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Capitol Improv 

While state officials serve up comical riffs year-round, the best time to grab a front-row seat for laughs is during a legislative session.

The sergeant-at-arms had to go into the committee's shared break room to tell Rep. Nita Hutter, a Chalmette Republican with loads of bubbly charm and just as much blond hair, that her bills were ready to be discussed. Hutter reentered the meeting soon after and picked up her oversized purse, which she had left on the sergeant-at-arms' chair. After taking her seat behind the witness table and flopping down her purse in a way that it stood open to those nearby, she launched into a speech about why the House and Government Affairs Committee should require the Board of Ethics to notify the accused when a complaint is filed.

The committee backed her bill, but a committee member did ask if her legislation would help Louisiana move up in national rankings on ethics reform. In case you didn't know, lawmakers, lobbyists and others are now required to sign a written oath promising to tell the truth during committee hearings. Hutter, however, was bold enough to reveal, albeit jokingly, how things used to work behind the witness table. She mumbled a bit at first and then admitted, "Since I am under oath, I must say no." Laughter erupted.

What the microphone didn't pick up was a sly remark she made to lobbyists sitting behind her. Turning away from the mic, it came out in a stage whisper followed by giggles: "If I wasn't under oath, I might say something else."

Hutter's off-the-cuff remark proves that you never quite know what will come out of the mouths of legislators, lobbyists and witnesses, especially during a legislative session. For instance, when the House Transportation Committee debated a bill increasing traffic fines while highway workers are on a roadway, we learned that even inanimate objects reflect high aspirations, but not always high math. The proposed law by Rep. Truck Gisclair, a Raceland Democrat, would double the standard fines imposed for motorists who violate speed limit laws in highway construction zones.

Under present Louisiana law, such violations cause fines to be increased by 50 percent — even though the Department of Transportation and Development posts signs, well known to drivers, that threaten to double standard fines. In an effort to correct the math and protect workers, Gisclair's bill would institute a penalty of twice the standard fine. "I'm trying to make those signs ethical," he says.

When the House Commerce Committee debated a mandate for Louisiana restaurants to identify the origins of their cooked seafood, geography came into play. Restaurant owners argued that the mandate would be too costly to fulfill since menus would have to be reprinted each time new seafood is purchased. Moreover, tracking the origin of each seafood product is more difficult than it sounds. "Who's to say that a shrimp wasn't born in Louisiana, but it swam across the state line?" asked David Hearn, owner of the Monroe-based Catfish Cabin.

Crescent City lawmakers, meanwhile, got a taste of their own medicine as they sat back recently and watched representatives from the River Parishes bicker over a bill that would split up the electorate in the First Circuit Court of Appeals. It was a parochial exchange, if nothing else; lawmakers from the northern part of the district around Ascension and Iberville argued that Terrebonne and Lafourche were hogging all of the judicial spots. It was a nice respite from the usual inter-regional quarrelling over the Superdome, levee boards and other NOLA curiosities. "Now I know what it looks like to the rest of the chamber when the New Orleans' fights are going on," Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Big Easy Dem, said to laughter during the policy row.

While lawmakers do a decent job of earning laughs individually, the actions of an entire committee can be just as comical — and confusing. Consider the House Criminal Justice Committee, which advanced a controversial bill earlier this month allowing concealed weapons to be carried on college campuses. The debate over House Bill 199 by Rep. Ernest Wooten, a Republican who once served as sheriff of Plaquemines Parish, was fierce.

Wooten temporarily relinquished his chairmanship to introduce his bill from the committee table, but still directed the flow of testimony and even sought to penalize a lawmaker. "You're out of order," Wooten screamed at an overly vocal Rep. Barbara Norton, a Shreveport Democrat, despite the fact that another lawmaker was holding the chairman's gavel.

Students, parents and professors spoke against the measure out of fear for their own safety, but their pleas did little to sway the decision, which had already been made long before the meeting convened. What many of the opponents didn't know, though, was that the panel was about to hear another bill in coming days that could have evened the score.

House Bill 1153 by Rep. Chris Hazel, a freshman Republican from Pineville, would prohibit students from wearing body armor — bulletproof vests and what have you — on school property and at school-sponsored functions. "This bill will be just the opposite of the concealed weapons bill," said Rep. Roy Burrell, a Shreveport Democrat. "One of the reasons we passed it out of here was because there were students that felt they needed to protect themselves."

In short, while the committee felt compelled to allow guns on campus, as long as they are hidden from sight, the membership just couldn't see fit to let students keep their flack jackets when Hazel's bill came up for debate last week. Yet there was an amendment that allows "paranoid students," as Burrell put it, to seek permission from their principal or chancellor to suit up in certain situations.

If you appreciate non sequitur, you sometimes have to go all the way to the top. Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, escaped Baton Rouge two weeks ago to address the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. To keep local reporters up to speed, his press office released Jindal's highly anticipated speech prior to the engagement, commenting, "As you know, Governor Jindal does not speak from notes — below are just his notes as Prepared for Delivery."

While it may have been an outline of sorts, the notes did reveal some of the scripted one-liners that Jindal — or more likely his writers — was prepared to unleash. Among them was a quip about Jindal's workforce development plan, which lawmakers are considering in the current session. In just a few short words, Jindal hoped to explain the plan's goals in simple terms and possibly court the Bubba Vote with a blue-collar pop-culture reference.

"I'm sure the business school faculty at LSU could come up with a $5 word to brand that philosophy," the script read, "but I think Larry the Cable Guy might have them beat. You know what he says: 'Get 'er done.'"

Fortunately, that one-liner didn't make the speech, thus saving Louisiana from being the redneck butt of its own misfired joke. Still, it would have been great to hear Jindal's impression of Larry.

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

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