News Briefs

LUS' Supreme Court arguments, Christmas layover and more


The Louisiana Supreme Court heard arguments last week on whether Lafayette Utilities Systems will get the green light to fund its fiber-to-the-home plan. Lafayette resident Elizabeth Naquin sued LUS to stop the fiber initiative, and her attorneys are arguing that LUS' bond-payment plan violates the Fair Competition Act. But according to Advocate reporter Kevin Blanchard, Supreme Court Justice Jeanette Theriot Knoll appeared surprised by that interpretation of the law, as start-up communications businesses often lose money in early years before attracting enough subscribers to bring in revenue.

"Would they ever be successful then?" Knoll asked Naquin attorney Stan Baudin, who was making the argument supported by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal ruling in Naquin's favor. Knoll said the "scheme" laid out in Baudin's interpretation of the Fair Competition Act is "self-defeating."

Blanchard also reported that Chief Judge Pascal Calogero Jr. asked about a provision of the law that prevents LUS from cross-subsidizing its communications business with tax revenue or "below market-rate" loans.

"Doesn't that mean it's OK?" Calogero asked Baudin. "If they're not below market rate?"

Sounds like a good day in court for LUS. The Supreme Court could render its decision within two to three months. ' Scott Jordan


Don't expect to see lavish Christmas decorations at the Lafayette Airport this year. Amid intense public scrutiny of its spending policies, the Lafayette Airport Commission has decided to pull the plug on its traditional year-end Christmas party. "Basically we decided it'd be best to just cancel it," says newly-elected commission Chairman Carroll Robichaux. "We don't think it's a problem but we're going to wait for the attorney general's opinion on the things that were questioned by the public."

Since taking over as chairman last month, Robichaux has been trying to rein in airport spending. Last week he ordered that all non-essential staff expenses must first be approved by the commission's finance committee. Meanwhile, the attorney general and state legislative auditor are reviewing receipts and other financial data of the airport commission to determine whether it has misused public funds. An investigation by a coalition of concerned residents brought to light questionable spending practices on parties, meals and travel for commissioners and potential airport clients.

Last year, the airport commission spent approximately $7,800 on its Christmas Party, which is held at the airport restaurant each year. The bill for the party, catered by The Townhouse, included a $4,375 bar tab along with $2,987 for a buffet spread and $500 worth of door prizes.

Robichaux notes that the event has customarily been an important networking function. "It's more of a publicity event," he says. "We're thanking our clients, the travel agents, our tenants, the airport staff, and the public." ' Nathan Stubbs


It took the state more than a year to draft the rules and regulations, but a new program has finally been launched to help oil companies recoup their losses from so-called dry holes. The law, which technically went into effect last summer, aims to assist oil-and-gas companies after an expensive drilling operation turns up nothing but silt and sand. Formally, it's called the Developed Resources in Louisiana Act, or DRIL, and it allows companies that hit a dry hole to deduct 50 percent of the royalties they owe on the next good well they drill. Financial forecasts originally attached to the legislation estimated a return from the program of more than $1 billion over the next 26 years. State officials hope the program will help bring back old oil towns like Venice and continue strengthening hot spots like Port Fourchon.

As an environmental side note, the law also requires oil companies to mitigate 1.25 acres of land for every one acre of wetland impacted. Dave Meloy, a geologist supervisor with the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, says the law could bolster drilling activity, as it helps companies to continue investing in the state ' and it's an incentive not found in neighboring regions. "As far as I know other states don't offer this," he says. Eligible wells must be drilled in offshore waters at a depth greater than 19,999 feet. On average, such an undertaking can cost companies upwards to $30 million, Meloy says, which explains why such a tax credit is needed to encourage more exploration of its kind. "Right now 20,000-foot wells are expensive, and they'll always be expensive to drill," he says. "That's not going to change." ' Jeremy Alford


The smell of money is wafting through the political waters, and legislators are eyeing the special session that kicks off this week. There's an $825 million surplus to be spent, and everyone seems to have an opinion on it ' and there could possibly be another $800 million up for grabs from this year's budget. Some lawmakers want to spend it on roads, Gov. Kathleen Blanco wants to cut thousands of insurance rebate checks for Louisiana residents, and others want to wait to spend the money. Even the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations ' a traditionally quiet presence around the Capitol ' has tossed in its two cents. "This is a great opportunity for the state to think differently about our future," says Melissa Flournoy, LANO's president. "Reforming the capital outlay system, investing the housing trust fund and supporting the child care quality rating system are vital to rebuilding systems to meet the needs of the state." Further details on the group's proposed priorities are included in its new report, "Louisiana Budget Basics: Guide to the Louisiana Budget." Meanwhile, political heavies like the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the largest lobby in the state, are leaning in on their points of interest. Specifically, the statewide business association has called for using the extra revenue to pay down debt, advance priority highway improvements, initiate coastal restoration projects, bolster flood control, improve health care delivery, reduce taxes and create a state-supported reinsurance fund. With an election year around the corner, everyone will be watching what's doled out. "The choices they make on how that money is used will be the biggest issue in the elections coming up next year," says Dan Juneau, president of LABI. ' JA


Farmers and ranchers in Louisiana are still bristling at the recent news that the popular guaranteed loan program many are eligible for could expire at the end of the year. There has been no official warning from the federal government and it now appears up to Congress to save the day. However, drumming up support for a simple extension of a Farm Bill provision has proven difficult during this lame-duck session. The larger bill is considered somewhat controversial, while the smaller loan provision isn't as volatile ' still, they're connected. The entire congressional delegation sent a letter to the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, but there hasn't been any movement yet. The Farm Service Agency loan program provides operating money to "several hundred" farms in Louisiana, according to U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, a Lafayette Republican. "A temporary extension will allow these family farms to stay operational until the current Farm Bill is reauthorized," he says. For now, the clock is ticking louder each day, but December is expected to be a busy month as countless measures are rushed through this Congress' final days. ' JA


PHI has been in the news for the bitter strike showdown between PHI management and its pilots, but last week's Times-Picayune story on legendary songwriter Kris Kristofferson details a brighter, little-known chapter in PHI history:

Kristofferson, writer of classics such as "Me and Bobby McGee," "Why Me" and "Help Me Make It Through the Night," told the T-P how his 1960s work with PHI in the Louisiana oil fields yielded some of his biggest hits. "That was about the last three years before I started performing, before people started cutting my songs," he said. "I would work a week down here for PHI, sitting on an oil platform and flying helicopters. Then I'd go back to Nashville at the end of the week and spend a week up there trying to pitch the songs, then come back down and write songs for another week." â?¦ "I can remember 'Help Me Make It Through The Night' I wrote sitting on top of an oil platform. I wrote 'Bobby McGee' down here, and a lot of them." ' SJ