Winsome, Lose Some

by Jeremy Alford

A political postmortem on the 2013 regular session Follow the money. That's what some people say about politics. Follow the money and you'll find the truth.

If you were heeding those words during the regular session that adjourned June 6, then you at least found the action and witnessed a spectacular display of brinkmanship on the $24.5 billion budget. Many lawmakers thought a special session would be needed, but the budget was passed - presumably balanced - on the regular session's final day.

Of course, attention then turns to who received money, which was delivered, in part, in the form of pay raises for assessors, clerks of court, judges and public school teachers. Others won indirectly, like sheriffs, who saw their salaries in 2012 linked to those of district judges, whose raises trigger increases for the top law enforcement officials in each parish. Lawmakers also learned late in the session that some parish charters, like the one in Iberia, link their presidents' pay to whatever assessors and clerks are pulling down.

But the session wasn't exclusively about money. It just seemed that way - and for good reason. There were disagreements over bilingual birth certificates, red snapper management, the age of judges and more.
For a better grasp on the session's victors and victims, considering the following:
Winner: Acadiana Dentists**

Last year the Lafayette Parish School System audited several area dentists for unpaid sales taxes on lab bills for crowns, bridges and other devices, in direct contradiction of a state law that specifically exempts them from both state and local sales taxes. The board argues that the exemption interferes with its ability to retire bonds, thus the push.

Sen. Page Cortez

The Acadiana District Dental Association has an attorney fighting the assessment, an effort that got a boost during the session from Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette. His Senate Resolution 168 urges the school board to issue a response to the tax dispute filed by the ADDA and has helped the issue gain some momentum and press coverage.

Ward Blackwell, executive director of Louisiana Dental Association, wrote in an email to his membership recently that the resolution could force the board to "get up off their behinds" roughly seven months after the initial dispute hearing.

Loser: Acadiana Optometrists

One of the most intense lobbying efforts of the session pitted optometrists against ophthalmologists, with the latter emerging victorious. House Bill 527 by Rep. Frank Hoffman, R-West Monroe, would have allowed optometrists to perform some surgical procedures and prescribe painkillers, invading the turf enjoyed by ophthalmologists.

One sticking point was that optometrists wanted to be designated as physicians, but still overseen by the Board of Optometry, rather than the Board of Medical Examiners. Hoffman's bill died in the House, and part of the ophthalmologists' success involved the backing of the Louisiana State Medical Society and its ability to influence the process by shaping public opinion as opposed to face-to-face lobbying.

Winner: Budget reform

The conservative House faction of Fiscal Hawks managed to pass a set of substantive reforms to the budget process, the first such undertaking successfully mounted in recent memory.

In future sessions, the Revenue Estimating Conference, charged with identifying the amount of cash the state has to spend, will have to designate available dollars as either recurring or non-recurring. The budget bill will also have to be split into separate sections, each containing either discretionary or non-discretionary spending.

Another Hawk bill will help slow the growth of state government by limiting increases in spending based on a formula that links a percentage of any hike to personal income growth.

Loser: Ethics reform

The governor not only blocked legislation that would have opened up more records in his office to public view, but also rammed through public hospital privatization contracts this session that included blank documents in the finalized agreements.

Also, no legislation was passed addressing what constitutes an appropriate campaign finance expense for politicians, a growing concern among those who care about ethics and perception. But lawmakers did pass a resolution on the issue, meaning it could be on the table in 2014.

Sen. Eric Lafleur

Winner: Cajun and Creole Branding**

This year's session hosted a large package of Cajun- and French-themed bills, representing a groundswell on the topic.

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 won the governor's signature on Senate Bill 205, which establishes foreign language immersion programs in public school districts.

Already signed by the governor: Senate Bill 201 allowing drivers to add "I'm Cajun" to their licenses and House Bill 147 by Rep. Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge, which adds the same phrase to specialty license plates, with the added option of "I'm Creole."

Vetoed was House Bill 415 by Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro, which would have allowed for highway signs to include any number of different languages. Ortego initially wanted a bilingual program, for French and English only, but lawmakers tacked on more, prompting Jindal's veto.

But the governor did sign an executive order moving forward with Ortego's original intent for French-English options. During the 2014 session, Ortego said he'll return with legislation to put that provision into state law while guarding against the amendments that prompted this year's veto.

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 the administration.

Rep. Mike Huval

Loser: Bilingual Birth Certificates

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. The Carencro lawmaker may have pressed his luck when he tried to add Spanish-language certificates to the bill, which already proposed French and English, prompting lawmakers to question the exclusion of other nationalities.

Rep. Stephen Ortego

Winner: Seafood Marketing

While there was a great deal of emotional testimony regarding the new structure that was passed by lawmakers for the Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, the best part is it's over.

Embroiled in controversy in recent years, it's receiving a new start with a new chairman, chef John Folse. His hands on the wheel seem to have soothed concerns over the direction of the board, which is still spending part of a $30 million grant from BP, awarded after the 2010 oil spill.

Local influence on the board is also growing with the appointments of Henderson Mayor Sherbin Collette and Lafayette seafood entrepreneur Frank Randol. The owner of Collette's Seafood in St. Martin Parish, Collette will serve as a representative for the wild catfish industry. Randol, a restaurateur and processor from Lafayette, will be repping the crawfish industry.

Loser: Red Snapper Management

Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, gets an A for effort, but his attempts to bring federal officials to the Capitol to explain why they have slowly been scaling back Louisiana's red snapper seasons were unsuccessful.

He even filed legislation threatening to ban all commerce related to red snapper fishing, recreational and commercial, but the feds refused to respond. That the Senate unanimously passed a resolution asking them to send a representative did little to sway federal fisheries officials, either.

Winner: Technical and Community Colleges

Lawmakers advanced and the governor signed Senate Bill 204 by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, to authorize $250 million in borrowing to underwrite projects on community and technical college campuses. The repayment comes in at $20 million a year for 20 years, directly out of the state budget. All of the projects, however, will require a 10 percent private match.

As a result, Lafayette's South Louisiana Community College is in line for $15 million for an "allied health and science training program building."

Loser: Four-Year Colleges

Funding to higher education has been cut by roughly 68 percent since the governor took office in 2008, and the bleeding didn't stop this year. While a handful of bills was filed to give universities more control over their tuitions, none passed.

Opponents of the community and technical college construction program argued that, with its passage, universities may very well come into the 2014 session asking for the same.

Winner: Senior Citizens

With the help of hundreds of seniors who visited the Capitol this session, Rep. Joe Harrison managed to pass House Bill 352, which calls for the creation of a new state department dedicated to elderly affairs. But for that to happen, a future constitutional amendment or a merger of state departments will be needed, since the constitution only allows for 20 to be in operation, a quota that's currently filled.

While a previous study temporarily put the spotlight this session on the Department of Health and Hospitals and the Department of Children and Family Services, which once functioned in concert, Sen. Jody Amedee, R-Gonazales, is pushing for a more comprehensive review. His SCR 114 asks the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, which he chairs, to study the possibilities, with a report due prior to the 2014 session.

Additionally, Harrison said he plans to introduce the required constitutional amendment during the next regular session, just in case. "We're going to be prepared either way," he said.

Loser: Senior Citizens With Gavels

Three times was not the charm for a constitutional amendment that would have asked voters whether judges age 70 and over should be able to stand for re-election.

Under current law, if judges turn 70 while still in office, they are allowed to finish out their term, but not run for re-election. Candidates who have reached the age threshold are also not allowed to qualify for judicial elections.

Senate Bill 5 by Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, would have put the question to voters, but lawmakers in the House killed the effort.
Rep. Greg Miller, R-Norco, who handled the bill in the House, argues that judges are treated differently than all other elected officials due to the age requirement. "Do not discriminate against judges," he told the House.

Winner: Tourism Economy

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 though Jindal signed the bill, it will be up to local voters to approve it on the ballot.

Rep. Terry Landry

Loser: Effort to Redirect Tourism Dollars

On another front, folks at the Cajundome and the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission shared a collective sigh of relief when legislation was stalled that would have redirected current tourism allocations. House Bill 420 by Reps. Vincent Pierre, D-Lafayette, and Terry Landry, D-Lafayette, originally sought to peel off about $200,000.

Any which way you cut it, there had to be a loser on the legislation offered by Pierre and Landry. The two men ended up butting heads with local senators over the bill, which would have directed hotel-motel tax money to the historic Holy Rosary Institute for the span of a decade.

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.

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 said.

For all that was left incomplete, lawmakers still had to work several hard weeks to accomplish what they did. Now the governor gets to weigh in with his veto pen, which often undermines whatever lawmakers think they've accomplished.

That reality was reinforced by Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, during a discussion this session on a bill granting tax rebates for donations to schools.

"Didn't we have a similar bill last year?" he asked the bill's author, Rep. Patrick Jefferson, D-Homer.

"It sailed through," Jefferson replied. "Collaborated, cooperated, kumbaya."

Robideaux: "What happened to it?"

Jefferson: "It was vetoed."