The annual legislative session is right around the corner and brimming with hundreds of bills promising 85 days of ... whatever.
In about a week's time, lawmakers will gather in Baton Rouge to kick off their 2010 annual session. While there are huge fiscal challenges, a cornucopia of policy ideas will compete for attention. Here's a look.
House Bill 119 by Rep. Scott Simon, R-Abita Springs, would classify as litter any printed materials left on a windshield. House Bill 271 by Rep. Fred Mills, D-Parks, creates the crime of illegally selling urine or adulterants to circumvent screening tests.
You want ethics? Rep. Nita Hutter, R-Chalmette, has House Bill 296 to allow a public servant to accept certain gifts for "customary social occasions." Meals from lobbyists don't count.
The session's centerpiece — the budget — weighs in at 259 pages, leaner and meaner than ever at $5 billion less than the current budget. Lawmakers add amendments and try to squeeze every penny for road and bridges, local infrastructure and, yes, pet projects. But this isn't the same kind of pliable budget lawmakers are used to seeing; further reductions are expected, and there are more moving pieces than usual.
By the time leges adjourn on June 21, the 2011 horizon will have another $1.7 billion budget shortfall looming. One could ask whether lawmakers are controlling the budget or the budget is controlling them.
The rub, this year in particular, is that lawmakers cannot file tax bills in regular sessions in even-numbered years. The only revenue-generating measures will be new "fees," which already have reared their ugly heads in the form of a $15 driver's license hike, LSU System tuition increase and higher rentals for state park cabins.
Gov. Bobby Jindal promises not to approve any new taxes this year and next, but he doesn't place fees in the same category. While there's a handful of opposing voices in both chambers, legislative leaders tend to make the same distinction.
"I'd rather a user fee because it supports a specific portion of state government," says Sen. Mike Michot, R-Lafayette, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "It's a better idea than a tax that goes to a centralized government in a lump sum."
Some will try to stand up to Jindal. Rep. Wayne Waddell, R-Shreveport, is returning with bills to open more records in Jindal's office to the public. Jindal's executive counsel, Stephen Waguespack, told The Advocate of Baton Rouge that his boss is opposed to the concept behind House Bill 307 and 499 — again.
Also, as reported in this column last week, Sen. Butch Gautreaux, D-Morgan City, has filed Senate Bill 102, a constitutional amendment to take the governor's influence out of the legislative leadership election by allowing for confidential ballots. But that dog may not hunt. House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, opposes the measure. "I think our constituents want to know how we vote on everything," Tucker says. "Secondly, if the purpose is to draw independence, I don't think it will accomplish that. Ultimately, it's not the leader who does that, but how the body acts."
House Bill 470 by Rep. Rickey Hardy, D-Lafayette, is a constitutional amendment that would prohibit a person 70 years old or older from qualifying for elective office. That should put to rest any thoughts about former Gov. Edwin Edwards' post-prison political career.
House Bill 503 by Rep. Michael Danahay, D-Sulphur, establishes the "Louisiana Homemade Beer Law" to determine the "amount of homemade beer that may be made" and how it can be transported to "exhibitions, contests, competitions, fairs, or festivals."
Speaking of festivals, at least one citizen rally is slated for opening day (Monday, March 29). The Louisiana faction of the Tea Party has secured the steps of the State Capitol for a noon gathering, according to Pat Bergeron, publisher of Louisiana Political News Service.
While there is no shortage of topics, voters may need a taste of homemade brew by the time the session closes. Who knows — the Tea Party may morph into a beer blast. Stranger things have happened.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.