Punch Drunk

Brad Goins Thursday, June 21, 2018 Comments Off on Punch Drunk
Punch Drunk

You probably get even more tired than I do of reading about do-nothing Louisiana legislators in this column. Well, I’m here to tell you that now — finally — two Louisiana legislators have accomplished something. They got in a fist fight. In a bar. At 1 am.

It happened in Baton Rouge’s upscale watering hole The River Room. The two homeboys involved were state Rep. Stuart Bishop of Lafayette and Sen. Norby Chabert of Houma.

After it happened, every politician in the Red Stick was busy back-peddling — saying it was no thing. Even the governor brushed it off: “every now and then, people get too passionate, and things can get out of hand.”

I guess folks who read about this brawl in Lafayette felt Lafayette proud. 

Both Legislators apologized to their respective legislative bodies. Said Bishop, “I feel like it was unbecoming of a gentleman or unbecoming of a member of this House. For that, I truly apologize if I did anything to upset y’all or make y’all look bad, because the integrity of this body is one thing that I cherish and I hold very dear.” Well, he can say whatever he likes. But I think that what he really holds dear is the opportunity to say “y’all” to his legislative body.

I prefer the comments of Chabert, who at least had the backbone to say, “when you do it, you have to own it.”

The legislators both described their fight as “not serious.” But it was serious enough that the bartender called both the Baton Rouge Police and the bar’s general manager.

Since I’m not a politician, I don’t have to back-pedal. I can call a fight between two legislators childish, shameful, disgraceful — anything I want to call it. But they are both Louisiana men — or at least people of the same age as men. What are you gonna do?

Years ago, when I worked for the federal gubment, I used to go to conferences in Washington, D.C. And I went with Washington political figures to bars real late at night. Here was their excuse: “Well, we work late. Why shouldn’t we go out late?” I wonder what the excuse of these two in Baton Rouge was.

Do I Know Gary?

Another day, another cyber era term to learn. That’s how life is in 2018. Today’s new term in “astroturfing.” Let’s find out what it means.

In October, 2017, a reporter for New Orleans’ The Lens saw a group of 50 people wearing orange shirts that indicated they supported a new Entergy power plant in New Orleans walk into a Baton Rouge public hearing. Turned out at least some of them were paid actors. Entergy eventually admitted actors were paid to attend two public meetings.

At first, Entergy said it hired a PR firm to bring supporters, but it didn’t know people were paid by the firm to support Entergy. I guess Entergy just assumed the people were doing it for free. Maybe the people were really bored and just looking for something to do.

The Lens revealed that actors were paid $60 to attend meetings and $200 to speak on behalf of the natural gas plant. The company said it would investigate the matter. Entergy’s investigation found that the Hawthorn Group, the firm it hired, was behind the astroturfing. Hawthorn was contracted to “assist in developing grassroots support for the proposed plant,” Entergy said in its report. One of the contracts stipulated that Hawthorn would recruit 75 supporters, including 10 speakers, to appear at a public hearing of the city council’s utility committee.

Now here’s where the story takes a really nice, and funny, twist. Hawthorn denied it was behind the astroturfing. “Paying participants was not requested or authorized by our client or by Hawthorn. Clearly, there was a misunderstanding, which we deeply regret,” the company said. Yeah, there’s always a misunderstanding and there’s always a regret. Imagine what would happen if you made a colossal mistake then told your boss, “Oh, well, there was a misunderstanding and I regret that.”

When a reporter for The Lens saw the group walking into City Hall, he asked several of them why they’d come to support the power plant. They all gave the same answer: “Talk to Gary.”

Doesn’t that seem like kind of a strange answer? Wouldn’t you expect them to say, “Well, I’m just nuts about Entergy”; or even something lame-o, like, “Well, I support what Entergy is trying to do here.”

The Lens learned that a man named Garrett Wilkerson sent the actors messages telling them how much they would be paid and what to do and say at the meeting. “Tell nobody you’re being paid,” he wrote in a Facebook message.

One of the people interviewed by The Lens said he recognized 15 people from the Louisiana film industry in the “Entergy” crowd. Lens reporters spotted an actor who’d appeared in the popular N.O. TV show Treme.

In a statement, the CEO of Crowds on Demand — the group Hawthorn subcontracted with to get the actors — said the company pays people to ensure they show up at public meetings and stay on message. “We always seek to provide genuine supporters of our clients’ points of view. It is, in fact, a question we ask of every speaker or attendee at a public meeting.”

We’re talking about Louisiana actors here. People who have loads and loads of money. So of course, it just stands to reason they would all naturally be big supporters of Entergy. It’s not like they have to pay for their own utilities.

Actor Keith Keough told The Lens he thought he was being hired to shoot a commercial. “I’m not political,” he said. “I needed the money for a hotel room at that point.” He said the group was paid “to sit through the meeting and clap every time someone said something against wind and solar power.”

On April 19, a coalition opposed to the power plant filed suit, claiming Entergy violated the state’s Open Meetings Law by packing the meetings with supporters and preventing other members of the public from attending. When the suit was filed, Entergy cut its ties with the Hawthorn Group and put in place policies to prohibit its supporters from being paid for their support. So, all of a sudden it was wrong? Have you ever noticed how things can change from being OK to being wrong just like that?

Hawthorn agreed to refund the actors’ pay; Entergy will donate the money to charity. 

Aw, Who Wants Their Meat Inspected?

So far this year, the Louisiana Legislature has burned through four different versions of the state budget without coming up with one that meets the state’s basic needs. Here’s how the Advocate’s Elizabeth Crisp described the state’s situation after the latest woeful budget:

“Food stamps? Gone. Agriculture centers throughout the state? Shuttered. Museums and state parks? Closed indefinitely. Meat inspectors? Terminated. Veterans cemetery program? Eliminated.” Doesn’t sound real good, does it?

Senate Finance Chair Eric LaFleur of Ville Platte said, “We are in a serious financial crisis because we do not have sufficient revenue to pay for the services that I think people expect. Without the revenue that needs to be raised, government can’t function.”

So, we’re back to Legislature Kindergarten 101. Some lawmakers don’t like increased revenues because nobody likes taxes. Some think the problem is too much government spending, but they refuse to cut any government spending. Nobody changes his stance; people from different groups don’t work together. It’s the kindergarten sand box. 

On May 10, Gov. Edwards and staff sent letters to 17,000 Louisiana Medicaid beneficiaries telling them that they will have to leave their nursing homes. A total of 37,000 elderly Louisianans were sent letters stating they would lose Medicaid benefits on July 1.

Some Republicans in the Legislature said Edwards’ move was a politically motivated scare tactic. Undoubtedly they were correct. Still, if nothing is done in the special session to pass a state budget that includes significant new funding of some type, most who receive the letters will lose their funds and many will have to move out. 

The Louisiana AARP said it called on “Edwards, state senators and state representatives — from both sides of the aisle — to come together, act responsibly and do what’s right for Louisiana’s vulnerable seniors …” Act responsibly. I don’t guess that was meant as a joke.

One way you can tell this is a huge problem is that Louisiana legislators are ignoring the state’s immensely powerful nursing home lobby. That shows that the lawmakers are in a truly desperate state. It’s a dark day when even a lobbyist can’t get his dolla dolla bill.

The Legislature went into special session to see if it could manage to bring itself to raise revenue to fix these problems. By the time you read this, we’ll know whether the Legislature succeeded. If it didn’t, in future editions, the Up Fronter can move from writing about nursing home cuts to writing about TOPS cuts. You don’t have to be old to get sucker punched by your state’s leaders.

The News

— On May 14, on Twitter, Micah Cormier, special assistant to the governor, posted a video of himself rolling a strike in a bowling alley. Under the video, he wrote, “That’s a strike, y’all!”

— “It’s actually happening … Gov’t Taco is opening for real! To say that we’re excited for Gov’t Taco to finally open is an understatement, but we’re excited to be a part of White Star Market and even more excited about what it’s bringing to one of our favorite Baton Rouge neighborhoods.” — Bite & Booze, Baton Rouge, May 16.

— “Alec and Hilaria Baldwin welcome 4th baby”

“Soldier’s emotional reunion with her dog”

“Watch John Travolta dance with 50 Cent”

“How to throw one helluva royal wedding party”

All four of the above headlines appeared on CNN on May 18.

Google ‘Damage Deposit’ Right Now

I’ve often listened in astonishment as people here tell me it’s just a matter of course that renters don’t get their damage deposits back. It’s as if everybody in the parish thinks it’s simply part of life to pay $1,000 for the privilege of renting. Yeah, that’s not the kind of thinking that keeps a state poor, is it?

OK. Say it loud: Damage deposits are to cover damages to property. If you don’t damage your rental property, you get your damage deposit back when you move out.

The state of Louisiana just took its first step in sending out that message when it passed Senate Bill 466 in the regular session. This bill greatly increases the risks for landlords who unlawfully keep damage deposits.

Elana Cohen of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center said the bill would make a start in bringing Louisiana “into line with national standards. When the law goes into effect on August 1, renters who win their case can recover three times as much as typically awarded under the old law. For a Louisiana renter who spends $800 on a security deposit, the amount recovered from a negligent landlord would increase from $1,000 to $2,400.”

This was the first change in the Louisiana Security Deposit Law in more than 30 years. Professor Davida Finger of the Loyola University College of Law said, “the new law is a step in the right direction for Louisiana renters and for our communities.” In other words, the poor people might have a chance to win once in a while.

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