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Swan Song for the Dinosaurs 

The Old Guard hit the back door last week as the Legislature prepared for a historic transition. The session's final four days offered several reasons why term limits were approved in the first place.

MONDAY, JUNE 25 -- Sen. Tom Schedler did a double take. A bill had just passed the Senate with a hastily crafted amendment attached to it that he knew nothing about. In fact, most of the lawmakers who voted on the legislation had not even seen the amendment; Senate pages were moving particularly slow at that moment. While mundane enough not to throw the entire bill out of whack, the incident foreshadowed what to expect over the next 72 hours.

"The final few days of session always scare me," Schedler, a Mandeville Republican, ranted to his colleagues from the Senate floor. "We all know it's like a basketball game. It happens very rapidly. We leave here at four or five o'clock every day. We should never be put in this position."

The final week of a Louisiana legislative session is the stuff of legends. The pace is so frantic, the give-and-take so secretive and legislators so self-involved that bad bills with questionable intent easily slip by unnoticed. It happens every year. Sometimes you cannot discern the real intent of certain legislation until months later. During the first few weeks of a session, lawmakers work four days a week, getting home most nights in time for dinner but generally paying close attention to what's before them in the Capitol. But during the last week, it's a 24/7 grind.

Political paranoia is one of the occupational hazards during that time. That happened last Monday when one of the Capitol's old political ghosts came back to haunt the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, where Republican Sen. Max Malone of Shreveport was pushing legislation to make absolutely certain that Louisiana's governor could not issue pardons for federal convictions. It was largely a local beef, at least on the surface.

Malone was still miffed that a pardon by former Gov. Mike Foster allowed Joe Shyne, who was pinched in 1994 on federal racketeering charges, to run for the Shreveport City Council. As committee members voted against Malone's bill, he issued a warning unrelated to his cover story: "You are voting to pardon Edwin Edwards, that's what you are doing!"

Rep. Charmaine Marchand, a New Orleans Democrat, helped kill the measure and rejuvenated rumors of Gov. Kathleen Blanco's options on the matter. "I want Edwards back," Marchand said, casting a vote that surely brought smiles to one denizen of the federal correctional facility in Oakdale.

TUESDAY, JUNE 26 -- As the smoke cleared the following day, and legislation was released from opposing chambers or conference committees after weeks of rancor, several lawmakers found their bills sporting unusual growths -- "hitchhikers" as they're commonly called. One of the largest came at the hands of Rep. Roy Quezaire, a Democrat from Donaldsonville, who single-handedly glommed $734.9 million in road repairs and related upgrades onto an otherwise benign Senate bill. The huge rider was stripped off when Blanco caught wind of the amendment and threatened a veto.

Of course, other bills came out of the process much worse off, some unrecognizable. "The only thing left of mine is my name," Rep. Elcie Guillory, a Lake Charles Democrat, said in disgust over the loss of his bill to last-minute hijinks.

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 27 -- As Blanco, a Democrat and Louisiana's first female governor, faced the final two days of her last session, she remained at odds with Republicans over how much tax relief should be included in the state's record $30 billion budget. The governor was willing to accept $180 million in tax relief, but the GOP wanted considerably more.

On the House floor, Republicans hung signs on their desk computers declaring, "My Mama Wants Tax Credits." The slogan echoed a quip by Rep. Jim Tucker, a Terrytown resident who chairs the House GOP Caucus, responding to Blanco's threat to cut pet projects to make room for tax relief. "She's not my mama and she's not my constituent," he said.

Not to be outdone, Democrats, who mostly argued that too many tax cuts would jeopardize important programs and construction, posted their own signs reading, "My Mama Wants Roads."

Hitchhiking attempts continued throughout the day, but most efforts were overshadowed by a true hijacking, which of course is a totally different beast. Dredging up a hot topic from last year's session, senators from southeast Louisiana tried unsuccessfully to take over an unrelated House bill to create a new autonomous West Bank levee district.

While not the most direct route to take in passing legislation, it proved that desperate people will take drastic measures in the late stages of the legislative process. Democratic Rep. Francis Thompson of Delhi told the House as much in his farewell address, having been forced out by term limits. "You should never let the constitution stand in the way of a good bill," he said.

THURSDAY, JUNE 28 -- Not surprisingly, the final day of session started half an hour late, with the House getting under way long before the Senate, but nowhere close to the 9 a.m. scheduled convening time. After one lawmaker switched his vote on a bill from the previous day, an all-too-common practice that allows minds and positions to be officially changed, the House endorsed a resolution to create an Italian-American Caucus, effective immediately.

The formation of such a club in the lower chamber is a familiar function. Where there's a cause, there's a caucus, conventional wisdom goes, and the House already has conclaves -- some with staff -- for women, rural lawmakers, African Americans and others.

As the business of the day proceeded, stuffed monkeys turned up in various locations on the House floor -- the aftermath of a debate from the previous day that ended in the Tulane Primate Research Center's budget being halved. Rep. John Alario, the Westwego Democrat who chairs the budget-drafting Appropriations Committee, had jokingly said of the cuts that half the monkeys would need to escape to survive -- and apparently some already did.

The rest of the menagerie "escaped" when both the House and Senate voted to "adjourn sine die" later that day. Not to fear, a whole new batch of primates will be selected by voters in the fall.

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

click to enlarge A joke from Rep. John Alario of Westwego in the waning hours of the Louisiana legislative session involved stuffed monkeys placed around the House floor. He jokingly said half the monkeys at the Tulane Primate Research Center would have to escape in order to survive the hefty cut the Legislature gave that institution's budget.
  • A joke from Rep. John Alario of Westwego in the waning hours of the Louisiana legislative session involved stuffed monkeys placed around the House floor. He jokingly said half the monkeys at the Tulane Primate Research Center would have to escape in order to survive the hefty cut the Legislature gave that institution's budget.
click to enlarge In his farewell address, Rep. Francis Thompson jokingly told lawmakers: "You should never let the constitution stand in the way of a good bill."
  • In his farewell address, Rep. Francis Thompson jokingly told lawmakers: "You should never let the constitution stand in the way of a good bill."
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