Ideological Differences Surfacing Between Louisiana House, Senate

A couple of bills which moved through one house of the Louisiana legislature last week only to smack into a brick wall upon reaching the other show a phenomenon little recognized until recently in the 2010 session.

Namely, there are, in fact, ideological differences between the House and the Senate – and it’s those differences which are beginning to drive the makeup of legislation.

Take HB 1474, for example, otherwise known as the Louisiana Healthcare Freedom Act. Authored by Rep. Kirk Talbot (R-River Ridge), it would make an individual mandate to purchase health insurance (like the one in Obamacare) illegal in Louisiana law and thus set up a showdown with the federal government on the issue. A similar law has been passed in Virginia, and it’s the basis of a suit filed by that state’s attorney general seeking to invalidate Obamacare on constitutional grounds. Talbot’s bill is similar to SB 26, authored by Sen. A.G. Crowe (R-Slidell), which generated a good deal of discussion prior to the session.

There is relatively broad support for HB 1474, and it flew through the Louisiana House of Representatives. The bill passed the House by an overwhelming 60-15 vote, with 28 abstentions. And upon its arrival in the Senate HB 1474 landed in the Health and Welfare Committee, where it survived a 5-4 vote to bring it to the floor.

HB 1474 had a shot to gain the 20 votes it needed to pass on the Senate floor, but it was going to be close and a fairly divisive battle was in the offing. But in the blink of an eye it was gone. Senate President Joel Chaisson (D-Destrehan) made a motion to recommit the bill to the Senate Finance Committee, the same committee in which Crowe’s bill met a silent but painful demise, even though the financial ramifications of HB 1474 are meager at best, and effectively scuttled it.

Gov. Bobby Jindal was said to have supported HB 1474, though he wasn’t particularly outspoken in doing so. Jindal is also reportedly supportive of SB 731, a bill authored by Chaisson which would essentially offer Letters of Marque to plaintiff attorneys who could then sue on behalf of the state, and collect contingency fees. The business community recoils in horror at such an idea, and where it’s been done in the past those contingency fees can come to as much as $6500 per hour. Opponents of Chaisson’s bill say that if Louisiana AG Buddy Caldwell – who when he was running for his office in 2007 told members of that community he would not support a bill like this, and is now pushing for it – wants to hire outside counsel he should do so on an hourly-rate basis.

The opponents of SB 731 suffered a demoralizing defeat last week when it passed 21-16 on the Senate floor. The primary impetus for the legislation, which has been around for a long time without much previous support in Louisiana but is in effect in most other states (to the consternation of business groups and conservatives around the country), is the Gulf oil spill. A torrent of litigation has already begun surrounding the spill and Louisiana is likely to be on the plaintiff side of much of it; Caldwell wants to staff up to handle the workload and he wants to do so, essentially, by using privateers rather than building a navy of his own.

But the House, which will take up the bill in the Civil Law and Procedure Committee today, is a brand new ball game for SB 731. Committee chairman Tim Burns (R-Mandeville) and House Speaker Jim Tucker (R-Algiers) have both said the bill as it’s written is dead in the water. Burns doubted it would get two votes in his 14-member committee. Efforts to change the bill to make it more narrowly focused on the oil spill might produce a little bit of support, Burns and Tucker said, but even then there is little momentum in the House to pass it.

In the past, it has often been said that the legislature was an amorphous blob; that navigating the peculiar personalities of individual legislators and other power brokers in order to pass a bill was akin to trading in a Middle Eastern bazaar. But while that’s likely still true, in this year’s session we’re beginning to see the ideological differences of the two houses as reflected in the leadership of the Republican Tucker and the Democrat Chaisson. And while the gridlock those differences may present will be decried in the state’s media and by the legislators themselves, the voters may perceive it as a signal they have a clear choice in the statewide elections in the fall of next year.

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