Daily Report

This Morning's Headlines / Thu, May 17, 2012

Jones resigns as RIO director

Terry Jones has submitted his resignation to the Baton Rouge Area Chamber as head of its Regional Innovation Organization, BRAC officials announced this morning. Details on why Jones is departing, and exactly when, remain scarce as of press time. "He's offered to stay on through the transition period as we begin a national search for a new director," says Mike Odom, BRAC spokesman. "We're very appreciative of everything he's done. Since the launch of RIO last year, he's been instrumental in helping build collaboration between the incubators and universities in Baton Rouge, as well as launching the first Baton Rouge Entrepreneurship Week, securing a Startup Bus for Louisiana and getting a pretty significant federal grant." In a short statement Jones provided Daily Report this morning, he says: "It has been my absolute honor and pleasure to serve the entrepreneurs, economic development professionals and entire entrepreneurial community over the past 19 months as the managing director of RIO. Together, with strong support from the entrepreneurial community and the many great entrepreneurial organizations we have here in the Capital Region, we have made great strides in building a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem and have begun achieving national recognition for our startups and our region. I look forward to watching as our region continues to make great progress and achieve new highs." Jones did not touch on reasons for his departure or what his future plans may be in the statement. Read a Business Report story from February 2011, when Jones was hired as the RIO director, here —Steve Sanoski

School system's new bus plan would require 50 fewer buses

Officials with the East Baton Rouge Parish School System, which is legally required to provide bus service to Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge schools, have previously said the system could save $2 million next year by changing the start time of the Catholic schools' day. But now that the Catholic schools appear on board with the change—which will push up the start time from 8:30 a.m. to 7:45 a.m.—precisely how will it save money for the system? According to officials with the EBRSS, this is how: The system currently makes two runs each morning. The first run uses 450 buses to transport public middle and high school students to school by 7:10 a.m. The second run brings in 50 more buses—for a total of 500—to transport public elementary school students and all Catholic school students to school by 8:25 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., respectively. Under the proposed new system, 450 buses would make three runs each morning, transporting public middle and high school students first, followed by Catholic school students and, lastly, public elementary school students, whose start time will remain at 8:25 a.m. Such changes will eliminate the need for 50 of the buses currently make the second run, officials say. The average cost of operating a school bus is about $56,000, with fuel accounting for the biggest chunk of that cost, according to EBRSS spokesman Chris Trahan. The average driver's salary is about $18,000 a year, though Trahan says drivers can make as much as $35,000 if they drive extra routes for special events during the day. —Stephanie Riegel

Publisher: Voters need to demand details from candidates

With East Baton Rouge Parish voters set to decide this fall on the mayor and Metro Council for the next four years, Business Report Publisher Rolfe McCollister is urging residents to look past the political rhetoric and demand that the candidates provide real explanations on how they plan to achieve the lofty goals they're bound to talk about ad nauseam in the months leading up to the Nov. 6 election day. As McCollister notes that every candidate is sure to tout crime reduction, education improvement and job creation as top priorities, and most will also say they don't want to pay more taxes for any of it. "These issues are all critical to our future, but saying that is the easy part," McCollister writes. "Are we all going to let the candidates get off the hook by just printing a couple of sentences on a push card or showing a few 'keywords' on your television screen accompanied by images of flashing red lights and the sound of sirens screaming?" The election should be about ideas for moving Baton Rouge forward and the plans candidates have for putting those ideas into motion, McCollister says. As for some progressive ideas the candidates should be thinking about, McCollister points to the cover story of this month's 225 magazine (a sister publication of Business Report), in which a pop-up think tank discusses "11 ways to improve Baton Rouge". "All 11 ideas are worth your attention, but I like three in particular and want to suggest you think about making them part of the upcoming elections and ask your candidates about them," McCollister says. Find out which ideas he likes most in the full column here; and send your comments to [email protected].

Today's poll question: If the election were today, who would get your vote in the mayoral race?

Compromise reached on 'legacy lawsuits' debate

Lawmakers this morning announced they've brokered an agreement in an ongoing dispute between the oil and gas industry and landowners over how to address "legacy lawsuits" centered on cleaning up environmental damage caused by drilling projects years ago—and in some cases decades ago. The proposal, included today in a bill by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, would allow cleanup plans devised by the Department of Natural Resources to be admissible as evidence in a lawsuit for a larger damage claim, a move sought by the oil and gas industry. Two other agencies, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Agriculture, would also be allowed to weigh in on cleanup plans. Permitting that additional input addresses complaints from landowners who say the industry has too heavy an influence over DNR and could pressure the agency in cleanup estimates that would be reviewed to determine damages. More details on the compromise, as well as comments from lawmakers and representatives from the oil and gas industry, are available on the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association website here.

'225 Select': Jewel of the state

The majestic chambers of Louisiana's Old State Capitol will come alive with music and merriment tonight as the historic building hosts The Jewel of the State Gala from 7 to 10 p.m. Proceeds will be used to complete a master plan to refurbish the building's grounds, which were last updated 72 years ago by the Works Progress Administration. Old State Capitol leaders have teamed with nationally recognized landscape architects to create the master plan. Additional funding for the project has come from a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as generous private donations. Guests at the event will be able to sip wine, enjoy delicious hors d'oeuvres, and dance to music played by Ned Fasullo and his Big Band Orchestra. Get all the details and tickets here; and read the rest of this week's 225 Select e-newsletter here.

Vt. becomes first state to ban fracking

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin has signed into law the nation's first ban on hydraulic fracturing—better known as fracking—a hotly debated natural gas drilling technique that involves blasting chemical-laced water deep into the ground. The Democrat says the law may help Vermont set an example for other states. The ban may be largely symbolic, however, because there is believed to be little to no natural gas or oil beneath the surface in Vermont. Fracking—which triggered a drilling and economic boon in northeast Louisiana in recent years and more recently began taking place across central Louisiana along the Tuscaloosa Shale—involves the high-pressure injection of water and chemicals into the ground to split rock apart and release natural gas or oil. Critics have blamed the practice for contaminating drinking water wells of some residents living near the drilling operations, but natural gas industry officials dispute those claims. Shumlin says the increased amounts of natural gas obtainable through fracking are not worth the risk to drinking water supplies. In the coming generation or two, he says, "Drinking water will be more valuable than oil or natural gas." But the governor also appeared to contradict himself during Wednesday's signing of the ban into law, saying other states should emulate Vermont's ban on hydraulic fracturing but also should be the "guinea pigs" for testing the process. "I hope other states will follow us," he says. "The science on fracking is uncertain at best. Let the other states be the guinea pigs. Let the Green Mountain State preserve its clean water, its lakes, its rivers and its quality of life." Industry groups, including the American Petroleum Institute and America's Natural Gas Alliance, are panning the Vermont ban.

News roundup: Judge recuses herself from ex-BP engineer's case … Minorities surpass whites in U.S. births … Nation's unemployment aid applications stay at 370,000

On the bench: A federal judge in New Orleans has recused herself from the criminal case against a former BP engineer charged with deleting text messages about the company's response to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. U.S District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo didn't specify in today's order why she is recusing herself, but she did cite a law that says judges should disqualify themselves if their "impartiality might reasonably be questioned." The case against 50-year-old Kurt Mix, of Katy, Texas, has been reassigned to Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. Mix pleaded not guilty on May 3 to two counts of obstruction of justice. An indictment accuses him of deleting text messages to a supervisor and a contractor to prevent them from being used in a grand jury probe of the spill.

The changing face of America: For the first time, racial and ethnic minorities make up more than half the children born in the United States, capping decades of heady immigration growth that is now slowing. New 2011 census estimates highlight sweeping changes in the nation's racial makeup and the prolonged impact of a weak economy, which is now resulting in fewer Hispanics entering the United States. "This is an important landmark," says Roderick Harrison, a former chief of racial statistics at the Census Bureau who is now a sociologist at Howard University. "This generation is growing up much more accustomed to diversity than its elders." The report comes as the Supreme Court prepares to rule on the legality of Arizona's controversial immigration law, with many states weighing similar get-tough measures. Read the full story by The Associated Press here for specific statistics and more analysis of what they mean.

Stacking up the applications: The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits was unchanged last week, suggesting modest but steady gains in the job market. The Labor Department reports today that weekly unemployment aid applications stayed at a seasonally adjusted 370,000, the same level as the previous week. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell from roughly 380,000 to 375,000. Applications for benefits surged in April to a five-month high of 392,000. They have fallen back since then and are near the lowest levels in four years. The decline suggests hiring could pick up in May after slumping in the previous two months. When applications drop below 375,000 a week, it generally suggests hiring is strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.

Sign up for E-Newsletters