**Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Written by Jeremy Alford
From class clowns to most likely to succeed, this year's regular session produced moments Lafayette should remember - as well as a few worth forgetting.**
About two weeks ago, I overheard a conversation just off the House floor between a sergeant-at-arms (a member of the Legislature's maroon-coated security force)...
**Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Written by Jeremy Alford
From class clowns to most likely to succeed, this year's regular session produced moments Lafayette should remember - as well as a few worth forgetting.**
About two weeks ago, I overheard a conversation just off the House floor between a sergeant-at-arms (a member of the Legislature's maroon-coated security force) and a page (the youngest species of Capitol worker, a glorified gopher). The kid, whose hair kept falling in his eyesight only to be knocked back by a jerk of his neck, wanted to know, like, what was in store for the session's final day.
The sergeant-at-arms, without taking his eye off of the House floor, answered nonchalantly out the side of his mouth. "It's like summer camp, you know? You been around all these people for weeks, and it's about to end. Lots of goodbyes, stuff like that."
The exchange wouldn't have meant much to me if I hadn't heard the same analogy from a freshman lawmaker following his first session some 10 years ago. I thought it was comical at the time, a grown man likening the legislative process to summer camp. And while he was as right as the sergeant-at-arms, the comparison works a touch better when you stack the Legislature's structure up against that of any average high school.
In Dana Milbank's Homo Politicus, an anthropological take on D.C. politics that resonates just as strongly here, the author suggests it's a solid theme. "To many outsiders, the pecking order seems similar to that established in other cultures by high school students," Milbank writes. So it's only appropriate that The Independent Weekly take a look back at the 85-day regular session with what has become an annual-or-so feature since 2005: the Legislative Yearbook. These pages are filled with our picks for the coolest kids of the class, a few most-likely winners, at least two clowns and at least one mention of cheerleaders.
The 2010 regular session ... it seems like only yesterday.
**Head of the Class
Even though Sen. Mike Michot, R-Lafayette, has been a member of the Legislature since 1996, he really hit his political stride this year as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. With the Senate president, House speaker and House Appropriations chair, Michot is charged with addressing what's anticipated to be a $3 billion budget shortfall over the next two years.
For most of the session, the House held onto the budget bills, which placed the Senate in an unusual sit-and-wait status since it really can't act until House Bill 1 comes over from the House. That didn't happen until the final two weeks of the session. Michot, however, was proactive in managing his committee and started holding hearings on HB 1 before the House ever voted on the budget bill.
Moreover, the budget was in Michot's committee when state officials discovered at practically the last minute that the current year's budget was off by an additional $261 million, meaning present-day spending had to be reduced by a total $580 million. Despite the hiccup, and a fiscal feud between the speaker and the president that threatened to derail the process, Michot still found a way to get the budget bills to the floor.
He was also at the table with Gov. Bobby Jindal when the decision was made over the weekend to have the House rubber-stamp the Senate's version. Michot said at the time that Jindal would only work with a budget that recognized all of the state's financial shortfalls because the governor's future political plans hinge on him being a fiscal conservative.
**Conservative Christian of the Year
Only in Louisiana could the so-called far right pilfer talent freely from what's supposed to be the party of the left. A new alliance with holy-roller lobbyists was formed this year by Rep. Fred Mills, D-Parks, who ushered through a bill this session giving the state greater discretion to revoke or deny licenses of abortion clinics.
Rev. Gene Mills, president of the Louisiana Family Forum, says he worked closely with the Acadiana lawmaker on the proposal and adds that there's no blood relation. The reverend can also boast about ties to Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, who passed her own bill to force women to obtain ultrasounds prior to having an abortion.
**Most Likely to Succeed
One-time St. Martin Parish President Scott Angelle is among the luckiest Cajuns in Louisiana politics today. He was appointed natural resources secretary under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a fellow Acadiana Democrat, and managed to keep his gig in the GOP administration of Bobby Jindal. But that's not all - Angelle also became Jindal's legislative liaison, one of the first professionals to truly succeed in the job in recent years and keep it.
When New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu left Baton Rouge, Jindal again tapped Angelle to be the interim lieutenant governor, a temporary position that Angelle still holds now in addition to his role as legislative liaison. The natural resources post is in the hands of a placeholder until Angelle steps down later this fall after a new lieutenant governor is elected.
Of course, if Angelle were still in his old natural resources job, he would have undoubtedly been one of the loudest voices in the oil recovery, thus increasing his exposure even more. The stars certainly seem to be aligning for Angelle, who was considering switching to the Republican Party before assuming the state's No. 2 position.
**Outstanding Achievement in Politics
Rep. Joel Robideaux of Lafayette, who has no party affiliation and is in his second term, not only toppled one of the longest serving lawmakers in the Legislature to become House speaker pro tem, but he also kicked over a political anthill in the process that's still biting people today.
In the election's aftermath, House Speaker Jim Tucker unseated certain committee members he said switched their promised votes. Robideaux was backed by Tucker, R-Algiers. Rep. Noble Ellington, D-Winnsboro, was not. The fallout also led to the defeat of a bill that would have created a single board for all of Louisiana's four-year colleges. Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, who supported Ellington and lost his seat on the House Appropriations Committee, was the deciding vote.
When the roll call vote was taken to elect the House speaker pro tem, those Acadiana boys were cracking up and basking in the knowledge that one of their own was about to assume power. When Rep. Jonathan W. Perry, R-Abbeville, a self-styled stand-up comedian (he actually has a stand-up DVD), tried to add another name to the ballot. "Cortez!" he shouted on the floor of the House. "Uh, no. Robideaux!" While the vote for Rep. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, was well meant, it did not count.
If that weren't enough, Perry told House members over the weekend that his wife had gone on strike when it comes to making coffee. And why was that? Perry says it's in the Bible, in the "book of He-brews."
When Rep. George Gregory Cromer, R-Slidell, joined the House Retirement Committee as its newest member last month, the moment didn't pass without a bit of joshing from his colleagues - and a healthy dose of political reality. Leave it to Rep. Juan LaFonta, D-New Orleans, to bring it all out in the open. "What did you do wrong to get here?" LaFonta asked Cromer. "That's what I want to know. That's how we all got here. I voted for the wrong speaker. What did you do?"
SEX: As the session wound down last week, it seemed highly likely that legislation by Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, to even the prostitution playing field was going to pass. Current law defines solicitation of prostitution (chiefly vaginal intercourse) as a misdemeanor, while solicitation of a crime against nature (fellatio, cunnilingus, anal sex and bestiality) comes with a felony label. Senate Bill 381 makes them both a misdemeanor. During debate, supporters argued that johns would be encouraged to change their ways if given a second chance, and opponents countered that johns would indeed be encouraged - to seek out prostitutes more frequently.
DRUGS: Marijuana, synthetic and otherwise, carried the banner for illegal substances this session. Most of us already know that the lab-produced herbal stuff, known as Spice, Voodoo, Mojo and other names, is going to be outlawed. But there was also Senate Bill 576 by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge. It creates a minimum fine of $250 for second offense possession of marijuana and makes mandatory substance abuse treatment and community service. Claitor originally wanted a 48-hour mandatory jail sentence as well, but lawmakers on the House side told him to slow his roll.
ROCK & ROLL: Senate Concurrent Resolution 112 by Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, was given swift passage for good reason. As adopted, it crowns the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame as the "official honors and recognition organization and information resource for Louisiana's music, musicians and musical heritage."
**Language of the Year
It appears that the state Legislature has quite a few changes in store for the iconic organization that has worked to preserve and promote the French language in Louisiana for more than 42 years. The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, also known as CODOFIL, stirred some controversy early on by focusing chiefly on continental French, but it now incorporates Cajun French and other Louisiana variations in its outreach.
In recent years, however, CODOFIL has also been criticized for its top-heavy bureaucracy. It currently has a guiding board of 50 members, all of whom are appointed by the governor. "The committee is too big," says Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte. "If you create a committee where it's a political dumping ground for appointees, you're not going to have an effective committee."
LaFleur's Senate Bill 800 reduces its membership from 50 to 23 and leaves the governor with only two appointments. As for CODOFIL's current board members who might not make the cut, they'll still have a role to play if they so choose. "To make sure we don't just throw them out, we're placing them on the advisory committee to CODOFIL," LaFleur says.
The proposed legislation also provides for a goal of establishing at least one French immersion school no later than Sept. 1, 2015, in each of the 22 parishes of the Acadiana region. Five of these parishes already have at least one such school. Additionally, LaFleur wants CODOFIL to develop a certification system whereby vendors, festivals and restaurants would be designated "Francophone Friendly."
The bill was forced into last-minute negotiations because officials from East Baton Rouge Parish wanted one of the proposed French immersion schools in their parish, a demand LaFleur bowed to during the session's final hours.
Sen. Nick Gautreaux, D-Abbeville, took over as Senate Natural Resources chairman this session and got off to a promising start. For starters, he personally reads every bill that moves through his committee - a quality that's rare even in a chairmen. His late-night "mark-up" sessions became a source of fodder in the halls this year, and they produced piles of papers with notes in their margins in Gautreaux's handwriting. "I know nobody thinks we read these bills, but we do," he said during one meeting earlier this month.
Gautreaux also showed a bit of moxie this session when he subpoenaed officials with Transocean, the energy company that owns the rig that was operated by BP, which participated in a special hearing alongside other parties involved with the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. "It just seems like Transocean is the only one who doesn't want to come," Gautreaux said before sending a sergeant-at-arms to serve Transocean last week.
**Repeating a Grade
Among the top priorities for the Lafayette delegation during the 2009 regular session was to create something called the Energy Corridor Commission, which would have basically been a revamped version of the existing Lafayette Metropolitan Expressway Commission with additional membership. At the time, the Lafayette delegation proposed to pull in stakeholders from as far away as the central coastline and have them consider funding opportunities like tolls. But lawmakers balked.
Back for another bite at the apple this year was Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley. His House Bill 684 would change the name of the existing commission to the Regional Expressway Commission. In a nutshell, this updated proposal would partner the parishes of Iberia and Lafayette behind the push for I-49.
Under Montoucet's bill and the current law, two members each come from the Lafayette Economic Development Authority and the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce; and one member each is appointed by the city/parish president of Lafayette, the mayors of the incorporated areas of the parish and the City-Parish Council.
Here's what would change: The state Department of Transportation and Development as well as UL would lose one seat each and be confined to one appointment each. Their picks would instead go to the governing authorities of Iberia Parish and the city of New Iberia.
Montoucet's bill, however, may be held back, much like the delegation's 2009 effort. With only a couple of days left in the session, before our deadline for this issue, the measure was pending final passage on the Senate calendar, and a number of lawmakers were standing in line to amend the bill to create their own groups, like the Amite River Expressway Commission.
**Never Lets Anyone Look at His Paper
This was supposed to be the year that lawmakers got all John Wayne on public records in Gov. Bobby Jindal's office. But for the third year in a row, the state's citizenry was forced to watch lawmakers let Jindal get away with having one of the worst gubernatorial disclosure laws in the nation.
Still, Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, the author of this year's reincarnation, may have had the last laugh. During the session's final days, he attached an amendment to a House bill making all of the governor's oil spill-related communications public record. Of course, Jindal holds the power to veto, so we'll see who's really laughing in coming weeks. Hopefully, it's Adley, who promised to filibuster on the session's final day if Jindal made a move to go around the amendment with another bill.
We Don't Need No Stinking Art
After the House approved the state's budget bill Sunday evening, the folks over at the Acadiana Center for the Arts were calling it a "black day for culture in Louisiana." To be certain, the local art hub will feel the pinch. Decentralized Arts Funding has been cut from $2.5 million to $1.4 million, which represents a whopping 45 percent reduction. Additionally, Statewide Arts Grants have taken a devastating hit, going from $2.3 million to $340,000, an 85 percent reduction.
According to the Louisiana Partnership for Arts Advocacy, more than 80,000 individual messages were sent to legislators during the past two weeks. Arts supporters were hoping the House and Senate would pass a last minute amendment late Monday, but the outlook was not promising as the 6 p.m. deadline approached. The LPAA was seeking the restoration of about $4 million - less than the cost of building one mile of two-lane highway.
Best Way to Start a Meeting
"Good morning committee, guests, witnesses, masochists. Ms. Hudson, would you call the roll please?"
- Rep. Ernest Wooton, R-Belle Chasse, using his authority as chairman to welcome everyone in attendance at a recent meeting of the House Criminal Justice Committee
**Teachers' Lounge Gossip
Legislation that would limit how and when public school system employees are allowed to retire and then be rehired gained a great deal of attention early on in the session. House Bill 519 by Rep. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, eventually passed, even after several senators attached amendments to the measure creating special exemptions for school employees in their own districts.
Prior to the Senate's changes, an analysis of Cortez's bill by the Legislative Fiscal Office predicted that the resulting savings could potentially top $100 million annually. The Ind reviewed the retire-rehire policy in a cover story shortly after the session convened and found abuses in the Lafayette Parish School System and anecdotal evidence of similar challenges in other parishes. Here's the rub: While the retire-rehire program was created to keep qualified teachers on the job, administrative and office-level employees have been abusing it.
Cortez's bill would prohibit retirees in the Teachers' Retirement System of Louisiana from receiving retirement benefits during their period of reemployment unless such retirees are reemployed as classroom teachers in grades K through 12 in the areas of mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics or special education.
It would likewise require the school superintendent to certify to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the TRSL board of trustees that a shortage of teachers exists in the area in which the retired teacher was hired to teach. "They just can't have carte blanche," Cortez says. "But the program is important. Without it, we would have teachers with less experience. But right now, because of the abuses, it's difficult to tell if we're actually losing money on the program."
**Worst Luck of the Session
Get this: The recently wrapped regular session was supposed to be a landmark, game-changing policy gathering for commercial shrimp harvesters and processors. Following months of low dockside prices, Gov. Bobby Jindal got behind bills to create an official Louisiana Shrimp Task Force in law and annually fund a special seafood marketing and inspection program.
Rather than celebrating, shrimpers are watching their industry be chipped slowly away by pollutants in the Gulf of Mexico. Right now, stock assessments aren't showing major damage, but no one expects that to last. "We've tested all the oyster beds, and we've taken samples of finfish, crabs, shrimp," says Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the state's top medical officer. "We've also taken baseline samples before the oil even got here. Because what's going to be critical moving forward as we look at the chemicals in our seafood is [that] we know where we started from."
Future Bankers of America
Legislative leaders, particularly Senate President Joel Chaisson, D-Destrehan, got quite creative in their quest for budget flexibility. Chaisson, along with Republican Sen. Mike Michot, was behind a set of bills this session to allow lawmakers to dip into the state's protected funds to access some badly needed cash.
The hottest ticket of the session was Chaisson's proposal to use one-third, or $250 million, from the so-called rainy day fund this year and allow for future utilization during times of fiscal need. It created a divide with House leaders, who wanted to pay the fund back almost immediately instead of putting it off.
Chaisson also pushed legislation to permit the state to reduce dedicated funds by 10 percent so that the money can be used other places in the budget. Another two bills from the Senate leadership sought out an additional $30 million from the state's tobacco settlement fund to bolster health care needs.
Locally, the proposals touched off a bit of controversy when Rob Guidry, CEO of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, wrote an opinion piece in The Daily Advertiser. He called the policy ideas "highly questionable" because the Legislature should be looking for other ways to cut the budget.
The column also pitted Guidry against Michot, who has fired back on talk radio and other venues. Still, Guidry stuck to his guns. "The tough decisions keep getting kicked down the road and the fire grows hotter," he wrote in The Advertiser.
Most Likely to be Missed
On Sunday afternoon, Sen. Troy Hebert of Jeanerette announced that he would not seek re-election to the Louisiana Senate next year. It has certainly been an interesting few months for Hebert, who switched from Democrat to no party prior to the session and was then married not long after. While it's his first term in the Upper Chamber, Hebert was previously a member of the House since 1995.
His oratory skills, which beckoned a bygone era in Louisiana politics, ranged from rants for the "little man" - easily Hebert's trademark topic - to racier commentaries, before he was married, of course, regarding his ... um, conquests. He's not shy when it comes to controversy and had a running feud with his local district attorney this session.
For now, he's going out in style, having run in five elections and won five, beginning with his 1991 election to the Iberia Parish Council, where he served as its youngest member ever. "The time to leave is at the top of your game, and I am at mine now. It's nice to be able to leave on my own terms," he says. "Popular or not, I have always fought for what I thought was right. Unlike some, I never take on issues to get re-elected; I take them on because I was elected."
After his final hoorah next year, Hebert will also be remembered as the man who gave former Gov. Kathleen Blanco her moniker of Queen Bee.
**The Defining Legislation
The most important law adopted during this year's annual legislative session generated no attention at all, probably because lawmakers failed to give it so much as a hearing. But it was adopted nonetheless - in a very big way - as the normal way of doing business.
Better known as Murphy's Law, the new "act" took hold on the session's opening day in late March, as House members applied it to the speaker pro tem election, which we discussed above. This year, instead of working things out quietly, the election was a public display of discord and dissent.
It soon became obvious that the 2010 regular session would require careful observance, for Murphy's Law dictates that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Starting with the opening-day debacle in the House, things really unraveled after the BP oil calamity in the Gulf of Mexico April 20.
Truly, this marks the date that Murphy's Law dealt a catastrophic blow to the state and to the legislative session. Today, enough crude flows into the Gulf every 24 hours to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. As horrific as the BP disaster is, there were still opportunities during the session that lawmakers wasted - opportunities that had little to do with the oil gusher.
This was supposed to be the session in which Jindal's Commission on Streamlining Government and House Speaker Tucker's Post-secondary Education and Review Commission bore fruit. That basket of fruit never ripened. In short, if you're looking for real reforms out of the session, then look elsewhere.
That's too bad, because the economic and fiscal impact of the BP debacle will likely push future revenue shortfalls even higher, proving once again that Murphy's Law not only remains in effect, but also that it is veto-proof and immune to repeal. That makes Gov. Jindal the Big Man on Campus, once again, and once again sets the stage for a regular session in 2011 that will make or break his career and those of legislators.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at [email protected]