Emperors and warlords have long practiced the ancient maxim, "Divide and conquer." In some instances, that was the tactic employed by the winners of this year's Louisiana legislative wars.
Some special interests that traditionally band tightly together came apart in the face of momentous issues, resulting in big wins for some and big losses for others. Small landowners, for example, wound up with no one to speak for them during the annual hostilities over legacy lawsuits. In that fight, larger landowners cut the deal with Big Oil.
Similar divisions occurred on other fronts. Environmental trial lawyers were so busy fighting (and losing) the battles over legacy lawsuits and the levee authority's environmental lawsuit that they didn't have time to work against the jury threshold bill, which was one of Big Business' main priorities. On the other side of that fight, Big Oil and Big Business worked together to pass legislation that they hope will kill the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East's (SLFPA-E) lawsuit against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies, but the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) mostly had to fend for itself on the jury threshold bill — and narrowly lost.
Machiavelli, who preached the gospel of "divide and rule," would have loved watching all that carnage. The rest of us, not so much.
But watch we did, which brings us to our annual recap of "Da Winnas and Da Loozas." Here we go.
1. BIG OIL — The fight was bloody, but the outcome was never really in doubt. The only question now is whether the bill to kill the SLFPA-E lawsuit actually accomplished that goal.
Big Oil had all the big guns on its side. Gov. Bobby Jindal, LABI, the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association (LMOGA), the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA) and virtually every oil-and-gas entity on the planet (including BP) lined up to pass Senate Bill 469 (to kill the flood authority lawsuit) and to "reform" the rules governing legacy lawsuits. SB 469 took a procedurally tortured but successful route to passage via Senate and House committees that typically don't touch bills dealing with litigation issues, but that's what happens when all the big boys are on the same side. In the push to re-write legacy lawsuit rules, large landowners (some of which are actually oil companies) pushed a "compromise" bill they negotiated with Big Oil; the end result was another blow to environmental trial lawyers and small landowners who sue energy companies for environmental damages.
Neither fight is over, however. Trial lawyers will surely test the constitutionality, scope and application of the legacy lawsuit bill. Jindal delayed signing SB 469 while state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell determined that it is overly broad and should be vetoed. Others claim the measure could inadvertently help BP defeat scores (if not hundreds) of claims filed by local and state agencies.
Jindal signed the bill nonetheless, saying the measure "will help frivolous lawsuits." We'll see who's right in due time. (See "Commentary," p. 14.)
2. COMMON CORE SUPPORTERS — Common Core was one of the hottest issues of the session, with parents and some educators rallying against the controversial education reform. The aim of Common Core, which Jindal initially supported enthusiastically (until he was against it), is to raise educational standards and provide a means of determining how kids in each state measure up. Many business and education leaders support Common Core and the standardized tests that go with it, and they held the line against a groundswell of grassroots opposition.
3. LOUISIANA PAYDAY LENDERS — They were painted as financial predators by nonprofits and faith-based groups that supported bills to significantly limit interest rates and fees that could be charged for short-term loans made to working-class borrowers. An intense lobbying effort turned the tide in the local lenders' favor, however. They convinced lawmakers that the real bad guys are out-of-state online lenders who have not been subject to state regulations. Louisiana payday lenders pushed through a bill that gave consumers a few breaks, but mostly it brought online lenders under state regulation.
4. OPTOMETRISTS — After several tries, optometrists finally convinced lawmakers to allow them to perform some eye surgeries that heretofore could only be performed by ophthalmologists. The latter are physicians; the former are not. The new law limits optometrists to certain eye surgeries. For example, they cannot perform procedures that require stitches or general anesthesia, nor can they perform vision-correcting surgery such as LASIK. Louisiana is only the third state to allow optometrists to perform eye surgery.
5. MAYOR MITCH LANDRIEU — Unlike the governor, Landrieu had an ambitious agenda this year. That inevitably led to some disappointing losses, but he also got some key wins. He proposed several tax increases to pay for two federal consent decrees and the firemen's pension fund judgment. Lawmakers approved only one of them — a proposed property tax hike which will have to win voter approval statewide and in New Orleans. That won't be easy.
Elsewhere, Jindal finally signed Rep. Walt Leger's bill (after vetoing it six times) to give New Orleans a permanent source of casino revenues to pay the $3.6 million a year that the state long ago promised for municipal support services. Lawmakers also approved a bill creating an exception to the state Ethics Code so that New Orleans Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant, the mayor's choice to head the Sewerage & Water Board, can take the job.
Landrieu also convinced lawmakers to eliminate the next two vacancies at Juvenile Court and to combine Traffic and Municipal Courts — politically difficult measures he had pushed before without success.
6. STATE POLICE, SHERIFFS AND DISTRICT ATTORNEYS — Lawmakers approved a bill to jack up the fine for driving without proof of insurance. A little of the money that it generates will fund creation of a real-time database that law enforcement can use to determine if vehicles have insurance, based on their license plates. Most of the money, however, will flow to State Police for raises ($42 million), sheriffs for housing parolees during probation revocation hearings ($7 million), and district attorneys to hire more assistants ($1 million).
7. PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES — After six straight years of deep cuts under Jindal, higher ed finally scored a win this year. Forty-five higher education leaders backed creation of the $40 million WISE Fund, a partnership with industries to provide investments in high-demand job growth areas. Public universities also will get to keep their GRAD Act tuition increases, which means they are finally getting more money than they did the previous year ... unless there's another round of mid-year budget cuts.
8. PLAINTIFF LAWYERS (NON-ENVIRONMENTAL) — This is an example of split decisions. Traditional trial lawyers (i.e., those who handle auto accident claims rather than environmental torts) fought hard to kill LABI's bill to lower the threshold for jury trials from $50,000 to zero. It's rare for the plaintiffs' bar to win during the tenure of a Republican governor, but trial lawyers scored a big victory this year.
9. EAST BATON ROUGE PARISH SCHOOL DISTRICT — EBR public schools have been under siege for several years, but once again the Capitol City's school district was able to convince lawmakers to leave it alone. Lawmakers killed bills to decrease the size of the parish school board and to weaken its authority.
10. GOV. BOBBY JINDAL — Typically, a governor stands among the top two or three winners, but Jindal's agenda was so light that he barely made the cut at all. He managed to get his budget through without a rebellion among the fiscal hawks, even though it still relies extensively on one-time monies. He forfeited the Common Core fight even though he pretended to give moral support from the sidelines. And he played second fiddle to Big Oil and LABI in the tort reform victories.
The one victory Jindal can claim for himself is defeat of all measures to expand Medicaid, but that hardly required breaking a sweat in the solidly conservative Louisiana Legislature. Now, of course, he has to hope that SB 469 (to kill the SLFPA-E lawsuit) works as intended. If it doesn't, he risks letting BP off the hook for billions owed to state and local governmental entities. Moreover, the feds recently rejected his plan to privatize the LSU public hospitals, which potentially puts a huge hole in next year's budget ... and may require mid-year cuts in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Overall, he got most of the few things he sought, even if he didn't factor heavily into the contests.
Which brings us to ...
1. ENVIRONMENTAL PLAINTIFF LAWYERS — They got hit with a double whammy this year. They lost the fight to keep the local levee board lawsuit alive and they couldn't stop Big Oil from re-writing legacy lawsuit regulations — again. As mentioned above, these fights ain't over yet. Jindal signed the bill killing the flood protection authority lawsuit, but it could give BP a windfall at the expense of local and state governmental entities. And trial lawyers have succeeded in past years at whittling down legacy lawsuit reforms.
2. SMALL LANDOWNERS — Some "large" landowners are actually oil companies that have bought out large land companies, which makes for an interesting dynamic when polluters sit down to negotiate with the Louisiana Landowners Association. The compromise struck between large landowners and Big Oil thus was a case, at least on one level, of oil companies negotiating with themselves. Smaller and medium-sized landowners were not represented because the landowners association was divided between the big guys and the little guys — and therefore stayed neutral. That left smaller landowners with no place at the bargaining table.
3. COMMON CORE OPPONENTS — Jindal kept hinting that he was against the nation's most significant education reform in years (after initially being totally for it), but in the end all he offered to opponents of Common Core was rhetoric. He never once showed up in committee (or elsewhere) to stand with the folks who were counting on him to come to their rescue. As a result, supporters of Common Core, including a large number of Republicans, carried the day on every bill relating to the controversial reform — and both sides of this issue are angry with Jindal.
4. LABI — This is a bit of a surprise because Big Business usually wins. Then again, the state's largest business group is "reloading" after the retirement of long-time president Dan Juneau and the departure of several top lobbyists and staffers.
LABI worked closely with Big Oil to pass the legacy lawsuit bill and SB 469 (to kill the levee board lawsuit), but the group's top individual priority was a "tort reform" measure lowering the threshold for jury trials from $50,000 to zero. It lost that one early on. New LABI president Stephen Waguespack has some big shoes to fill — and a steep learning curve.
5. CHURCHILL DOWNS — The publicly traded owner of the New Orleans Fair Grounds got hammered in the press and in the Legislature for shoddy conditions at the nation's third-oldest thoroughbred racetrack. State Rep. Pat Connick filed a bill that forced Churchill to promise at least $1 million in improvements by next year.
6. ABORTION RIGHTS ADVOCATES — Louisiana followed the lead of Texas with a law that requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, a requirement that will close most of the state's few abortion clinics. Legislators also passed a bill requiring women to be informed of the possible psychological and emotional impacts of abortions.
7. LOUISIANA PLUMBING CONTRACTORS — Louisiana has joined 35 other states in adopting the International Plumbing Code, which opens the door to out-of-state contractors being more able to compete in Louisiana. The international code will apply to commercial and residential jobs.
8. SURROGACY BIRTH SUPPORTERS — State Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco, and state Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, worked tirelessly for years to win over at least some opponents of surrogacy birth. They thought they had cleared the last hurdle this year, but at the last minute the Louisiana Family Forum, which initially declared itself neutral, got Jindal to veto the bill.
This issue is personal for Smith and Lopinto; they and their wives have struggled to have children. They declined to seek an override.
9. THE WORKING POOR — Louisiana's poorest citizens almost always get the short end of the stick, and this year was no exception. Legislators declined to expand Medicaid, killed a bill to increase the minimum wage, and only tinkered with laws governing payday loans. There were some bright spots, however. The local network of community health clinics founded after Hurricane Katrina got $10 million to continue operating, and people with disabilities got some additional slots (not nearly enough to meet the need) for home- and community-based services.
10. MARIJUANA ADVOCATES — Louisiana lawmakers may sometimes give the impression that they are stoned out of their minds, but not when it comes to bills reducing penalties for pot possession or loosening restrictions on the dispensation of medical marijuana. That's too bad, because after watching this session, a lot of folks were in need of something to lighten their mood.