Bid to strike Jim Crow-era jury law advances

Louisiana is a step closer to striking a Jim Crow-era law that allows divided juries to settle criminal cases.

The House criminal justice committee voted Wednesday to advance a constitutional amendment to require unanimous verdicts in serious felony cases.

Louisiana trials, including some murder cases, can be resolved when 10 out of 12 jurors agree on a person's guilt. Even Oregon, the only other state in the country to allow split verdicts in felony cases, requires a unanimous verdict in murder cases.

Sen. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat who sponsored the bill, said he traced the jury policy to an 1898 constitutional convention where lawmakers were trying to maintain white supremacy after the Civil War.

"This is like the vestigial tail of some prehistoric creature that we need to just chop off," he said. "We are beyond this as a state."

Morrell's measure passed the Senate by a single vote over the two-thirds margin needed to advance constitutional amendments through the Legislature. If successful in the full House, the proposal would go before voters in the fall.


Nursing home camera bill wins support

Nursing home opposition hasn't slowed a proposal to let Louisiana families install video camera systems in their loved ones' nursing home rooms. Instead, some state senators seemed incredulous Wednesday at the objections raised by the Louisiana Nursing Home Association.

Supporters of the House-backed bill by Rep. Kirk Talbot, a River Ridge Republican, said it would give family members the ability to monitor their loved ones from afar.

But the nursing home organization raised concerns that live-streamed video could be hacked, facilities' private medical records could be targeted and privacy could be threatened.

"I mean, really?" said Sen. Norby Chabert, a Houma Republican who pushed back against the claims.

Chabert said the nursing homes' opposition seemed to suggest they don't want people to be able to see their family members in real time.

"That's kind of fishy to me," he said.

Mark Berger, executive director of the Louisiana Nursing Home Association, said several states have rejected laws that allow for electronic monitoring because of the concerns that live feeds were at risk of compromise.

The Senate committee advanced the measure without a rewrite. Senators said they'd try to work out language to address some of the nursing homes' concerns on the Senate floor.

The House unanimously supported the proposal.


Changes proposed to property tax program

Gov. John Bel Edwards is again seeking to make changes to a decades-old property tax break for industrial manufacturers.

The proposal released Wednesday would return the Industrial Tax Exemption Program to a 10-year break from paying local property taxes. That's the way it had been for decades until changes made by the Edwards administration.

Under the latest proposal, instead of a complete forgiveness of property taxes, however, companies would be able to get a tax break covering 80 percent of the taxes they otherwise would owe. Companies would have to pay the remaining 20 percent of the assessed values.

The change would allow local governments to immediately start receiving revenues to pay for roads and schools needed by the newly hired workforce at the manufacturing facility receiving the tax breaks, Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson said.

Pierson outlined the administration's proposal to the Board of Commerce and Industry, describing them as "process improvements." The proposal has to go through a regulatory process, which allows for public input, before the Board of Commerce and Industry votes on the governor's recommended changes.

There's been confusion and worry since Edwards, a few months after taking office in 2016, ordered changes to a program that operated for years on autopilot.

The Democratic governor tied the tax breaks to job creation and ended automatic renewals and tax breaks for routine maintenance. He ordered that companies seeking the tax break get approval from the local taxing districts — such as school boards, municipalities and parishes.


Harassment policies may be improved

Accused of sexual harassment in a lawsuit, Louisiana's secretary of state pledged to state senators Wednesday that his agency is reviewing its anti-harassment policies and will consider improvements.

Secretary of State Tom Schedler came under intense questioning from Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, the New Orleans Democrat who chairs the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee that oversees his office. The questions came during a hearing on routine legislation to maintain Schedler's agency.

Peterson peppered Schedler and his staff with inquiries about the office's sexual harassment training and response policies. She asked if Schedler had taken anti-harassment training; he replied that he had. Told that the agency's current policy has been unchanged since 2013, Peterson said revisions should be made "to strengthen what you have now."

"What are the improvements you can make? This is a fair question," she said.

Schedler, a Republican who oversees and manages state elections, said his office will provide recommendations to improve its policies to the senators by week's end.


LSU class times may change to ease traffic

Prohibiting Louisiana State University classes from starting before 10 a.m. would be one option studied to reduce traffic issues under legislation that a state House of Representatives panel has approved.

The measure cleared the House Transportation Committee without objection Tuesday and now goes to the full House. Under it, staggered work hours for major Baton Rouge employers, including state agencies, and encouraging businesses to allow employees to work from home would also be studied.

The proposal would create a study group including LSU, state and other officials.

The resolution's sponsor, Sen. Dale Erdey, couldn't be reached for comment. Social media criticism of his proposal included that delaying classes would hamper students with jobs, and lawmakers are unwilling to find financial solutions to road problems.


Health secretary could be affected by proposal

A Louisiana House Republican leader's push to enact hourly requirements on the governor's Cabinet secretaries and restrict their outside work could catch the state health secretary in its crosshairs.

Alexandria Rep. Lance Harris, who heads the House GOP delegation, said his ethics legislation wasn't targeted at anyone. But he acknowledged the measure could affect Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards' health secretary, Rebekah Gee.

The bill, pending on the House floor, would require anyone chosen by the governor or lieutenant governor to lead a department to work at least seven hours a day and 40 hours a week, except when they take vacation or other types of leave. The agency heads would be barred from receiving "anything of economic value" or volunteering for outside employment from entities regulated by or seeking money from their departments.

Gee, an obstetrics and gynecology doctor, has continued to practice in New Orleans since taking over the Department of Health. The Edwards administration said she does the work for free.

"We are reviewing the legislation now to determine its impact, if any, on our secretary," Gee spokesman Bob Johannessen said.