Daily Report

This Morning's Headlines / Wed, April 18, 2012

Inadequate funding portends an uncertain future for Pennington

A financial report delivered to the state Board of Regents last fall by the Pennington Biomedical Research Center suggests the 25-year-old institution is facing serious financial challenges—including no money to open and operate two new buildings and a third being refurbished on its 234-acre Perkins Road campus. "We're doing very well on one level. But [financially] it's like a cliff. … At some point we're going to plummet," says Executive Director Dr. Steven Heymsfield. The recent financial woes have served as a wake-up call for officials at Pennington, and they're now scrambling to find solutions. Along with a rebranding effort and a new marketing campaign, they're seeking out new industry partners and trying to create synergy with research programs. "We have to be more entrepreneurial, more businesslike," says LSU System President John Lombardi. "Other places in the world do that and have developed that, and they started out like us. The only question for us is, do we have enough time?" Read the complete cover story by Senior Editor Stephanie Riegel in the new issue of Business Report here.

Survey: Education reform, job creation top priorities in La.

The latest round of results from the 2012 Louisiana Survey, released this morning by the LSU Public Policy Research Lab, shows the state's residents are predominantly aligned when it comes to identifying top priorities. "Louisiana residents are more united than one might expect. Clearly, the public's top priorities are reforming public education and strengthening the economy," says PPRL Director Kirby Goidel. "Compared to Democrats, Republicans are slightly more inclined to favor addressing the economy over reforming primary education, but the differences are fairly small." In addition to party affiliation, race and income level also contribute to some variation in residents' priorities, especially when it comes to reforming public health care.

Among the specific results:
• 43% of blacks identified public health care reform as a top priority, compared to 30% of whites;
• 40% of respondents making less than $30,000 said public health care reform is a top priority, compared to 30% of those making $75,000 or more;
• 42% of Democrats identified public health care reform as a top priority, compared to 26% of Republicans;
• 49% of Democrats said public school reform is a top priority, compared to 41% of Republicans;
• 46% of Democrats identified improving roads, bridges and other infrastructure as a top priority, compared to 28% of Republicans.

The Louisiana Survey annually aims to serve as a barometer of statewide public opinion on a number of issues. The overall survey included 731 randomly selected respondents, who were polled via phone. Complete survey details, results and methodology can be found here.

Today's poll question: What do you think Louisiana's top priority should be?

Fitch downgrades some Livingston Parish bonds, calls outlook 'negative'

Citing "continued concerns" over a diminished general fund and uncertainty surrounding a dispute over FEMA reimbursement for debris removal following Hurricane Gustav in 2008—for which Livingston Parish could be on the hook $60 million—Fitch Ratings has downgraded $6.9 million worth of general obligation bonds in the parish from "A+" to "A." Fitch added that "the ratings outlook remains negative." In a news release, Fitch says the parish's general fund has been diminished by "one-time and ongoing support of other governmental funds." As for the continued litigation on the parish's debris removal debacle, Fitch says: "While officials cannot presently speculate on the outcome of the lawsuit or potential total liability amount, potential costs could require the parish to issue debt to repay the liability, which could drive up key ratios," adding it will "continue to monitor credit pressures that may arise from the lawsuit." The $6.9 million in downgraded bonds were issued in 2004. Fitch says Livingston Parish's overall financial position has been weakened because of growing long-term liabilities and an above-average debt burden. On the bright side, Fitch notes financial reporting is improving in the parish and that the tax base is expanding. See the full release here for more details and analysis.

March was the warmest on record in Baton Rouge

The National Weather Service says the average temperature at the Baton Rouge Metro Airport in March was a pleasant 68.7 degrees—7.2 degrees above the historical average and the warmest on record. The old record of 68.3 degrees was set in March 1945. But March wasn't all sunshine. Though the NWS says it was a "fairly dry month with only 10 days of measurable rainfall," the 6.42 inches of rain recorded at the airport made it the 16th wettest on record. More than half that rain—3.37 inches—fell in a single day, March 21, also a record. Despite the record warmth on average, Baton Rouge did not break any single-day high temperature records last month. The NWS says it was also the warmest March on record in New Orleans—with "a whopping 70.7 degrees" average—and 8.1 degrees above the historical norm. The old record in the Crescent City was 67.2 degrees, set in 1974. The contiguous United States also experienced the warmest March on record, dating back to 1895, according to NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Thousands of daily temperature records were set in the lower 48 states over the month.

New taxes in downtown N.O. proposed for 'hospitality zone'

With the French Quarter and other downtown areas poised to receive $40 million in infrastructure improvements in the run-up to next year's Super Bowl XLVII, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and tourism leaders want to raise the hotel-motel tax, as well as a sales tax on downtown dining, to maintain the improvements and promote the city. As The Times-Picayune reports, the extra money—which largely would come out of visitors' pockets—would amount to an estimated $16 million annually, officials said Tuesday at a French Quarter stakeholders' meeting. About $11 million would be spent by the city's two main tourism marketing agencies, with the rest earmarked for the upkeep of streets and other spending authorized by a new state-sanctioned board. Landrieu strongly supports the creation of a "hospitality zone" bounded by the Mississippi River, the Pontchartrain Expressway and Claiborne and Elysian Fields avenues. Under a package of bills pending in the current session, such a designation would allow the city to levy special taxes in the area, which stretches from the Warehouse District to the Seventh Ward, and use the revenue to provide extra sanitation, police and other services in those neighborhoods. Under the proposals, the hotel-motel tax levied at properties citywide would rise from 13% to 14.75%. The sales tax on food and beverages consumed in restaurants and bars within the hospitality zone would rise from 2.5% to 2.7%. Read the full story here.

Judge asked to sign off on BP oil spill settlement

BP and a team of plaintiffs' attorneys this morning presented a federal judge with the formal terms of a proposed class-action settlement designed to resolve billions of dollars in economic damage claims spawned by the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The London-based oil giant and lawyers representing more than 100,000 individuals and businesses are asking U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans to give preliminary approval to the settlement agreement. The judge hasn't indicated when he will rule. BP has estimated it will pay about $7.8 billion to resolve these private-party claims, which would make it one of the largest class-action settlements ever. But the settlement doesn't have a cap on the amount of money BP would pay. Today's court filing says the agreement "creates a comprehensive compensation system" and is "more than fair, reasonable and adequate." The agreement, initially announced March 2, doesn't resolve separate claims brought by the federal government and Gulf Coast states against BP and its partners on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig over environmental damage from the nation's worst offshore oil spill. The settlement also doesn't resolve claims against Switzerland-based rig owner Transocean Ltd. and Houston-based cement contractor Halliburton. Barbier has scheduled a May 3 status conference to discuss plans for a possible trial for those claims. Barbier also is expected to hold a "fairness hearing" on the settlement before deciding whether to give final approval to it. Read the full story by The Associated Press here.

News roundup: Another Webster Parish fire chief arrested … Geithner: U.S. facing big tax, budget test at end of 2012 … Twitter's pledge changes tone on patent litigation

Five alarm: Webster Parish Fire Chief David Camp was arrested Tuesday on improper spending charges, bringing the five-year total of parish chiefs arrested to five. The arrest of the 47-year-old came just hours before a counterpart in a neighboring district resigned amid a criminal investigation on similar allegations. In January 2010, former Shongaloo Fire Chief Charles Ray Duke Jr. was arrested on multiple felony charges related to allegations he used taxpayer money and donations to pay household bills and make personal purchases. Former Cullen Assistant Fire Chief Mark Eubanks was arrested in 2007 on child pornography charges. Camp was booked on charges of malfeasance and unauthorized use of an access device over $5,000. His bond was set at $20,000.

Down the road: The government will face a major test on whether it has the capacity to govern when it faces big tax and budget decisions at the end of the year, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said today ahead of a meeting on Friday of finance ministers from the Group of 20, representing the world's leading industrialized and emerging market economies. Before 2013, the country will be forced to deal with the expiration of tax cuts that affect nearly all taxpayers, automatic budget cuts, as well as another debate over raising the country's debt limit. "It will be a big test in Washington, a big test of the country to govern itself," Geithner says. Reuters has the complete story here.

Trolling for company: With companies like Yahoo, Facebook, Google and Oracle waging intellectual property wars in the courts, Twitter on Tuesday took an intriguing stand by pledging it will not impede innovation in the future by becoming a patent troll, The San Francisco Chronicle reports. Twitter drafted an "Innovator's Patent Agreement," or IPA, that the San Francisco firm proposes as a new standard licensing document for the entire tech industry. "The IPA is a new way to do patent assignment that keeps control in the hands of engineers and designers," Twitter vice president of engineering Adam Messinger wrote in a company blog. Get the full story for more details on the IPA and industry reaction to it here.

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