June 9, 2010 06:00 AM
20100609-news-0101
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Written by Jeremy Alford

With roughly two weeks to go until adjournment, this year's regular session has picked up an unlikely title that could only mean the work of lawmakers is far from done.


It's hard to believe, but back in late March, when the Legislature convened its regular session, there were actually a few lobbyists predicting this would be an "education session." Most professed this in a hypnotic way, as if suggesting that the mantra should be repeated. And it was, especially by the higher ed crowd, the target of hefty budget cuts...


Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Written by Jeremy Alford

With roughly two weeks to go until adjournment, this year's regular session has picked up an unlikely title that could only mean the work of lawmakers is far from done.


It's hard to believe, but back in late March, when the Legislature convened its regular session, there were actually a few lobbyists predicting this would be an "education session." Most professed this in a hypnotic way, as if suggesting that the mantra should be repeated. And it was, especially by the higher ed crowd, the target of hefty budget cuts.

Then a few weeks into the session, standing outside the Capitol's basement cafeteria, an energy lobbyist mentioned the same line to me - at the time, I thought maybe the session would have a focus; either that, or the rookie lobbyist had been hypnotized by his colleagues. "It's gonna be an education session," he said, clearly not knowing at the time that it would in fact be his industry that would paint the session with a broad brush.

Make no mistake: The BP oil spill could eventually come to define the entire year as well. Bloomberg.com recently predicted that the gusher could continue until Christmas, based on the current hurricane season. If that does happen, Harry Roberts, a professor of coastal studies at LSU, told Bloomberg that 4 million barrels of oil will have been spilled into the Gulf of Mexico by the time Christmas morning arrives.

With this kind of data floating around and BP's repeated and failed attempts to contain the free-flowing oil, lawmakers last week began whispering about the need for a special session. If BP doesn't come up with a solution to the gusher and for the spending needs of local government, those whispers will soon become something much louder.

"The parishes being affected, we're going to have to come together and help them," says Rep. Gordon Dove, R-Houma, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. "Some parishes will get hit harder than other parishes. And of course, we're going to have to address the shrimpers. And if this [federal] moratorium [on deepwater drilling] isn't lifted, we're also going to have to address all of the people affected by it."

Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, whose home parish of Jefferson is feeling the impact, says he hopes the state can save a bit of money and handle the crisis without a special session. And if that does happen, he says the next two weeks will be among the busiest closing days the Legislature has ever seen. "[The attorney general] needs money to prosecute. The sheriffs' offices in the parishes need money," Connick says. "It's a sad thing. We're going to be going from a fishing industry to a clean-up industry, and our way of life is going to be lost."

With less than two weeks to go until adjournment, lawmakers barely have enough time to get involved in the issue in any real way - and in hindsight, the House and Senate may have waited too long to become agitated. "The Legislature isn't doing anything about BP," says Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Livonia. "We don't even want to talk about it."
 
Freshman Sen. Norby Chabert, D-Houma, held forth on the floor for two consecutive weeks nudging his colleagues along. "This type of inaction has come to embody this so-called response. BP Incident Command is the embodiment of dysfunctional leadership that confuses action for accomplishment. They are not the same," he told the Senate, practically screaming. "If we fail to act, this scenario will continue to play out as we sit idle on the sidelines. We've stood idle long enough. In some cases, it may be too late. But we cannot wait another minute, as an unprecedented, environmental Armageddon is upon us."

While lawmakers may have to wait for a special session to get intimately involved with the spill's repercussions, a number of issues being debated in the ongoing regular session are taking on a new shine due to the environmental tragedy in the Gulf. A bill that was filed to permit the attorney general to hire lawyers on a contingency fee basis is now being framed as a bill to help the AG battle BP. A proposed constitutional amendment that was introduced to create an oil and gas processing tax has more recently been described as a tool to level the playing field.

Bloggers and columnists nationwide are even beginning to dissect the legislation coming out of the Capitol in search of any connection to the stained Gulf. Of particular interest, it seems, is a slew of alternative and renewable energy bills that are creeping through the process. There's been an effort by those on the outside looking in to label the green bills as a knee jerk reaction to the BP incident, but in actuality the measures were advancing well before the platform exploded in mid-April, and previous sessions have paved the way for such ideas.

If anything, the craze started when this new, younger Legislature was seated in 2008. Still, it's noteworthy, since this is the BP Session and all. Sen. Nick Gautreaux, D-Abbeville, has Senate Bill 183 to let the state lease land for renewable energy production like wind, solar, hydrokinetic and geothermal. He also has Senate Bill 103 for local government to establish special funds to purchase vehicles that run on alternative fuels. Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, has another pair: House Bill 751 makes it easier for homeowners to meet the requirements for installing solar panels, and House Bill 793 reorganizes the framework for Sustainable Energy Financing Districts so that homeowners would be able to direct their property taxes to making residential energy improvements.

While Treasurer John Kennedy has usually been able to kidnap portions of regular sessions in the past with his fiscal hawk ways, this session is currently being hijacked by Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, who needs money in a bad way. He estimates that Louisiana will eventually require as much as $65 million to fight all of the responsible parties, and he has been asking the Legislature to pony up the cash while it's still in session. (Kennedy is still around; he's floating a theory that Louisiana already has the money in different pots and the Legislature needs only to pull dollars piecemeal from all these sources and then pray that the feds and/or BP foots the bill down the line).

As for Gov. Bobby Jindal, his fate remains as elusive as ever. He's getting hit by Democrats, including former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, for not spending money sooner and cheered by Republicans and columnists for pushing his own plan to build up temporary barrier islands to keep out the oil. It could go either way for Jindal, which is to say it's business as usual at the top of the heap.

What hasn't changed in this session since the Deepwater Horizon explosion is the state's unprecedented, two-year, $3 billion budget shortfall that begins at midnight at the end of this month - and there's no amount of political boom capable of curtailing the impact of that challenge, which lawmakers will have to address one day soon as well, with or without BP.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.