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In the Hopper 

The 2008 regular session of the Legislature is still four months away, but it's never too early for a sneak peek at the bills already taking form around the state.

If you haven't gazed at a 2008 calendar yet, then you might be surprised, thrilled or indifferent to learn that Carnival season is practically upon us, with Fat Tuesday falling ridiculously early on Feb. 5. If you're Catholic, that means next year's ashes will be applied to your forehead in a little more than two months. If you're a Mardi Gras Indian, it means you've got only about 10 weeks to get 'pretty." And if you're a fan of the Courir, or Cajun Mardi Gras, it means you've got about the same amount of time to fatten your gumbo chickens and brush up on your two-step.

It's all quickly approaching, as is the more stoic occasion of Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal's inauguration, slated for Jan. 14. His special session on ethics, meanwhile, may kick off in late January, and it probably won't be a short gathering; Jindal promised voters a 31-point ethics plan during the recent election.

Culture and politics are about to collide in Louisiana, and lawmakers, lobbyists and other Capitol denizens from places like New Orleans, Houma, Mamou and New Roads don't like the prospects " or at least the timing " of such a collision. The idea of scheduling a legislative session around a party may strike some as laughable, but Carnival is both big business and sacred tradition in many parts of south Louisiana, which is home to almost two-thirds of the state's voters. Scheduling his promised special session around Mardi Gras presents the first predicament of the Republican governor-elect's nascent administration.

That's the sweet thing about regular sessions of the Legislature; they're predictable. For instance, come hell or high water, we know the opening gavel of the next regular session will drop on March 31 and must be put away no later than 6 p.m. on June 23.

And already there are indications of what to expect in the regular session " from budget battles to cultural clashes. Here's a sneak preview of some of the issues our new governor and legislature will be deciding in the spring.

Big Money " An unprecedented $30 billion state budget is hard to overlook. It will be interesting to see how that loot is spent (or saved) under a new administration promising change and accountability. Creating more accountability in the budgeting process also is a key ingredient of promises to reform the state's image and improve voter confidence.

For example, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), one of the state's most powerful lobbies, is eyeing something in the current budget called the '2004 Overcollections Fund." That's a euphemism for a political piggy bank that LABI contends the governor and Joint Legislative Budget Committee traditionally spend however they want.

Jindal has vowed to eliminate such funds, and if he keeps that promise, the cutting probably won't stop at this fund. Whatever else the new governor and his conservative allies might find and expose during the regular session should make for an interesting few months this spring.

The Education Session " While the January special session will be dedicated to ethics, an argument could be made that the regular session will be anchored by far-reaching education proposals.

Education lobbyists already expect Jindal to stand behind legislation that would provide some sort of financial aid, whether through tax credits or some other mechanism, to parents who send their children to private or parochial schools. It's a variation of education vouchers, which many lawmakers campaigned on this year.

The prospects for vouchers may be better than ever, considering the amount of money that special interests have poured into the state after Hurricane Katrina. For example, All Children Matter (ACM), a Virginia-based '527" or issue-based organization, bankrolled part of Jindal's radio efforts and got involved in several other races around the state. The group almost exclusively backs efforts (and candidates) that will lead to school vouchers.

The group has serious supporters. Just before the primary, ACM's Louisiana team received $100,000 from Wal-Mart tycoon Jim Walton of Bentonville, Ark. Brooklyn-born neoconservative Bruce Kovner, founder of Caxton Associates, also put $100,000 into the Louisiana chapter's account during the same time period.

Merit-based pay for public school teachers is likely to come up again as well, but the highest-profile issue could be Jindal's push to create more charter schools in Louisiana. On the horizon, there's chatter about reformulating the way Louisiana colleges are funded by implementing a performance-based system. Furthermore, a closer look at dual-enrollment programs, where students earn college and high school credits concurrently, may be on tap.

Vote Early, Not Often " Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, a Republican, will be pushing a legislative package next year to change the way voters exercise their most fundamental democratic right.

For starters, Dardenne wants to eliminate the traditional July special election, which is set aside to handle tax and bond issues, or anything else not involving live candidates. The turnout for the summer ballot this year was a deplorable 4.5 percent " but the special statewide election is always an expensive proposition.

Dardenne also will ask lawmakers to make early voting at satellite sites a permanent program and to expand it past the two locations that were in operation during the most recent election cycles.

Ultimately, we may see a move to shorten polling hours on Election Day " changing it from its traditional 14-hour (6 a.m. to 8 p.m.) schedule to a 12-hour window (7 a.m. to 7 p.m.). While traditionalists and others may howl at this notion, the reality is that Louisiana's poll commissioners are a dying breed " literally, most are senior citizens who work long hours for a pittance. At some point, it will be necessary both to pay them substantially more and work them a little bit less " or run the risk of not having enough commissioners to conduct elections smoothly (and honestly).

Another Whack at Insurance " Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon will have a legislative package that, among other things, extends a $100 million incentive program that actually pays private companies (with taxpayer dollars) to sell insurance in Louisiana, a place they otherwise consider a bad risk.

While the program is popular among most lawmakers, especially those whose districts lie below I-10, supporters of the concept are waiting for Jindal's blessing before proceeding.

The Hurricane Caucus? " There's a caucus for black members, women, rural lawmakers, Democrats, Republicans and even independents. There are also delegations for major metro areas such as Orleans and Jefferson, as well as one for Acadiana officials. But there's no official recognition for the districts that hug the Gulf of Mexico.

That's why a band of lawmakers is hoping to file a resolution in 2008 to create an official Coastal Caucus. In recent years, both the House and Senate created special committees for coastal restoration and hurricane protection. Supporters of a Coastal Caucus see this as the next logical step.

If nothing else, the concept could morph into a reliable voting bloc, although its long-term potential is uncertain.

Online Predators " State District Judge Wilford Carter of Lake Charles handed down a ruling last month that will certainly be addressed by lawmakers in the regular session. He declared Louisiana's online sex solicitation law unconstitutional, siding with a defendant who was busted two years ago for allegedly seeking sexual favors from a minor. The case is on appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court, but that has never stopped the Legislature from weighing in.

Carter's ruling essentially states that the defendant's constitutional right to equal protection was violated by the state law because it does not allow him to use a 'consent defense" " that is, that the person he was chatting with online was actually an adult police officer, not a juvenile. Similarly, some civil libertarians argue that the online solicitation law infringes upon free speech.

The Noose " Lawmakers no doubt will see a resolution or bill that limits how and where people display a hangman's noose, a historic symbol of racial oppression in the South. The issue came to the fore after the Jena 6 incident earlier this year. Congress is already considering it via measures introduced by U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans Democrat, and others, and the Louisiana Legislature will get its own chance in March.

Local lawmakers have even more reason to confront this issue because of a more recent incident in Jefferson Parish, where a local government employee is accused of displaying a noose and bullwhip in his office. Seven supervisors up the chain of command are on the hook in Jefferson for that and other displays. A black public works employee is considering legal action, and the local NAACP is demanding that the supervisors be terminated.

It's How You Wear It " Another attention grabber, albeit significantly less substantive, could be the resurrection of the so-called baggy pants law, a statute stipulating how low an individual can wear his or her jeans or slacks. While proponents argue the trend started in jail, others say it is the influence of hip-hop music on fashion that spurred the style.

Sen. Derrick Shepherd, a Marrero Democrat, unsuccessfully brought the issue up when he was a member of the House, drawing laughs from his colleagues and an embarrassing spot on Comedy Central's Daily Show. The difference between now and then is a slew of local ordinances " in Port Allen, Lafourche Parish, New Iberia, Alexandria and others " that could serve as a mandate (and a template) for a lawmaker seeking statewide press attention.

And if they file it, trust us, the media will come.

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

click to enlarge In the regular session, Secretary of State Jay Dardenne is expected to try to change the way we vote, including doing away with July special elections, and shortening the hours polls are open.
  • In the regular session, Secretary of State Jay Dardenne is expected to try to change the way we vote, including doing away with July special elections, and shortening the hours polls are open.
click to enlarge Sen. Derrick Shepherd may get the last laugh when it comes to a so-called "baggy pants" law. When he introduced a bill to legislate how low pants can legally go when he was in the House, his colleagues enjoyed a laugh at his expense, as did the country when he was the subject of a jibe on The Daily Show. The issue now may be resurrected in the regular session.
  • Sen. Derrick Shepherd may get the last laugh when it comes to a so-called "baggy pants" law. When he introduced a bill to legislate how low pants can legally go when he was in the House, his colleagues enjoyed a laugh at his expense, as did the country when he was the subject of a jibe on The Daily Show. The issue now may be resurrected in the regular session.
click to enlarge To revel or legislate? That could be the question behind Bobby Jindal's first predicament as governor if he schedules a special legislative session to deal with his promised 31-point ethics plan at a time that conflicts with lawmakers' plans for Carnival Season, which is very early this year.
  • To revel or legislate? That could be the question behind Bobby Jindal's first predicament as governor if he schedules a special legislative session to deal with his promised 31-point ethics plan at a time that conflicts with lawmakers' plans for Carnival Season, which is very early this year.
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