The Republicans Run Louisiana’s State Capitol

Public officials like to complain about congressional gridlock in Washington, D.C, that is caused by political party bickering. However, recent votes on major issues at the state Capitol clearly demonstrate Louisiana could be headed in the same direction.

The latest indication came Thursday when all of the Republicans on a House committee voted for a retirement merger bill, and the four Democrats were against. Votes like that are becoming fairly routine.

Party membership is definitely playing a bigger role than ever in Baton Rouge, but with a difference. Deadlock may be the order of the day in the nation’s capital, but Republican control of both houses in the Legislature is getting some tough things done. Democrats aren’t happy, of course, about most of the major reforms taking place in education and retirement. They also complain about strong-arm tactics of the Gov. Bobby Jindal administration.

Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, was the first victim. He lost his vice chairman’s job on the House Insurance Committee when he voted against one of the governor’s education measures. Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, actually demoted Ritchie and took full responsibility. Even so, some lawmakers are convinced it all took place because Jindal wasn’t happy about Ritchie’s vote.

Whatever the reason, other committee chairmen and vice chairmen apparently got the message. Votes on subsequent education reform bills bear that out.

A measure that sets up a school voucher system and makes it easier to create charter schools passed the House 62-43. The 62 included 12 Democrats. One of the 12 is speaker pro-tem of the House and nine are either committee chairmen or vice chairmen. The same bill passed the Senate 24-15. The seven Democrats who supported the bill there are chairmen or vice chairmen.

Teacher tenure changes were in another key education reform bill. It passed the House 64-40. Again, there were 12 Democrats for the bill — the House pro-tem, nine chairmen or vice chairmen and two others. The Senate vote was 23-16. The six Democrats voting for the bill are all chairmen or vice chairmen.

In fairness, it should be noted that some of those Democrats may have believed their support for education reform was the right vote. That is particularly true for those from New Orleans who know how that parish has suffered from a failing public education system. Nevertheless, those leadership jobs, particularly chairmanships, are coveted positions that come with a lot of perks that other legislators don’t enjoy.

Another tough vote last week came on the administration’s desire to sell the Avoyelles Correctional Center in Cottonport. Jindal wanted to sell some prisons last year, but ran into a wall of opposition. The governor backed a number of Republicans who were running in legislative elections, and it has definitely helped his cause.

The House Committee on Appropriations voted 13-11 in favor of a bill to sell the Cottonport prison. Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, the committee chairman, and Rep. Robert Billiot, D-Westwego, vice chairman of another committee, voted for the sale, along with 11 Republicans. Reps. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, and Jim Morris, R-Oil City, were the only Republicans opposing the sale. Both are conservatives who never hesitate to take stands that don’t necessarily follow the GOP line.

More tough votes are on tap for Monday, and it will be interesting to see how legislators line up by party. The Senate Retirement Committee will conduct hearings on a bill that raises the retirement age to 67 for members of the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System and higher education employees who are members of the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana. Another increases their retirement contributions from 8 to 11 percent. The third measure would use a five-year instead of three-year average salary to compute the size of their pensions.

Jindal does enjoy a lot of political stroke, but he also has reality in his corner. Louisiana has too many failing public schools and is at the bottom of too many education lists. It’s major retirement systems are in debt to the tune of almost $19 billion, and the costs are becoming unsustainable. Something different has to be tried in both areas, and the governor has offered solutions.

Yes, there may be better ways to achieve the same goals that Jindal is pushing with all the political power and passion he can muster. Will Sentell, an education writer for The Advocate of Baton Rouge, in a Friday column said the governor has been successful because the opposition has failed to offer any alternative plans. Democrats did try some amendments, but nothing as comprehensive as Jindal is proposing.

Louisianians don’t want party loyalty to become a roadblock at the state Capitol. It hasn’t happened yet, but recent events are a sign it could become a problem.

We can only hope it doesn’t come to that.

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].

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