In the Hopper

by Jeremy Alford

The 2008 regular session of the Legislature is still four months away, but here's a sneak peak at the bills already taking form around the state.

If you haven't gazed at a 2008 calendar yet, then you might be surprised, thrilled or indifferent to learn that Mardi Gras season is practically upon us, with Fat Tuesday falling ridiculously early on Feb. 5. Carnival is quickly approaching, as is the January inauguration of Bobby Jindal, and culture and politics are about to collide. Jindal's uber-special ethics reform special session is also slated to kick off in January, and it won't be a short gathering, as Jindal sold voters on a 31-point ethics plan during the recent election.

Lawmakers, lobbyists and other Capitolites from cities like New Orleans, Houma, Mamou and New Roads don't like the prospects. For some, it may sound ludicrous, but Carnival is big business and ingrained tradition in many areas of south Louisiana, and it's a scheduling problem the Republican governor-elect will have to face.

That's the sweet thing about regular sessions of the Legislature ' in many ways, they're predictable. For instance, come hell or high water, we know the gavel drops on March 31 and must be put away no later than 6 p.m. on June 23. And already there are indications of what to expect.

An unprecedented and historic $30 billion state budget, for starters, is hard to miss. How the money is spent or saved under a new administration promising change and accountability will be watched closely. Creating more transparency regarding the budget is also necessary to reform the state's image and improve voter confidence.

For example, The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry is eyeing something in the current budget called the "2004 Overcollections Fund." In short, it's a special piggy-bank that LABI contends the governor and Joint Legislative Budget Committee traditionally spend however they want.

The governor-elect has vowed to eliminate such funds ' and it probably won't stop there. Whatever else Jindal and his government reformers might find and expose during the session should make for an interesting few months this spring.

While the January special session will be dedicated to ethics, the regular session could be anchored by far-reaching education proposals. Education lobbyists are already expecting Jindal to stand behind legislation that would provide some sort of financial aid, whether through tax credits or another mechanism, to parents who send their children to private or parochial schools. Many lawmakers campaigned behind the voucher concept this year.

It isn't surprising considering the amount of money special interests have been dumping into the state. Particularly, All Children Matter, a Virginia-based 527 organization, bankrolled part of Jindal's radio efforts and also got involved in several other races around the state. Almost exclusively, the 527 group funds and supports candidates who will promote school vouchers in their state.

The group has serious backers. Just before the primary, ACM's Louisiana team received $100,000 from Wal-Mart tycoon Jim Walton of Bentonville, Ark. Additionally, Brooklyn-born neoconservative Bruce Kovner, founder of Caxton Associates, also put $100,000 into the pelican chapter's account during the same time period.

Merit-based pay for public school teachers is also likely to come up again, but the highest-profile issue could be Jindal's push to create more charter schools in Louisiana. On the horizon, there's chatter about reformulating the way Louisiana colleges are funded by implementing a performance-based system. Furthermore, a closer look at dual-enrollment programs, where students earn college and high school credits concurrently, may be on tap.

On the election front, Republican Secretary of State Jay Dardenne will be pushing a legislative package next year that changes the way voters carry out their democratic duty. For starters, Dardenne wants to eliminate the traditional July election, which is set aside to handle tax and bond issues, or anything else not involving a real candidate. The turnout for the summer ballot this year was a depressing 4.5 percent. Dardenne will also ask lawmakers to make early voting at satellite sites a permanent program and to expand it past the two locations that were in operation during the most recent election cycles.

Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon will have a legislative package as well, which ' in part ' extends a $100 million incentive program that actually pays private companies, in taxpayer dollars, to sell insurance in Louisiana. While the program is popular among most lawmakers, especially those below I-10, supporters are waiting for Jindal's blessing before declaring victory.

If a band of south Louisiana lawmakers has its way, it could be weighing in as one on issues like Donelon and Dardenne's initiatives. There's a caucus for black members, women, lawmakers from rural areas, Democrats, Republicans and even independents. There are also delegations for major metro areas like Orleans and Jefferson, as well as one for Acadiana officials. But there's nothing out there for the districts that hug the Gulf of Mexico.

That's why a band of legislators is hoping to file a resolution in 2008 to create an official Coastal Caucus. In recent years, the House and Senate have both created special committees for coastal restoration and hurricane protection, so supporters see this as the next logical step.

If nothing else, the concept could morph into a reliable voting bloc, although its potential for impact is debatable.

State District Judge Wilford Carter of Lake Charles handed down a ruling last month that will certainly be addressed by lawmakers in the regular session. In short, he ruled Louisiana's online sex solicitation stings were unconstitutional, siding with a defendant who was allegedly busted two years ago for soliciting a minor. The case is being appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court, but that hasn't stopped the Legislature in the past.

The ruling basically stated that the defendant's "constitutional right to equal protection" was violated by the state law because it did not allow him to use a "consent defense," arguing that the person he was chatting with online was a police officer. There are likewise legal arguments being made that the online solicitation law infringes upon free speech.

Another hot-button freedom of speech issue is inevitable on the heels of 2007's Jena Six controversy; there will undoubtedly be a resolution or bill that addresses how and where people might display a hanging noose. While Congress, due to measures introduced by U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans Democrat, and others, has addressed the issue in its own way, the Louisiana Legislature will get its first crack in March.

There's even a recent case study to point to in Jefferson Parish, where a local government employee is accused of displaying a noose in his office. Seven supervisors in the line of authority are also on the hook, as a black sewerage worker is pursuing official action.

A far less important measure sure to make headlines is the resurrection of the so-called baggy pants law, meaning a statute stipulating how low an individual can wear his jeans or slacks. Sen. Derrick Shepherd, a Marrero Democrat, unsuccessfully brought the issue up when he was a member of the House, drawing laughs from his colleagues and an embarrassing spot on Comedy Central's Daily Show. The difference between now and then is a slew of local ordinances ' Port Allen, Lafourche Parish, New Iberia, Alexandria and others ' that could serve as a mandate of sorts for a lawmaker seeking statewide press attention. With all the other pressing issues facing Louisiana, more time spent on debating the height of one's pants could be a low point.