parishes, which could bring in an additional $66 million to fill in budget gaps. The sale, however, would not stop the state from having to fund the feeding, clothing and care of the inmates, a cost factor that has not yet been determined.

"The sale of state assets has been championed, but that's one-time money. It's a lie, and it's misleading the public," LaFleur says. "What are we going to do next year? Sell the Cajundome? Sell Chicot [State Park]?"

Notably absent from the chamber's state legislative table was state Sen. Mike Michot, R-Lafayette, whose F grade on the first legislative score card issued by the chamber's political action committee sparked an outcry from Michot and Acadiana business leaders, many of whom say Michot's 16 years in the Legislature have proved crucial for Lafayette's business interests.

Read more on Michot's scorecard here.