*but were afraid to ask
"Laws are like sausages. It's better not to see them being made."
Nineteenth-century German statesman Otto von Bismarck is credited with that gem, and Rapides Parish Democratic Sen. Joe McPherson recently used his country wit to put a Louisiana twist on Bismarck's wisdom. As lawmakers inserted pet projects and personal tweaks into the state's budget bill near the end of the Louisiana Legislature's 85-day regular session, McPherson noted, "This is a sausage-making process. We're getting ready to put the casing on it. We haven't smoked it yet."
Opelousas Democratic Sen. Don Cravins thinks this session produced more smoke than fire. "We really didn't even make a whole lot of sausage this session," he says. "There was no intensity, and we failed in a few areas. A lot of that had to do with a lack of leadership, and that has all the bearing in the world."
Whether it was a lawmaker overlooking that tricky Ethics Code, decorum being thrown aside on the House floor or legislative pay being kept undercover, there were numerous examples of political folly this session ' all paid for with our tax dollars.
Cravins, who is term limited after 14 years of service, has come to expect it every year the Legislature convenes a session.
"Things have always been that way," he says. "The players are all different, but the game is the same."
And every game needs a scorecard, so here's an inside look at what the sausage factory produced in the 2006 session:
READING AND WRITING NOT REQUIRED
It's no great secret that many lawmakers neither write nor read the legislation they debate and vote on. The bills receive hearings ' sometimes even for a few minutes! ' but lobbyists, special interest lawyers or legislative staffers often draft them. It leads to frequent confusion, as lawmakers rely on those sources to explain their bills during meetings and debates. And due to the large volume of bills passed every session, some lawmakers just read the summary of a bill.
Baton Rouge Democratic Sen. Cleo Fields tried to make a serious comment during a committee hearing. As he flipped through a complex piece of legislation, he opined, "If we could take this home and read it, like most of us do already, that would be great." His Senate colleagues burst into spontaneous laughter.
Later in the meeting, Fields admitted the problem gets even worse during the hectic final days of session, when versions of legislation come flying out of compromises brokered between the House and Senate.
"We get all these conference committee reports on our desks, and there's no way you can read them," he says.
Consider what happened when the House debated Senate legislation that would have allowed inmates more flexibility in receiving time off their sentences for good behavior. Even though the verbiage of the bill specifically exempted sex offenders, murderers and drug dealers, one lawmaker after another took to the microphone to slam the concept.
"They're going to come out and get you and your family," warned wild-eyed Slidell Rep. Pete Schneider.
At the end of the debate, Kenner Rep. Danny Martiny only laughed and shook his head: "We just had an hour-long debate on something that has nothing to do with that bill."
PUBLISH OR PERISH? NOT REALLY
Not publishing anything brings scorn in academia, but it obviously has no bearing whatsoever on government. While many lawmakers file several bills a session ' a few even push dozens of measures ' there are a handful that skate by with a minimalist attitude.
New Iberia Rep. Errol A. "Romo" Romero filed only one bill for the regular session. It would have forced the state to pony up $120,000 for a constituent who won a court case against the Board of Supervisors of Community and Technical Colleges, and the bill appeared dead at press time.
The second place award in this category is split evenly between Lafayette Republican Rep. Donald Trahan and New Orleans Democratic Rep. Alex Heaton. Both men filed only two bills. Heaton represents an area directly impacted by Hurricane Katrina and chose some curious issues to champion this session. His top priority bills would have created an education board for Louisiana pawnbrokers and provided a cost-of-living adjustment for judges. Both measures were stalled in committee.
Trahan had a bit more luck. Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed into law one of his bills dealing with unfair trade practices, and another requiring school board employees to receive paid leave for certain work was nearing final approval in the closing hours of session.
PARTY ON THE FLOOR!
There are rules about decorum during debate in the House, but they aren't always followed. There's also a dress code for the floor ' men must wear slacks, tie and a coat ' but it says nothing about party favors. Lafourche Parish Democratic Rep. Warren Triche put both of these codes to the test when he got behind the House podium to create the photo opportunity of the session.
To make his point during a debate, Triche strapped on a pointy, polka-dotted birthday hat, spun a noisemaker around his head and blew into a paper twirler using his free hand. The only thing missing was confetti.
Triche was opposing legislation that would have allowed convicts who were 15 or 16 years old when they committed serious crimes to get quicker consideration for parole eligibility than adult criminals. "Let's throw a party for the returning pedophiles," Triche hooped and hollered. "Let's let them back in the neighborhood." Triche even suggested that fathers invite sexual predators to their daughter's birthday parties.
His antics took a serious tone when he described what kind of convicts would be coming up for parole under the legislation, adding only criminal defense lawyers would have the right kind of heart to support such a concept.
"These are not children we're talking about," Triche said, still wearing his paper party hat. "These are thugs and animals and hoodlums."
A few lawmakers openly took offense to Triche's comments about lawyers, as well as how he handled his presentation, but Triche made his point and was never called out of order by the Speaker of the House. The bill was rejected in a 37-48 vote.
LET'S SEE ... GO TO A PARTY, OR DEBATE LEGISLATION?
One of the perks of being a lawmaker is all the swell afternoon and evening parties thrown by special interest groups during session. Scheduling these shindigs is difficult work, because it is nearly impossible to guess when the House and Senate will adjourn each day.
This means some events conflict with policy matters. Sometimes lawmakers are faced with a choice: Do I stick around and debate legislation, or do I high-tail it over to that party?
That was the case with a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed state government to seize private land for hurricane-protection projects and pay the owner only fair-market value. It was somewhat non-controversial this session and didn't face any real opposition, but it fell short a few votes in the House because a whopping 20 members weren't even there to cast votes on a night that was jam-packed with evening events. (It came back up later in the session and unanimously passed the House.)
FLEXIBLE HOURS, GREAT PAY
How would you like to get paid for not showing up to work?
That's what some state legislators do every session. The Legislature has gotten into the habit of adjourning on Thursday afternoons and not returning until the following Monday, making for a relaxed, three-day weekend.
But here's the rub: Even during this down time, lawmakers are still paid their $115 per diem each day the Legislature is in session. With 105 members in the House and 39 in Senate, $16,560 is spent each day on per diems.
If you average the number of regular session days ' about 35 ' missed by lawmakers during these three-day breaks, the amount of taxpayer dollars paid to vacationing lawmakers comes to roughly $579,600. (Exceptions include some lawmakers donating some of their pay to hurricane-related causes or working through the weekend as the session enters its final days.)
Lawmakers who live more than 50 miles away from the Capitol can even deduct the per diems from their income for tax purposes. During a House floor debate, New Orleans Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond said the per diem amount was significantly more than what a worker getting minimum wage would earn from the state.
Rep. Carla Dartez, a Morgan City Democrat running for secretary of state, did everything but jump on her desk and shush Richmond.
"Why don't you bring it up again so the press can beat us up on it?" Dartez asks. "People are already on us saying we don't earn our keep."
RED LIGHT DISTRICT
In the House and Senate, there's a large electronic billboard with each lawmaker's name on it. When voting occurs, a green light appears by those voting yea and red for those casting nay.
While the vote is under way, lawmakers often switch quickly between green and red to confuse the process. For instance, a legislator may have promised a special interest he would vote yea, but pledged to his constituency he would vote nay. If he sees on the board there are enough green votes for passage, then he'll vote nay and avoid making a tough decision. This tactic was initially used to help defeat riverboat gambling in the '90s.
But since it's almost impossible to count 105 colored dots in a matter of seconds, Jeanerette Democratic Rep. Troy Hebert pushed a resolution to install a numeric vote tally on the billboard. It was well received but couldn't muster the votes.
Rep. William Daniel, a Baton Rouge Republican, asked if the "number up there would change your vote."
Hebert laughed and answered, "Sometimes it might. That count could very well change the dynamic of this body."
Voting in the House is already controversial, since members don't have to be present to vote in certain cases. House members can even switch their vote on a bill days after it was recorded.
New Iberia Democratic Rep. Errol A. "Romo" Romero is well known for using a long pointing stick to cast votes on other members' machine when they are away ' but the House Speaker has begun cracking down on that practice in recent weeks.
ETHICS? WHO, ME?
The issue of consolidating the assessors' offices in Orleans Parish has been a rollercoaster ride for New Orleans Democratic Reps. Jeff Arnold and Alex Heaton. Both men voted against consolidation earlier this year ' Arnold's father is the fifth district assessor, Heaton's brother is the seventh district assessor ' and fell under fire from voters and media.
The two legislators vehemently defended their decisions and even received backing from the state Ethics Board. R. Gray Sexton, the board's top administrator, opined that lawmakers can vote on bills in which immediate family members have an economic interest as long as they file an explanation in writing with the House or Senate and then copy the board.
But when the issue was resurrected by the governor in the session ' with several constituencies eyeing the votes of Arnold and Heaton ' they twice abstained from voting on the matter, showing that public opinion holds more weight than an opinion from the Ethics Board.
Meanwhile, the Ethics Code has become a curious beast in the Legislature. If lawmakers don't like something in it, all they have to do is vote to change it. For instance, during the final week of session, the Senate voted to allow rural school officials to promote their relatives to certain jobs, even though nepotism laws already prohibited such moves.
AND DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT CALLING US FOR JURY DUTY
It's good to be an elected official. State law already prohibits lawmakers and legislative personnel from being forced to show up in court to serve as a witness, unless it's a criminal case. To strengthen that protection, Natchitoches Democratic Rep. Taylor Townsend pushed a bill requiring courts to explain their summons and provide more forewarning. At press time, it was only one step away from passing.
CAN WE STAY LONGER? PLEASE?
Some House members are looking to the Senate and some in the upper chamber are looking lower, since term limits kick in at the end of the current political cycle and some lawmakers are hoping to extend their stay in the Legislature. Two of them, however, namely Cleo Fields and Shreveport Republican Rep. Wayne Waddell, could be getting a free ride.
Although both men are term limited, a loophole in a bill passed by the House and Senate allows lawmakers elected in a special election to serve out one more full term. Fields and Waddell fit that description.
The final decision now resides with the governor, who can veto or approve the legislation.
NOTHING TO SEE OR HEAR HERE, JUST KEEP MOVING ALONG
The phrases "This is a local bill" and "These are only technical changes" can't always be taken at face value. Sometimes lawmakers use the terminology to sneak something into a bill. "Simple housekeeping" is another one used to lull fellow lawmakers into complacency.
Rep. Ernest Wooten, a Republican from Plaquemines Parish, tried his hand at this game when he attempted to amend a bill to allow bars to hold poker tournaments.
"[The amendment is] basically technical in nature," Wooten said.
Democratic House Speaker Joe Salter couldn't help but ask the obvious: "Did you say that with a straight face?"
SPEAKING OF PHRASES ...
Everyone's favorite legislative phrase is "sine die," because it adjourns every session and means the Louisiana Constitution and Revised Statutes are safe for a few more months ' until another session rears its ugly head.