The Legislature goes into session next week — yes, again — and this time there will be hundreds upon hundreds of bills to admonish, cheer or ignore. Talk radio stations around Louisiana gave ample time last week to the merits of Coke with whiskey, Bloody Mary mixes, vodka tonics, tequila-supported margaritas and other spirited concoctions. Everybody wanted to weigh in on the bill being pushed by Democratic Sen. Ed Murray to make Sazerac — a French brandy blend created in his hometown of New Orleans — the “official state cocktail” of Louisiana.
It happens every year. Some lawmaker wants an official state song or official meat pie or official bass-fishing parish. In the general session that springs to life next week and won’t go away until June 23, there’s also an effort by Rep. Nickie Monica, a LaPlace Republican, to designate the fleur-de-lis as the official state symbol. Not to be outdone, Rep. Jeff Arnold, a New Orleans Democrat, has filed legislation that would create an official logo for the Louisiana Byways Program using an image of a “red, four-passenger coupe, modeled after the Ford Motor Company Lincoln LeBaron manufactured from 1927 through 1931.”
Of course, there will be more serious issues debated. For instance, CQ Press, a division of Congressional Quarterly, recently published its national crime ranking with Louisiana as the second most dangerous state in the country, up from the No. 10 spot. It’s a ranking that will likely be repeated many times when the next session commences. Even before the news broke, there was an eager confluence of lawmakers ready to throw the book and kitchen sink at crime-related issues — due chiefly to tough promises made on the campaign trail last year.
There’s the Pay-Your-Way Bill by Rep. Damon Baldone, a Houma Democrat, which promises to generate hours of gab on talk radio. It would require inmates in work-release programs to use their wages to pay for their entire incarceration, from meals to boarding. Big Tobacco, meanwhile, will hire top-dollar lobbyists for another measure by Rep. Walker Hines, a New Orleans Democrat, which would make it a criminal act to sell cigarettes to anyone under 21.
Creating new crimes is a bit of a pasttime for the Legislature, and the hobby will only gain momentum in the session. There are hordes of bills that create the crimes of battery of an adult protective services worker, criminal damage to rental property, home invasion, harboring an illegal alien, creating fake IDs, vandalism by graffiti, forged insurance documents and much more. There are also other bills that would raise the minimum mandatory sentences for felons possessing firearms and those convicted of armed robbery.
It’s an annual debate in the Legislature — how to be tough on crime without overcrowding jails. To that end, there are likewise broad-based bills being pushed by Rep. Elbert Guillory, an Opelousas Democrat, to prohibit sentence suspensions from the bench from being applied to a long list of crimes. And as a part of that delicate balancing act, Rep. Rickey Hardy, a Democrat from Lafayette, is also proposing legislation that would allow certain drug offenders to swap jail time for military time.
On health care, there’s more than 35 topic-specific bills already filed for consideration, but one of the arguments heard most often could likely be based on geography. Tehjan Martin, chair of the Louisiana Association for Behavioral Health, says the administration deserves credit for the attention given to Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard and other hurricane-impacted parishes, but he also wants the “entire state leadership to recognize that there are behavioral health needs beyond New Orleans.”
According to a recent report on Louisiana’s health care delivery and financing systems prepared by Price, Waterhouse, Coopers, the whole state — not just the greater New Orleans area — was already suffering from limited ambulatory mental health care prior to hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “The state was stretched to the limit of what it could provide its residents,” Martin says, adding that most of the suffering parties are still waiting for help.
In the arena of natural resources, there will be quite a buzz around invasive aquatic species. Sen. Robert Adley, a Benton Republican, says he will file legislation dedicating roughly $40 million in sales tax revenues to the problem, but at press time, no official measure was in the hopper. A recent state report noted that “the problem needs to be constantly monitored or it could cripple commercial and recreational interests.” When an invasive or exotic plant species enters a new habitat, there is a possibility it could alter the natural system by competing for resources. “It’s a messy problem that isn’t getting the attention it deserves,” Adley says.
Finally, there will be a huge focus, as usual, on the governor’s proposed state operating budget. Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis, who is charged with overseeing the multi-billion-dollar spending plan, is making department heads work their money and justify every penny. Many were even asked to make a list of budget items they could live without. “In terms of policy, this executive budget marks a stark departure from the status quo,” Davis says.
One of the loudest protests is coming from Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who is facing a proposed $10.6 million cut in his Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. Landrieu contends the massive decrease in state dollars will impact parks, libraries and other public services. “The new budget puts us in a precarious situation,” he told The Advocate.
The polite tit-for-tat is revealing, due to the major players’ previous relationship. Before working for Republican Jindal, Davis was the head of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, the No. 2 post under Democrat Landrieu. It’s impossible not to wonder whether Davis is sticking to her numbers in an effort to tow the administrative line, or because she has an intimate knowledge of any fat in CRT’s operations. Either way, budget drama like this one will make for interesting political theater in the coming weeks.