Residents of St. James Parish are suing their parish government over claims that officials intentionally concentrated polluting industrial facilities in Black neighborhoods while safeguarding white areas. The lawsuit, which is led by environmental justice and community groups, is calling for a first-of-its-kind state ban on new petrochemical plants. The Advocate’s Tristan Baurick reports on the building frustration among Black residents in the area.  

“White residents didn’t want solar farms in their backyards because they didn’t like the aesthetics,” (Shamyra) Lavigne (of Rise St. James)  said. “But we have petrochemical plants in our backyards, and they’re polluting us.” The parish has granted nearly every request by petrochemical companies to locate their facilities in majority Black areas while rejecting requests to locate them in White areas, the lawsuit says. All but four of the 24 heavy industrial facilities in the parish are located in the majority Black 4th and 5th Districts. No new facilities have been permitted in the majority White parts of the parish in the last 46 years, the lawsuit says.

Reality check: A 2022 study from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic found that majority-Black communities in Louisiana are exposed to far greater amounts of harmful pollution than their white counterparts.

Civil rights groups urge investigation into Angola youth lockup
Last November, an administrator of the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice sent a letter to Louisiana officials telling them that juvenile offenders being housed at the state’s maximum-security prison should be removed immediately. Unfortunately, children are still at Angola. This week, civil rights groups asked the U.S. Department of Education to investigate whether or not those kids are receiving adequate educational opportunities. The Advocate’s Jacqueline DeRobertis reports: 

In their letter, the organizations call for a federal investigation of the impact on general and special education rights for the teens housed at Angola. They also requested a broader investigation into education at the state’s other juvenile secure care facilities. “There is growing evidence that these children are not receiving the required educational services,” the letter says. “Black children and their families are the most affected by these systemic failures and this reflects the alarming disparities within the juvenile justice system and the educational system.” The letter argues that the Angola facility is not “equipped to provide the necessary education to children,” and that OJJ has struggled with staffing shortages at other state facilities. 

Eliminating capital punishment
Louisiana spent $7.7 million last year providing legal defense to people facing the death penalty, despite not executing anyone in 13 years. While the Louisiana Public Defender Board outsources most of its defense cases, those contracts are among the most expensive in state government. State Public Defender Rémy Voisin Starns has said the state would benefit from eliminating capital punishment so those dollars could help other cash-strapped public defender offices across the state. The Louisiana Illuminator’s Julie O’Donoghue reports:  

Caddo, Lafayette and East Baton Rouge parishes also need more local public defender staff attorneys, and the state should start offering all public defenders health insurance and retirement benefits, Starns said. Some local governments cover the cost of health insurance and retirement for their public defenders, but those benefits aren’t offered in every part of the state, he said. In the last budget cycle, the governor and legislators spent $50.5 million from the state’s general funds on public defense, but one of its other main sources of funding is falling off a financial cliff. There’s been a drastic drop in the collection of traffic court fees across the state, which are used to pay for public defenders.

Legislative pay raises 
A bill filled for the upcoming legislative session would give Louisiana legislators a pay increase for the first time in more than four decades. Rep. Joe Marino’s House Bill 149 would increase the base salary for legislators by 72%, from $16,800 to $60,000 per year. Part-time members of the Legislature can currently earn a base pay, with more for committee chairs, plus $168 per diem for every day they work at the Capitol. The Louisiana Illuminator’s Piper Hutchinson explains the reasoning behind the increase:

Marino, who is not seeking reelection, said he is bringing the bill because he feels that it is cost-prohibitive to be a legislator. Raising the pay would allow people from different walks of life to serve at the State Capitol. … [Rep. Mandie] Landry said that she would like to see legislative pay increase not just for her own benefit, but to increase the number of working class individuals and young people who seek office.  “[Young people] see the world very differently even than me,” Landry said. “They see the world differently. They’re thinking about the far off future. They think a lot more about the environment. They’re closer to education. They may never be able to own a house.” 

The last time Louisiana legislators voted themselves a pay raise, in 2008, the issue blew up in their faces when Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed the bill after promising to let it become law.  

Number of the Day
32.3% – Percentage of Louisiana’s revenue that is generated through taxes. Two Southern states, Tennessee, which has no state income tax, and North Carolina, which does, raise 47.9% and 47.0% of their state revenue through taxes, respectively. (Source: Pew)