If you spend enough time in the State Capitol, occasionally follow the local news this time of year, or even have a passing interest in Louisiana politics, then you already know the Legislature houses an intricate caste system. Some lawmakers are the in-crowd, garnering chairmanships and pork for their districts, while others reside in the outhouse, losing parking spots and committee assignments. These cliques have leaders and followers and enforcers and lackeys. They can make life miserable for the administration and staff, or they can make someone the most popular politico in the chamber.
The status of each group means everything. Class clowns dish out juvenile humor. Playground bullies flex their muscles when a move needs to be made. A few bookworms carry the intellectual load for the masses. Further consider all the swinging parties held during session and the tardy lawmakers who try in vain to make committee meetings on time, and the capitol begins to resemble any Louisiana high school of your choice.
In that light, here is a look back at this year's 60-day regular session: The 2005 Legislative Yearbook.
Louisiana Legislature Alma Mater
We honor all these reverent halls,
And those who have gone before,
The price was right,
And they kept it tight,
Passing taxes, fees and more.
When we're re-elected,
We'll sing our praise to thee,
And to big oil,
With deep pockets,
We pledge our loyalty.
In Memoriam: John J. Hainkel Jr.
The first day of the session resembled a cloning experiment gone awry. Seersucker suits filled the capitol and white shoes stomped marble. It seemed everyone was sporting fine spring digs, but there was a suit noticeably absent -- specifically, the wrinkled one with its fabled cigarette burns.
The apparel was a trademark of the late Sen. John Hainkel, a New Orleans Republican who died in his sleep at the age of 67 shortly before the session convened.
He'll surely be remembered for generations to come, with stories passed down about his firm embraces, humorous anecdotes and penchant for cocktails. But even before his death, Hainkel was a living legend. He remains the only elected official to serve as both president of the Senate and speaker of the House.
In honor of this legacy, the Senate has renamed its briefing room. With theater-style seating and large plasma monitors, the John Hainkel Room is among the most luxurious in the Capitol. Lawmakers have also requested that the Department of Health and Hospitals designate the New Orleans Home and Rehabilitation Center as the Hainkel Center.
Principal of Baton Rouge
In the movie Lean on Me, Morgan Freeman portrayed the infamous Joe Clark, an inner-city principal who wielded a baseball bat to keep his kids in line. Gov. Kathleen Blanco should have rented the flick earlier this year to pick up a few pointers.
While she had a lengthy agenda -- business incentives, financial relief for military families, funding for coastal restoration -- the governor chose to put her energies into two tax proposals this session that were essentially treated like stepchildren by lawmakers. From the get-go, Blanco proclaimed her top priority was increasing teacher pay. The means to doing so, however, proved to be the most controversial issue of the session. Her plan for a $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes sat stalled on the House floor for weeks as she lobbied lawmakers at every available opportunity. The inside joke during the final weeks of the session was that Blanco was giving away more pork to pass the tax than the mechanism would have ever generated. Republicans killed the bill, offering an alternative that was likewise DOA. Other lawmakers simply avoided it out of fear that it would come back to haunt them come election time.
In the end, Blanco was able to salvage another tax that will impose $87 million on private hospitals for care they provide to the poor and uninsured. It should add some new cash to the state's Medicaid program, but it also took considerable political capital to pass.
Superintendent of Sway
They can't stop him -- they can only hope to contain him. Lawmakers made several attempts this session to strip power away from Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom, but they failed miserably. They proposed removing his authority over other agencies when it comes to agriculture, tried to require him to comply with public bid laws, and even attempted to take away his $12 million slush fund generated by gambling revenues. But the bills fell faster than sugar cane during grinding season.
Rep. Jack Smith, D-Franklin, suggested only kryptonite could stop Odom: "Bob, do you have a big 'S' underneath your shirt?"
Commissioner of Administration Jerry Luke LeBlanc spent a lot of time this session begging. He cautioned lawmakers against spending money irresponsibly and pleaded with them to avoid costly tax breaks. The state's money was desperately needed for more urgent matters, he told them. Whether legislators heeded the warning is open to interpretation, but the spending restraints didn't seem to apply to the state's operating and construction budgets.
The operating budget, found in House Bill 1, grew by more than $8 billion this year, as compared to a decade ago. While health care and higher education struggled for a firm footing, the spending plan made room for tens of millions of dollars for lawmakers' pet projects, from rice festivals and hot air balloon races to fishing docks and nonprofit donations.
House Bill 2, the state's annual construction budget, was no different. At last count, the wish list had in excess of $4.5 billion worth of requests from legislators, the administration, state agencies, local governments, private groups and nonprofits -- that's roughly a $2 billion increase from three years ago. The requests are significant, especially since the construction budget only contains about $72 million for new projects -- a $5 million increase over the 2002 budget.
The Auditor's Accountant
As Louisiana teachers fought for a pay raise this session, House Speaker Joe Salter, D-Florien, was busy pushing a bill to give his colleagues a salary hike. House Bill 800 would have allowed the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, which has 38 members, to institute pay increases for its "officers." The panel already had the power to approve such changes for its chair and vice chair, and the upper chamber thought that was sufficient. They slaughtered the proposal midway through session.
Meanwhile, Salter managed to push through a $3.4 million budget increase for the House and Senate. House Bill 858 grows the legislative budget by 6 percent to $60.2 million for the coming year. It adds another $10 million to the budget of the Legislative Auditor's Office, with Legislative Auditor Steve Theriot receiving a $5,200 pay raise and a $12,000 housing allowance. Officials say the increases were needed to upgrade technology, address rising insurance costs and to pay for a longer session next year.
Lawmakers were outraged earlier this year when they found out Insurance Commissioner Robert Wooley had spent $40,000 in taxpayer money on a fully loaded Harley-Davidson-edition Ford pickup -- with heated seats, no less. Current law technically allows such purchases with oversight by the division of administration.
When reporters questioned Wooley on his buy, he told them it amounted to a "pimple on a bee's ass." If that's so, then the Legislature cleared it up this session by passing Senate Bill 44, which requires statewide elected officials to justify vehicle purchases to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.
How many senators does it take to pass a tax? Senate President Donald Hines, D-Bunkie, posed that question to the courts this session. Two former senators from New Orleans left their seats vacant earlier this year for differing reasons, thus forcing the inquiry. Republican John Hainkel died before the session convened and Democrat Lambert Boissiere Jr. resigned to become a city constable.
There are 39 total seats in the Senate, meaning only 20 votes are needed for a simple majority and 26 for a constitutional amendment or tax. But if the body only has 37 sitting members, legislative logic figures those numbers could potentially change. Hines and others pursued the issue in the courts for nearly a month during the session before they were finally told they have what they have -- 39 members.
Outstanding Staff Awards
Two high-ranking legislative staffers made headlines this session by positioning themselves on the wrong side of the law.
Clifford Lee Williams, formerly an attorney for the House of Representatives, was demoted in May when it was revealed he's technically not a lawyer at all. Records indicated that he was ineligible to practice law, although he had handled more than a dozen cases in recent years, including the divorce of Speaker Pro Tem Yvonne Dorsey, D-Baton Rouge. House leadership put Williams on administrative leave, but he was allowed to return to work as a legislative analyst. The demotion allowed him to keep his $97,000 annual salary because it fell within the same pay range.
A top aide to Gov. Kathleen Blanco also found legal problems this session when he was pulled over for a DWI in Shreveport. Leonard Kleinpeter, who supervises the Governor's Office of Community Relations, pleaded innocent to the charge and his trial date was set for the final day of the session. Kleinpeter was formerly the first assistant secretary of state and Blanco's chief of staff when she was lieutenant governor.
CLASS OF 2005
One of the most quotable politicos in the Legislature is without a doubt Rep. Warren Triche, D-Chackbay. When he presented a bill on the House floor this session directing funds to the Louisiana Animal Welfare Commission, he did so using an electronic parrot that repeated portions of his argument. When a coastal restoration bill came up in the Appropriations Committee and received no opposition, he likened it to "apple pie and motherhood and little brown bears." On one occasion, he told Charles Castille, the undersecretary for the Department of Health and Hospitals, that he was "older than dirt." As to how the commercial seafood industry operates under the tax radar: "In God we trust, in cash we deal."
An outspoken critic of how the past three administrations have crafted their budgets, Triche says he is often disgusted with the legislative process. "You can change Sunday to Monday afternoon here, if you want to, with 53 votes," he says, referring to the official vote count in the House.
One of the most important objectives of the session for some lawmakers was securing money for the unfinished stretches of I-49, which is a proposed connection between New Orleans and Kansas City, Lafayette and New Orleans, and Shreveport and the Arkansas line. The Legislature took an innovative approach to dedicating the needed cash by dipping into the state's unclaimed-property fund to pay off bonds and draw down a federal match of $750 million. The method drew criticism in some circles, but was overwhelmingly supported -- especially after Sen. Sherri Cheek, R-Shreveport, had her say: "We're going to have our knives ready to neuter anyone who is against it."
Lawmakers also got emotional over an anonymous flier sent to them by lobbyists early in the session. It depicted a mock-up mass mailing that smeared legislators for supporting a provider tax on Louisiana hospitals. It was intended as a re-election threat and was personalized to each lawmaker. Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, enlisted the services of the attorney general and promised blood in several interviews: "We're looking to see whose fingerprints are on these. We're going to smoke them out of their holes, and when we smoke them out of their holes, we need to throw them out of our offices."
Sen. Walter Boasso, R-Chalmette, did his best to bring some reform to the retirement systems of teachers and state employees this year, but an aggressive public information campaign killed his efforts. Before pulling the measure from consideration, he told his colleagues that the legislation had become "Boasso's anti-Christ bill."
Heavenly spirits also played a role in a proposed ban on human cloning. Lawmakers resurrected the topic again this session, but differing versions failed to gain momentum in both the House and Senate. Religious factions and anti-abortion interests pushed to halt embryonic stem-cell research, which some believe could help lead to a cure for diabetes, Parkinson's and other diseases. When the issue came up in the House, Rep. Errol "Romo" Romero, D-New Iberia, posed a question to himself aloud: "What would Jesus do if he was sitting in seat number 25 where Romo is sitting?" (Based on Romero's vote, he would be pro-research.)
The case of Floridian Terri Schiavo likewise stirred up a religious debate. After haggling over the details for weeks, and considering alternative measures, lawmakers approved House Bill 675 by Rep. Gary Beard, R-Baton Rouge, which states any person in a common-law relationship while they're still married would have no say over life-support decisions. The bill is now sitting on the governor's desk.
Freshman of the Year
Rep. Chuck Kleckly, R-Lake Charles, didn't even try to hide the fact that he was a newbie this session. During a meeting of the House Transportation Committee, he kept signaling the chairman to have his bill heard, but was consistently overlooked. "Welcome to the world of seniority," said Rep. Roy Quezaire, D-Donaldsonville. When Kleckly finally got his hearing, he explained he was late for another meeting, but that wasn't the real problem: "It's not so much that the Commerce Committee starts at 9:30 as I have to find out where it is." For the record, it was the next door down.
The Senate heard a different resolution each day this session honoring more than 40 Louisiana soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Livonia, sponsored the resolutions, reading a brief biography of the soldiers from the Senate floor each day and telling lawmakers how every soldier died. The floor was cleared of staff every time and the families of the fallen soldiers often accompanied Marionneaux.
Future Businessmen of America
Money might not buy you love, but it can apparently give you a voice in the Legislature.
During a meeting of the House Natural Resources Committee, Kevin Hayes, a lobbyist for the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), arguably the most powerful conservation group in the state, showed -- a little too publicly, maybe -- where lawmakers get their motivation. It was during a debate on fish-excluder devices, one of the hottest conservation issues of the session. The now-legal devices are meant to keep large fish, such as drum, from munching on oysters. The device, however, is left undefined in the law and the officials still don't know how much it will cost the state.
Waving from the witness table, Hayes loudly whispered toward the committee: "Have you asked yet what the fiscal impact would be on the [Department of Wildlife and Fisheries]?" When his first inquiry went unanswered, Hayes increased the volume. Finally, Rep. William Daniel, D-Baton Rouge, walked along the wall of the committee room to meet a skulking Hayes. After huddling for a few seconds, the influence of a true lobbyist with stroke was displayed. Pulling the microphone toward himself, Daniel eyed his lobbyist/advisor and tossed the question to an unknowing bureaucrat: "Um, what would the cost of this program be to the department?"
Why did Daniel rise to the challenge? No one really knows, but CCA's political action committee and top brass are longtime contributors to Daniel's campaigns, according to finance reports filed with the state.
In another instance, Sen. Robert Adley, D-Benton, helped kill a bill that would have allowed the Public Service Commission to create a team of state rail inspectors. He was among the most vocal of opponents. Again, no one truly knows his motivations for opposing the railroad safety bill, but campaign finance records reveal Adley has received substantial contributions over the past two years from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Santa Fe Railway Company and the KCS Rail Political Action Committee.
If the governor gives it her approval, there will soon be a bioscience district in downtown New Orleans. House Bill 742 creates what amounts to a special medical zone for venture capitalists, high-paying jobs and cutting-edge research. The district would be run by a board of higher education representatives and community officials. It could also increase property taxes for operations, if approved by voters. The governor and some New Orleans lawmakers were originally opposed to the bill, but literally hundreds of amendments seemed to have changed their thinking a bit -- and watered down the original concept.
Some lawmakers still don't know what they want to be when they grow up, while others might regret the career choices they've made. Sen. Joe McPherson, D-Woodworth, used a debate about the electoral college for one such admission. "I don't even have an education," he says. "I have a degree in political science."
On the House side, Rep. Charlie Dewitt, D-Alexandria, didn't have to search long to justify his business decision to the speaker pro tem. When he was asked why he wanted the floor to debate a certain point, Dewitt answered quickly: "Job security." Of course, with term limits approaching, one has to wonder which job that is.
In yet another display, Rep. Damon Baldone, D-Houma, surprised many of his colleagues when the businessman revealed he had a biology degree.
"You have a biology degree?" asked Rep. Jack Smith, D-Franklin. "I didn't know you were that smart."
Baldone replied: "I'm also a lawyer."
Smith: "Yeah, well, that's a whole different kind of thing."
Class Field Trip
The Legislature approved a bill this session that will give way to a Southern Comfort history museum on Decatur Street. The project needed a special liquor permit so samples of the booze first made in New Orleans in the mid-1800s could be distributed to visitors. It was one of the first bills filed by Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, after he switched over from the House. Sen. Robert Adley, D-Benton, thanked him. "You don't know how happy I am you are now in the Senate," Adley said, "to come with a bill giving away free whiskey."
ATHLETICS AND SUPPORTERS
Senate Storm and House Hurricanes
After years of being on the losing end of the Legislature's annual charity basketball game, the Senate chalked up a 43-48 win over the House this session. Granted, they did it with the help of some players that no longer serve in the Senate, but a win is a win.
House members, however, didn't even bother bringing the trophy to the game. Escorted by a group of state troopers, the Senate claimed its title on the House floor the next day. "Y'all are so arrogant that you left the trophy here in the House of Representatives, and you just assumed you'd win the game," Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, told the lower chamber. But the joke was on him, as House members had already placed the trophy in the bathroom.
Fortunately, unlike previous years, all players walked away from the contest injury-free.
Slots for Saints
Negotiations between Gov. Kathleen Blanco and the New Orleans Saints may have stalled during the session, but the state is still on the hook for its $15 million annual payment to the NFL team, of which they are $9 million short.
The slot machines being installed at the New Orleans Fair Grounds in 2007 could be the answer. House Bill 393 would allow the Saints to get a share of the local take, although it's unknown how much money that will generate. And the governor has yet to sign off on the measure as well. Another bill that would have done the same with slots at the Louis Armstrong International Airport was defeated during the final week of the session.
Smoking and Snacking
The Legislature showed it could be as health conscious as anyone in Louisiana -- and maybe that's the problem. Lawmakers defeated a bill that would have banned smoking in public places, and they only nibbled at the issue of candy machines in public schools. Senate Bill 146, which is backed by the governor, attempts to slow down skyrocketing childhood obesity rates by requiring schools to stock vending machines at least half-full with healthy snacks. But the bill was watered down from an earlier version --Êit turns out that too many schools' programs rely on getting kickbacks from the kids' breakfast Cokes and candy bars. The governor is expected to sign the legislation into law and was planning on approaching the state Bond Commission in the days following the session to discuss a possible loan to help cover the payments as well.
The Tax-free Zephyrs
After years of surviving without substantial state assistance, the New Orleans Zephyrs seem set to receive a major tax break on ticket sales, parking fees and concessions. If the governor signs House Bill 807, the ball club can begin taking the deductions on Aug. 1. The Triple-A team would essentially get an exemption from the state's 4 percent state sales tax and a waiver from the 4.75 percent parish sales tax in Jefferson. For a full season, the incentive will cost the state roughly $124,000 and Jefferson about $146,000.
Originally, the legislation sought to impose a car rental tax in Orleans, increase the hotel-motel tax and add a new tax to Saints tickets as a way to raise money for the NFL team. That concept, however, was laughed off the floor.
When the governor's cigarette tax stalled, it left teachers without the possibility of a $1,500 pay raise. Republicans came to the rescue with an alternative plan to shift around $85 million in the budget, but that likewise fell flat. In a last-ditch effort during the session's final days, the Senate passed what it considered a compromise -- a one-time bonus of about $530, a far cry from what teacher unions wanted. The plan would divert $12.5 million that was intended to pay off retirement debt, but the governor has yet to voice her final approval.
Dazed and Confused
Sometimes things are better left unsaid, especially in the Legislature. Tight lips can keep closed-door dealings secret and complex policies under the radar. When one official tried to explain the inner workings of the state construction budget, he was promptly shut down. That's because it's traditionally used to reward legislators who back the administration. "We really don't want to be explaining that publicly," says Rep. Bryant Hammett, D-Ferriday, who handled House Bill 2 this year.
The state's spending plan, found in House Bill 1, is no different. Some lawmakers are allowed to insert pet projects for their districts if they stay in good standing. Rep. John Alario, D-Westwego, who oversaw the bill this session, was called out on the floor regarding a certain project. "I don't want to suggest that you and I have made a deal. First off, I don't make deals in public," Alario said.
This makes the legislative process confusing for those not in the know -- or as Sen. James David Cain, R-Dry Creek, put it, "Like two coyotes and a chicken voting on what's for dinner."
A Day in the Life ...
Want to roll like an elected official? Here's a look at a day in the life of a Louisiana legislator, pulled from observations and notes taken on May 25.
When lawmakers in the House and Senate got to their seats that afternoon, they were greeted by a pound of rice provided by a contingency of Louisiana rice growers. There was also a bucket filled with goodies from the Louisiana Chemical Association. Among other items, it included a sleeve of golf balls -- a few hopeful House members spent the day wandering around the chamber asking other lawmakers for their supply.
That evening, there was a party near the State Capitol for former House members, a crawfish boil hosted by the Louisiana Chemical Association at the Governor's Mansion, and another shindig for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette down the street. There was even a jambalaya cookout going on at the State Museum, put on by the Pachyderm Club, a GOP spin-off. And if all that partying made for a slow start the next morning, it was made easier by a full breakfast offered by the Louisiana Poultry, Egg and Dairy Association.
The Senate opened its doors one day this session to former members and allowed them to speak before the upper chamber. Among those standing behind the president's desk were a handful who have seen the inside of a federal prison -- like Jim Brown and B.B. "Sixty" Rayburn -- and a few more who court records say came damn close -- like Buddy Leach.
Former Sen. Sonny Mouton told the current body that they have a lot to thank his generation for: "When you look at this group behind us, these men built the problems you now face. It took skill. It took talent. It took vodka."
The aging politicos cracked a few more jokes about Viagra and fishing and smoking and drinking, but mainly they were happy not to be voting on an aggressive tax package.
The Final Word
Sometimes the public will never hear about the more important votes that lawmakers take. For instance, consider the following one called for by Senate President Donald Hines, D-Bunkie, when the upper chamber found itself working past the ungodly hour of 6 p.m. one evening: "All those in favor of going home, vote yea."