- Associated Press - Thursday, April 27, 2017

Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:

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April 23

The Advocate of Baton Rouge on the scandal involving Louisiana police in Las Vegas:

What happened in Vegas will stay in Vegas, at least for the time being.

That’s the upshot after news that when they took a taxpayer-funded jaunt to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, four Louisiana State Troopers apparently deleted every agency-related text message they sent or received during their 11-day road trip.

Even the State Police concede that text messages are a public record unless they’re exempt for a very narrow set of reasons outlined in state law. So on top of blowing tax dollars for their Western adventure, officers with the state’s top law enforcement agency possibly broke the law by destroying public documents related to the boondoggle.

That’s an especially grave stain on the reputation of an institution charged with upholding the law, and the public should be outraged.

The scandal emerged after the State Police sent some 15 people to the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in San Diego last year, handing taxpayers a bill for more than $33,000 for air fare, lodging, meals and other expenses. Most of those in the LSP party flew to San Diego, but former State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson allowed four officers to drive there, presumably so that the LSP attendees could have a car during the conference. Renting a car in San Diego would have been cheaper, especially since the officers on the road trip took a meandering route, stopping in Vegas and the Grand Canyon along the way.

Edmonson said he didn’t authorize the side trips, for which one trooper charged 54 hours of overtime. After the spending spree came to light, Edmonson retired from his post, but an official investigation of the incident continues.

After The Advocate filed a public records request for the text messages sent during the trip, as well as messages sent right after the scandal broke, officials offered varying responses, first saying that retrieving the messages would take time, then implausibly denying that any of the officers involved had state-issued phones, then claiming that none of the troopers involved had text messages on their phones from the time periods involved, declining to say if that’s because no messages were sent, they were actively deleted, or vanished as part of some routine purge of data.

One senior law enforcement official told The Advocate he’d seen texts from the travelers. That no one would have sent texts during such a lengthy trip defies belief.

Destroying public records is illegal, and every state agency should take seriously the obligation to save texts as they would emails and other documents.

Robert Scott of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a state watchdog group, acknowledged that this is a tall order, since texts often reside in “the cloud,” a network of servers beyond a single institution.

What hasn’t changed, in spite of new technology, is the public’s need to see what its government is up to - even, and especially - when public servants go on the road.

If taxpayers are footing the bill, what happens in Vegas shouldn’t stay there.

Online: https://www.theadvocate.com/

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April 23

The Times-Picayune of New Orleans on Louisiana’s vanishing coast:

Gov. John Bel Edwards is trying to make Louisiana’s vanishing coast a national priority. He officially declared the erosion of the state’s coastline an emergency Thursday (April 20) and plans to send Proclamation Number 43 JBE 2017 to President Donald Trump and Congress.

“The Louisiana coast is in a state of crisis and emergency that requires immediate and urgent action and attention to avert further injury to the lives, property, health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of Louisiana and the nation,” the governor says in the proclamation.

Gov. Edwards’ hope is that the declaration will get the attention of Washington and speed up approval for restoration projects in Louisiana’s $50 billion, 50-year master plan. The state has roughly $20 billion lined up so far. That includes the BP settlement for its catastrophic 2010 oil spill and federal oil and gas revenue-sharing money beginning in 2018.

Louisiana needs more money for the master plan and faces hurdles for permitting and environmental review. Federal environmental laws don’t “adequately consider or distinguish projects designed to restore and protect a state’s natural resources,” the proclamation says.

It also is crucial for Congress and the Trump administration to honor the federal government’s oil and gas revenue-sharing agreement, which President Barack Obama had tried to cancel.

Gov. Edwards’ proclamation directs every state agency to do what is necessary to expedite coastal projects and calls on President Trump and Congress to essentially do the same at the federal level.

The case Gov. Edwards lays out isn’t new to Louisiana’s coastal residents, who have seen huge swaths of land turn into water since the 1930s. But it is important to try to get the message through to our nation’s leaders.

The proclamation makes a strong case: “Coastal Louisiana is the Sportsman’s Paradise and a precious natural, economic, and cultural national resource, home to many miles of wetlands, swamp, and estuaries that support tremendous recreational and commercial hunting and fishing, and home to two million people who live and work at the epicenter of our nation’s valuable energy, wetlands, and seafood resources.”

The Louisiana coast is a gateway for shipping and trade and is vital to the nation’s energy security. Those industries are at risk from coastal erosion, as are Louisiana residents whose homes and communities are threatened by rising water.

Louisiana lost more than 1,800 square miles of land between 1932 and 2010, including 300 square miles of marshland between 2004 and 2008 alone, according to the proclamation. And the coast continues to erode.

Earlier this year, Gov. Edwards asked the Trump administration to include five of the state’s major coastal restoration projects in a new federal program to speed up environmental permitting and reviews. The list included the proposed Mid-Barataria and Mid-Breton sediment diversions, Houma Navigation Canal Lock Complex, Calcasieu Salinity Control Measures and River Reintroduction to the Maurepas Swamp.

All five projects are in line to get money from BP’s oil spill payments and are listed as fast-track projects in the 2017 update of the master plan. As such, they already have been through scientific vetting.

Coastal authority chairman Johnny Bradberry asked Gov. Edwards to make the emergency declaration. It is a smart move. Louisiana needs to do everything it can to get the attention of the president, Congress and the nation as a whole.

The future of two million residents and thousands of businesses depends on how successful Louisiana is in rebuilding land and slowing down erosion. But we are not the only ones who are affected. People across the country get goods from our ports and seafood from our waters.

Restoring our coast should be a national concern, and the president and Congress need to recognize that.

Online: https://www.nola.com/#/0

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April 25

The Town Talk of Alexandria on Louisiana’s transportation infrastructure:

After meeting Monday with Shawn D. Wilson, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, three things stood out clearly:

.Louisiana has, to its detriment, ignored its transportation infrastructure for far too long

.Wilson has a reasonable approach to address a growing problem he inherited

.Despite the first two items, it appears unlikely any real progress will be made this year because of the state’s political climate

There is nothing that can be done about the first point. Through the years, lawmakers have chosen to re-route some of the dollars that could have gone to transportation projects to other areas, such as State Police. And they have opted not to increase the state’s tax on gasoline, which is in place to help pay for highway projects and maintenance. We can’t go back in time and fix that.

The result of that neglect is a state system that ranks near the bottom of some major categories: Eighth worst in pavement; third worst in bridges and fifth worst in the rate of vehicle fatalities, according to Wilson.

The cure for the problem is simple - the department needs more money. Wilson’s plan calls for an additional $700 million annual investment to correct the problems. However, given the budget shortfalls, lawmakers claim they don’t have the revenue to meet current obligations, let alone increase DOTD spending.

Again, Wilson has a solution - increase the gasoline tax. The state’s current 16-cent gas tax hasn’t been adjusted in decades. Had the tax rate been tied to inflation and indexed, it would be 38 cents today, Wilson said. But it wasn’t. And Wilson realizes consumers would likely balk at jumping the rate that much all at once, which is why he is pushing for a 17-cent increase, which would make it 33 cents.

Wilson explained that roughly $30 million is generated by each penny of gas tax, so a 17-cent hike would generate about $500 million in revenue toward the $700 million investment Wilson is seeking.

While we are not huge fans of increasing taxes, Wilson’s plan, and raising the gasoline tax, seems to be a reasonable approach. Unlike sales or income taxes that affect everyone, the gasoline tax only impacts those who purchase gas - the same folks who are using the state’s roads and bridges that are in such dire need of repair. And the more you use them, and in effect wear them out, the more you pay to help keep them up. That doesn’t seem unreasonable.

Unfortunately, Wilson’s solution uses the T-word - tax - and many lawmakers in Baton Rouge don’t want their name associated with any tax increases. It doesn’t matter that the state’s roads are crumbling and bridges are on the verge of failing. It doesn’t matter more people are dying on the state’s roads than other states. It doesn’t even seem to matter that the state is losing out on new business opportunities, like the $10 billion Exxon plant that decided to locate in Texas rather than Louisiana in part because of infrastructure concerns. “Texas will spend more on planning this year than we will on building,” Wilson said. They made an investment and are reaping the benefits. Louisiana hasn’t.

We understand it’s not sexy for elected officials to choose investing in infrastructure. Politicians want to be at ribbon cuttings and be able to point to new things they can take credit for now. Benefits of infrastructure improvements often won’t be seen for years. In the case of a project like I-14, it could be the lawmaker’s grandchildren who will be the first ones to get to drive the completed route. We’re talking about making life better for future generations, and that can be a hard sell to current politicians.

But that is exactly what they are supposed to be doing - making sure the state has what it needs for the long term. There is no question in our mind that the state has a serious problem. Wilson’s plan looks reasonable to us, but if lawmakers have a better solution we would be interested in hearing it.

What we aren’t interested in hearing is more excuses and watching the Legislature continue to figuratively kick the can down the road hoping the problem will go away. It won’t - the road will eventually go away, and the bridges and the business opportunities - but not the problem.

Online: https://www.thetowntalk.com/

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