From the standpoint of real, substantive policy changes in state government, this year’s regular session of the Louisiana legislature has accomplished less than any in recent years.
Maybe that’s not a bad thing. In general, the fewer laws a legislature passes the less money and freedom we hold on to once they’re done lawmaking.
That said, Gov. Bobby Jindal put forth a vigorous agenda for this year’s session. Not all of it was practicable or good, and some of it was clearly going to take more than one year of public debate before it would be ripe for passage.
But almost none of it passed, making this an incredibly rough session for a governor whose re-election has appeared virtually assured for well over a year. Jindal stands astride the state political scene like a colossus, and yet this year’s results at the Capitol indicate the legislators are happy to crawl all over him in an election year.
Consider the governor’s initiatives which didn’t pass this year. Among them…
The SUNO-UNO Merger: There was majority support for the idea of rolling Southern University’s New Orleans campus into the University of New Orleans, but it needed a two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature and it couldn’t even get the 70 it needed to make it out of the House of Representative. Speaker Jim Tucker, realizing the merger was going to fall short, gutted his bill proposing it and instead settled for switching UNO from the LSU system to the University of Louisiana system. Tucker did manage to advance that legislation and it’s expected to pass in the Senate – but nothing of substance was done about SUNO’s $40 million budget producing a six-year graduation rate reported at somewhere between five and eight percent.
College Governing Board Consolidation: Tucker was also attempting to consolidate the state’s four governing boards of its higher education system into one, which advocates say would make for a more streamlined system and enable a better prioritization of expenditures. That idea went nowhere despite Jindal’s strong support of it.
College Tuition Increases: Jindal backed two measures to increase college tuition in an effort to get more funding to the state’s universities outside of the empty general fund, and neither went anywhere. Part of the problem in passing tuition increases was that last year’s GRAD Act allowed for rate hikes; many legislators were loath to pass increases two years in a row. This continues the problem of Louisiana’s universities having an unstable funding source; they’re dependent on the volatile general fund balance for their budgets every year, meaning their fiscal well-beings come and go based on the price of oil and state income and sales tax collections. Allowing for tuition increases would mean that the state’s colleges could be more self-sufficient. But it’s going to take a sea change in attitudes among leges before a change in the college funding model will get anywhere.
State Employee Pension Contributions: Jindal touted a plan to increase the contributions of state employees to their pension funds from eight percent of salary to 11 percent in an effort to combat a burgeoning unfunded liability issue. But he ran into trouble because the measure in question didn’t specify that the savings would directly go toward shoring up the unfunded liability rather than the general fund shortfall – the administration’s position is that this is a distinction without a difference since the general fund will be paying the shortfall in any event – and Tucker wasn’t impressed. The Speaker deemed the measure a payroll tax on state employees, which would have made it necessary to get a two-thirds vote in the House, and that was the end of the idea.
Selling The Prisons: A controversial plan to pay for transition costs to create Coordinated Care Networks to essentially replace Louisiana’s current Medicaid system by using some $86 million in proceeds from selling three state prisons currently managed by private companies died in a close vote in a House committee. The Senate apparently found a way to fund the CCN’s without the prison sales, and word is the House will OK the new funding mechanism even though it uses one-time money (the transition costs are considered one-time expenses). But sales of those prisons will have to wait for another day.
Jindal isn’t the only proposer of major legislation left bleeding at the side of the road. To wit…
Cigarette Taxes: Rep. Harold Ritchie, a Bogalusa Democrat who admits he has a smoking addiction, came to the session with hopes of sticking it to his fellow puffers with a 70-cent tax increase on each pack. Ritchie didn’t just take it on the chin with respect to the increase; he even lost on keeping cigarette taxes where they currently are. A four-cent sales tax set to expire was the subject of a Ritchie bill for renewal and it passed both houses. But in what might end up as Jindal’s biggest legislative accomplishment of the session, the governor’s veto of the renewal on the grounds that the tax was supposed to be temporary and to renew it would have been a new tax, was upheld when the House fell 12 votes short of the 70 needed to override it.
The Birther Bill: Rep. Alan Seabaugh authored a bill requiring presidential candidates to produce proof of citizenship to get on the 2012 ballot, and Jindal made a controversial statement that he’d sign it if it passed even though the governor clearly didn’t care all that much about it. But shortly after the regular session began, President Obama released his birth certificate amid national pressure from Donald Trump and the issue the bill addressed was wiped off the headlines. That was the end of Seabaugh’s bill and he withdrew it.
Limits On Local Tax Elections: Secretary of State Tom Schedler had touted a “Too Many Elections” initiative prior to the session, with the centerpiece being a bill by Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia) that would have restricted local governments to holding tax elections on the same election days as other major races – like this fall’s statewide elections or the even-numbered year Congressional and Presidential races. Riser’s bill had a provision for an emergency election once a year as well, meaning it was only slightly more restrictive than current law on local tax elections is. But after it sailed through a Senate committee and was easily passed on the floor the bill ran up against the rocks in the House last week; dying at the House and Governmental Affairs Committee on an 8-7 vote with three Republicans and an Independent taking a powder on the vote – Republican Steve Pugh of Pontchatoula voted with the seven Democrats on the committee to kill the bill. Schedler had an event in Shreveport the day the committee handled the bill and wasn’t there to testify for it, and Riser appeared overwhelmed when lobbyists for unions and local governments showed up en masse to protest it. There was even some grumbling among some that the bill was sandbagged by the Speaker – since he’s running against Schedler, state rep Walker Hines and Democrat Caroline Fayard for the Secretary of State job this fall he didn’t want to have Schedler pass a major initiative he could run on. Whether that’s true or not we’re not sure.
Conservatives support limits on local tax elections because school boards throughout the state and many parish and city governments are notorious for attempting to wear taxpayers down on bond issues and tax elections. The Senate committee markup of Riser’s bill featured a classic back-and-forth between Sen. Mike Walsworth (R-West Monroe) and Etta Licciardi, the vice president of the Jefferson Parish school board, in which Licciardi bragged about getting 10,000 votes in favor of a half-cent sales tax to fund a pay increase for teachers at the end of April and Walsworth noting that Jefferson has 330,000 registered voters – and why was a tax election scheduled on a Saturday when Jazz Fest was going on?
Legacy Lawsuits: The state’s oil industry has been groaning under the weight of “legacy lawsuits,” environmental litigation arising from long-ago oil drilling which may or may not have residual effects on the land drilled on. Since a 2002 case which opened the door for these suits, some 240 cases have been filed, more than half by one law firm. Only 60 of the 240 contain actual evidence that a cleanup is necessary. So a bill was filed by Rep. Page Cortez (R-Lafayette) to establish a cleanup regime through state government that would bypass the courts – and it was promptly beaten back by large landowners, including Roy O. Martin. Martin’s lobbyist? Former Jindal administration counsel Jimmy Faircloth. The oil industry is NOT pleased with the governor, who didn’t back the bill, over this result.
Immigration/Sharia Law: Rep. Ernest Wooton submitted a 19-page Louisiana Citizens Protection Act, which contained a myriad of provisions on immigration and illegal aliens – it also included some language on financial instruments which would have made sharia-compliant finance more difficult in Louisiana, and the markup of the bill in committee made for one of the more interesting hearings of the session – as opponents of the bill offered up some true bleeding-heart tropes about how illegals are people too and how Hispanics have now become part of the culture in the New Orleans area (as though illegal aliens and Hispanics are one and the same). But business groups weren’t crazy about some of the requirements the bill would have put on them and while the bill passed through committee it was referred to the House Appropriations Committee due to a $10 million fiscal note – and the word is it’s dead.
There are still some key issues outstanding before the legislature hangs up its cleats on Thursday. The state budget passed through the Senate Sunday with a few changes from what the House sent them – though there is much less daylight between the two this year than there was last year – and it appears a true compromise (satisfying nobody, as is the case with all true compromises) will be reached. The fate of the state income tax repeal is still pending on the House calendar. And Rep. Joe Labruzzo’s bill to drug-test welfare recipients is still around, though its prospects are uncertain.
On the whole, though, compared to the ambitious and eye-popping agenda shooting through the legislature in Texas, it’s quite obvious that Louisiana’s achievements are meager – and the voters are going to have a chance to weigh in this fall on whether the state’s political class has been satisfactory in discharging their duties.