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Louisiana Illuminator

Gov. Edwards’ commuter rail investment comes at the expense of wronged Road Home recipients

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lailluminator.com – Greg LaRose – 2023-08-27 05:00:42

Gov. Edwards' commuter rail investment comes at the expense of wronged Road Home recipients

by Greg LaRose, Louisiana Illuminator
August 27, 2023

Don't you love that feeling when you're doing the laundry and you find forgotten, crumpled cash in a pants pocket? But after that brief euphoric moment and weak laugh at the “money laundering” joke that goes through your head, you realize that you should probably do a better job managing your cash. 

Perhaps you even have a bit of remorse if you end up spending that small surfeit unwisely.     

The state of Louisiana finds itself in a similar situation with a surprise $20.5 million surplus courtesy of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The state had set aside the funds for a settlement with the federal government over misspent Road Home grant money after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but HUD informed Louisiana earlier this summer it could keep its cash. 

reported Aug. 18 that the money would be put toward a proposed commuter rail line between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The $20.5 million would be paired with $30 million in state construction funds to attract federal grants. One of the awards Louisiana seeks is an $86 million grant to upgrade the rail bridge over the Bonnet Carré Spillway, a section considered a linchpin for the route.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and advocates for the commuter rail line make a strong case for the project. It has the potential to spur economic development on a regional level and address persistent traffic issues along the Interstate 10 corridor, a problem that will only worsen when widening work and the new Mississippi River bridge are undertaken.

Using the HUD settlement money for the rail line has to feel like salt in the wounds for the Road Home recipients from whom the state clawed back $6.8 million in grants. They learned in February they would not be compensated when Edwards and U.S. Housing Secretary Marcia Fudge announced the end of the Road Home program, and along with it the termination of 3,500 lawsuits against homeowners who had received and spent grants. 

“It's been a miserable thing for the state of Louisiana to pursue these individuals because we knew the vast majority of them were never going to pay,” Edwards said in February.

The governor and officials gathered at a community center with residents of New Orleans' 9th Ward neighborhood — among the hardest hit in Katrina — to make the announcement, no doubt taking advantage of the favorable optics to deliver good news.

Not in the room were the 425 Road Home recipients who the state had taken to court and defeated. When you look at some of the questionable reasons these homeowners were forced to return the money, it explains why they are incensed.

Reporting from journalists Richard A. Webster of Verite and David Hammer at WWL-TV, in partnership with The Times-Picayune and ProPublica, revealed problems with the Road Home program from its onset. To get a grant, homeowners had to agree to elevate their homes, yet the $30,000 provided was often inadequate and failed to cover additional storm damage. Worse yet, the state failed to check whether homeowners qualified for the money or used it to elevate their houses. 

Multiple appellate court rulings backed homeowners' claims that they were told the Road Home money could be used for other repairs. State officials have said they don't know who told the homeowners this. 

Edwards' Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne has said a state appropriation to reimburse the Road Home defendants would likely violate the Louisiana Constitution, which prohibits state government from directing money to an individual. The governor's office has not sought a confirming opinion on this interpretation from the attorney general, though most agree the intent of the law was to thwart corruption.

The Edwards administration maintains dropping the Road Home lawsuits does not imply money was wrongfully recovered from recipients in the decided cases, nor that the pending cases were illegitimate. But we've also seen the state government have a hard time admitting that it did anything wrong.

It's why you can expect state officials to stay the course on how they intend to spend the Road Home settlement money. Doing otherwise — and doing right by 425 homeowners — would be admitting fault, and the train of progress stops for no one.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Louisiana Illuminator

After U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow bump stocks, U.S. Senate rejects bill to ban them • Louisiana Illuminator

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lailluminator.com – Ariana Figueroa – 2024-06-19 06:25:13

by Ariana Figueroa, Louisiana Illuminator
June 19, 2024

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts blocked a bipartisan bill Tuesday that would ban bump stocks following a Supreme Court decision that repealed a Trump-era rule against using the gun accessory.

Ricketts, a Nebraska Republican, objected to New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich's request that the chamber approve his bill — cosponsored by Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins — by unanimous consent.

Heinrich attempted to pass the bill, which the trio introduced last year, following the Supreme Court ruling last week that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lacked the authority to ban bump stocks.

“As a firearms owner myself, there's no legitimate use for a bump stock,” Heinrich said. “What they are tailor made for is a mass shooting.”

The bill, S. 1909, would ban the sale of bump stocks that allow semi-automatic weapons to rapidly fire multiple rounds like a machine gun.

Ricketts argued that the Supreme Court made the right decision and said the bill didn't just ban bump stocks but also “targets other firearm accessories.”

Ricketts added that the bill is a violation of the Second Amendment.

“This bill is about banning as many firearm accessories as possible and giving ATF broad authority to ban most semi-automatic firearms,” Ricketts said. “It's an unconstitutional attack on law-abiding gun owners.”

Heinrich said the bill would not ban a large amount of firearm accessories, but would ban things like Glock switches, which can be attached to the side of a Glock handgun to convert a semi-automatic pistol into a fully automatic firearm.

“I think the American people understand what common-sense gun safety looks like,” Heinrich said.

Senate procedure requires 60 votes to proceed on most legislation. But for the chamber to approve a measure by unanimous consent, no senator can object.

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Supreme Court ruling

The Supreme Court on Friday overturned an ATF regulation, enacted during former President Donald Trump's administration after the Las Vegas mass shooting, which defined a semi-automatic rifle equipped with a bump stock attachment as a machine gun. Machine guns are generally prohibited under federal law.

In that mass shooting, a gunman used rifles outfitted with bump stocks to fire into a crowd of 22,000 people at a music festival, killing 58 people that night and two more who died of their injuries later, and injuring more than 500.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor that the bill was needed because the Supreme Court's decision was “an utter disgrace.”

“It will endanger our communities, endanger law enforcement, and make it easier for mass shooters to unleash carnage,” Schumer, a New York Democrat, said.

The opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, who is a strong defender of Second Amendment gun rights, deemed that the ATF exceeded its statutory authority in prohibiting the sale and possession of bump stocks, which he said differed importantly from machine guns.

“Nothing changes when a semiautomatic rifle is equipped with a bump stock,” Thomas wrote. “Between every shot, the shooter must release pressure from the trigger and allow it to reset before reengaging the trigger for another shot.”

Additionally, the decision, which was split along ideological lines, limits the federal government's ability to address gun violence in the absence of congressional action.

More federal gun legislation unlikely

With a split Congress, any gun-safety related legislation is unlikely to pass. However, after Friday's decision, President Joe Biden called on Congress to ban bump stocks and assault weapons.

“Americans should not have to live in fear of this mass devastation,” Biden said at the time.

The last time Congress passed gun legislation was in 2022 after two mass shootings that occurred less than two weeks apart.

One was at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were killed. The other was in Buffalo, New York, where a white supremacist targeted a predominantly Black neighborhood and killed 10 Black people.

The 2022 gun safety legislation did not ban any firearms but provided funds for mental health and to help states enact red flag laws, which allow the courts to temporarily remove a firearm from an individual who is a threat to themselves or others, among other provisions.

That same year, the Supreme Court decided on a major gun-related case that invalidated a New York law against carrying a firearm in public without showing a special need for protection.

Because of that decision, there's another gun-related case before the court that will test a federal law that prevents the possession of firearms by a person who is subject to a domestic violence protective order. A decision on that is expected this month.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and X.

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Louisiana lags on electric vehicle charging program, but DOTD sees ‘no reason to rush’ • Louisiana Illuminator

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lailluminator.com – Wesley Muller – 2024-06-19 05:00:24

by Wesley Muller, Louisiana Illuminator
June 19, 2024

Two years after receiving federal funding to build electric vehicle charging stations across the state, Louisiana has yet to ask for bids from companies that might want the money. However, state transportation officials say there is a reason for their sluggish pace. 

The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD), plans to start the request-for-proposal process as soon as it identifies an appropriate “contracting mechanism” under state law to use the money, DOTD spokesperson Rodney Mallett said. 

The Federal Highway Administration allocated $73.4 million to Louisiana under the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program in 2022. NEVI is a product of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that Congress approved in 2021. It included billions for state transportation agencies to build a network of rapid chargers along major highways. 

Louisiana's initial response was on par with other states. DOTD submitted its NEVI deployment plan by the federal deadline of August 2022. However, while states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and others now are disbursing the grant money or have already built some EV charging stations, Louisiana hasn't yet figured out how to spend it. 

“There's no real reason to spend two-plus years figuring out how to get this money to grant recipients when other states are already opening up chargers,” said Ryan McKinnon of the Charge Ahead Partnership, an EV charger lobby group. “Lots of states will be opening up chargers pretty soon, and it sounds like Louisiana will be sitting on the sidelines.” 

McKinnon said Louisiana is one of 11 states that have still not asked for bids to use the NEVI grant money. 

Some congressional Republicans and anti-union groups have directed their criticism at the Biden administration, claiming the delays are the result of mismanagement or of labor requirements within federal rules. Officials closest to the situation say the delays are largely because it is a new program that they want done correctly.

Mallet said the federal rules for the NEVI program don't “fit cleanly” within DOTD's usual contracting methods. DOTD often writes contracts for projects in which the agency owns and maintains the infrastructure, such as highways. In contrast, the EV charger grants will pay for the construction of infrastructure for which “ownership and operation will be transferred” from the state, in most cases, to a private entity, he said.

Although the Biden administration has aimed for a goal of building 500,000 charging stations by 2026, Mallet said the NEVI funds do not lapse, so there is no hard deadline to complete the projects.

“The key is to do it right for the long term,” Mallet said. “No reason to rush it through.”

States to receive $2.5B from feds for electric vehicle charging infrastructure

Tyler Herrmann with Louisiana Clean Fuels, a nonprofit working with DOTD on the NEVI rollout, said earlier, smaller EV charger programs saw build-outs at sites that weren't very practical. 

The chargers were often installed at public libraries or apartment complexes — places with no real interest or resources to maintain them. Without that routine maintenance, chargers would break and often stay that way for years. 

The government learned from those programs and is now taking care to avoid making those same kinds of mistakes, Herrmann said.   

“It is a unique situation,” Herrmann said of DOTD's efforts to administer the NEVI grants. “The program is pretty much completely different from what the DOTD does normally.”

In the meantime, Louisiana Clean Fuels has been working to build a workforce of technicians who can install and repair EV chargers and supply equipment.

Baton Rouge Community College just recently saw its first class of students graduate from a three-week course in which they learned some of the fundamentals required to become nationally certified Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment technicians. 

Herrmann said about a dozen students completed the first course, which will soon be offered at other community colleges across the state.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and X.

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St. Tammany’s embattled coroner targeted under new state laws • Louisiana Illuminator

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lailluminator.com – Julie O'Donoghue – 2024-06-18 17:43:54

by Julie O'Donoghue, Louisiana Illuminator
June 18, 2024

Gov. Jeff Landry has signed two new laws to weaken the authority of St. Tammany Parish's controversial coroner who is already the subject of a recall campaign. 

Dr. Christopher Tape drew scrutiny from lawmakers after a WWL-TV investigation revealed he had been accused of child sex abuse in New Mexico decades ago and then settled a lawsuit over workplace sexual harassment allegations in the past few years. Charges in the New Mexico case were quashed after the prosecutor failed to move the case forward in a timely fashion. 

Almost immediately after taking office, Tape also tried to cancel a multi-parish program housed in the St. Tammany coroner's office that provides nurses to perform sexual assault exams on victims. The service helps police collect evidence and assists Northshore district attorneys who prosecute sex crimes. 

Legislators responded to Tape's actions, as well as his refusal to resign from his job, by filing legislation to limit his power.

Sen. Patrick McMath, R-Covington, sponsored a new law to give the St. Tammany Parish Council greater authority over the coroner's public finances and the ability to remove any coroner convicted of violent crimes. Moving forward, candidates for St. Tammany coroner must submit records regarding their criminal background to the local clerk of court.

Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, authored a second law that allows the state attorney general to move sexual assault victim programs to another parish if the local coroner is unqualified or unwilling to perform those duties. 

In Tape's case, a transfer has already happened. Last month, the Jefferson Parish Coroner's Office took over the sexual assault examination program serving the Northshore region. The two parishes have entered into a cooperative endeavor agreement that allowed Jefferson Coroner Gerry Cvitanovich to hire the nurses who worked for the St. Tammany program.

Meanwhile, the organizers of Tape's recall must gather 35,000 signatures from qualified voters before mid-October for an election potentially forcing Tape out of office to take place.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and X.

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