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Shooting from the Hip, Aiming for the Head 

A new governor and huge legislative turnover haven't affected the tradition of pointed remarks and feverish feuds.

By Despite the Legislature's varied incarnations over the years — from "Young Turks" wanting reform (1968) to "Roemeristas" wanting reform (1988) to the Jindalites of today wanting reform — Louisiana lawmakers have consistently approached their sessions with an air that's both cavalier and competitive, righteous and raunchy, even curiously intelligent yet sometimes completely clueless. State government seems to demand a dose of duality (if not hypocrisy) to keep the wheels turning.

As for the new Legislature, it has once more been redundant in all the familiar places. The stripes may be different, but the beast remains the same.

Maybe it's a living testament to the House That Huey Built, with its storied hallways and larger-than-life characters, that Louisiana loves politics-as-theater. Whatever the reason, from the opening gavel to final adjournment, Louisiana lawmakers morph into stand-up comics, old-country philosophers and sometimes even vengeful practitioners of politics. It makes for good drama and certainly helps lubricate the otherwise dry procession of policy debate.

Here are some examples from the recent special session on ethics reform:

We Don't Need No Stinking Badges — If ever there were a session that put lobbyists on the hot seat, this was it. Lobbyists were told they have to spend less money wining and dining lawmakers, and soon they will have to disclose more information than ever about their clients and their finances. The push for tougher lobbyist disclosure rules probably encouraged rookie Rep. Walker Hines, D-New Orleans, to promote his own reform ideas, such as a bill that would require lobbyists to wear special badges while working the Legislature.

If lobbyists were to violate the rule, which was harshly shot down by the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, legislative staff could expel them from the Capitol. When the committee reviewed this provision, several lobbyists laughed nervously and quickly slipped on the badges that they already are issued but not required to wear. Lawmakers, however, were stern-faced about the proposal.

They peppered Hines with hypothetical scenarios as he shifted and squirmed through one of his first lawmaking experiences. Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, a fellow Democrat from New Orleans, argued that the badges could become a Scarlet Letter of sorts that citizens might misinterpret. For example, Peterson asked Hines what her constituents might think if they saw her in a huddle of people who all were wearing the special badges. "They're going to think, "Oh look, Karen is hanging out with lobbyists,'" she said.

Rep. Noble Ellington, a Democrat from Winnsboro coming off a term-limited stint in the Senate, didn't mind admitting that lobbyists are the bee's knees. "When I first came down here, I thought they were probably the worst people in the world," Ellington said. "But since I've been here, some of them are my best friends now, and I find them to be pretty good folks most of the time. I don't think I've ever been lied to."

Lawmakers on the committee gently nudged Hines to shelve his bill, but he refused to take the hint. So they did it for him. As he collected his briefcase and pulled away from the committee table where he had provided testimony, Hines exhaled a long breath and shook his head.

He had another bill that would have removed lobbyists from their traditional seats in the back of the House, but the committee didn't see fit to hear it.

Stuck in the Middle — Rep. Jerome "Dee" Richard of Thibodaux might be an "independent" with no party affiliation, but he didn't mind stepping into an escalating partisan battle last week between the Republican governor and a Democratic lawmaker from New Orleans. Richard allowed Peterson to completely rewrite his campaign finance legislation as a way to take a jab at Jindal, whose campaign recently failed to report in a timely manner a $118,000 "in-kind" donation from the Louisiana Republican Party.

Rolfe McCollister Jr., a Baton Rouge publisher and Jindal's campaign treasurer, has vowed to pay Jindal's anticipated $2,500 ethics fine personally. Peterson initially had her own bill that would have restricted third parties from paying a politician's fine unless the Ethics Board has slapped the third party in question with the fine in question. The Senate rejected Peterson's bill, so she attached her original language to four other instruments, including Richard's. "Redundancy and repetition is a good thing in the process," she said.

While Jindal's recent infraction was an underlying theme in Peterson's bill, his name was rarely mentioned during the Peterson/Richard floor debate. "Was this the bill you asked us not to speak on because the administration thought we would grandstand?" Rep. Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat, asked Peterson in a friendly lob.

Peterson smirked and announced that Timmy Teepell, Jindal's chief of staff, had personally asked her to shelve the bill, an accusation he later denied. Then she responded to Richmond by claiming that the governor should not be part of the debate, but still managed to put in one last poke at Jindal: "I certainly wouldn't want hypocrisies to come into play."

The King of Comedy — When House members bickered during a debate over a set of bills killed by the Senate, Rep. Ernest Wooten, a Republican from Belle Chasse, just couldn't help himself. The former sheriff of Plaquemines Parish, with his country drawl and cowboy swagger, grabbed the microphone from his desk and expressed bewilderment over the treatment House bills were receiving in the Senate, especially after a dozen former House members had moved to the Upper Chamber during the last election cycle. "I didn't realize you could get so dumb so fast," Wooten said.

Off to a Good Start — As long as it didn't affect the outcome of a legislative vote, House members have long been allowed to change their votes after the fact. House Speaker Jim Tucker, a Terrytown Republican, says the practice had come under fire from the media and the public, which is why a rule change was needed to limit vote changes to the same day votes are cast, not weeks later.

Some lawmakers grumbled that their seatmates often vote with their machines when they're out of the chamber, and that sometimes a "wrong" vote is cast. In short, corrections sometimes need to be made, a point both proponents and opponents agreed on. Then Rep. Pat Connick, a freshman Republican from Marrero, made a confession that hopefully doesn't foreshadow the rest of his years in office. "I was actually a victim of that on my very first vote here," he says. "Because, actually, I missed my first vote here." Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

click to enlarge Rep. Jerome Richard and Karen Clark Peterson last week presented their campaign finance bill before the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee. - KARRON CLARK
  • Karron Clark
  • Rep. Jerome Richard and Karen Clark Peterson last week presented their campaign finance bill before the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee.
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