This Session Will Be One For The Books

Proposed reforms in the state’s public education and retirement systems have been stealing the headlines, but the legislative session beginning March 12 has some other interesting and controversial issues.

If you think first-time drunken driving offenders should serve at least 10 days in jail, you will like the bill filed by Sen. Jonathan Perry, R-Kaplan. The senator, who said he doesn’t drink, appears open to making some changes in his proposed legislation, but he still wants to get tough on drunken drivers.

Fines don’t deter drunken driving, Perry said. He told The Advocate of Baton Rouge that confining third and fourth offense drunken drivers to home incarceration is a joke and makes a mockery of what DWI laws are supposed to do.

“I know this is going to hit a nerve with people,” Perry said. “There is never a reason for it (drunken driving), never a cause for it. This is going to be very aggressive.”

Perry is a former police officer and prosecutor, and that gives him some credibility on the issue. He added that his late father was a recovering alcoholic.

Critics will say mandatory jail time isn’t the solution, but it’s obvious the current system isn’t curbing drunken driving. Alcohol-related deaths accounted for 43 percent of all road deaths in Louisiana in 2010.

My favorite bill so far is one that says legislators should have to wait at least two years before being employed in any capacity or position in state government or its agencies. Gov. Bobby Jindal has gone on a hiring binge recently, giving term-limited and defeated legislators good-paying jobs.

Jindal appointed former Rep. Jane Smith, R-Bossier City, as deputy secretary of the state Department of Revenue, a job paying $107,500 annually. Smith was defeated in a bid for the state Senate after being term limited in the House. Former Rep. Kay Katz, R-Monroe, who was also term-limited, has been named to the Louisiana Tax Commission, a job paying $56,000 a year.

Both women served their constituents well and are qualified for the positions. However, these appointments say it’s still who you know in Louisiana politics that really counts.

Former Reps. Mert Smiley, R-Port Vincent, and Rickey Hardy, D-Lafayette, are two of the new members Jindal appointed to the state Pardon Board, a job paying $36,000 annually for part-time work.

The Times-Picayune of New Orleans also notes that former state Sens. Troy Hebert, D-Jeanerette, and Nick Gautreaux, D-Abbeville, got key state jobs from Jindal. Hebert is commissioner of Alcohol and Tobacco Control and Gautreaux is commissioner of the Office of Motor Vehicles. Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon made former state Rep. Noble Ellington, R-Winnsboro, his chief deputy commissioner.

“This is the good ol’ boy network,” is the way Rep. Jerome “Dee” Richard, a Thibodaux independent, puts it. Richard is sponsor of the bill requiring a two-year wait before legislators can be employed by the state or its agencies.

“We have to take a stand and say that this is wrong and not fair,” Richard said.

Richard admits his bill will be a tough pill for some legislators to swallow. However, the voters back home need to know how their own legislators feel about this deplorable practice. The biggest problem Richard will have is getting his measure out of committee so that it gets a full hearing on the House floor. The odds of this one making it there are probably slim.

Another of my favorites is legislation to reduce election day voting by one hour. Previous efforts have failed with opponents coming up with one lame excuse after another. Poll workers make $200 a day for 16 and 17-hour days, and many are elderly citizens who take the jobs that others won’t.

Secretary of State Tom Schedler wants to open the polls at 7 a.m. rather than the current 6 a.m. He wouldn’t change the 8 p.m. closing time. He said the extension of early voting makes it easier for citizens who might have conflicts on election day.

I have heard the issue debated many times. Sportsmen complain they need to vote at 6 a.m. to get to their hunting locations early. Some black legislators accuse sponsors of these bills of trying to deny citizens the right to vote. And others simply say, “We’ve always done it this way and we shouldn’t change.”

Schedler is correct when he says it’s the dedicated voters who always show up at 6 a.m. and they will still be there at 7 a.m. because that’s just the way they are. He said he was joking, but added, “I think you could make it from noon to 1 p.m. and they’d still vote.”

Only New York has longer voting hours than Louisiana — 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. It’s time for legislators to “bite the bullet” and make this small concession. A better choice would be making the voting hours 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but Schedler is wise to take it one step at a time.

We have only scratched the surface with these bills, but stay tuned. Something tells me this is going to be a legislative session for the record books.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected]

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