Before Southside High School in Youngsville opened its doors this August, nearly 50 years had passed since a new high school was built in Lafayette Parish. Back then, the city of Youngsville was still a village — much different from the thriving community it is now with nearly 700 students enrolled in the city’s first public high school.

“The growth in Youngsville has been so rapid in the time I’ve been in office,” said Mayor Ken Ritter. “We’ve tried to shift the paradigm to be about quality and not quantity and the school will help define our community.”

That community has already been identifying with Southside. With sports beginning ahead of the first day of class and parents enthusiastic to be part of the school’s first class of students, the Southside spirit is strong with Sharks apparel on just about every corner! The school is considered marvelously modern, built around a new way of learning, driven by technology. The visuals alone differ from any other high school in the region. “We’re proud to have it in Youngsville,” Ritter said. “It was certainly needed and was a collective effort of a lot of people from the leadership of the school board and the superintendent who made it a priority.”

The mammoth project only took 14 months to complete with The Lemoine Company at the helm. “It’s a campus that everyone in the parish should be proud of,” Ritter said. “It’s very modern.” The look of the building and the disparity between it and other Lafayette Parish public schools has come under fire, by some. Something to which Ritter is aware. “There has been chatter that it’s too much money and some criticism there. But, I think that’s short sighted,” Ritter said. “It makes me wonder if the same argument was made 50 years ago when other schools were built. What was the issue at that time? They didn’t want to put in air conditioners?”

Ritter says the campus, equipped for a technology-driven learning experience from glass-walled classrooms and lockers with chargers that are more the size of a safety deposit box than the traditional size, is better prepared for the future. “Historically, we ask people why they move to Youngsville — the quality of schools has been a top reason. All our schools are A or B rated,” Ritter said. “Southside High will propel that forward.”

We wish every new student, parent, faculty and staff member a wonderful year at Southside High School.

Go Sharks!

Sponsored: The Life of A Congressman On “Break”

Congress breaks for recess each August. For many Members of Congress, the hiatus is anything but a break from their duties.

Just ask former long-time Congressman Rodney Alexander who represented 24 of the 64 Louisiana parishes in Washington, D.C. Alexander is now The Picard Group’s senior director of federal affairs and spends much time in Washington.

“I had a relatively large district and represented about a third of the geography of Louisiana. My district took a long time to cover — it was from Arkansas to Baton Rouge and over the northern part of the boot,” he said.

Covering the 5th Congressional District’s array of banquets, parades and town hall meetings took most of Alexander’s time away from Washington. He believed spending time listening to those he represented, as well as the occasional fundraiser, was an integral part of his job.

“You do need to raise money for the campaign all the time and that’s unfortunate, but it’s part of the deal,” Alexander said. “I spent all my August trying to touch base with the people and demonstrate my genuine concern with their wellbeing. I didn’t spend my August off on a vacation island somewhere.”

For Alexander, traveling during the recess was always eye opening. He realized how frequently people he represented didn’t keep up with the happenings of Washington.

“But those who do keep up are concerned and will confront you in a minute,” he said. “Some people come to town hall meetings just for curiosity and don’t know the issues. It’s important that members of Congress go back and talk to those who might not know what’s going on. You can get isolated to Washington and lose track of what’s happening at home.”

Alexander said the purpose for the tour of the district is to show your people that you are capable and not set in stone on issues.

“We are representatives. The forefathers named the House ‘representative’ because you're supposed to represent to the best of your ability,” he said. “And, you don’t know what they want if you don’t talk to them and vice versa.”

Alexander was elected six times beginning in 2002 before serving as Secretary of Veteran Affairs in Louisiana and then joining TPG. He has three children and six grandchildren and in addition to visiting with his constituents, it was his family that was priority rather than vacation time.

“I wound up eating at Chuck E. Cheese or Johnny’s as much as I did nice places — and that’s the way I wanted it. I would stop at little country restaurants so I could talk to people. I’m a country boy. It’s hard to find collard greens and cornbread in Washington cooked like home,” Alexander said.

Despite appearances, the August recess is not a mere vacation from D.C., according to Alexander.

“A lot of people think Congress is on vacation. That’s not the case. You can’t stay up with your constituents in Washington. You have to go home and have a break and meet with your people,” he said. “I worked harder in Louisiana than I did in D.C. many times. At home, you might be at a Chamber banquet until 9 pm and then have a four-hour drive. August can be grueling if one uses it the way the time should be used — and if they don’t, you have a hard time being reelected.”

Sponsored: An Update On TOPS

The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students faced another round of changes during the 2017 Louisiana legislative session, including a raise in the grade point average requirement. But to the collective relief of families around the state and after significant cutbacks last year, the program was funded once again for the upcoming school year.

Signed into law in 1989, the program provides scholarships to secondary education students who earned a 2.5 GPA or greater in high school. It’s a program that has grown by millions and remains a near sacred subject, especially for families with high school graduation on the horizon.

Mike Michot, The Picard Group’s senior director of state affairs, was a member of the legislature when TOPS was born. Then Governor Mike Foster aimed to maintain the best and brightest students in Louisiana. The cost for TOPS began at around $30 million.

“It has now grown to more than $300 million,” Michot said. “In recent years, we’ve seen attempts to try to cap the TOPS award or to try to force recipients to stay in Louisiana after graduation.”

TPG'S Mike Michot

One such bill in the 2017 session called for an increase in the minimum GPA from the current 2.5 to 2.75 over the next few years. The bill narrowly passed the House and for fear of failure was withdrawn from facing the Senate or Gov. John Bel Edwards.

“As the cost of tuition has gone up so has the cost of TOPS,” Michot said. “It’s always difficult to put a limit on TOPS because the middle class feels like it’s one of the few benefits they receive as a return for the tax dollars they pay.”

When the state monies fell short last academic year, the Legislature cut close to one-third of the scholarships for the roughly 51,000 recipients of TOPS. As the legislative session wrapped this year, several TOPS-focused bills failed leaving two dealing with TOPS standing — SB 71 clarifies confusing language and passed by a landslide, and SCR 110 creates a task force to study the TOPS program.

In short, changes to TOPS may not be imminent in the short term, but could certainly come down the line following task force recommendations.

“There are no changes to TOPS that don’t come with controversy,” Michot said. “It’s entirely merit based. And that’s one criticism — that it is not based on income.”

The balance The Picard Group must strike with the University of Louisiana Lafayette Foundation as a client is to advocate on the behalf of UL while acknowledging the task of funding TOPS.

“There’s always an impact to universities whenever there are cuts or caps placed on TOPS,” said Michot. “Our role is to preserve and protect TOPS while understanding the challenge as it relates to funding TOPS.”

In addition to TOPS talk, several other educate-centric bills passed during the 2017 session including:

  • HB 113 extends the authority of the higher education boards to establish and increase fees at their institutions from June 2017 to June 2020.
  • HB 130 provides economically disadvantaged students shall be included as a factor for purposes of teacher evaluations and requirements for enrollment of at-risk students in charter schools.
  • HB 133 requires each public post-secondary education management board to develop a centralization plan and a cooperative unification plan and submit them to the Legislature.
  • HB 688 prohibits a public postsecondary education institution from inquiring about a prospective student's criminal history, except for history pertaining to specified offenses, prior to acceptance for admission.

The preceding message is sponsored by The Picard Group

Sponsored: Inside The Louisiana Bar Association

With more than 22,000 lawyers across the state as members, the Louisiana Bar Association represents the full breadth of the political spectrum and covers a myriad of interests.

“Unlike a typical trade association, the Louisiana Bar Association has a lot of people with a lot of different views,” said Larry Murray, senior director of legislative and regulatory affairs at The Picard Group.

Murray, also a lawyer, has been representing the LBA organization for 14 years, balancing the overall interests of the professional organization as he combs through hundreds of bills each year.

“It’s interesting every year as we go through legislation where many lawyers want to be involved. We have a 25-member legislative committee and there are usually several hundred bills we look at,” Murray said. “After reviewing the bills, we take positions on 10 to 20 of those bills that represent our most important core tenets.”

Those tenets include: administration of justice, due process and overall improvement of the legal system.

“We have a fairly lengthy and specific list of considerations we overlay on each bill to see if it’s something we should be involved in,” said Murray. “It’s a deliberate, multi-level process.”

The bill review process includes a committee meeting to review several hundred bills before a second meeting, which is open to the public allowing those with a vested interest to present a stance for the board to consider.

“With so many members, there are very few bills that include something that someone doesn’t care about,” Murray said. “However, we don’t get involved in things that are unduly divisive.”

Because of the diversity of the group, the legislature considers a stance from the bar on a bill as being a measured one, which is unique among most professional or trade groups.

“We have a fairly objective view, more so than others, and we are careful about attaching our name to legislation. We bring an objective view,” Murray said. “We choose our positions in a deliberate way and play an advocacy role carefully.”

In addition to the large number of interests represented, LBA is unique in its yearly change in leadership.

“What’s interesting for me is that each year we are working with a different leadership team and the composition of our legislative committee changes every year,” Murray said.

Amidst the ever-changing environment, continuity rests in continuing to address the issues that matter most to LBA and the state of Louisiana.

Sponsored: The Walts Recipe (For Work, Life & Tacos)

The Walts Recipe (For Work, Life & Tacos)

Nic Walts may have grown up surfing and playing beach volleyball in his origin state of California, but his education at Louisiana State University and subsequent time working on various Louisiana campaigns gave him a heart (and mind) for the Pelican State. “I worked at the State Capitol in college for the Senate Revenue & Fiscal Affairs Committee and the Senate & Governmental Committee,” he said. “I made a lot of relationships there. After I graduated, I wanted to continue fostering those relationships and decided to make Louisiana home. I worked initially for the Governor’s office and did a few state and regional campaigns before The Picard Group.”

These days, as Director of Policy for The Picard Group, Walts enjoys connecting with people and solving difficult problems. “My goal is to continue building and using my relationships on all sides of a situation to navigate the confusing and convoluted process that is Louisiana politics. I want to look back and know the work we did helped place or remove a law on the books or change an industry requirement for the better and moved Louisiana forward,” he said. Walts’ level of investment in the work he does, with industries including healthcare, technology, transportation, oil/gas and working with municipalities, can be attributed to his love for Louisiana. He became fully immersed in the culture and developed an understanding and appreciation for the diversity of this great state.

When he’s not working in Louisiana politics, Walts enjoys spending time with his friends and family and getting in as much travel as possible. “My connections at work are important, but it’s the relationships outside of office hours that truly matter, and fortunately, there can be some cross-over.” This Eagle Scout still loves the great outdoors, including hiking and camping. He also considers himself a Louisiana sportsman, enjoying hunting and fishing anywhere from Mer Rouge to Shell Beach and Grand Chenier to Grand Isle. He’s also involved in the Acadiana community including: membership in “the705” Young Professionals in Lafayette and a graduate from Leadership Lafayette Class XXVIII. He currently serves as Chair of the State Government Day for the Leadership Institute of Acadiana and sits on the board for Junior Achievement of Acadiana. Walts supported Lafayette Education Foundation’s “ReProm” as a court member in 2016 and volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Acadiana. To complement his work at The Picard Group, Nic participates in the Governmental Subcommittee of OneAcadiana, the regional Chamber of Commerce.

Nic’s Tacos

Nic Walts likes to keep it simple for summertime eats. The newlywed and new homeowner dishes up a simple recipe sure to please.

“It might be my southern California roots but nothing beats street tacos,” he says. “Just grill some flank steak, slice it and put it in a corn tortilla with some chopped onions and cilantro. Squeeze some lime juice and sprinkle it with a little salt. Keep it simple! Pair it with a Dos Equis or tequila – consumer’s choice.”


Sponsored: The Beltway’s Official Cocktail

New Orleans has the Sazerac, but can you name the official drink of Washington, DC?

In 2011 the DC City Council voted to name the Rickey, which was being poured as far back as 1883, as the official elixir of our nation’s capital.

Named for Col. Joe Rickey, the drink is said to have originated in Shoomaker’s Bar, now the site of 1331 Bar, inside the JW Marriott on Pennsylvania Ave. Initially the drink was made with whiskey, but these days it’s more popular with gin.

And unlike the vast majority of the rest of what happens in our nation’s capital, the drink itself is uncomplicated and easy to make.

The Rickey recipe calls for:

— 1.5 to 2 ounces of gin

— Juice of half a lime

— Soda water

— Service in a highball glass

The Freshman: Catching Up With Kennedy

When painted with a broad brush, Washington D.C. can be perceived as a place of little action and much talk. But take a look at the day-to-day happenings and lists of bills being passed and proposed, and an entirely different picture emerges.

In that ever-changing national landscape, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., can now be found.

The former Louisiana treasurer headed to D.C. in January, where he has been working tirelessly to ensure Louisiana priorities are represented in Washington, from reducing government waste to securing funding for flood recovery and protection.

Kennedy has had a busy year thus far in Washington. His 2017 work has included:

— Reducing harmful government waste. Kennedy helped pass 14 bills under the Congressional Review Act in the U.S. Senate. These bills saved American taxpayers at least $3.7 billion and 4.2 million hours of paperwork.

— Securing flood money for recovery and protection. Kennedy introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate that reauthorizes the National Flood Insurance Program while making common sense reforms to maintain its solvency. As a member of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Kennedy has worked to give Louisiana a strong voice at the table on this critical issue.

— Improving infrastructure. President Donald Trump and Kennedy both know how imperative it is to update our nation’s failing infrastructure. Kennedy is working to champion legislation that provides much needed updates and improvements to infrastructure in Louisiana including levees, roads, bridges, canals and waterways.