From class clowns to political bullies, The Independent commemorates the spring Legislative session.
If you spend enough time in the State Capitol, follow the local news this time of year, or even have a passing interest in Louisiana politics, then you already know the Legislature houses an intricate caste system.
Each session produces its winners and losers. Some lawmakers are the in-crowd, garnering chairmanships and proverbial pork for their districts, while others reside in the outhouse, losing parking spots and committee assignments. These cliques have leaders and followers and enforcers and lackeys. They can make life miserable for the governor's administration and staff, or they can make someone the most popular politico in the chamber.
The status of each group means everything, as perception often does in politics. And all types of personalities hop between the clusters. Class clowns dish out sidesplitting juvenile humor. Playground bullies flex their muscle when a move needs to be made. There are even a few bookworms that carry the intellectual load for the masses.
Factor in all the swinging parties held during session and the tardy lawmakers who try in vain to make committee meetings on time, and the capitol begins to resemble any Louisiana high school of your choice.
So let's look back at this year's 60-day regular session, with The Independent's 2005 Legislative Yearbook.
In Memoriam: John H. Hainkel Jr.
The first day of session resembled a cloning experiment gone awry. Seersucker suits filled the capitol, and white shoes stomped marble. It seemed everyone was sporting fine spring digs, but there was a suit noticeably absent ' the wrinkled one with its fabled cigarette burns.
The apparel was a trademark of the late Sen. John Hainkel, a New Orleans Republican who died in his sleep at the age of 67 shortly before session convened.
He'll be remembered for generations, with stories passed down about his firm embraces, humorous anecdotes and penchant for cocktails. But even before his death, Hainkel was a living legend. He remains the only elected official to serve as both president of the Senate and speaker of the House.
In honor of this legacy, the Senate has renamed its briefing room. With its theater-style seating and large plasma monitors, the John Hainkel Room is among the most luxurious in the Capitol. Lawmakers have also requested that the Department of Health and Hospitals designate the New Orleans Home and Rehabilitation Center as the Hainkel Center.
Principal of Baton Rouge
In Lean On Me, Morgan Freeman portrays the notorious Joe Clark, an inner city principal who wielded a baseball bat to keep his kids in line. Gov. Kathleen Blanco should have rented the flick earlier this year to pick up a few pointers.
While she had a considerably lengthy agenda ' business incentives, financial relief for military families, funding for coastal restoration ' the governor chose to put her energies into two tax proposals this session that were treated like step-children by lawmakers.
From the get-go, Blanco proclaimed her top priority was increasing teacher pay. The means to doing so, however, proved to be the most controversial issue of the session. Her plan for a $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes stalled on the House floor for weeks as she lobbied lawmakers at every available opportunity. The inside joke during the final weeks of session was that Blanco was giving away more pork to pass the tax than the mechanism would have ever generated. Republicans killed the bill, offering an alternative that was likewise DOA. Other lawmakers simply avoided it out of fear that it would come back to haunt them come election time.
In the end, Blanco was able to salvage another tax that will impose $87 million on private hospitals to recoup costs for indigent care. It should add some new cash to the state's Medicaid program, but it also took considerable political capital to pass.
Superintendent of Sway
They can't stop him ' they can only hope to contain him.
Lawmakers made several attempts to strip power away from Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom, but they failed miserably. They proposed removing his authority over other agencies when it comes to agricultural issues, tried to require him to comply with public bid laws and even attempted to take away his $12 million slush fund generated by gambling revenues. But the bills fell faster than sugar cane during grinding season.
Rep. Jack Smith, D-Franklin, suggested only kryptonite could stop Odom, asking him: "Bob, do you have a big 'S' underneath your shirt?"
The Auditor's Accountant
As Louisiana teachers fought for a pay raise this session, House Speaker Joe Salter, D-Florien, was busy pushing a bill to give his colleagues a salary hike. House Bill 800 would have allowed the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, which has 38 members, to institute pay increases for its "officers." The panel already had the power to approve such changes for its chair and vice chair, and the upper chamber thought that was sufficient enough. They slaughtered the proposal midway through session.
Meanwhile, Salter managed to push through a $3.4 million budget increase for the House and Senate. House Bill 858 grows the legislative budget by 6 percent to $60.2 million for the coming year. It adds another $10 million to the budget of the Legislative Auditor's Office, with Legislative Auditor Steve Theriot receiving a $5,200 pay raise and a $12,000 housing allowance.
Officials say the increases were needed to upgrade technology, address rising insurance costs and to pay for a longer session next year.
Lawmakers were outraged earlier this year when they found out Insurance Commissioner Robert Wooley had spent $40,000 in taxpayer money on a fully loaded Harley-Davidson-edition Ford pickup ' with heated seats, no less. Current law technically allows such purchases with oversight by the division of administration.
When reporters questioned Wooley on his buy, he told them it amounted to a "pimple on a bee's ass." If that's so, then the Legislature popped it this session by passing Senate Bill 44, which requires statewide elected officials to justify their vehicle purchases to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.
How many senators does it take to pass a tax? Senate President Donald Hines, D-Bunkie, posed that question to the courts this session. Two former senators from New Orleans left their seats vacant earlier this year for differing reasons, thus forcing the inquiry. Republican John Hainkel passed away before the session convened, and Democrat Lambert Boissiere Jr. resigned to become a city constable.
There are 39 total seats in the Senate, meaning only 20 votes are needed for a simple majority and 26 for a constitutional amendment or tax. But if the body only has 37 sitting members, legislative logic figures those numbers could potentially change. Hines and others pursued the issue in the courts before it was decided that a few empty seats couldn't circumvent constitutional requirements.
Commissioner of Administration Jerry Luke LeBlanc spent a lot of time this session begging. He cautioned lawmakers against spending money irresponsibly and pleaded with them to avoid costly tax breaks. The state's money was desperately needed for more urgent matters, he told them. Whether legislators heeded the warning is open to interpretation, but the spending restraints didn't seem to apply to the state's operating and construction budgets.
The operating budget, found in House Bill 1, grew by more than $8 billion this year, as compared to a decade ago. While health care and higher education struggled for a firm footing, the spending plan made room for tens of millions of dollars for lawmakers' pet projects, from rice festivals and hot air balloon races to fishing docks and nonprofit donations.
House Bill 2, the state's annual construction budget, was no different. At last count, the wish list had in excess of $4.5 billion worth of requests from legislators, the administration, state agencies, local governments, private groups and nonprofits ' that's a roughly $2 billion increase from three years ago. The requests are significant, especially since the construction budget only contains about $72 million for new projects ' a $5 million increase over the 2002 budget.
Outstanding Staff Awards
Two high-ranking legislative staffers made headlines this session by positioning themselves on the wrong side of the law.
Clifford Lee Williams, formerly an attorney for the House of Representatives, was demoted in May when it was revealed he's technically not a lawyer at all. Records indicated that he was ineligible to practice law, although he had handled more than a dozen cases in recent years, including the divorce of Speaker Pro Tem Yvonne Dorsey, D-Baton Rouge. House leadership put Williams on administrative leave, but he was allowed to return to work as a legislative analyst. The demotion allowed him to keep his $97,000 annual salary as well because it fell within the same pay range.
A top aide to Gov. Kathleen Blanco also found legal problems this session when he was pulled over for a DWI in Shreveport. Leonard Kleinpeter, who supervises the Governor's Office of Community Relations, pleaded innocent to the charge, and his trial date was set for the final day of session. Kleinpeter was formerly the first assistant secretary of state and Blanco's chief of staff when she was lieutenant governor.
CLASS OF 2005
One of the most quotable politicos in the Legislature is without a doubt Rep. Warren Triche, D-Chackbay. When he presented a bill on the House floor this session directing funds to the Louisiana Animal Welfare Commission, he did so using an electronic parrot that repeated portions of his argument. When a coastal restoration bill came up in the Appropriations Committee and received no opposition, he likened it to "apple pie and motherhood and little brown bears."
On one occasion, he told Charles Castille, the undersecretary for the Department of Health and Hospitals, that he was "older than dirt." As to how the commercial seafood industry operates under the tax radar: "In God we trust, in cash we deal."
An outspoken critic of how the past three administrations have crafted their budgets, Triche is often disgusted with the legislative process. "You can change Sunday to Monday afternoon here, if you want to, with 53 votes," he says, referring to the official vote count in the House.
One of the most important objectives of the session for some lawmakers was securing money for the unfinished stretches of I-49, which is a proposed connection between New Orleans and Kansas City, Lafayette and New Orleans, and Shreveport and the Arkansas line. The Legislature took an innovative approach to dedicating the needed cash by dipping into the state's unclaimed-property fund to pay off bonds and draw down a federal match of $750 million. The method drew criticism in some circles, but was overwhelmingly supported ' especially after Sen. Sherri Cheek, R-Shreveport, had her say: "We're going to have our knives ready to neuter anyone who is against it."
Lawmakers also got emotional over an anonymous flier sent to them by lobbyists early in the session. It depicted a mock-up mass mailing that smeared legislators for supporting a provider tax on Louisiana hospitals. It was intended as a re-election threat and was personalized to each lawmaker. Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, enlisted the services of the attorney general and promised blood in several interviews: "We're looking to see whose fingerprints are on these. We're going to smoke them out of their holes, and when we smoke them out of their holes, we need to throw them out of our offices."
Like Father Like Son
This session the Cravinses became the first father-son duo ever to serve simultaneously in the Legislature. And as expected, Sen. Don Cravins Sr. took the time to show junior, a freshman in the House, that his old man still has stroke. When his son's bill arrived in the upper chamber, imposing a maximum fine of $250 for motorists who violate traffic laws at railroad crossings, Cravins removed the provision. "I hate to do that to my son's bill, but that's the way life is in the fast lane," Pop says.
Sen. Walter Boasso, R-Chalmette, did his best to bring some reform to the retirement systems of teachers and state employees this year, but an aggressive public information campaign by lobbyists killed his efforts. Before pulling the measure from consideration, he told his colleagues that the legislation had become "Boasso's anti-Christ bill."
Heavenly spirits also played a role in a proposed ban on human cloning. Lawmakers resurrected the topic again this session, but differing versions failed to gain momentum in both the House and Senate. Religious factions and anti-abortion interests pushed to halt embryonic stem-cell research, which some believe can cure diabetes, Parkinson's and other diseases. When the issue came up in the House, Rep. Errol "Romo" Romero, D-New Iberia, posed a question to himself aloud: "What would Jesus do if he was sitting in seat No. 25 where Romo is sitting?" Well, based on Romero's vote at least, Jesus would take a stand against prohibiting human cloning.
The case of Floridian Terri Schiavo likewise stirred up a religious debate. After haggling over the details for weeks, and considering alternative measures, lawmakers approved House Bill 675 by Rep. Gary Beard, R-Baton Rouge, which states any person in a common-law relationship while they're still married would have no say over life-support decisions. The bill is now sitting on the governor's desk.
Most Likely to Need 'Hooked on Phonics'
When the Senate Finance Committee approved a constitutional amendment creating a financial needs fund for Louisiana military families, Sen. Diana E. Bajoie, D-New Orleans, made a simple change to the governor's bill. She added an amendment that protects people who break the rules of the program unknowingly, such as those who might fill out a form incorrectly. "Some people be real ignorant," she said.
Freshman of the Year
Rep. Chuck Kleckly, R-Lake Charles, didn't even try to hide the fact that he was a newbie this session. During a meeting of the House Transportation Committee, he kept signaling the chairman to have his bill heard, but was consistently overlooked. "Welcome to the world of seniority," said Rep. Roy Quezaire, D-Donaldsonville. When Kleckly finally got his hearing, he explained he was late for another meeting, but that wasn't the real problem: "It's not so much that the Commerce Committee starts at 9:30 as I have to find out where it is." For the record, it was next door.
Most PatrioticThe Senate heard a different resolution each day this session honoring more than 40 Louisiana soldiers who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Livonia, sponsored the resolutions, reading a brief biography of the soldiers from the Senate floor each day and telling lawmakers how every soldier died. The floor was cleared of staff every time, and the families of the fallen soldiers often accompanied Marionneaux.
The Cajun Caucus
The Acadiana delegation in the Legislature continues to grow, accounting this year for 39 representatives and 13 senators. The caucus lobbies on issues important to the Acadiana region and operates an office at the capitol. It also elected new officers this year: Rep. Mickey Frith, D-Abbeville, chair; Rep. Dan Morrish, D-Jennings, vice chair; and Rep. Bobby Faucheux, D-LaPlace, treasurer.
When the House Ways and Means Committee handled legislation that would finally place into law an exemption from sales taxes for Mardi Gras krewes, two lawmakers participated in the lost art of intelligent debate.
Rep. Peppi Bruneau, R-New Orleans, assured the committee that his legislation would have no impact on state coffers, but it still received opposition from Rep. Rick Farrar, D-Pineville, who says he voted against the concept for symbolic reasons. "I'm trying to get a tax credit for our churches," he says. "I can't get that passed here, but we can give one to Mardi Gras?"
Farrar attempted to amend the legislation to include VFW halls and church groups, arguing the groups hold forth on Fat Tuesday as well. The move produced a chuckle from Bruneau, who attempted to point out differences but opted against it, saying instead, "I don't know how y'all do it in Convent or whatever."
Farrar, responding: "Well, I definitely don't know how ya'll do it in New Orleans."
Bruneau, with the last word: "Oh, we do it better."
Future Businessmen of America
Money might not buy you love, but it can apparently give you a voice in the Legislature.
During a meeting of the House Natural Resources Committee, Kevin Hayes, a lobbyist for the Coastal Conservation Association, arguably the most powerful conservation group in the state, showed publicly where lawmakers get their motivation. It was during a debate on fish-exclu der devices, one of the hottest conservation issues of the session. The devices, which are now legal, are meant to keep large fish, such as drum, from munching on oysters. The device, however, is left undefined in the law, and the officials still don't know how much it will cost the state.
Waving from the witness table, Hayes loudly whispered toward the committee: "Have you asked yet what the fiscal impact would be on the [Department of Wildlife and Fisheries]?" When his first inquiry went unanswered, Hayes increased the volume. Finally, Rep. William Daniel, D-Baton Rouge, walked along the wall of the committee room to meet a skulking Hayes. After huddling for a few seconds, the influence of a true lobbyist with stroke was displayed. Pulling the microphone toward himself, Daniel eyed his lobbyist/adviser and tossed the question to an unknowing bureaucrat: "Um, what would the cost of this program be to the department?"
Coincidentally, CCA's political action committee and top brass are longtime contributors to Daniel's campaigns, according to finance reports filed with the state.
In another related instance, Sen. Robert Adley, D-Benton, helped kill a bill that would have allowed the Public Service Commission to create a team of state rail inspectors. He was among the most vocal of opponents. In another coincidence, campaign finance records reveal Adley has received substantial contributions over the past two years from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Santa Fe Railway Company and the KCS Rail Political Action Committee.
The Failed Music Program
Pushing Acadiana as a hot spot for small-scale music producers, Sen. Mike Michot, R-Lafayette, managed to get the industry a healthy tax credit passed through the upper chamber. But when his Senate Bill 114 met the House side, it was placed on an agenda and left there to rot. The bill would have provided a 10 percent tax credit on any money an individual spends on producing music in Louisiana. But the $5 million the state would have had to shell out annually to support the program sent many lawmakers running to the woods.
Some lawmakers still don't know what they want to be when they grow up, while others might regret the career choices they've made. Sen. Joe McPherson, D-Woodworth, turned a debate about the electoral college into one such therapy session. "I don't even have an education," he says. "I have a degree in political science."
On the House side, Rep. Charlie Dewitt, D-Alexandria, didn't have to search long to justify his business decision to the speaker pro tem. When he was asked why he wanted the floor to debate a certain point, Dewitt answered quickly: "Job security." Of course, with term limits approaching, one has to wonder which job that is.
In yet another display, Rep. Damon Baldone, D-Houma, surprised many of his colleagues when the businessman revealed he had a biology degree.
"You have a biology degree?" asks Rep. Jack Smith, D-Franklin. "I didn't know you were that smart."
Baldone replies: "I'm also a lawyer."
Smith: "Yeah, well, that's a whole different kind of thing."
Senate Storm and House Hurricanes
After years of being on the losing end of the Legislature's annual charity basketball game, the Senate members notched a 48-43 win over the House this session. Granted, they did it with the help of some players that no longer serve in the Senate, but a win is a win.
House members, however, didn't even bother bringing the trophy to the game. Escorted by a group of state troopers, the Senate claimed its title on the House floor the next day. "Y'all are so arrogant that you left the trophy here in the House of Representatives, and you just assumed you'd win the game," Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, told the lower chamber. But the joke was on him, as House members had already placed the trophy in the bathroom.
The Legislature backed a resolution this session asking Congress to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from requiring a permitting process for cypress logging in areas described as wetlands ("Log Jam," June 15). The resolution carries no legal weight, and does not guarantee Congress will address the issue, but it marks the state's entry into a debate that has been hostile at best on the national level. Those opposed to the 1899 rule contend the term "wetland" is too broadly defined, and the Environmental Protection Agency can already keep loggers out of sensitive areas like coastal Louisiana by referring to the Clean Water Act. State officials ' from the governor's office down to conservation agencies ' warned lawmakers that passing a resolution like this one would send the wrong message to Congress at the same time Louisiana is seeking major appropriations for coastal restoration. Senate Concurrent Resolution 71 by Sen. Mike Smith, D-Winnfield, made it through the process with relative ease, but a few changes were hammered out during the final hours of the session. Terrebonne, Lafourche and St. Charles parishes were pulled from the bill at the request of their legislative delegations.
The hottest issue for Acadiana this session was probably the one that never came up. Senate Bill 126 by Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, requires any municipality considering a telecommunications project to put it to a vote. Both chambers adopted the measure, but the local area was amended out. The legislation stirred up emotions because Lafayette Utilities System has already called a July 16 election to ask voters to approve $125 million in bonds for fiber-optic phone, cable and Internet. If Lafayette had not been removed from the bill, it would have required LUS to call a second election.
In or Out?
If the governor supports the concept, the voters of Lafayette Parish will have the final say over how long a member of their school board can stay in office. The House and Senate gave overwhelming approval to House Bill 405 by Rep. Ernie Alexander, R-Lafayette. It allows for a public vote on term limits during the next primary or general election. If voters back the ballot initiative, school board members in Lafayette will only be allowed to serve three consecutive four-year terms.
When the governor's cigarette tax stalled, it left teachers without the possibility of a $1,500 pay raise. Republicans came to the rescue with an alternative plan to shift around $85 million in the budget, but that likewise fell flat. In a last ditch effort during the session's final days, the Senate passed what it considered a compromise ' a one-time bonus of about $530, a far cry from what teacher unions wanted. The plan would divert $12.5 million that was intended to pay off retirement debt, but the governor has yet to voice her approval.
Dazed and Confused
Sometimes things are better left unsaid, especially in the Legislature. Tight lips can keep closed-door dealings secret and complex policies under the radar. When one official tried to explain the inner workings of the state construction budget, he was promptly shut down. That's because it's traditionally used to reward legislators who back the administration. "We really don't want to be explaining that publicly," says Rep. Bryant Hammett, D-Ferriday, who handled House Bill 2 this year.
The state's spending plan, found in House Bill 1, is no different. Some lawmakers are allowed to insert pet projects for their districts if they stay in good standing. Rep. John Alario, D-Westwego, who oversaw the bill this session, was called out on the floor regarding a certain project. "I don't want to suggest that you and I have made a deal. First off, I don't make deals in public," Alario says.
A Day in the Life
Want to roll like an elected official? Here's a look at a day in the life of a Louisiana legislator, pulled from observations and notes taken on May 25.
When lawmakers in the House and Senate got to their seats that afternoon, they were greeted by a pound of rice provided by a contingency of Louisiana rice growers. There was also a bucket filled with goodies from the Louisiana Chemical Association. Among other items, it included a sleeve of golf balls ' a few House members spent the day wondering around the chamber asking other lawmakers if they wanted theirs.
That evening, there was a party near the State Capitol for former House members, a crawfish boil hosted by the Louisiana Chemical Association at the Governor's Mansion and another shindig for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette down the street. There was even a jambalaya cookout going on at the State Museum, put on by the Pachyderm Club, a GOP spin-off. And if all that partying made for a slow start the next morning, it was made easier by a full breakfast offered by the Louisiana Poultry, Egg and Dairy Association.
An ambitious plan breezed through the Legislature this session that could put abandoned oil platforms to good use, unleash a viable alternative energy source and create an entirely new industry in the Gulf of Mexico. House Bill 428 by Rep. Wilfred Pierre, D-Lafayette, authorizes the Department of Natural Resources to develop areas for offshore wind energy ("Winds of Change," Feb. 23). Herman Schellstede, president of Wind Energy Systems Technologies in New Iberia, has built a company around the concept and even drafted designs for turbines that could eventually be used. He says the energy connections could be run through existing pipelines, and once installed, operations would be cheap. After all, air is both free and somewhat predictable. Sen. Craig Romero, R-New Iberia, sounded eager to bring the project back home to his district, but recommended one other area wind energy could work: "We ought to put some of those things in Baton Rouge between the months of April and July every year and see how much hot air they can get."
The Senate opened its doors one day this session to former members and allowed them to speak before the upper chamber. Among those standing behind the president's desk were a handful who have seen the inside of a federal prison, like Jim Brown and B.B. "Sixty" Rayburn.
Former Sen. Sonny Mouton told the current body that it has a lot to thank his generation for: "When you look at this group behind us, these men built the problems you now face. It took skill. It took talent. It took vodka."
The aging politicos cracked a few more jokes about Viagra and fishing and smoking and drinking, but mainly they were happy not to be voting on an aggressive tax package.
The Final Word
Sometimes the public will never hear about the more important votes that lawmakers take. For instance, consider the following one called for by Senate President Donald Hines, D-Bunkie, when the upper chamber found itself working past the ungodly hour of 6 p.m. one evening: "All those in favor of going home, vote yea."
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. His work has appeared in Louisiana Life, The Dallas Morning News and other publications. You can reach him through his Web site at www.jeremyalford.com.