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Brush Fires 

The state's $1.3 billion budget shortfall is the firestorm of this year's legislative session, and it's ignited smaller infernos on several fronts

click to enlarge Gov. Bobby Jindal says he will be more involved in the legislative - process earlier than he was during the last session and will work with - lawmakers to find a solution to the $1.3 billion shortfall the state - faces on July 1.
  • Gov. Bobby Jindal says he will be more involved in the legislative process earlier than he was during the last session and will work with lawmakers to find a solution to the $1.3 billion shortfall the state faces on July 1.

Even during the first hours of the legislative session that began two weeks ago, it was clear that this year's gathering would differ dramatically from others in recent memory. For starters, Gov. Bobby Jindal kept his opening remarks brief (about 18 minutes) and delivered his speech without the aid of a teleprompter. The governor likewise toned down his holier-than-though speaking style. He took no potshots at the Legislature.

  In previous opening addresses (there were three last year), Jindal sometimes dictated terms, disparaged previous Legislatures and generally treated lawmakers like out-of-control stepchildren.

  This time around, he was more like a parent trying to be his child's best friend. Jindal, a Republican, complimented lawmakers and credited them with year-one accomplishments that were part of his campaign platform in 2007. He even apologized to lawmakers — in a left-handed sort of way. In fact, the 20 words in question captivated the Capitol press corps as one reporter after another tried to interpret their meaning: "As we review these past 15 months, it's honest to admit that I've made mistakes and we've made some stumbles."

  Huh?

  The knee-jerk reaction was that Jindal was apologizing either for trying to kill last year's effort to eliminate state income taxes or for promising to approve a legislative pay raise before going back on his word. The governor later clarified: He was apologizing for not keeping a tighter rein on lawmakers and getting involved in the legislative process earlier.

  To that end, Jindal's attendance during the session's opening week fostered a great deal of media attention. In truth, it underscored how absent Jindal was in previous sessions.

  Newspapers described it as the governor's new hands-on approach, although all he did was attend one committee hearing and one Senate floor debate. Both appearances were for the same legislation — Senate Bill 283, which would allow $50 million in state money to be used to help a California company purchase a shuttered poultry processing plant in north Louisiana. Jindal also is likely to strike a high profile in opposing $98 million from the federal stimulus package for unemployment benefits, a move that already has pitted Democratic lawmakers against business interests.

  Jindal's much-ballyhooed opposition to relatively small portions of the stimulus package comes against a stark budgetary backdrop: the state faces a revenue shortfall of at least $1.3 billion in the fiscal year that starts July 1. Colleges and universities have been told to expect more than $200 million in cuts. Health care and public hospitals face similar reductions. Capital budgets have been slashed. Money for arts and culture was cut up to 83 percent in Jindal's proposed budget. A fiscal pall has descended upon the marble halls of power.

  Budgetary debates comprise an all-consuming legislative firestorm this year, one that has touched off brush fires on many fronts. The problem is particularly vexing for the many rookie lawmakers, none of whom has ever had to vote for cuts such as those proposed by Jindal. As the governor delivered his opening address, red-clad students from Louisiana's universities staged a loud protest on the Capitol steps. Their demonstration reached a crescendo when an oversized, papier-mâché shark pleading with the governor to "stop eating education" was placed just outside the building's entrance. Jindal didn't mention the protest in his speech, a snub not lost on the young protestors.

click to enlarge Agriculture and Forestry Secretary Mike Strain received the loudest - ovation when he was introduced to the House and Senate.
  • Agriculture and Forestry Secretary Mike Strain received the loudest ovation when he was introduced to the House and Senate.

  Amanda Jefferson of Marrero, a mass communications student at Nicholls State University, says Jindal's proposed $219 million reduction in the amount of money going to Louisiana's colleges will be "crippling." When she found out that Nicholls was in line for a 15 percent cut, she decided — for the first time in her 20 years — to become a political activist. "Where would we be without education?" Jefferson asks. "We would be nowhere. Everyone on campus is talking about this, and we feel like we're on the bottom of the totem pole. What's Gov. Jindal going to do? A lot of my friends are wondering why they even voted for him."

  Scenes like that are bound to be repeated throughout the session, says Rep. Joe Harrison, a Republican from Napoleonville who serves on the budget-drafting House Appropriations Committee. Harrison predicts the session's defining moment will come when lawmakers decide how to fund education. "If you look at the most recent public opinion polls, education is the top area of concern in every area of this state," Harrison says. "It touches on everything from economic development to out-migration. It's the one major issue we need to deal with in this session."

  A recent survey by Southern Media & Opinion Research backs up Harrison's point. In the same survey, Jindal failed to get more than a 50 percent positive rating when respondents were asked if he's making progress on education.

When Jindal and other statewide officials were introduced to the House and Senate on opening day, it was Agriculture and Forestry Secretary Mike Strain who received the loudest ovation. Most of the cheering came from the Rural Caucus and Acadiana Delegation, which together make up the lion's share of the Legislature. The two caucuses have announced plans to stand with Strain to block Jindal's proposed massive cuts to agricultural programs.

  They're not alone.

  As the session entered its first full week, the Appropriations Committee made significant changes to Jindal's proposed $26.7 billion budget, filling gaps he left in the arts, health care and education. They restored several cuts to agricultural programs as well.

  As lawmakers struggle to correct a $1.3 billion deficit, new ideas crop up almost daily — even though only six weeks remain until legislators must adjourn.  When he addressed the Baton Rouge Press Club earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu recommended that lawmakers delay the repeal of the so-called Stelly income tax brackets. The income tax repeal was adopted last year — when lawmakers and Jindal basked in a $2 billion surplus — but it takes effect in the coming fiscal year (starting July 1) amid a sea of red ink. The tax cut reduced state revenues by $359 million, which could cover all higher education cuts and a lot of the health and hospital reductions.  

  While many legislators seem open to shifting numbers around within the budget, increasing revenues is not on anybody's agenda — least of all Jindal's. The most blatant proof of that came when the House Ways and Means Committee killed legislation by Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans and the House speaker pro tem, to levy a $1-a-pack cigarette tax. As in previous years when lawmakers considered smoking bans, the tobacco lobby blanketed key lawmakers with political contributions prior to the session. "I support the tax increase and not them," says one lawmaker on the committee. "But I'll take their money anyway." Nonetheless, Carter Peterson's bill went down in flames.

  Fundraising during the session is prohibited, but that doesn't mean finances aren't being discussed. House members seemed shaken during a recent briefing on the new financial disclosure requirements that take effect this Friday (May 15). House Clerk Butch Speer walked lawmakers through the recently completed forms page by page, explaining disclosure requirements on everything from spousal income to side jobs. The briefing may go down as the best-attended House gathering this session; most reps were reluctant even to slip outside for media interviews.   

  Speer was pressed to explain the differences between reporting income from full-time and part-time jobs. He told lawmakers the overriding goal is transparency; they should use their best judgment. "You are giving information to the public," he says. "So, what do you want the public to know about your employment? And do you consider it full-time or part-time?"

click to enlarge House Speaker Pro Tem Karen Carter Peterson's attempt to levy a - $1-a-pack tax on cigarettes failed early when the House Ways and Means - Committee killed her bill on April 28. - PHOTO BY TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Photo by Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • House Speaker Pro Tem Karen Carter Peterson's attempt to levy a $1-a-pack tax on cigarettes failed early when the House Ways and Means Committee killed her bill on April 28.

  At the urging (read: forceful hand) of the administration last year, legislators agreed to begin publicly disclosing more about their personal finances. Now that financial disclosure is a reality — as opposed to an abstract campaign promise — the new forms drafted by the state Ethics Board seem to elicit more details than any of them anticipated. A wrong address or incomplete information could draw scorn, Speer warns. "And I guess I should say this now, and I'll say it over and over again: If you do not have a CPA to give you advice about this, you should get one."

  Freshman Rep. Walker Hines, D-New Orleans — at 24 the youngest member of the Legislature — expressed another view: "I don't have any money, so I'm not worried about it."

This session was supposed to be The Session — the one in which lawmakers finally stood up and declared their independence from the governor. After Jindal vetoed their pay raise last year — and then vetoed millions of pet projects in the budget — they were ready for payback. In fact, on opening day, one administration staffer predicted that disgruntled lawmakers would derail at least a few elements of the governor's agenda just to make a point. "This year is going to be very different," the official said. "This year, they've taken out the knives."

  But that hasn't happened, at least not yet. If anything, the governor continues to put lawmakers in their place. His carefully contrived anti-tax stance played a huge role in killing Peterson's tobacco tax and likewise dealt a death blow to legislation by Rep. Hollis Downs, R-Ruston, to increase fuel taxes to pay for highway projects. Downs blamed the administration for sacrificing the bill and urged Jindal's team "to be leaders and not just philosophers." Then again, Downs also knows that lawmakers can go their own way — or play follow the leader.

  Legislators also bowed to the governor's will and killed a set of bills that would bring transparency to the governor's office. Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, passed legislation last year that would make Jindal and other officeholders disclose all appointees who contributed at least $1,000 to their campaigns. Jindal vetoed the bill last year, even though it passed overwhelmingly. This year, Jindal dispatched his minions to squelch Abramson's follow-up bill in committee on the Legislature's first week of work. Ditto for a bill by Rep. Wayne Waddell, R-Shreveport, who offered a measure to open more records in Jindal's office to public review. The administration has promised to work on Abramson's and Waddell's proposals in coming weeks (similar promises were made last year as well), but no one expects much to come of that pledge.

  If there are sparks of legislative independence anywhere, they're shooting from the gavel of House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown. Lobbyists, fellow lawmakers and reporters have all credited Tucker and Senate President Joel Chaisson, D-Destrehan, with keeping the wheels from falling off previous sessions. To the surprise of many, Tucker, a former chair of the GOP caucus, has gone out of his way to show Jindal — and everybody else watching — that the days of a speaker-as-lapdog are over.

click to enlarge House Speaker Jim Tucker of Terrytown is exhibiting his legislative - independence and taking on Gov. Jindal's proposed sex offender - bill.
  • House Speaker Jim Tucker of Terrytown is exhibiting his legislative independence and taking on Gov. Jindal's proposed sex offender bill.

  Two weeks ago, Tucker co-signed a rather pointed letter to Jindal questioning whether the governor's proposed legislation cracking down on sex offenders was constitutional. Even if it does pass constitutional muster, Tucker wrote that the proposal would require too much money in an already tight fiscal year. Jindal has since allowed his sex offender package to be scaled back.

  Tucker is also bringing a taste of the old school back to the Capitol. Prior to session, he held forth privately with a group of select reporters, reaching out with a touch — be it conniving or caring — with which state leaders of yesteryear seemed born. Back in his own estate, Tucker has become the proverbial gatekeeper as well. He's scheduled briefings for the entire House this session on issues important to the body and personally delivered a detailed updated last week on the state's negotiations with the Saints.

As other mini-dramas play out in Capitol, the budget debates continue to overshadow everything else. That said, the operating budget is moving at warp speed. With only six weeks left to work, lawmakers want the budget, embodied in House Bill 1, on a fast track. Moving the budget bill through the process quickly — more particularly, with at least two weeks to spare — will allow lawmakers to still be in session if the governor wields his veto pen again. That will give them time to override any vetoes without having to reconvene in a special (and expensive) veto session. It also will allow them to hold up (read: hold hostage) a few bills near and dear to Jindal until after his vetoes, if any, become public.

  On that score, legislative independence may yet come to pass, although it will look more like the Cold War scenario of mutually assured destruction. As long as neither side pushes the button, an uneasy détente will ensue.

  Meanwhile, the budget fires burn on several fronts.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

click to enlarge [FILE PHOTO]
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