A look at the hottest issues confronting lawmakers — and citizens — during this year's legislative session.
The 2012 legislative session, which will be unleashed on the public March 12 like a political kraken, is brimming with new personalities thanks to the 2011 election cycle.
State Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Mandeville, is a rare coins dealer who has a black belt in karate. Rep. Clay Schexnayder, R-Sorrento, may be the only certified mechanic in the Louisiana Legislature — and the only lawmaker to have raced an IMCA/UMP modified racecar.
Rep. Kenny Cox, D-Mansfield, was an Army officer who served in the Pentagon and was at work there when terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Fellow rookie Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, comes to the Capitol after spending a large part of her life as a missionary living in extremely harsh conditions.
Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, was rushed to the emergency room one Election Day to have a chicken bone surgically removed from his throat. Several hours later, his pregnant wife went into labor.
Elections always bring new stories, new faces — but not necessarily new issues. Here are some to watch between now and June 4, when lawmakers must adjourn.
The "Bobby" factor — It's the beginning of the end for our governor — year one of term two. While he mostly played it safe during his first term (read: watered-down ethics reform and a lame attempt to merge the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans), Jindal is swinging for the fences this term. He proposes massive reforms in public education and public employee retirement systems. Best of all, his latest moves seem less obviously calibrated to his national ambitions. Will this be the year Jindal governs instead of poses? We'll see.
Education overhaul — If you believe the conservative hype, the era of public education policy being dictated by teacher unions is nearing an end. At a minimum, Democrats and Republicans both are tired of Louisiana's broken education system. Big Business is backing Jindal's call to rewrite teacher tenure rules. The governor wants a top-to-bottom overhaul of public education; he hopes to open the floodgates on charters, authorize merit pay for teachers and tie teacher evaluations to student performance. New lawmakers have no idea what's coming. Louisiana has nearly 50,000 public school teachers, and they, along with their friends and family, will lobby lawmakers hard. One legislator noted recently that being lobbied by an elementary school teacher is one thing, but being lobbied by your own elementary school teacher is another.
Pension reform — Louisiana's total unfunded accrued liability, or UAL, could pass $20 billion in the next four years. If lawmakers and Jindal don't act, that figure may become their legacy. Jindal wants to raise the retirement age and make public employees contribute more to their retirements. This will be a long, tough fight.
Tort-o-rama — Oilfield "legacy sites" are those that were contaminated, many in the distant past, but still require environmental mitigation. The fight is over who should pay and how the sites should be cleaned up. This battle has raged for years and could be the biggest payday for Louisiana's lobbyists, as it pits well-heeled landowners and trial lawyers against Big Oil.
The Budget — Jindal has proposed a $25.5 billion operating budget with an estimated shortfall of $895 million. That's roughly $61 million less than this fiscal year's budget. Add to that the cumulative UAL of almost $20 billion and you don't need an abacus to size up the daunting challenges lawmakers face. The real calculus that the new legislative class needs to figure out is how to address the problem without kicking it into next year, which is what always happened in prior years.
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. You can contact him directly through his website at www.jeremyalford.com.