Cover Story

Confessions of a Session

by Jeremy Alford

Wednseday, June 29, 2011
By Jeremy Alford
Photos by Robin May

As 144 politicos settle back into their real jobs this week, we look back at the winners, the losers, the stories and non-stories of the 2011 legislative season.

Wednseday, June 29, 2011
By Jeremy Alford
Photos by Robin May

As 144 politicos settle back into their real jobs this week, we look back at the winners, the losers, the stories and non-stories of the 2011 legislative season.

When lawmakers gather in Baton Rouge every year for their regular session, bills pass and bills fail. It's almost an athletic event; you either win or lose. Right? Wrong.
Just ask Rep. Franklin Foil, a Republican from Red Stick. He ushered a measure through the House to create a special study group to investigate the possibility of holding a constitutional convention. It was the third year in a row Foil brought the proposal to lawmakers, and his hopes were high.

He gave the same dog-and-pony show to the Senate & Governmental Affairs Committee, but he received a dramatically different reaction. No, the Senate committee did not dig a hole for the proposal. In fact, it did nothing at all.

When the floor was made open for motions - pass the bill, reject it, put it on hold - committee members said absolutely nothing. Crickets chirping would have been fitting. "I've never seen anything like it," Foil said after the 2011 regular session concluded last Thursday. "Nothing happened. Nothing at all."

That's something Foil isn't likely to forget.

But then for others, like the folks over at the Public Affairs Research Council, the last few months are quite forgettable. Just consider PAR's review: "The 2011 legislative session might be best remembered for those things that did not happen. There was no collapse of government services, no elimination of tax breaks or exemptions, no repeal of the personal income tax and no veto overrides, which pleased the governor. There was no new payroll tax on government workers, no sale of prisons and no university mergers or fundamental consolidation of college management structures, which did not please the governor. There were tuition increases and a potential tax renewal, but otherwise no new taxes."

The curtain not only dropped on the regular session last week, but also on the careers of several term-limited lawmakers.

Legislators. They say the darndest things.

And quite a few of them, chiefly those with the most seniority, did so with a touch of finality last week. As each day blew by, another name was ticked off the list.

Once upon a time, farewell speeches were less predictable. As far as timing, at least. But the advent of term limits altered the rhythm of good-byes. So you can now expect a steady stream of these parting remarks every four years.

For his bit, Rep. Ernest Wooton, independent-Belle Chasse, thought it might be fun to rattle the cages over at the FBI. From behind the dais on the House floor, he pointed to his well-known seat at the very back of the chamber. "When all the attention is up here, the envelopes come under the rail," Wooton said to thunderous laughter. "Without lobbyists, I couldn't afford to be here. I don't have a real job. The governor vetoed my pay raise. I had built that into my budget for years."

On former House Speaker Joe Salter and current gavel crasher Jim Tucker, R-Algiers: "I told [Salter] he was too nice for the job. The things he had to do wasn't in his nature, the kind of things Jim Tucker does just in stride. Seems to kind of relish in them."

Wooton, a former Plaquemines Parish sheriff and sitting criminal justice chairman, after slipping on novelty eyeglasses with oversized nose and mustache: "Some things just need to be done."

Then Wooton read a poem sprinkled with colorful words and a verse concerning Gov. Bobby Jindal and his staff and their dedication. Or, as The Sheriff put it, "Up his butt they go." For good measure, Wooton ended his remarks by standing erect by the dais as a recording of Johnny Cash belted out "Ragged Old Flag."

Sen. Mike Michot, R-Lafayette, recalled his first orientation as a lawmaker and learning about all the ways he would no longer be able to earn a living due to conflicts of interest. He heard a voice behind him mutter, "All this and you get to go bankrupt." After all these years, Michot was ready to drop a dime. He attributed it to Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie.

For whatever it's worth, Wooton also said between guffaws that Martiny built his law practice around the claim of "keeping me out of the federal courthouse."

Legislators. They're a wily bunch sometimes.

Sen. Joe McPherson, D-Woodworth, explained as much when he justified taking a reference book during his first years in office - even though it was clearly marked "Do Not Take." It's one of those things you just won't find in a civics textbook. "Senators do not steal," McPherson said. "They acquire."

McPherson said he wanted to utilize his first farewell speech when he left the Senate in the mid-1990s, but the film couldn't be found. "I was going to put it on and watch it with y'all. I haven't seen it yet," he said. Meanwhile in the House, Rep. Noble Ellington, R-Winnsboro, said he was giving his third - and final, really - parting speech.

A couple of outgoing lawmakers used PowerPoint presentations - some to good effect, like early campaign photographs; others not so good, like using the U.S. Capitol as a background. Some lawmakers quoted their fathers. Others Dr. Seuss.

But few were as damning as Sen. Butch Gautreaux, D-Morgan City. He launched into a nearly 10-minute tirade from the Senate floor accusing Jindal and his administration of abusing public resources, rigging high-dollar contracts, hatching a plan to fire certain state workers and generally failing the voters of Louisiana.

While his prepared speech was admittedly filled with inflammatory verse, Gautreaux delivered it in an even tone without crescendo and in a decent temper. "Gov. Jindal, our most traveled governor in Louisiana history, has logged well over a thousand hours in state police helicopters, spending Sundays campaigning in churches mostly in north Louisiana," said Gautreaux.

He also said Jindal has "logged hundreds of hours in Army National Guard helicopters traveling to the coast after hurricanes Gustav and Ike and the BP oil spill in an effort to point out that President [Barack] Obama was not here and that the federal government was doing nothing."
Who can blame Gautreaux and the others? Why not have loose lips on the last days?

Tucker, as an independent-minded speaker, knows what it feels like to get on Jindal's bad side, which is why it's easier to say such things on the fly rather than when you land. "I feel like I've survived more coup attempts from the fourth floor than a South American dictator," he said.
Legislators. They say stuff.

And then sometimes they do the opposite. So take these good-byes with a grain of salt. Statewide elections are only a few months away and, despite repeated attempts, you just can't keep all the professional politicians down. Even when they're out.


Louisiana Voters
Did you grow weary of watching lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal kick the proposed cigarette tax back and forth? If so, there's some good news: the decision is now up to you. At first the Legislature wanted the tax renewed, then Jindal vetoed the effort and, finally, the House failed in its attempt at an override. But that was just the beginning.

In what proved to be among the slickest policy moves in recent memory, Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, attached the 4-cent tax to a completely unrelated constitutional amendment that would direct more dough to the TOPS scholarship program. That allowed weak-willed lawmakers fearful of a tax vote so close to re-election to advance the measure. It also took Jindal off the hook, since he doesn't have to approve constitutional amendments.

Gov. Bobby Jindal
The blows suffered by Jindal this session - and there were many, from a failed scheme to sell off prisons to a privatization plan for the retirement system - happened squarely in the political arena. That means his dynamic base of north Louisiana and ultra-religious voters won't be stirred.

Plus, Jindal is the governor of a state where the governor is king. For the past four years, Jindal has urged lawmakers in the lower chamber to simply rubberstamp whatever budget the Senate produces and send it directly to him. This year was no different. And since 2008 when he first took office, Jindal has never once missed a chance to take his veto pen to House Bill 1, which includes the budget. Expect more of the same.

Treasurer John Kennedy
Kennedy usually emerges during legislative sessions as a fiscal hawk of sorts, but his usual targets - earmarks and complicated bonding issues - were few and far between this session.

In his defense, Kennedy was a bit of a late starter. Two proposals he co-authored with independent state Rep. Dee Richard of Thibodaux didn't start moving until earlier this month. They would have reduced employees in the executive branch and cut state consulting contracts. But with opposition from the administration and a Senate committee stacked with company men, both failed after clearing the House.

Rep. Bobby Badon
"I think we can handle it diplomatically. You know what I'm saying?"

That's what Badon, D-Carencro, was caught on tape saying to a state trooper prior to an arrest for driving while intoxicated. The Advocate obtained the video, posted it on its Web site and the alcohol-laced pleadings of Badon went politically viral. At least in South Louisiana.
In the video, he can be heard asking for "slack." While the trooper offered none, Badon's breath sample - and the DWI charge - were ultimately thrown out of court.

Senate President Joel Chaisson
"I will be back."

That's what Chaisson, D-Destrehan, told the Senate on the session's final day last week. He said it may be as a visitor or in another "official capacity."

Either way, Chaisson should be welcomed back warmly, based on nothing else than his farewell speech. In jest, lawmakers close to Chaisson had pages hand out boxes of tissue - and for good reason.

Surrounded by family and friends, Chaisson said his farewells and left lawmakers with only a few words of guidance to end the 2010 regular session. "The only bit of advice I have to give to those of you who are returning is to make the most out of every moment you have left here," Chaisson said. "Because before you know it, and all too quickly, you'll find yourself up here like me saying thank you and goodbye."

DHH Secretary Bruce Greenstein
For a minute there last week, it looked like the Senate would take the unprecedented step of rejecting a governor's appointee. But that didn't happen.

Of course, the controversy involved Health and Hospitals Secretary Bruce Greenstein, who has landed with a big, wet splat in Louisiana. For the sake of this evaluation, you need to know he was previously employed by a company called CNSI from 2005 to 2006.

According to subpoenaed documents, Greenstein met with company officials from CNSI shortly after coming onto the state's payroll last year and later expressed interest in how a major Medicaid contract was coming along. Testimony from the confirmation process showed that Greenstein soon asked that the RFP be rewritten so CNSI could participate.

Who won the Medicaid contract worth $34 million annually, the state's biggest single contract? CNSI.

Welcome to The Hayside, Mr. Greenstein. Good to see you already have a seat.

Louisiana shrimpers
Amid a sea of handwritten signs directed at BP and its culpability for the 2010 oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, nearly 300 shrimpers rallied on the steps of the state Capitol last week in hopes of getting the attention of policymakers. A similar gathering was staged in 2009, uniting the same diverse stakeholders of Vietnamese, African-American and white Cajun shrimpers.

Then, it was an urgent cry to do something about the plummeting price of dock-side shrimp. This go around, protestors focused on two issues related to the oil disaster. For starters, shrimpers launched a defense that they're not responsible for the turtle mortalities that have occurred in the wake of the explosion of BP's Macondo well. Secondly, they want blame placed on the shoulders of BP for driving down shrimp sales and creating the perception that Louisiana seafood is not safe to eat.

When shrimpers protested two years ago, Jindal reacted instantly by forming a special task force and issuing an executive order for state agencies to buy more domestic shrimp. This time, however, shrimpers may have waited too late in the session to shake up the Legislature and administration.

The state budget
Despite dire warnings from officials that a $1.6 billion shortfall would push government services and aid off a fiscal "cliff," lawmakers ended their regular session quietly last week without all of the managed mayhem and lingering controversy that typically defines the Legislature's closing hours.

That can partly be attributed to the state's $25 billion budget, the centerpiece of the session that was already out of the way. Lawmakers had balanced it by redirecting federal money, taking cash from different state funds and spending one-time dollars on recurring needs. It's a formula that conservatives and liberals alike believe will place the new Legislature, once elected this fall and seated in January, in a similar fiscal pinch heading into the 2012 regular session.

The top 10 personalities and issues from this year's regular session that Lafayette should be up to snuff on

1.) Mike Michot takes a bow - for now
After 16 years in the Legislature, the last 10 in the upper chamber, Sen. Mike Michot, R-Lafayette, bid farewell last week. But that was only due to term limits. "Certainly the job is not done," Michot told his colleagues last week. "There's much more to be done."

On Friday, almost 24 hours after the Legislature adjourned, Michot said he was looking at "several options, including one that's elected." But he added he was going to enjoy his break and possibly host a "sledgehammer party for my BlackBerry."

So don't count the guy out. He has $170,000 in his campaign finance account, of which $17,000 came from political action committees. When he gave his farewell address last week, Michot also took care to invite two major boosters: lobbyist and former VP at Acadiana Ambulance Tyron Picard, whose stature and influence has only increased in Baton Rouge since he formed his own government relations firm, and Louisiana Capital President Andre Frugé, considered to be the political reincarnation of Lafayette's late kingmaker Maxie Broussard.

Michot's father, who also served in the state Legislature, was on hand as well. Michot recalled what his father told him when he decided to go into politics. "You're skin's not thick enough, and if you spend as much time on your business, you'll reap the fiscal rewards," Michot recalled. "He was right about that."

Michot's favorite moments in the Legislature: meeting Bill Clinton and George W. Bush while they were sitting presidents; watching the Saints win the Superbowl; riding in a Blackhawk helicopter; attending the Grammys; and being at the D-Day Museum opening alongside Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Tom Brokaw.

As for who might replace the state senator, who steps out as finance chairman, the man himself gave a slight nod to Rep. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, during his farewell address. "Page, you may be on this side next year," Michot said. "You never know."

2.) Big bucks in capital outlay
There's more than $55 million in capital outlay money for Lafayette Parish sitting in House Bill 2, the state's annual construction budget. And that's only the money that could be available in the next fiscal year, if the Bond Commission agrees later this fall. There are millions more pending for future years and an even greater sum slated if you take into account region-wide projects.

Here's a sampling of what's in the bill:
$1.5 million for equipment at Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise
$2.5 million for a new A/C unit at the Dr. Joseph Henry Tyler Mental Health Center
$2 million for an emergency room expansion at University Medical Center
$8 million for various needs at UL, like an early childhood development center and renovations to several halls
$8 million for Lafayette Parish for widening Kaliste Saloom, courthouse renovations, jail upgrades and other needs
$7 million for the Youngsville Parkway road project
$1.9 million for the Lafayette Airport Commission to construct a concrete apron and taxiway
$750,000 for improvements to the Cajundome
$7.7 million for acquisition and planning for the Acadiana Center for the Arts
$370,000 for improvements at the Colomb Foundation

3.) Technical college merger
While talk of mergers came hard and fast this year, it didn't amount to much during the regular session. Next year, however, is a different story.

Both the House and Senate approved a resolution that will set into motion a feasibility study that will explore merging Acadiana Technical College and South Louisiana Community College. Supported by the Lafayette delegation, the resolution presents an argument that a study is needed "in order to more adequately address the educational needs of students and the economic and workforce development needs of the greater Lafayette area."

The Board of Regents and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System will be overseeing the study.

4.) Joel Robideaux, come on down!
Speaker Pro Tem Joel Robideaux, no party-Lafayette, comes out of the regular session as a possible frontrunner for speaker in 2011.

In the meantime, Robideaux is enjoying his status as a you-know-what-stirrer-upper. He had legislation that would have created an "improvement district" for UL Lafayette by means of a TIF, or tax incremental financing district. Of course, conservatives hate stuff with "tax" in it, and there are a slew of conservatives in Robideaux's home base of Lafayette.

So, Robideaux did what any skilled politician with an eye to the future would have done: He pulled the bill from consideration.

But Robideaux did pass a bill that will increase fees on behalf of the Lafayette Parish Law Library Commission. His bill increases the fee on civil suit docketing from $4 to $7.

5.) Retire/Rehire Rehashed
Last year, Rep. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, took on the monumental task of reforming the state's rehire-retire laws. At the time, Cortez and many others argued that the program, meant to lure qualified teachers back into the system, was being abused by central office staffers who wanted both a retirement check and a paycheck.

This year, Cortez heard complaints from teachers in his own district about the 2010 effort. The end result: a new retire-rehire bill with an amendment for teachers "who on June 30, 2010, were participating in the Deferred Retirement Option Plan." Senators made a big deal about the exception, but ending up siding with Cortez in the end.

6.) Tenure issue ramping up
Over the next couple of years, the issue of school-related tenure is expected to become a major one among special interests and lawmakers. Locally, the trend can already be seen with Rep. Rickey Hardy, D-Lafayette. He managed to get a bill out of the committee process this session to end tenure for school bus drivers, but the House stopped the proposal in its tracks.

7.) Judicial reviews on the way
Typically, the Legislature takes a hands-off approach to the judiciary. In fact, lawmakers have left judges alone during the past two redistricting cycles.

Younger legislators, however, are getting itchy. A number of different groups attempted to create new minority judgeships this year, but they ran up against a brick wall that was partly supported by Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette. "I just don't think we should be creating judgeships in a piecemeal fashion," she said.

In response, Landry filed a resolution asking the Louisiana Supreme Court to study the state's judgeships to see who needs what and when, as far as case loads and minority representation. While Landry's resolution sat on the legislative calendar, another just like it passed. And with Landry more likely to return than not next year, she could become a lead voice on the issue.

8.) Money from the movies
Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, also passed legislation creating the Acadiana Cultural and Entertainment Special District. It allows local parishes to exempt their sales tax from purchases made by a motion picture production company. Mills said it should be a positive economic development tool.

9.) Fixing retirement
There are more than 8,000 state employees in Lafayette who would undoubtedly be impacted by Louisiana's unfunded accrued liability, better known as UAL or easily explained as retirement debt. While lawmakers have traditionally ignored the now-$18 billion UAL, it's currently so huge that if everyone across the four retirement systems retired today, there wouldn't be enough money to go around.

This session, a partial solution did surface in the form of a constitutional amendment. The mechanism would work by channeling 5 percent of all surpluses into the UAL beginning July 1, 2015. In 2016, the threshold would be increased to 10 percent.

10.) The protectors of porn
When Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, attempted to ban parishes from using public money on pornography, Michot and others sought to have LUS Fiber excluded.

Predictably, lawmakers freaked out and suggested the good people of Lafayette must really like their porn. While that's difficult to quantify in any tangible way, it is true that Lafayette Utilities System's cable TV system has some pretty racy content. And that was the concern. No sweat, though. Jones' bill died on the final day of session.