Overall, the 2008 regular legislative session produced a mixed bag. The New Orleans area emerged a huge winner, but so did the Religious Right. Teachers got another raise, but lawmakers got a much bigger one and public schools in New Orleans now have to contend with a voucher program that could siphon off some of their best students. In addition to Jindal, big business was a big loser this time around, which is a big surprise in light of the gains that conservatives made in the last statewide elections.
Truly, this was a session full of surprises.
Which brings us to our annual recap of the legislative carnage, starting with
1. Greater New Orleans The city and the region did very well this year. Mayor Ray Nagin did a good job of working with local leges to stay in the loop on key bills, and local lawmakers came to the fore as effective leaders on key issues that affect the city. Although he's taking his lumps for the lege pay raise issue, House Speaker Jim Tucker carried the ball on initial funding for the Federal City project (which ultimately could produce thousands of military-related jobs) and the bill initiating a proposed (but controversial) transfer of Louis Armstrong International Airport to the state. The mayor also got his crime bill passed (allowing judges to order mental patients into outpatient treatment in certain cases the Nicola Cotton bill), along with money for improved local mental health services, which also will help cops address a major crime issue. Other area wins" included approval of millions for local tourism and convention sales efforts; approval of (and capital outlay funding for) the LSU/VA Hospital; money for City Park, the Michoud aerospace facility, the Greater New Orleans Biomedical Research Authority and the French Quarter-Marigny Historic District. Best of all, the Business Councils of the five metro area parishes (Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany, Plaquemines and St. Bernard) came together to support funding priorities for the entire region. This continues an effort that took hold last year, and it bodes well for the future.
2. The Religious Right About the only thing lawmakers didn't do for Christian conservatives is burst into a spontaneous chorus of Give Me That Old Time Religion" once a week. Otherwise, the Religious Right passed every bill it wanted and killed every measure it opposed. It won passage of the so-called Academic Freedom Act," which promotes as science education" the teaching of creationism as an alternative" to evolution, as well as a ban on public funding of embryonic stem-cell research. Other key victories included passage of a bill allowing scholarship" vouchers for public school students to attend private schools in New Orleans and defeat of bills forbidding employment discrimination against gays and bullying of gays in public schools.
3. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu Landrieu scored a major victory in the bill giving him control over the state Museum Board. State law previously divided management authority of the museum system between the board (appointed by the governor), the museum's executive director (appointed by the board), and the lieutenant governor (who was deemed financially responsible for it all). Now Landrieu will name the board and the director and control the funds.
4. Public School Teachers They got a $1,000 across-the-board pay raise, which should push them above the southern average. This one has been a long time coming.
5. Education Reformers Proponents of the nation's hottest educational experiment won big when lawmakers voted to expand the number of charter schools allowed statewide from 42 to 100. Charters in the Recovery School District don't count against the cap. Elsewhere, supporters of mandatory availability of pre-K for 4-year-olds won passage of a bill phasing in the requirement over the next six years. This bill also was a big win for state Sen. Ann Duplessis, who took a beating for her legislative pay raise bill.
6. New Orleans Judges, Clerks and Sheriffs The courthouse gang convinced lawmakers on the last day of the session to postpone the consolidation of local courts until at least 2014. This was a key reform" pushed by the local business community and then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco after Hurricane Katrina. Interestingly, some members of the local business community supported postponement because they don't want to see Civil District Court leave the downtown area.
7. State Colleges & Universities They finally convinced lawmakers to allow tuition increases, which will boost their budgets by more than $27 million in the next academic year. Moreover, they can continue raising tuitions for another three years after that by 3 to 5 percent a year.
8. Road Home Applicants Aggrieved homeowners now will have the right to appeal their Road Home grants directly to administrative law judges. The bill may face legal challenges, but in the meantime it will give dissatisfied homeowners some leverage in negotiations with Road Home officials. Best of all, the bill requires the administrative judges to accept the highest pre-storm value of a home, even if the appraisal was done last week.
9. The NRA The gun lobby beat big business like a drum on a bill to ban guns in workplace parking lots. Elsewhere, gun proponents lost a bill to allow permit holders to bring guns onto college campuses, but the National Rifle Associaton's top priority was to defeat the guns-in-the-workplace-parking-lot ban.
10. The Sazerac Who would have thought that the city's hallmark cocktail would be controversial? An otherwise innocuous bill to make the Sazerac the official state cocktail gave upstate Bible-thumpers a moral soapbox, and they forced devotees of the Sazerac to dilute (pardon the pun) the measure to the point of making it the official drink of New Orleans. Now, the thumpers can tell their constituents they merely voted to let us sinners in The Big Easy keep on sinnin'. Praise the Lord and pass the Sazerac Rye and Peychaud's Bitters, please.
Which brings us to
1. Gov. Bobby Jindal The new governor finally got a taste of an independent legislative branch, and it didn't go down easy. His workforce development measures passed, but they were a slam-dunk going in. Jindal otherwise blew it, politically, on several fronts. For starters, he initially opposed the rollback of the Stelly Plan's income tax brackets, but then pretended to get in front of the parade when it became obvious he couldn't stop it. He also opposed the universal pre-K bill, several tweaks in his February ethics reform package, and a measure tightening (slightly) some exceptions in his office to the public records law all of which lawmakers passed anyway. He lost more ground on the legislative raise issue by failing to step in and lead when he could have stopped it dead in its tracks. Even Kathleen Blanco did that much. Now he looks weak, which could cripple him in the long run. He talked tough after the session, announcing that he will take a much tighter rein" on legislators in the future. Sen. Joe McPherson of Pineville summed up leges' reaction perfectly: It's hard to tighten the reins when you're sitting on your butt on the ground holding the bridle and the horse is gone, kicking dust in your face."
2. Big Business For almost two decades, business interests held sway over the Louisiana Legislature. Who could foresee them losing so big in the first regular session of Bobby Jindal's governorship? Chalk it up to term limits. The incoming freshmen particularly those in the House (and, surprisingly, quite a few Republicans) proved to be much more independent than anyone imagined. Businesses' major win" this session was a bill establishing a uniform system for expert testimony that supporters hoped would bar junk science" from the civil litigation process, but that bill was significantly watered down from its original version. Otherwise, business got steamrolled on bills requiring insurance coverage for autism and prosthetics, and it lost to the NRA on a bill seeking to ban weapons in the parking lots of workplaces.
3. Taxpayers Sure, we got a tax break next year. Until then, we get to swallow the lege pay raise. Plus, even though Jindal and some lawmakers will crow about the overall budget being several billion dollars smaller than last year, the truth is the reduction occurred because Louisiana will get fewer federal hurricane relief dollars. Meanwhile, the portion of the budget that comes from the state general fund (read: us taxpayers) actually increased by about $1 billion.
4. Reformers Several attempts were made to tweak" some of the ethics reforms" that Jindal rammed through the Legislature in February. The tweaks were needed because some of those reforms" were passed in a hurry and with unintended consequences, critics say. One success this time around was Sen. Danny Martiny's bill adjusting the level of financial disclosure required of volunteers serving on relatively minor state boards. Its passage prevented mass resignations. Otherwise, lawmakers failed to correct or improve reforms" adopted hastily in February, and in some cases they weakened the reforms. For example, they declined to lower the hard-to-meet clear and convincing" burden of proof now required of the ethics board in its cases against politicians. Previously, the board only had to produce substantial evidence" to prevail. Another new law eliminates the ethics board's authority to investigate anonymous complaints. For his part, Jindal vetoed a measure requiring governors to disclose contributions to their transition teams and beat back a bill requiring his office to adhere to the public records law in a significant fashion.
5. Orleans Parish Public Schools Passage of a scholarship" voucher program will further erode the local public school system's base among some of its best students, many of whom will opt for private schools in New Orleans under the new voucher bill.
6. The Maritime Industry The effort to allow the Port of New Orleans to operate in Plaquemines Parish via a port consolidation bill failed. The idea is a good one in terms of economic development, but parochial politics often take precedent over the greater good in Louisiana. This is one of the most glaring examples of how Louisiana holds itself back, economically and otherwise, year after year.
7. Gambling Promoters Supporters of a racino" in Iberville Parish convinced lawmakers to pass the local-option gambling bill, but Jindal promised the day after the session ended that he would veto it. That came after rumors that his mentor, former Gov. Mike Foster, was pushing him behind the scenes to let the bill become law without his signature. The bill would have set up a voter referendum on a horseracing track in Iberville Parish, with slots and all the other usual accoutrements. Elsewhere, lawmakers passed a moratorium on video bingo machines, which have cropped up in many parishes that banned video poker under the guise of charitable gaming."
8. Cell Phone Users Lawmakers passed three measures limiting cell phone use, particularly by novice" drivers. Text messaging by all drivers will be banned if Jindal signs the measures into law. OMG!
9. Incoming College Students High school grads (and their parents) will face steadily increasing tuition bills at state colleges and universities over the next four years, unless they qualify for TOPS, which gives them all the more reason to focus on good grades.
10. Former Gov. Mike Foster His favorite cause, repealing the law that requires motorcyclists to wear safety helmets, failed despite support from his protégé, Bobby Jindal. On another, less publicized front, Foster reportedly failed to convince Jindal not to veto a bill allowing a local referendum on a racino" in Iberville Parish. As the old saying goes, When you're out, you're out." Foster got one consolation: Jindal reappointed (and the Senate confirmed) his old adjutant general, Bennett Landreneau.