Acadiana Business

Clucks from the Capitol

by Jeremy Alford

This year's regular session was an incubator for Lafayette politics, with some folks emerging hatched and others cracked. This year's regular session was an incubator for Lafayette politics, with some folks emerging hatched and others cracked. By Jeremy Alford

Monday, June 17, 2013

Photo by Robin May

As the session came to a close, the House presented state
Rep. Joel Robideaux with its annual "Gentleman Award."

With his front row, far-right corner seat serving as his personal roost, Ways and Means Chairman Joel Robideaux ping-ponged around the House floor during the session's final days. He'd do a bit of pecking around the Black Caucus and then flap wings with the fiscal hawk faction before clucking with his fellow Republicans and House leaders. He was everywhere this session, as was his influence.

In its wrap-up of the session, the Public Affairs Research Council declared that a "refreshing streak of independence and bi-partisan cooperation energized the House, particularly with respect to the leadership demonstrated" by Robideaux.

As an alliance between the conservative fiscal hawks was cemented with members of the Black and Democratic caucuses toward the end of the session, it was Robideaux, a Lafayette Republican who last term had no party affiliation, helping take them to the next level. A master of House rules, Robideaux engineered a change in the conference committee process in regard to the budget bill.

Usually there are three members from each chamber appointed to the conference committee, where they are charged with hammering out differences between the House and Senate. Robideaux's procedural move changed the tally in the House to six, giving all factions - the fiscal hawks and the Black, Democratic and GOP caucuses - a seat at the negotiating table with the House speaker and appropriations chairman.

Robideaux is also credited this session with halting Gov. Bobby Jindal's tax swap plan. He was the author of the lead legislation and refused to move it out of his committee. Unpopular with business and everyone else who's not part of right-wing think tanks, the plan was feared by lawmakers, who were in turn grateful to Robideaux. As the session came to a close, the House presented him with its annual "Gentleman Award."

Term limited, Robideaux is leaving the Legislature as his influence peaks. While he may never achieve the status of House speaker, he could very well become the next city-parish president of Lafayette. With City-Parish President Joey Durel also term-limited, sources say the path is clear for Robideaux to make an announcement sooner than later. "That's a distinct possibility," Robideaux says.

As it now stands, he would face off against current City-Parish Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley, who has made it clear he also wants the job.

Fairing just as well as Robideaux this session was a package of Cajun- and French-themed bills, representing a groundswell on the topic unparalleled in recent memory. Lawmakers made the most of it, with those from the piney north feigning Cajun roots as the bills popped up like Easter eggs in what was a tense session.

Endorsed was Senate Resolution 30 by Sen. Eric Lafleur, D-Ville Platte, designating July 14 as an annual commemorative day for French-American Creole families. Lafleur also sent to the governor Senate Bill 205, which establishes foreign language immersion programs in public school districts.
Already signed by Jindal, Senate Bill 201 allows drivers to add "I'm Cajun" to their licenses. House Bill 147 by Rep. Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge, adds the same phrase to specialty license plates, or the alternative option of "I'm Creole," but hasn't been enacted by the governor. Neither has House Bill 415 by Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro, allowing parishes to adopt bilingual signs on highways.

The only related initiative that failed this session was House Bill 602 by Ortego, which would have required that the state produce bilingual birth certificates.

A couple of the efforts that will generate money, like the licenses and plates, will help underwrite the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, or CODOFIL, which saw its state funding scrambled last year by Jindal's administration.

On the other end of the spectrum, the traditional divide that follows the boundaries of north Lafayette were in part resurrected when Reps. Vincent Pierre, D-Lafayette, and Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, butted heads with local senators over funding for the historic Holy Rosary Institute.

Pierre introduced House Bill 420 to redirect $200,000 annually from the hotel-motel tax to support the redevelopment of Holy Rosary, sacred ground for many Catholic-Creole families. Thing is, that money normally goes to the Cajundome and its convention center. The Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission staked claim to the cash as well, which drew the lines in this debate.

When they got a hold of the legislation, Lafayette's Senate delegation created a new funding mechanism for the money in the bill and removed all references to Holy Rosary, drawing the ire of Pierre and Landry, who have vowed to revisit the issue. "History shows that often people are quick to do the expedient thing, the easy thing or the political thing, but we are here to do the right thing," Landry says.

In a related move, the Legislature sent to the governor House Bill 326 by Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, which could lead to a 4 percent assessment on hotel rooms in Youngsville. But it won't be automatic. Even if Jindal signs the bill, it will be up to local voters to approve it on a future ballot.

Sen. Elbert Guillory of Opelousas was part of the local Senate team that put up roadblocks for Pierre and Landry, but that act wasn't anywhere close to Guillory's more surprising moments of the session. For starters, he switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP, moving him from a place where he was among the most conservative to somewhere he fits in quite neatly.

Additionally, when debating Senate Bill 26 by Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, which would have repealed Louisiana's creationism law, Guillory argued that the state should be open to all sciences and pseudo-sciences. To make his point, he described a visit he made to what can only be described as a witch doctor.

"This doctor practiced in an open circle in a dusty spot, he wore little shoes, was semi-clothed, used a lot of bones he threw around," Guillory told the Senate Education Committee, adding it was a "very good experience for myself" and "I have verified for myself that some of the things he told has some validity to it."

While Guillory may have ended up with a bit of egg on his face, particularly from liberal thinkers and those inclined to disbelieve witch doctors, many local elected officials had their legislative eggs served sunny side up. There was very little interest about pay raises for public officials leading into the session that convened in early April, but by adjournment, assessors, clerks of court, judges and sheriffs were among those in line for salary bumps.

As part of the last-minute compromise on the state budget, as found in House Bill 1, all certified classroom teachers in public schools in Acadiana are also eligible to receive pay raises of about $578 each for the next school year.

All of the pay raise provisions were passed by the House and Senate but are awaiting approval from the governor, who gets to have the final say on the session with his possible vetoes. That makes Jindal, despite his defeats this session, ruler of the roost once again. At least for now.

A freelance writer based in Baton Rouge, Jeremy Alford is a frequent ABiz contributor who can be reached at [email protected]. For more local angles from the recently adjourned regular session, check out the next edition of IND Monthly, out on newsstands July 1.