Mark Ballard: Religious debate over death penalty will break up partisan leanings of legislators | Mark Ballard

After a brief respite because of the COVID pandemic, legislative attention has circled back to the 62 death row inmates living on the backside of Angola.

Since 2000, nine death row inmates have been exonerated and two executed. Partially that’s because a federal court in 2014 barred Louisiana from killing convicts after the state couldn’t obtain the proper drugs for lethal injections.

Nationally, states have been pulling back from capital punishment. In 2000, courts around the country rendered 223 death sentences and by 2021, only 18 were granted, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Two bills are proposing that Louisiana abolish the death penalty. Legislators have been down this road before.

In 2017, a bill sponsored by then-Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia and a former State Police superintendent, and then-Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro and a former sheriff, was defeated by one vote in the Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice. Pylant voted no, saying what he really wanted was to bring attention to how taxpayers were spending $10 million a year on legal costs but executing nobody. A Senate bill by Republican Baton Rouge Sen. Dan Claitor of Baton Rouge, a former prosecutor in New Orleans, advanced out of committee but was shelved when it became clear the House criminal justice panel would vote no.

In 2018, Landry and Claitor pursued the issue again. The Senate bill cleared committee but the House measure did not.

Legislators came closest in 2019. Both bills made it to the floor of their respective chambers. Claitor’s was defeated. Landry pulled his measure after two hours of House debate.

The Louisiana House fell quiet as state lawmakers laid out their views on the death penalty, weighing the brutal crimes of those condemned to …

The argument this time, as it was the last few times, will be about the number of inmates who were exonerated and about cost-effectiveness.

The money would be better spent funding counsel for defendants too poor to hire their own lawyers or to augment funding for early childhood education, said Rep. Kyle M. Green Jr., the Marrero Democrat sponsoring House Bill 106. He also noted that about a third of current lawmakers took office for the first time in 2020 and haven’t had an opportunity to debate the issue.

Prosecutors and law enforcement will counter, as they have in the past, that the prospect of death is a valuable tool used to leverage defendants for pleas and testimony. They also will say capital punishment helps bring closure to the families of murder victims.

But the debate transcends the partisanship that dictates much of what happens in the Legislature. Perhaps religion is why party labels aren’t as important.

Sometimes it seems that capital punishment is an issue that will split the country, and the Louisiana Legislature forever, but though the pros…

Thirty-one percent of Louisiana’s population is Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center.

“A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil,” said Pope John Paul II in 1999.

Pope Benedict XVI in 2011 formalized the position, asking the church to “encourage the political and legislative initiatives” that would eliminate the death penalty. In 2021, Pope Francis said the church would not be “stepping back” from its opposition.

Many Protestants support the death penalty, particularly those among the evangelical congregations who make up about 27% of the state’s 4.7 million residents.

But Sen. Katrina Jackson, the Monroe Democrat behind Senate Bill 294, says many in Protestant churches want to see an end to the death penalty. She expects to see Protestant ministers standing beside Catholic priests when they come to rally at the State Capitol, hopefully on Tuesday, in support of her SB294 and Green’s HB106.

WASHINGTON — State Sen. Katrina Jackson seems like an unlikely general to lead the anti-abortion movement into a U.S. Supreme Court battle.

Jackson has been on the front line of passing anti-abortion laws supported by both Catholics and evangelical Protestants. Doing so, she has worked closely with the Louisiana Family Forum, a Baton Rouge-based coalition of conservative pastors seeking to influence public policy.

The Rev. Gene Mills, who leads the group, offered Jackson little support. “It’s not a person’s right to take another person’s life. The death penalty plays a role in government punishing evil,” Mills said in an interview last week.

Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone, on the other hand, has been quietly phoning GOP legislators.

As a businessman, he said he believes capital punishment isn’t practical financially, adding, “And morally, the Christian side of me says maybe, just maybe, they would repent over time.”


Will the crushing defeat of Slidell casino play a role in St. Tammany politics? Opponents say yes | News

Leading up to the controversial Dec. 11 referendum to allow a casino to be built in the Slidell area, political observers were expecting a close outcome that could go either way. But that prediction proved to be stunningly wrong, as 63% of the nearly 60,000 St. Tammany Parish voters who turned out said no to the proposed $325 million casino resort.

Just three weeks earlier, polling showed that 60% favored the proposition, said Jay Connaughton, a political consultant for the casino developer, Peninsula Pacific Entertainment. But that support evaporated in the final weeks, with the proposition carrying only 17 of the parish’s 170 voting precincts.

“It was not a game of persuasion, but motivation,” said Connaughton, who blamed rumors, stoked largely on social media, that voting yes for the Camellia Bay project would allow another casino to pop up in Mandeville.

Controversial casino proposition shot down in St. Tammany. 63% of voters say ‘no’

The casino’s defeat followed months of intense and expensive campaigning and sometimes rancorous debate at public meetings and on social media, where the issue was often presented as an east St. Tammany vs. west St. Tammany showdown.

But in the end, the votes told a different story.

The measure lost on both sides of the parish, despite fears by casino opponents that western St. Tammany voters would thrust a casino on their neighbors in the east. The no vote was actually far stronger in western St. Tammany, according to Connaughton.

The strongest pockets of support for the casino were in Slidell and eastern St. Tammany, and the precincts with the most no votes were in Mandeville and Madisonville, he said. “The closer to the project, the better we did, and furthest, the worse,” Connaughton said.

An artist rendering of the proposed casino near Slidell, which developer Peninsula Pacific Entertainment says will now be a $325 million development.

St. Tammany Chamber of Commerce executive director Lacey Osborne said she was relieved that the predicted geographic divide turned out to be overblown. “It was divisive among friends,” she said. “We want to unite the parish, not further divide it. It’s a new day. It’s not about east vs. west anymore.”

St. Tammany Parish Council member T.J. Smith, a casino opponent whose district is in eastern St. Tammany, went further. “I found it to be an issue that has galvanized the community; the east and west, rich and poor, Black and White, Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “It’s something people came together and resoundingly voiced an opinion on, and because it was such a wide margin, we can take the positive and build on that.”

Battle lines are drawn over proposed Slidell area casino as sides ready for Nov. 13 public vote

Whether casino opposition has a lasting effect on cross-parish unity remains to be seen. A more immediate question is how the aftermath of the casino election might affect upcoming election cycles.

“I think there is little question that it will come up,” said political consultant James Hartman. “How big a factor remains to be seen…any elected official or candidate who was perceived to have supported the casino referendum will have to answer to it.”

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But Hartman sees the casino as a topic, rather than a deciding factor, and with parishwide elections still years away, other things, particularly a crisis like another hurricane, can take precedence, he said.

Parish President Mike Cooper said he thinks St. Tammany residents are more focused on immediate needs — drainage, traffic and infrastructure improvements. Beyond that, there’s the matter of paying for the criminal justice system after voters in November dealt a fourth defeat to a criminal justice sales tax.

020221 Slidell Harbor Casino

Slidell officials will be the first to face the voters after the casino defeat, with municipal elections on March 26, and the current City Council, Mayor Greg Cromer and Police Chief Randy Fandal all made public statements opposing it.

Cromer said he doesn’t expect the issue to figure prominently in the upcoming election. He acknowledges that he showed the casino developers a number of potential sites when they first came to him. “When someone wants to spend a quarter of a billion in your community you have to listen to them,” he said, and he maintains that he’s glad voters had a chance to voice their opinion.

Who gets money from Slidell-area casino? How St. Tammany governments, agencies will split the pie

But Cromer said he never came out in support of the casino itself and ultimately opposed it. The casino revenue Slidell was being promised didn’t outweigh the potential losses to local business and city tax coffers, he said.

The casino might loom larger in legislative races. Rep. Mary DuBuisson and Sen. Sharon Hewitt both authored bills to put the measure on the ballot, with DuBuisson’s version ultimately being adopted. But a majority of St. Tammany’s delegation supported the measure.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a factor, because I brought it to a vote for the people. That’s my job,” DuBuisson, a Slidell Republican, said. “If people want to make it something else, that’s on them.”

Hewitt, also a Republican, also focused on the vote. “The people have spoke, and I appreciate the 60,000 that took the time to come and vote,” she said, adding that the issue of casino gambling in St. Tammany “has been settled once again for decades to come.”

But some casino opponents don’t see it as a triumph for democracy and don’t appear inclined to let it go. Chris Jean, a developer who organized east St. Tammany business-based opposition to the casino, said that he’s determined to see political challenges based on what happened.

“I’m not going to let them forget,” Jean said. He called the process flawed and scoffed at the idea that the public was given a chance to weigh in, saying that they weren’t adequately involved in the decision to put the matter on the ballot.

“People who go to work every day have to trust the people they’ve elected,” Jean said. “A year and a half out, I plan to be active in getting candidates out there who will look out for the people.”

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