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Inside the Sausage Factory 

Making laws is like making links -- a bloody and sometimes distasteful process, even when the results are good.

Otto von Bismarck is often credited with drawing the comparison between lawmaking and link-making. More specifically, he allegedly observed that people who enjoy eating sausage and obeying the law should not watch either being made.

Bismarck's humorous mantra fits snuggly into Louisiana political culture, where boudin and bureaucracy are both acquired tastes. In fact, the phrase seems to be repeated regularly in some fashion every time the Louisiana Legislature meets -- whether it's during a committee hearing or at the corner bar or in a newspaper editorial -- and the poke normally garners a hearty laugh.

Sen. Joe McPherson, a Rapides Parish Democrat, offered up his own aberration during the 85-day regular session scheduled to adjourn this week. It was based on the political reality that the state's budget bill is not really finished until lawmakers insert their own pet projects and personal tweaks.

"This is a sausage-making process. We're getting ready to put the casing on it," McPherson says. "We haven't smoked it yet."

There is quite a bit about the legislative process that might make folks want to look the other way, agrees Sen. Don Cravins, an Opelousas Democrat. But he's also not too sure that this session put forward much in the way of meat grinding.

"We really didn't even make a whole lot of sausage this session," he says. "There was no intensity and we failed in a few areas. A lot of that had to do with a lack of leadership and that has all the bearing in the world."

Still, whether it was a lawmaker overlooking that meddlesome Ethics Code, decorum being thrown aside on the House floor or legislative pay being kept under radar, there were numerous examples of political folly this session.

Even Cravins, who is term limited after 14 years in the Senate, will admit that much. "Things have always been that way," he says. "The players are all different but the game is the same."

In that spirit, we offer the following recap of our favorite sausage-making incidents from the last 85 days. They may not be pretty, but your tax dollars paid for them -- so open wide and try to enjoy.

Reading and Writing Not Required

It is an open secret that many lawmakers neither write nor read the legislation they debate and vote on. Granted, many bills are given thorough hearings -- a few minutes at a time, even -- but legislation is often drafted by lobbyists, special-interest lawyers or legislative staffers.

This frequently causes confusion in the legislative process because lawmakers rely on those sources to explain their bills during debate or in a meeting. Additionally, due to the large volume of bills passed every session, there's a tendency by some lawmakers to just read the summary of a bill when presenting its merits.

Sen. Cleo Fields, a Baton Rouge Democrat, unintentionally offered an inside look into this habit when he made a serious comment during a committee hearing that drew chuckles from his colleagues.

"If we could take this home and read it, like most of us do already, that would be great," Fields says flipping through a complex piece of legislation as senators on either side of him exploded in spontaneous laughter.

Later in the meeting, Fields admitted the problem gets even worse during the hectic final days of a session, when versions of legislation come flying out of conference committees that broker compromises between the House and Senate.

"We get all these conference committee reports on our desks and there's no way you can read them," he says.

This was evident last week, when the House had an intense and time-consuming debate over an issue that had nothing to do with the bill they were voting on. The Senate legislation would have allowed inmates more flexibility in receiving time off their sentences for good behavior. Even though the language of the bill specifically exempted sex offenders, murderers and drug dealers, one lawmaker after another took to the microphone to slam the measure based on fears of, you guessed it, rapists, murderers and drug pushers getting out early.

"They're going to come out and get you and your family," warned Rep. Pete Schneider, a Slidell Republican.

At the end of the debate, Rep. Danny Martiny, a Kenner Republican, could only laugh and shake his head: "We just had an hourlong debate on something that has nothing to do with that bill."

Publish or Perish -- Kind Of

Not publishing anything might bring scorn upon your academic record, but it's no dishonor whatsoever to legislative careers. While many lawmakers file multiple bills each session -- a few even push dozens of measures -- a handful of legislators take a minimalist approach to the job of making law.

Rep. Errol A. "Romo" Romero, a New Iberia Democrat, filed only one bill this year, and as of last week's newspaper deadline the measure didn't appear to be moving. It would have forced the state to pony up $120,000 for a constituent who won a court case against the Board of Supervisors of Community and Technical Colleges.

Also letting their colleagues off easy, in terms of bills they don't have to read, were Reps. Alex Heaton, a New Orleans Democrat, and Donald Trahan, a Lafayette Republican. Both men filed only two bills each for the 85-day session.

Heaton, who represents the Carrollton area of New Orleans, tackled some curious issues this session. His top-priority bills would have created an education board for Louisiana pawnbrokers and provided a cost-of-living adjustment for judges. As of late last week, both measures were stalled in committee.

Trahan had a bit more luck. The governor signed into law one of his bills dealing with unfair trade practices. Another bill, requiring school board employees to receive paid leave for certain work, was nearing final approval in the closing hours of session.

Partying on the Floor Allowed

Although House rules require decorum during debate, those rules are not always followed. There's also a dress code for the House floor -- men must wear slacks, tie and a jacket -- but the dress code says nothing about party favors.

Rep. Warren Triche, a Lafourche Parish Democrat, put those provisions to the test when he got behind the House podium to create the photo opportunity of the session.

To help him make his point during a debate, Triche strapped on a pointy, polka-dotted birthday hat, spun a noisemaker around his head and blew into a paper twirler using his free hand. The only thing missing was confetti.

While such antics sound lighthearted, Triche was opposing very serious legislation that would have allowed convicts who were 15 or 16 years old when they committed felony offenses to get quicker consideration for parole than adult criminals.

"Let's throw a party for the returning pedophiles," Triche whooped and hollered. "Let's let them back in the neighborhood."

To underscore his point, Triche even suggested that fathers invite sexual predators to their daughter's birthday parties.

His antics took a serious turn when he described what kind of convicts would be coming up for parole under the legislation, adding that only criminal defense lawyers would have the right kind of heart to support such a concept.

"These are not children we're talking about," Triche said, still wearing his paper party hat. "These are thugs and animals and hoodlums."

A few lawmakers openly took offense to Triche's comments about lawyers, as well as how he handled his presentation, but Triche was never ruled out of order by the Speaker of the House. He also made his point. The bill was rejected in a 37-48 vote.

Playing Hooky

One of the perks of being a lawmaker is getting invited to all the swell parties that special-interest groups throw in the afternoons and evenings during session. Scheduling these shindigs is difficult, though, because it is nearly impossible to guess when the House and Senate will adjourn each day.

This means some social functions must butt heads with policy, forcing lawmakers to make a difficult choice: Do I stick around and debate legislation or do I high-tail it over to that party? Such a decision can determine the fate of legislation.

That was the case with a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed state government to seize private land for hurricane-protection projects and pay the owner only fair-market value. It was somewhat non-controversial this session and didn't face any real opposition.

Still, it fell a few votes short in the House because 20 members weren't even there to cast votes on a night that was jam-packed with evening events.

Following the vote, Sen. Reggie Dupre, a Terrebonne Parish Democrat, expressed concern about his legislation being ignored, but commented that the 105-member body is a high count and "makes everything in the House about timing."

Flex Time -- and Pay

How would you like to get paid for not showing up to work?

That's what some state legislators do every session. In recent years, the Legislature has gotten into the habit of adjourning on Thursday afternoons and not returning until the following Monday, making for a relaxed, three-day weekend. If you regularly read Louisiana's daily newspapers, where the agendas are often printed, then you know this fact is well reported.

But here's the rub: Even during down time, lawmakers are still paid their $115 per diem each day the Legislature is in session. With 105 members in the House and 39 in Senate, $16,560 is spent each day on per diems.

If you average the number of regular session days -- about 35 -- missed by lawmakers during these three-day breaks, the amount of taxpayer dollars paid to vacationing lawmakers comes to roughly $579,600. Of course, there are exceptions. Some lawmakers have been donating some of their pay to hurricane-related causes and the Senate money committees have earned a reputation for working through weekends as the session enters its final days.

Still, such flex time (and pay) is a great perk. Lawmakers who live more than 50 miles away from the Capitol can even deduct the per diems from their income for tax purposes.

During a House floor debate, Rep. Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat, said the per diem amount was significantly more than the measly sum a minimum wage worker gets from the state. All a legislator has to do is walk in the door to collect that check, the young legislator noted.

Rep. Carla Dartez, a Morgan City Democrat running for secretary of state, did everything but jump on her desk and shush Richmond.

"Why don't you bring it up again so the press can beat us up on it?" Dartez asked. "People are already on us saying we don't earn our keep. ... Not everybody in this chamber is rich."

Maybe not, but each one certainly gets the per diem.

Voting by Color and Sending a Proxy

When it comes to voting in the Legislature, there's often more to it than what you see on the surface.

In the House and Senate, that means a large electronic billboard with each lawmaker's name on it. When voting occurs, a green light appears by those voting "yea" and red for those voting "nay."

While the vote is underway, lawmakers often switch quickly between green and red to confuse the process.

For instance, a legislator may have promised a special interest he would vote yea, but pledged to his constituency he would vote nay. If he sees on the board there are enough green votes for passage, he may vote nay and avoid making an unpopular decision.

Voting also can be a trivial matter in the House, where members don't necessarily have to be present to vote in certain cases. Rep. Errol A. "Romo" Romero, a New Iberia Democrat, is well known for his long pointing stick that he uses to vote other members' machines when they are away. In recent weeks, however, House Speaker Joe Salter has begun cracking down on that.

House members can even switch their vote on a bill days after it was recorded, as long as the change does not affect the outcome of the vote.

Ethics, Schmethics

The issue of consolidating the assessors' offices in Orleans Parish has been a rollercoaster ride for two Crescent City Democrats -- Reps. Jeff Arnold and Alex Heaton. Both men voted against consolidation bills earlier this year and caught hell from voters and newspapers for doing so.

Arnold, the son of Fifth District Assessor Tom Arnold, and Heaton, the brother of Seventh District Assessor Henry Heaton, defended their decisions vehemently and even received backing from the state Ethics Board.

R. Gray Sexton, the board's top administrator, opined that lawmakers can vote on bills in which immediate family members have an economic interest as long as they file an explanation in writing with the House or Senate and then copy the ethics board. The statements should be filed within three days and describe the matter in question, the nature of the potential conflict and the reason why the lawmaker is able to cast a vote that is "fair, objective, and in the public interest."

In several interviews, Arnold and Heaton pointed to the opinion to justify their votes. But when the issue was resurrected by the governor in the current session -- and with several constituencies eyeing their votes -- Arnold and Heaton decided twice to abstain from voting on the matter, showing that public opinion likely holds more weight than an opinion from the Ethics Board.

The Ethics Code, such as it is, has become a curious beast in the Legislature. If lawmakers don't like something in it, all they have to do is vote to change it. For instance, during the final week of session, the Senate voted to allow rural school officials to promote their relatives to certain jobs, even though nepotism laws already prohibited such moves.

Irony was also on the menu this session when New Orleans Rep. Peppi Bruneau, a Republican, tried to make public certain documents in the Governor's Office that have been under lock and key for generations. Although Gov. Kathleen Blanco takes credit for major ethics reforms in recent years, she opposed seeing the sun shine on some of her administration's actions.

Rank Has Its Privilege

It's good to be elected. Just consider the following:

State law already prohibits lawmakers and legislative personnel from being forced to show up in court to serve as a witness, unless it's a criminal case. To strengthen that protection, Rep. Taylor Townsend, a Democrat from Natchitoches, pushed a bill this session to require courts to explain their summons and provide more forewarning. At deadline, it was only one step away from passing.

Jefferson Parish Rep. Steve Scalise, a Republican, tried in vain to abolish another little-known perk held only by New Orleans-area officials. Current law allows them to get people who have been charged with a municipal violation out of jail. Rep. Ken Odinet, a Democrat from St. Bernard Parish, admitted to using the power on occasion during the debate, but only for minor riffs, like when a kid gets picked up for not having a license and is thrown in the pokey with hardened criminals.

Secret Code

There should be an official legislative phrase book, because unless you have been around the Capitol for many years, you might not understand what some legislators are saying during debate.

"Did you know?" is a favorite among legislators and is usually added on to the beginning or end of an otherwise declarative sentence -- particularly when House or Senate members are confined to asking questions only, but really want to make a statement in support of or against a measure. So, during the question-and-answer period of debate, a lawmaker can make a long-winded commentary on a bill and add on "Did you know?" at the end of it and still be within the rules of order.

"This is a local bill" and "These are only technical changes" can often be taken at face value. But sometimes slick lawmakers use the phrases to sneak something into a bill. "Simple housekeeping" is another one used to lull lawmakers into complacency.

Rep. Ernest Wooten, a Republican from Plaquemines Parish, tried his hand at this game when he attempted to amend a bill to allow bars to hold poker tournaments.

"(The amendment is) basically technical in nature," Wooten said.

House Speaker Joe Salter, a Democrat from Florien, wasn't able to see Wooten make the motion from his vantage point, but couldn't help but ask the obvious: "Did you say that with a straight face?"

The final term of art is "sine die." It signals that lawmakers are adjourning "without date" for returning -- and it's everyone's favorite phrase because it also means the Louisiana Constitution and statutes are safe for a few more months ... at least, until the next round of sausage making.

click to enlarge "We really didn't even make a whole lot of sausage this - session. There was no intensity and we failed in a few - areas. A lot of that had to do with a lack of leadership - and that has all the bearing in the world."  Sen. Don - Cravins - KARRON CLARK
  • Karron Clark
  • "We really didn't even make a whole lot of sausage this session. There was no intensity and we failed in a few areas. A lot of that had to do with a lack of leadership and that has all the bearing in the world." Sen. Don Cravins
click to enlarge During the session, Rep. Peppi Bruno of New Orleans tried - to make public documents that have been locked away in - the Governor's Office, a move opposed by Gov. Kathleen - Blanco. - KARRON CLARK
  • Karron Clark
  • During the session, Rep. Peppi Bruno of New Orleans tried to make public documents that have been locked away in the Governor's Office, a move opposed by Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
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