This year’s legislative session will be remembered as one of the most ambitious — and contentious — in a long while … or at least until next year. As is always the case, the end of the session brings us to our annual assessment of the legislative carnage — Da Winnas and Da Loozas.
The big winners include Gov. Bobby Jindal, Big Oil, the Louisiana Family Forum and a handful of others. The big losers were public school teachers and trial lawyers. If you have the stomach for bloody sausage, read on — starting with …
1. Gov. Bobby Jindal — The governor won the budget battle and got his entire education reform package exactly as he wanted it in near-record time. He failed to secure passage of his retirement package, but that issue can wait ’til next year. He wanted the education bills passed quickly to showcase himself to the national GOP in time for the vice presidential beauty contest. Now it’s his turn to sashay down the runway.
2. Big Oil — The fight over so-called “legacy lawsuits” was the biggest non-budget conflict of the session. Legacy lawsuits involve lands damaged by oil and gas exploration and development years ago. Plaintiff lawyers often go back in time to find a potential defendant with deep pockets, typically a major oil company. While Jindal and U.S. Sen. David Vitter are arguing over who gets credit for the compromise bill that ultimately passed, there’s no question as to who won the war. Going forward, major oil companies will be insulated from large liability judgments for damages to lands they leased years ago … unless and until the courts rule otherwise.
3. Louisiana Family Forum — The lobbying arm of the state’s evangelical Christians is now the first and last word on gambling bills (LFF got Jindal to veto three such bills in short order), and probably a lot more. Some lawmakers reportedly were summoned to meet with LFF leader Gene Mills on the 4th floor of the Capitol — home of the governor’s office — leading to speculation that LFF is now an extension of Team Jindal … or is it the other way around? LFF played a huge role in crafting Jindal’s education “reform” package as well. Witness the little-known Bible school in Central Louisiana that wound up with more than 300 of the 5,000 total available vouchers — more than doubling its enrollment.
4. Big Business — Lawmakers approved additional local property tax exemptions for certain non-manufacturing businesses as part of a Jindal-backed economic development plan.
5. New Orleans Judges and Clerks of Court — A post-Katrina reform movement that led to the merger of local levee boards, the city’s two sheriffs, and the city’s seven assessors also attempted to combine the civil and criminal courts in New Orleans. A bill to merge the courts and their respective clerks’ offices passed several years ago, but this year legislators scrapped the merger.
6. Coastal Restoration Advocates — Lawmakers approved a 50-year, $50 billion master plan for coastal restoration put forth by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. Even more important, money that the state receives from the BP disaster will go directly into the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Fund.
7. State Employees — Current state employees successfully opposed measures to raise the retirement age, increase employee contributions to retirement accounts and change the formula for calculating retirement benefits. Lawmakers passed only one significant retirement bill — changing the benefit plan for FUTURE state employees (those hired after July 1, 2013). Stay tuned; this war is far from over.
8. Charter School Advocates — Jindal’s education package contains provisions allowing charter operators with proven records of success to fast track their applications for new charters by applying directly to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. BESE is considered much more charter-friendly than local school boards in the wake of the 2011 elections.
9. Local School Superintendents — They gained significant independence from local school boards in the hiring and firing of personnel. Which brings us to …
1. Public School Teachers — Rightly or wrongly, teachers (and their union) have been portrayed as the reason why Little Boudreaux can’t read at his current grade level, and now they’re paying for it. Tenure henceforth will be harder to earn and easier to take away, although no teacher is likely to lose tenure for at least two years.
2. Trial Lawyers — Plaintiff lawyers rank among the favorite bogeymen of conservative Republicans, unless of course those conservative Republicans happen to be large landowners whose property was damaged by major oil companies. In any event, trial lawyers who represent landowners in the “legacy lawsuit” fight were the odd man out in the compromise bill that lawmakers adopted. The bill insulates major oil companies from large damage awards, thus limiting opportunities for trial lawyers to sue Big Oil. Oh well, there’s always Big Pharma.
3. Colleges and Universities — For several years in a row, the state’s colleges and universities have borne the brunt of budget cuts. This year was no exception.
4. The Hospitality Industry — The local hospitality industry and Mayor Mitch Landrieu hoped to establish a “hospitality zone” downtown to make significant infrastructure improvements before the 2013 Super Bowl. The “zone” actually would have been a special taxing district to increase the hotel tax, the overnight parking tax at hotels, and the food and beverage tax as well. The proposal failed when downtown residents opposed it, complaining that the plan was hatched too quickly and without their input.
5. Local School Boards — Lawmakers clipped their influence in day-to-day affairs by giving superintendents broader authority to hire and fire — and on Nov. 6 voters in most parishes will decide whether to impose term limits on school board members.
6. Fiscal “Hawks” — A core of Republican House members, with encouragement from state Treasurer John Kennedy and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, opposed the use of one-time money for recurring expenses and fought attempts to tap the so-called Rainy Day Fund to plug a hole in the current fiscal-year budget. In the end, they were out-maneuvered by the Senate and Jindal — but this is another war that’s far from over.
7. School Bus Drivers — Drivers hired after July 1 will not be eligible for tenure. Which raises the question: Did you know that SCHOOL BUS DRIVERS get tenure in Louisiana? Now you know why Jindal had such an easy time passing his education package.
The carnage will continue next year.