Cover Story

Back From The Brink

by Jeremy Alford

Five tales of how the Lafayette delegation adapted to a loss of seniority, brought home the pork and navigated the most contentious regular session of recent memory.

By Jeremy Alford Photos by Robin May

I. Living In A Cadillac State

The 34-story State Capitol has a sub-basement. Aside from being brightly lit, well-opulated and only smelling of unadulterated ambition, it's everything you would expect from a sub-basement. The Senate uses it for office space, taking the place of what was once roots and clay and dirt, mineral deposits and whatnot. Today, it's a vast and winding catacomb. Hallways, sharp turns and an endless series of doors that are aesthetically unvarying.

Five tales of how the Lafayette delegation adapted to a loss of seniority, brought home the pork and navigated the most contentious regular session of recent memory.

By Jeremy Alford Photos by Robin May

I. Living In A Cadillac State

The 34-story State Capitol has a sub-basement. Aside from being brightly lit, well-opulated and only smelling of unadulterated ambition, it's everything you would expect from a sub-basement. The Senate uses it for office space, taking the place of what was once roots and clay and dirt, mineral deposits and whatnot. Today, it's a vast and winding catacomb. Hallways, sharp turns and an endless series of doors that are aesthetically unvarying.
The deeper you get into it, the more it feels like a labyrinth, and that's where you'll find the offices of Senate Retirement Chairman Elbert Guillory, D-Opelousas. Of all the lawmakers who represent Lafayette Parish, he had the highest profile this session. Guillory sent more than a dozen retirement bills to the desk of Gov. Bobby Jindal and sponsored some of his pension reform measures. In fact, the governor became such a regularity in private gatherings that Guillory says, "Bobby knows every wart on this committee's faces."

While not all of Jindal's proposed reforms passed, and while Guillory will likely remain in the crosshairs of public workers for quite some time for pushing an increase in the retirement age and for contributions, the senator says something important and significant happened. "Feel our muscles," he says. "We did some heavy lifting this year."

With the state's unfunded accrued liability, or UAL, nearing $19 billion, Guillory says the state needed to find a compromise on true pension reform, and the parts of Jindal's package that passed offer up that salvo. The UAL refers to the gap between what the systems have on hand to pay future benefits versus what they've promised. "We've got do something about it now, not later," Guillory says. "We need to make this work. Louisiana is not a Cadillac state. It's a Volkswagen state."

As for what it took to make this metaphorical Volkswagen run during the 2012 regular session, there were 1,983 bills filed for consideration, of which 203 were sponsored by members of the Lafayette Parish delegation. Guillory, who filed 43 bills, and Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, who introduced 44, almost account for half of that local count by themselves.
At least in part, it's a sign that the recent loss of seniority in the delegation is already being absorbed and refilled by some lawmakers who aren't from Lafayette Parish proper for a change. If Guillory and Mills had not been as successful with their own bills this session, the interpretation wouldn't hold.

The loss of experience is still somewhat palatable. Former Sen. Mike Michot, a Lafayette Republican who played point on Acadiana politics during his tenure, stopped by the Senate chamber last week with his family. His successor, Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, spoke to Michot's "dedication" and "service." But now it's Cortez carrying the local waters in the upper chamber, like Senate Bill 312, which strips civil service protections from the assistant chiefs of police in Broussard, Carencro, Scott and Youngsville. In this case, Cortez is working on behalf of a group of elected police chiefs, who, in their own right, are good friends to have come re-election time. The bill, pending Jindal's approval, basically allows the chiefs to hire and fire their No. 2s at will, rather than routing them through a civil service hearing.

But more so than any other, House Ways and Means Chairman Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, shared the statewide spotlight alongside Guillory this session. Robideaux handled House Bill 2, the state's capital outlay bill, and he's responsible for securing a great share of the local spending items in the plan. It contains billions of dollars worth of construction projects from around the state.

While he certainly brought home the pork for Lafayette, Robideaux, a CPA by trade, also continued to write far-reaching tax laws. Among his crown jewels this session was House Bill 729, which creates the Corporate Tax Apportionment Program. The new law backed by Jindal expands the single-sales factor apportionment, which bases corporate income and franchise taxes on the portion of sales that occur within the state.

Only manufacturers and merchandisers were allowed to qualify, but Robideaux's new law draws in corporate headquarters, logistics, warehousing, data centers, clean technology, destination health care, renewable energy, digital media software development and research and development operations. Upon passage, Jindal touted the bill as a means to improving "Louisiana's economic competitiveness."

In other cases, local lawmakers pushed bills with themes that were much bigger than themselves. These concepts and initiatives are the region's Big Stories. They'll impact not only current residents of Lafayette, but also generations to come.

II. For The Well Being of Acadiana

That Mills should impact health care policy shouldn't come as a surprise. He's a pharmacist by trade and a master salesman (anyone who has seen his commercials and marketing campaigns can attest to that). In the end, his proposed pilot program in Senate Bill 758 for University Medical Center could send shock waves through the LSU hospital system.
His bill, which has been advanced to Jindal's desk, would allow all of the parishes in the Department of Health and Hospitals' Region IV, anchored by Lafayette, to create their own health care services district. It would be guided by a governing board composed of representatives from DHH, each parish president, the Louisiana Hospital Association, Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce and UMC.

The board would serve in an official advisory capacity and would be able to execute contracts and cooperative endeavor agreements. But this is what's most important: The board would be authorized to seek out new sources of funding and the state wouldn't be allowed to tinker with the its resulting budget. "We want to see if there are funding sources available that we could work with DHH and leverage them and draw down additional federal dollars," says Mills, vice chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

From a practical standpoint, the pilot program could potentially allow UMC, which has already suffered midyear cuts and could face more sooner than later, to slowly get out (just slightly) from under the thumb of the LSU hospital system - even if it's not the central goal right now. Plus, Mills' timing couldn't be better, especially with President Barack Obama's health care overhaul law waiting in the wings. Health care locally and statewide could take a serious turn in 2014 should the courts uphold the Affordable Care Act.

Health care actually emerged as a major issue for the Lafayette delegation this session. In fact, freshman Rep. Stephen J. Ortego, D-Carencro, is behind House Bill 867, a pilot program that partners UMC and the Lafayette Parish School System. Together, these partners would develop coordinated school health and wellness centers.

Ortego says the goal is to combine all aspects that can potentially impact a student's education, from mental and medical to social and philosophical. In theory, the pilot program, if approved by Jindal, would add more nurses and therapists at schools and create neighborhood medical centers. It's an approach that has been embraced by other states, and now Ortego is bringing it to Louisiana. "Children won't be able learn if they aren't healthy," he says.

As with Mills' legislation, the pilot program could potentially draw down federal funds - and become a model for other school districts around Louisiana.

Local lawmakers also got tied up with the issue of midwives, individuals - usually women - trained to help mothers through the birthing process. There are reportedly only eight in Louisiana, and Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, filed legislation to strengthen credentialing requirements, an effort that was defeated by the Senate. Landry says women should be able to give birth at home and believes this would give them more peace of mind about the decision.

Landry started a bit of a ruckus late in the session when she attached the stronger requirements, including certification by the North American Registry of Midwives, to a senator's bill. Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, accused her of "hijacking" his bill, and Mills even went as far as to describe it as "turf war." Some physician groups opposed her push at every turn, protecting their turf by arguing that hospitals are better venues for delivery.

III. Pay-Raise-O-Rama

Despite the midyear budgets and the deficit that was identified for next fiscal year, a handful of public officials are in line for pay raises as a result of the regular session - and no one from the Lafayette Parish delegation voted against the salary hikes.

Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley, was the author House Bill 319, which increases the salary of Lafayette Parish Assessor Conrad T. Comeaux from $98,290 to $108,290. Montoucet says he's only looking for "equity" because clerks of court are able to make more money. "They basically provide the same services," he says. Jindal has signed off on the bill.

Not to be outdone, Sen. Jonathan W. Perry, R-Kaplan, also passed a bill creating a new automobile expense allowance for the Vermilion Parish clerk of court. Lawmakers, though, got wise to his plans, and by the end of the session, clerks of court from Franklin, St. Charles and West Baton Rouge parishes were added to the bill. If Jindal abides, these clerks would be able to receive a stipend of 15 percent of their annual salaries, as long as they carry the insurance. Perry, vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary C Committee, is quick to point out that the money doesn't come from the state's general fund. It must come from clerks' surplus funds. Jindal now has the final say on the bill.

As for sheriffs, Rep. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, advanced legislation linking greater accountability with more money. That bill creates the Louisiana Sheriffs' Executive Management Institute within the Office of the Governor. Senate Bill 97 stipulates that sheriffs who complete the required training would be eligible for a salary increase. In an interesting twist, the sheriffs' pay hikes would be contingent upon district court judges also getting a salary boost this session. Jindal has not yet endorsed the legislation.

It's not a question of whether these public officials deserve the money. No doubt they work hard. It's more a question of priorities and reality. Moreover, eventually lawmakers may consider a salary boost for themselves. But it didn't happen this year. Thanks to a constitutional amendment adopted in 2010, raises for lawmakers and statewide elected officials cannot take effect until the following term of office - which at least lets voters decide who gets the higher pay.

IV. Holding Up The Gold Standard

Rep. Stuart J. Bishop, R-Lafayette, wasn't around when Jindal passed his ethics reform package through the Legislature in 2008. But the freshman was in a position this session to leave a few fingerprints on the code of the law.

He authored House Bill 365, which creates a new requirement for anyone running for a seat in the Legislature or statewide office. All candidates will be required to submit to one hour of ethics training. A member of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, Bishop says it's simple enough: the training and certification can be accessed online. The bill was sent to Jindal's desk following late-hour negotiations Sunday.

Bishop's House Bill 660 has already been signed into law by Jindal. He says he introduced it to better regulate the way some private businesses and nonprofits send solicitations to consumers under the guise of being affiliated with the state. Oftentimes, the mail piece looks like an invoice or bill. "There's this scam going on and people do it. They pay," he says.
The law requires disclosure in a 14-point font that the solicitation is not in any way affiliated with state government. Bishop says he developed the legislation in cooperation with the Secretary of State's Office.

Rep. Landry came out swinging in her own way with legislation requiring that the governor's travel log include flights in any state police aircraft. The bill never moved an inch, but Landry did push House Bill 1143 to Jindal's desk. As already approved by the governor, it will prohibit public bodies from changing their agendas within 24 hours of their meeting. Councilwomen, school board members, aldermen and others could still be able to add an item with a two-thirds vote during a public meeting, but only after the item is read aloud. She says a "clarification" is needed because there's nothing currently in state law that permits agenda additions, although many public bodies update theirs after posting.

She has also requested that House and Senate governmental affairs committees study laws regarding open meetings of public bodies. Her House Concurrent Resolution 145 has a few different angles, from the best way to involve public comments (some bodies call for them before agenda items are even discussed) to creating committees with non-elected members and the right to abstain from voting.

Keeping with the local ethics theme, Mills had Senate Bill 754 to create a new loophole in the ethics code. It was pending final passage over the weekend, but has been introduced to allow grain farmers or their immediate family member to serve on the Greater Baton Rouge Port Commission and to sell grain to the elevator it operates. The main argument behind the bill is that there's a pre-existing exception like this already on the books for the New Orleans port.

V. We Don't Need No Stinkin' Bills

Education reform backed by the governor probably presented the biggest show of the session. Thousands of teachers stormed the Capitol to oppose new accountability standards, increased vouchers and changes in tenure. Jindal won out in the tug-of-war and, at least in the House, it allowed local lawmakers to show their stripes.

Landry was probably the loudest proponent on Lafayette's bench and proved that Facebook can become an effective means to presenting an argument. (She arguably has the best social media in the delegation, posting everything from personal opinion and photos from the floor to research papers and links to articles.) On the other side of the fence, Ortego stood with Democrats in questioning every aspect of Jindal's package and made himself known, even as a freshman, early on in the debates. He even sparked a mini-drama with the conservative writers over at the for a while.

In terms of changes to the local education landscape, Cortez led the way with Senate Bill 284, which has been sent to the governor. It would allow the South Louisiana Community College to merge with several campuses under Louisiana Technical College, including Acadian, Coreil, Evangeline, Gulf Area, T.H. Harris and Teche Area. Cortez says it will save the systems money upon taking effect July 1.

With the legacy litigation issue hogging all of the attention of oil and gas lobbyists, there were very few earth-shattering energy bills debated. When coupled with the education and retirement reforms and the dismal state of the budget, it can partly be credited with the amount of freedom local lawmakers had to pursue their own interests.

Landry created an entirely new crime for "female genital mutilation." Rep. Taylor F. Barras, R-New Iberia, unsuccessfully pushed a constitutional amendment to allow his hometown to enter into contracts for property tax breaks. Ortego passed a resolution designating Scott the "Boudin Capital of the World" and failed to codify a new set of rights for bicyclists. Perry passed a handful of DWI-related laws.

Meanwhile, Freshman Rep. Vincent J. Pierre, D-Lafayette, managed to squeak out one bill, a technical matter that merely changed phrases in existing law from "criminal search" to "criminal background checks." Pierre also added Lafayette Parish to legislation allowing a 3 percent excise tax on car rentals to continue.

Fellow rookie Democratic Rep. Terry Landry of Lafayette didn't even make it that far. He only has a single resolution to his name that "Commends the Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary." But Landry, retired from State Police, did emerge as a new force on the House Transportation Committee this session. He sort of became one of the resident skeptics, questioning the merit of one bill after another and schooling lawmakers on the reality of police work. He was also outspoken on a proposed constitutional amendment that would give Louisiana some of the strongest gun ownership protections in the nation, warning lawmakers that they were being used as pawns by the National Rifle Association in its efforts to pass similar laws in other states. He also helped steer the debate over the possible use of tolls to wrap-up I-49 between Lafayette and New Orleans.

While the freshmen reps' lack of legislation might speak to their dearth of ideas, Dr. Pearson Cross, a political science professor at UL, says it may be something else. "It's their first session. Once they're around longer, there will be more," Cross says. "But they're also Democrats from minority-majority districts. Most of this session was led by the Republican majority, so it's natural to expect less from the Democrats, especially the new ones. That will change in future sessions."

For the sake of Lafayette Parish, let's hope so. Then again, once you declare a boudin capital, what else is there to do?

Jeremy Alford can be reached at [email protected].

Bringing Home the Pork

One of the last items of business lawmakers tended to before adjourning their regular session earlier this week was to pass onto the administration House Bill 2, also known as the capital outlay bill. Simply put, it's the construction spending plan for projects around the state.
It was also among the top priorities for House Ways and Means Chairman Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette. He's the sponsor of the bill and all of its headaches. He readily admits the bill is "over-appropriated," but he fought hard during the session to fend off several requests from lawmakers. "The bill is still geographically spread across the state," he assured lawmakers during a debate last week.
What may be more telling, especially locally, is how much money is dedicated to projects in Lafayette Parish. But first, one should understand the process.
Slightly less than half of the money won't be available until future years, and the projects outlined in HB 2 still have a long legislative journey before victory can be declared. Inclusion in the capital outlay bill does not guarantee a project's funding.
The bill must be approved by both chambers of the Legislature, and then Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration will choose which projects to include on a special agenda. That agenda will be reviewed and individual projects approved for funding during a fall meeting of the state Bond Commission. If the commission agrees with the merits of a project, then financing, which often means lines of ready cash, borrowing or bonding, can commence.
As per legislative tradition, there are more projects in the bill than there is cash available. So lawmakers prioritize the line items; a "Priority 1" line of funding means the money will be made available during the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
For the approaching fiscal year, there are 25 Lafayette-related projects in Priority 1 totaling $52.93 million. The 2011 bill, by comparison, had 29 local projects weighing in at $64.85 million. That's four fewer projects under the current delegation's guidance and $11.92 million less in funding.
While many areas are having to do more with less due to the economy, it can also be argued that the loss of seniority - most notably the terming out of former Sen. Mike Michot last year - can be credited for the dip.
Just consider the following: of the eight members in the Lafayette Parish House delegation, half are serving in their first term and three are in their second. That leaves Robideaux as the dean of the lower chamber delegation. Moreover, all four members of the local Senate delegation, while carry-overs from the House, have only been seated within the past three years.
Still, $52.93 million in Priority 1 ain't too shabby. Here's a look at those projects, the proverbial pork, from this year's House Bill 2.
? Equipment for Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise: $500,000
? I-49 from I-220 in the City of Shreveport to Arkansas Line, Lafayette to the Westbank Expressway, Construction, Right of Way and Utilities (Lafayette shares with eight other parishes): $7.3 million
? Verot School Road Construction: $500,000
? Roof Replacement at Tyler Mental Health Center, Planning and Construction: $1.18 million
? Replace Existing Air Conditioning/Heating System and Cleaning of Vents at Dr. Joseph Henry Tyler Mental: $2.5 million
? New Emergency Generator and Chillers, University Medical Center, Planning and Construction: $3.2 million
? University Medical Center Mechanical Equipment Repairs: $1.3 million
? University Medical Center Air Handler Replacement, Planning and Construction: $200,000
? University Medical Center New Maintenance Building and Hospital Repairs: $150,000
? Emergency Room Expansion, University Medical Center, Planning and Construction: $2.04 million
? Refurbish Elevators, University Medical Center, Planning and Construction: $1.49 million
? Major Repairs and Reroofing, ADA Compliance and Life Safety Code Corrections to Campus Building, Planning and Construction (UL shares this with seven other campuses): $85,000
? Burke Hawhorne Hall Renovation and Expansion at UL, Planning and Construction: $5.35 million
? Fletcher Hall Exterior Repairs at UL, Planning and Construction: $650,000
? Louisiana Technical College, Lafayette Campus, HVAC Replacement, Planning and Construction: $2.61 million
? Kaliste Saloom Widening: $3.95 million
? U.S. Hwy. 90 Intersection Improvements at Bercegeay Road in Broussard, Planning and Construction: $720,000
? I-10 North Frontage Road in Scott, Planning and Construction: $990,000
? I-10 North Frontage Road Sewer and Water in Scott, Planning and Construction: $900,000
? Frontage Road Along Interstate 10 in Scott, Planning and Construction: $720,000
? Highway 92 Realignment Near Youngsville, Construction, Right of Way and Utilities: $700,000
? Youngsville Parkway Road Project, including Waterline Improvement and Roadway Lighting, Planning and Construction: $7.15 million
? Beltway Road Project in Youngsville, Planning and Construction: $5.785 million
? Lafayette Airport Commission, Construction of Cargo Facilities, Planning and Construction: $500,000
? Cajundome Improvements, Planning and Construction: $750,000