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Without better explanation, Blanco must veto HB 1281

Even though Gov. Kathleen Blanco yesterday signed the unusual bill noted previously, HB 658, there still is time to undo its at least some of its potentially negative effects to Louisiana’s taxpayers.

Originally, the bill was intended to transfer the failing Hodges Garden facility to the state, which now hopefully the state would close barring the appearance of some miraculous condition that could cause its financial resurrection or actually fulfill some need of the public which seems unlikely. The transfer certainly assists the present owner of the land in question. But a last-minute change to it added another questionable provision that could give a big assist to other private interests.

State Rep. John Alario presented the bill on the last day of the session. Even though he wasn’t its author (Speaker Joe Salter was, in whose district is Hodges Gardens), he got appointed to the conference committee and by the time it got out of conference the bill was more Alario’s than anybody else’s. The provision he got added constituted a swap of land between the state and an entity known as TCW/Firewall Ventures I, LLC, and then the bill instructs the state to turn around and give the land to Jefferson Parish.

Apparently, the swap allows the entity, which is owned by the New Orleans Firefighters and Pension Fund, to get land closer to the Tournament Players Championship Golf Course; the course has been receiving a subsidy from the state for several years now.(Public safety retirement funds involved with money-losing golf courses is, excuse the pun, par for the course in Louisiana; the Fund owns Lakewood among others.) The entity itself was created Apr. 14 of this year and has as members an LLC owned by the Fund (the name of which oddly does not appear in the Secretary of State’s records) and another LLC created last year by a Clearwater, FL real estate company, Coastal Realty, as its owners.

Unfortunately, the Legislature let this go by without asking for more details. Only state Rep. Mike Powell, and state Sens. Clo Fontenot and Max Malone voted against the bill. More interestingly, this property is part of the proposed tax increment financing district that represents a transfer of wealth from the state to existing private interests and to the parish, that bill with which Blanco has yet to deal.

It would have been nice to have some questions answered about this bill, either in the Legislature or by Blanco before she signed it:

  • Why did Alario wait until the last day of the session to attach these riders (the TIF district to HB 1281 and the land swap/donation to HB 658) to essentially unrelated bills, instead of introducing legislation concerning them (note that the entity was formed just before the bill introduction deadline for this session)?
  • Why was it so important to swap the land, which appears to have given land of greater value to the entity than what it gave up?
  • And then to have the state give its new land to Jefferson Parish?

    HB 1281, which is questionable itself, would magnify any advantage accruing to the interests related to the golf course as a result of land negotiations and sales now authorized by HB 568. Despite the fact the Legislature neglected its due diligence, that doesn’t mean that more sunshine cannot be provide to understand why these deals are a benefit to the state, and why the fruits of them to private and parish interests, at the expense of taxpayers, should be increased by making them part of the TIF. If Blanco does not have this information and/or cannot present satisfactory answers to the public, it is her duty to veto HB 1281 even if she let HB 568 get by.
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