Saturday, June 26, 2010

Da Winnas & Da Loozas

Posted By on Sat, Jun 26, 2010 at 5:09 PM

(This is a preview (with a few updates) of my column that will appear in this week's Gambit.)

They say money can’t buy love or happiness, but in politics this much is clear: Lack of money will buy you a whole lotta heartache and misery. Add to that the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history and you’ve got some real ugliness.

That pretty much sums up the 2010 Louisiana legislative session.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, who typically stays above the legislative fray, was even more detached than usual because of his daily trips to the oil-threatened coast. In his absence, House and Senate leaders, building on past tensions, nearly came to blows in the final hours. And with so little money to spread around, the inevitable cuts to education, health care and the arts/culture portend even more agony next year, when state revenues are expected to take an even more precipitous nosedive — just in time for redistricting and the next round of statewide elections. Beatings will continue until morale improves.

So, without further ado, here’s my assessment of the annual sausage factory, starting with …


1. Gov. Bobby Jindal — Jindal got most of what he wanted, but he went in with a modest agenda — his big push was for tougher laws against sexual predators. On another level, he came back from the coast at the eleventh hour and brokered an uneasy House-Senate compromise on the budget — thereby proving that he has learned how to be governor. His conservative supporters in the House were disappointed that he sided with the more spendthrift Senate in the budget fight, but doing so lets him put off difficult decisions until next year. He also helped pass the GRAD Act, which will give some relief to state colleges and universities in the form of tuition increases that won’t require legislative approval.

2. Mayor Mitch Landrieu — The new mayor didn’t have much time to gain traction as he took office five weeks into the session, but his past legislative experience paid off for the city. Lawmakers passed a bill to annualize the state’s reimbursement to the city for expenses related to Harrah’s Casino (about $3.6 million), and they likewise approved a set of bills to fight blight and expedite recovery efforts. The city also picked up nearly $18 million in capital outlay projects and killed an effort to move LSU’s medical school to Baton Rouge.

3. Charter Schools — Education reformers won key concessions that will help charter schools grow statewide and beat back attempts to rein in charters’ independence. Meanwhile, they passed two bills to establish a uniform application and review process and a timeline for potential operators.

4. Big Tobacco — The Marlboro Man and his posse once again quashed attempts to extend the statewide smoking ban to bars and casinos.

5. Home Schoolers — Lawmakers passed a bill giving home-schooled athletes the right to ask high school principals for permission to play on school-sponsored teams. Principals can say no, but what do you think will happen when the next Tim Tebow shows up? Home schoolers also will get “regular” high school diplomas from now on, thanks to a separate measure enacted this year.

6. Gun Lovers — Praise the Lord, and lock and load. Leges passed a bill to allow concealed weapons to be carried inside churches, if pastors agree. They also passed a measure exempting concealed-carry permit holders from a statewide ban against carrying guns within 1,000 feet of schools.

Which brings us to …


1. Gov. Bobby Jindal — Yes, he’s a loser as well as a winner. It’s been that kind of year. He killed four bills aimed directly at making his office more transparent, but state Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, convinced House members to amend a Senate-passed bill, adding a transparency provision that requires campaign contributors’ names to be searchable in the state’s campaign finance reporting database. Jindal killed Abramson’s previous efforts to pass such a bill because it would make it easier to show the connections between campaign contributions and gubernatorial appointments. Meanwhile, Sen. Robert Adley got senators to amend a House-passed bill to require disclosure of the governor’s records relating to the BP oil disaster. Both amended bills were sent to the governor. Jindal vetoed the House bill on June 25, but he'll have a tough time doing likewise with the Senate bill. It’s interesting — and potentially risky — that Jindal, less than 18 months before he has to seek re-election, continues to thwart transparency measures that apply to him or his office. It makes passage of any transparency measure that applies to him a chink in his armor. Elsewhere, the administration lost the fight to sustain the $15 drivers license fee hike that it imposed earlier this year. Other losses: Jindal-backed bills to make it easier to tap into the state’s protected funds, a bill to abolish the lieutenant governor’s office, and a separate measure to strip that office of its responsibilities over museums, state parks and tourism. [NOTE: In the print edition of Gambit that hits the streets on June 27, I mistakenly described Abramson’s amendment as applying to the BP disaster. Sorry about that.]

2. Big Oil and the Chemical Association — For decades, these guys have had their way with lawmakers, but this year they failed to recognize that BP changed everything. They seriously over-reached on a bill to gut the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, and they got their butts kicked on Sen. Danny Martiny’s bill to ban chemical companies and big business from forcing onerous “hold harmless” agreements on their subcontractors and truckers. Over Big Oil & Chemical’s objections, Jindal signed Martiny’s bill last week.

3. Trial Lawyers — The state’s plaintiff bar has steadily increased its legislative clout in recent years, and this year trial lawyers nearly got their Holy Grail: a bill authorizing the state attorney general to hire lawyers on a contingency-fee basis. The original bill was narrowed to apply only to the BP debacle, which won over Jindal, but it still ran out of time on the House floor in the final minutes of the session.

4. Teacher Unions — Public school teachers lost on a number of issues, including the proliferation of charter schools, annual-versus-triennial teacher evaluations, and tying 50 percent of evaluation scores to evidence of student progress. The unions also fought a bill that will let school districts waive various rules and regulations for low-performing schools in exchange for meeting performance goals.

5. School Boards — Local school boards this year lost the micromanagement fight, which means board members will have to start acting like real board members and not like feudal lords — and they’ll (supposedly) have to let superintendents actually run the schools. We’ll see how that goes.

6. Higher Ed — College and university leaders heaved a sigh of relief that they weren’t cut further, but in the past 18 months they’ve been cut more than $250 million. They got authority to raise tuition, but it will take a lot more than a 10 percent tuition hike to offset the cuts they have endured already — and what’s coming next year. Higher ed supporters also failed to cap the cost of scholarships available from the popular (but expensive) TOPS program. On other higher ed fronts, a bill to consolidate governing boards failed once again, and Commissioner of Higher Education Sally Clausen’s retire-rehire maneuver made all of higher ed a target.

7. Transparency Advocates — Once again, Bobby Jindal kept a lid on what people get to see from HIS office.

8. Texters — OMG! Lawmakers passed a bill that makes texting while driving a primary offense, which means cops can stop anyone they observe texting at the wheel. This is actually a major step toward greater highway safety.

9. Stoners — Dude, a handful of “anti-mojo” bills passed overwhelmingly, making Louisiana among the first states to outlaw the boutique weed substitute. Considering how much worse things are going to be next year, lawmakers may regret taking such a hard line against mind-altering drugs. Bummer, man.

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