The most controversial issues facing the Louisiana Legislature at its 2012 session won’t come as a surprise. What we don’t know is how the 144 lawmakers from around the state will react when forced to choose between constituents back home and the reforms being pushed by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Education and retirement reform head the list of issues designed to put legislators on the spot. Many have already found out proposed changes in the retirement system for state employees are more troubling to their voters than anyone expected. However, teacher unions and local school boards aren’t going to relax their determination to try and derail major transformation of the state’s public school system.
The state Senate has 10 new members, although some of them are former representatives. One of the 10 is a former senator. New faces account for 25 percent of the upper chamber’s 39 members. The House has 31 new faces. That’s 30 percent of the lower chamber’s 105 members.
Republicans hold majorities in both houses, 58 seats in the House and 24 in the Senate. However, the GOP fell short of capturing a twothirds margin (70 in the House and 26 in the Senate). It takes 53 votes in the House and 20 in the Senate to pass most legislation, and the governor has laid a lot of groundwork he hopes will help him get those numbers on key issues.
Jindal endorsed 27 senators and 65 House members, or 92 of the 144 legislators, in the last election. And 56 of those were unopposed. The governor also contributed $2,500 to their campaigns.
Legislators will say they aren’t going to let those endorsements and contributions influence their votes. And they won’t in most cases. However, what happens when those lawmakers are on the fence on some critical issues? Will they lean in the governor’s direction?
Everyone saw a good example last week of what can happen when you oppose the governor. Jindal fired the executive director of his Office of Elderly Affairs after she criticized his plan to transfer that office to the state Department of Health and Hospitals.
Jindal was certainly within his rights because the director served at his pleasure. What troubles people is the fact the governor doesn’t allow any dissension within the ranks. The director said she was never told about the transfer in the first place, which is a courtesy any governor should extend to all members of his executive staff.
Opposing the governor can be costly in terms of funding for projects. Former House Speaker Jim Tucker of Terrytown paid a heavy price for bucking Jindal in 2010. Tucker saw $695,000 in projects for his area vetoed by Jindal. Three other legislators also lost projects for the same reason.
This time around, Jindal has left little to chance. Take education reform, for example. Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, and Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, are chairmen of their respective education committees. Both fully support the governor’s education reform agenda.
Legislators know the first major hurdle in passing a bill is to get it out of committee, and the same holds true for killing a bill. A quick death in committee is virtually guaranteed to bury legislation for an entire session.
Senate President John Alario, RWestwego, and Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, also support the governor’s education package. Alario has been in the Legislature 40 years, longer than anyone now serving. His ability to pass and kill legislation was the primary reason Jindal wanted Alario in the driver’s seat.
State employees and others affected by Jindal’s proposed changes know how hard the governor has worked to get his “ducks in a row.” And that is why so many of them want to know exactly how far they can go to oppose some of the proposed changes.
“We have been getting a lot of calls about what people can do,” Shannon Templet told The Advocate of Baton Rouge. She is director of the Civil Service System.
Templet said the more than 53,000 classified employees can talk with legislators, testify and express their views on Jindal’s legislation that affects their retirement benefits and contributions. However, they have to do it on their own time or take annual leave during work hours to do any of those things. They can’t support or oppose candidates, parties or factions in an election.
Jindal has made it clear this will be a “no-holds-barred” legislative session when it comes to his education reform program.
“We will absolutely oppose any type of amendments that attempt to dilute, delay or defeat these reforms,” he told reporters. “And I suspect there are going to be a whole lot of amendments in that vein.”
Yes, there will be many amendments to that effect, but the odds are they will die quick deaths in committees. Those that do make it through committees will run into stiff walls of opposition on the Senate and House floors. And that is where the mystery still lingers.
I’m putting my money on Jindal. He appears to have tied up all the loose ends. We could have some answers as early as next week. But whatever the case, it won’t take long to see which way the wind is blowing.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than ÿve decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].