The scene in Baton Rouge isn't quite fading to black yet, but as you read this sentence the credits are beginning to roll on the 2009 legislative session. With a wee bit of cinematic imagination, you probably can see how the final frames are playing out.
Chatter from the House and Senate floors is muffled, and with the unmistakable bang of a wooden gavel, the bubble-gum pop of Kenny Loggins' "I'm All Right," increases in volume. That's when the obligatory parting montage begins: various lawmakers packing bags, young staffers saying goodbye and, finally, (What's that?!?) a pudgy version of Gov. Bobby Jindal dancing in his Fourth Floor office like a gopher with a new lease on life.
I'm all right / Don't nobody worry 'bout me / You got to gimme a fight/ Why don't you just let me be ...
It's not really the end, of course; it's really just the beginning. There's going to be more excitement and suspense during next year's sequel. Another billion-dollar shortfall promises to threaten education and health care — again — although oil prices (as unpredictable as ever) could do another cameo as the conquering hero. By most accounts, this fiscal comedy actually will unfold over the course of three years, providing at least two more opportunities to follow the plotlines.
To honor the best and worst performances from this year, we're christening the inaugural Golden Boudin Awards. The nominees weren't selected by any kind of academy, but votes were tabulated by former Road Home contractor ICF International. (ICF worked pro bono, so we're not sweating the results — or the costs.)
Without further ado, here are this year's Golden Boudin Award winners:
Best Supporting Actor
Gov. Bobby Jindal
From rejecting transparency for his own office after pushing it on others to failing to come up with a tangible plan to help state government absorb a $1.3 billion shortfall, Jindal doesn't seem to have the moxie yet to carry his own prime-time show. For now, and for the foreseeable future, the governor is confining himself to a supporting role only, playing Fredo Corleone to the Legislature's Michael.
Best (Political) Directors
House Speaker Jim Tucker and Senate President Joel Chaisson
While Jindal has failed to lead, Tucker, R-Terrytown, and Chaisson, D-Destrehan, have picked up the slack. This year in particular, Tucker and Chaisson pointed the way for lawmakers, albeit in seemingly different directions. While Tucker was insistent on deep cuts to deal with the state's shortfall, Chaisson oversaw a mutiny to raise taxes against Jindal's wishes. It's still unclear which chamber leader won that battle. Additionally, Tucker created a special commission to investigate reforming higher education when Jindal faltered at offering his own plan, and Chaisson stepped up to save Jindal from an in-session veto override by holding the state budget an extra day before signing off on the document, thereby giving Jindal enough time to forestall his expected vetoes until after the session's June 25 close.
Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu
Early in the session, Landrieu was among the first state officials to frame Louisiana's current economic crisis as a three-year challenge. He candidly discussed tax-related proposals with the Baton Rouge Press Club before most lawmakers were ready to discuss revenue-generating measures. Landrieu, D-New Orleans, has also had years of experience with the budgeting-for-outcomes process and was eager to reveal to reporters the shell game being played by the Jindal administration. All of the posturing and positioning, though, led many to wonder if Landrieu was eyeing Jindal's job. Not so, he says. "I'm focused on being lieutenant governor. I'm just trying to provide information."
Best Guest Appearance(s)
Former Govs. Dave Treen, Buddy Roemer, Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco
When four former governors decided to hold an "intervention" for Jindal to criticize his leadership and budget priorities, the political world — at least in Baton Rouge — stopped spinning for a moment. Rumor has it the four former governors were prepared to issue a statement on their own until Jindal found out. The current governor reacted quickly, invited them over for a chat and participated in a joint press conference that made him appear less foolish than he otherwise would have.
Rep. Juan LaFonta
In the last row of the House, LaFonta, D-New Orleans, holds forth during session, spinning around in his chair in one direction to chat with lobbyists before twisting back once again to offer snippets to reporters. He's an unapologetic gadfly, a quality that's only enhanced by his youth. LaFonta also managed to cast votes during a 10-hour session in the House when he was traveling out of the country (his seatmates helped by pushing his buttons). Here are a few other examples of his bravado from the recent session:
"There's the company man." — Said as Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, approached the microphone on the House floor.
"I like that rainbow tie. I know you down with the gay people." — A comment made to Rep. Rickey Hardy, D-Lafayette, who happened to be wearing a colorful necktie.
"It's getting pretty close to communism." — Responding to a question about the Jindal administration.
"Go tell the Boy Wonder I don't want any more notes from his office." — To a young House page after receiving several slips of paper from Jindal's lobbying team.
"They've already greased the wheels and oiled the skillet." — From the morning the House uncharacteristically approved Jindal's budget without objecting to changes made by the Senate.
Sen. Troy Hebert
After Hebert, D-Jeanerette, repeatedly failed to attach an amendment to the state's budget, he offered this one to the Senate for consideration: "The Louisiana State Senate would like to commend and congratulate the mothers and grandmothers of this state for the sacrifices they have made in raising, nurturing and shepherding the children of our great state." Hebert laughed along with his colleagues as the amendment was read, then warned, "Y'all vote against that one."
Sen. Reggie Dupre
Like some other term-limited lawmakers, Dupre, D-Bourg, was looking for his next step when the session started. He found it when a levee director's job opened up back home. When he sealed the deal, Dupre picked up a cocktail napkin from the Senate dining hall and wrote two words on it before handing the napkin over to Chaisson, as dictated by law. It read simply, "I quit." Chaisson, however, wouldn't accept the resignation. "He told me to put it on paper," Dupre says.
Most Volatile Sports-Related Issue
The New Saints Deal
"Does that mean we can get our money back?" — Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Plaquemine, upon learning the Saints would be hosting a future Super Bowl.
"If Edwin Edwards had cut this deal, there would be federal investigations everywhere." — Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, on the deal Jindal cut with the Saints requiring the state to lease office space from franchise owner Tom Benson.
Best Sleight of Hand
Rep. Avon Honey
Honey, D-Baton Rouge, was on the receiving end of a few verbal smackdowns this session for sneaking in an amendment by the House to override Jindal's refusal to accept $98 million in unemployment assistance from the federal stimulus package. In response, Rep. Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge, took to the floor of the House. "My trust was breached," Ponti told lawmakers. It created an instant sensation in the Red Stick delegation. For his part, Honey never replied publicly. He didn't have to; Rep. Michael Jackson, I-Baton Rouge, made a fiery speech from the floor defending Honey. Among other things, Jackson accused Ponti of going after the limelight. "Maybe it was playing to the media. Maybe it was playing to the Fourth Floor," Jackson said. "But we do not impugn the reputation of our colleagues."
Best Horse Trading
The delegations from Baton Rouge and Houma
A political sleight-of-hand helped Rep. Michael Jackson, I-Baton Rouge, move a controversial tax increment financing bill off the House floor this year. Jackson originally attempted to attach his TIF project onto legislation by Senate President Pro Tem Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, but House members rejected the move for a variety of reasons. By a margin of 66-14, lawmakers that same afternoon voted down a completely unrelated measure by Rep. Gordon Dove, R-Houma, which tinkers with civil service rules in Terrebonne Parish. While both bills appeared dead as evening approached, Jackson unexpectedly took to the floor and persuaded the House to reconsider its vote on Dove's civil service bill. When the second vote was taken, another 16 yea votes materialized, including several from the Baton Rouge delegation. The final vote on Dove's legislation was 82-9. When Jackson subsequently pulled his own legislation off the calendar for reconsideration, the measure picked up an additional 16 yea votes, including many from Dove's Houma-Thibodaux delegation. In the end, it passed by a surprising vote of 53-28, proving there's always a way to resurrect a lifeless bill in the Legislature.
Rep. Gordon Dove vs. Sen. Troy Hebert
This will be one to watch in coming years. When Hebert, D-Jeanerette, filed legislation to create new restrictions for demolition debris facilities near airports, he probably had no idea he was about to start a major legislative battle. Rumor has it Hebert filed the legislation to foil a business venture being launched by his old political enemy, former state Sen. Craig Romero of New Iberia. But when his bill made it to the House Natural Resources Committee, Hebert discovered a surprising alliance between Chairman Gordon Dove, R-Houma, and Romero, who are close friends. Dove shelved the bill, partly because it impacted his own Terrebonne Parish as well. Hebert got some revenge, however. Using a procedural rule, Hebert spent several days sidetracking every bill pending action on the Senate floor that was sponsored by a member of the committee. He also stuck his fingers in every measure authored by Dove — a jab that continued through the last week of the session.
Worst Sales Pitch
Rep. Hollis Downs
"This is not about a company in any kind of trouble, except that its owner closed it down." — Rep. Hollis Downs, R-Ruston, possibly sugar-coating the current and future prospects of the former Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant in north Louisiana. Gov. Bobby Jindal had the Legislature rewrite state incentive laws to lure Foster Farms of California into buying the shuttered operation.
Best Gun Joke
Rep. John Bel Edwards
"He already had six donuts, three Cokes, two candy bars and I think I just saw Rep. Wooton hand him a pistol." — Edwards, D-Amite, introducing his young son to the House. Rep. Ernest Wooton, R-Belle Chasse, unsuccessfully pushed legislation this session that would have allowed concealed weapons on college campuses.
Worst Performance by a Former Official
The conversion of I-49 South is a major issue in Acadiana and the Bayou Parishes, which is why Kam Movassaghi, former state transportation secretary and president of C. H. Fenstermaker and Associates, got behind a bill to create a special commission to drive the project. But when he appeared in front of the Senate Transportation Committee, Movassaghi allowed his mouth to write a check his you-know-what couldn't cash. He bragged repeatedly about the accomplishments of the administration of former Gov. Mike Foster, to the ire of lawmakers on the committee, and even tried to give credit to Foster (and by default his former team at the Department of Transportation and Development) for the progress that has been made on I-49 South. Legislative veteran Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, practically came unglued. He criticized Movassaghi for taking credit for a project that started under former Gov. Edwin Edwards. "You may want to take credit for it, but I was here," he told Movassaghi. Not surprisingly, the legislation to create a special commission died in the committee room.
Best Use of Propaganda
Division of Administration
Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, also went after the Division of Administration this year for its blog, known as The Ledger. Michael DiResto, the division's communications director, has been using the blog in recent months to tell the administration's side of the budget story. Adley took issue with some of DiResto's comments on the blog, saying it crossed the line. "This is a Web site where the taxpayers pay for it. It's a Web site where the writers who write on it draw a state salary," Adley said. "It's against the law." DiResto immediately released a prepared statement: "When we announced The Ledger, we said that this would be a blog format to provide a frank and clarifying mode of communicating. In fact, many state and federal officials have taken to this format, through the development of Internet technology to support their governmental efforts. ... The Ledger is not political and has not included any request that anyone vote one way or another on any issue."
Sen. John Alario
As far as we know, Alario, D-Westwego, is the only member of the Legislature with a part of the State Capitol already named after him (Alario Hall). First elected to the House in 1972, Alario also is an ideal anti-governor, but he only recently started to criticize Jindal for being directionless. In 2012, when several Senate members leave because of term limits, it is likely Alario will be on his second term — as a senator — which is why he's already the frontrunner to become the next Senate president.
We close this year's inaugural Golden Boudin Awards with Hammond attorney C.B. Forgotston, who formerly served as chief counsel to the budget-drafting House Appropriations Committee. It doesn't take much for Forgotston to let loose on lawmakers in his blog or in his acerbic emails, but one comment in particular really got him fired up. In this instance, Forgotston wrote what the common man (or mullet, as he likes to say) was thinking after Rep. Roy Burrell, D-Shreveport, told his colleagues, "No matter what you think, the people are not as dumb as you think they are." Forgotston responded by posing a question that could come up again when lawmakers seek re-election in 2011: "Exactly how dumb do you think we are?"
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.