This was originally designed to be a fiscal-only session, and the annual gathering would have been contentious if lawmakers had limited their discussions exclusively to the budget. Three months of maneuvering at the Capitol may mark 2005 as a year of ample dollars and questionable sense.
Lawmakers have weighed in on issues as varied as feeding tubes, human cloning and the rights of smokers and gay people. At times, the State Capitol has been a theater of the absurd or the profound. Sen. Don Hines of Bunkie steered feeding tube and cloning bills to an unfavorable committee, making him the most effective player of the Capitol this side of Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom, who retained the powers of his office by wielding enormous clout with legislators.
Gov. Blanco has been scrambling for weeks to round up two-thirds support in the House and Senate for a $1 per pack increase in cigarette taxes. Counting to 70 in the lower chamber and to 26 in the upper chamber got much more challenging when $330 million in new oil and gas money was found at the Revenue Estimating Conference. While the governor strives for smokers to pay the freight for a teacher pay hike, new speculation has Blanco possibly tying the cigarette tax to health care. As the session enters the final turn, there could be some late surprises to complement a session of curious developments.
Senators approved a measure to prevent lobbyists from paying for tickets for legislators. The 35-0 tally was rebuffed by the House and Governmental Affairs Committee as members tabled the bill without casting a vote on the measure. The panel showed Sen. Jay Dardenne, R-Baton Rouge, where he could put his good government.
State Rep. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell, filed a resolution calling on all public libraries to remove books that feature same-sex parents or gay characters from the children's book sections. Crowe has zero tolerance for a book on his reading list called "King and King." Meanwhile, a measure cleared a House committee to grant job protection to homosexual and bisexual state workers. Rep. Peppi Bruneau, R-New Orleans, alerted the panel that the legislation might allow state employees to show up for work "in drag." Just one member of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee voted against the bill.
The Louisiana House voted 95-3 against a proposed amendment to a bill to allow slot machines at Louis Armstrong International Airport. In order to reap any benefits, the city of New Orleans would have been forced to repeal a residency requirement for police officers. Bruneau congratulated the author, Rep. John LaBruzzo, R-Metairie, on the dubious distinction of getting three votes, saying it was the most futile effort to generate support in House history.
Bruneau, who has patrolled the halls of the House since 1976, coaxed his fellow House members to back a constitutional amendment to extend terms of state lawmakers and statewide officeholders for one year. The 30-year legislative veteran insists House Bill 80 is unrelated to term limit provisions, which will affect many of the 996 offices, including the seat occupied by Bruneau. Senators will determine whether the measure is opportunistic or an altruistic move to save the state money.
Only 14 senators backed a bill from Rob Marionneaux, D-Grosse Tete, to ban smoking in restaurants, bars and casinos. Marionneaux puffed on a cigar while urging the ban on smoking in public places. If the bill had passed, Louisiana would have joined 11 other states with similar prohibitions on puffing in public places. Gov. Blanco backed the bill and has become an anti-smoking advocate despite a record of $6,000 in contributions from the tobacco industry.
Senate Bill 146, sponsored by Sen. Diana Bajoie, D-New Orleans, was the governor's move to provide "healthy choices" in school vending machines. It was reduced to a 50-50 choice between healthy and unhealthy snacks by the Senate on a 34-3 vote. Sen. Tom Schedler, R-Mandeville, assessed the vote by saying, "The bill does nothing." That might not be a good harbinger for Blanco's health care agenda.