In my last column, I wrote about the “Election from Hell” between Edwin Edwards and David Duke in 1991 and ended it with the comment that Edwards was returning to the Governor’s Mansion with scores to settle, as the business community would soon discover. Indeed, business interests would face no greater peril any time since than they did when the coalition of Edwards, the Louisiana Trial Lawyers Association (LTLA,) organized labor, and the education unions banded together to attempt to impose their will on the Legislature. They were aided by the fact that the huge liberal turnout that David Duke generated in the general election led to the defeat of every business-endorsed Senate candidate in the run-offs. Business definitely had its back against the wall.
Organized labor wanted a de facto repeal of the Right-to-Work Law passed in 1976 by enacting an Agency Shop bill. The LTLA—openly boasting that it controlled the Senate—pushed a package of bills that included: eroding the exclusive remedy provision of workers’ compensation; eliminating the product liability reform passed in 1988; repealing the joint and several liability reforms of 1987; and imposing the most far-reaching punitive damages law in the nation. The education unions were confident that they could enact mandatory collective bargaining, the elusive dream they had pursued for years. Any one of those issues would be difficult to stop. Collectively, it seemed impossible to stop them all.
To even the odds, LABI and the business community had to take one of the major issues off of the table before the session started. The Agency Shop bill became the target. Under LABI’s umbrella, local chambers of commerce, trade associations, and economic development groups around the state engaged in a massive grass roots campaign against the bill. By the time the session began, business forces were counting 53 hard votes; exactly the amount needed to kill the Agency Shop bill, and continued pouring on the pressure. Also as expected, the LTLA demanded that their tort expansion bills go first since they had put up most of the money in the 1991 elections. The bills easily emerged from the stacked House Civil Law Committee and the trial lawyers pushed Governor Edwards to pull out all stops to help pass their bills.
The first bill up was the joint and several liability legislation which was defeated by a larger margin than expected—which signaled to me that the trial lawyers had traded it off to secure votes for bills they wanted more. The next bill up was the most onerous of the bunch—the general punitive damages bill, which many thought would get fewer votes than the previous one. When the voting machine closed, a shock wave went through the House chamber when the vote was announced as 53-50. The worst tort bill of the lot was now on its way to the Senate that the trial lawyers claimed they owned. On the day the bill was scheduled to be voted on in the Senate, the Senate president called me to his office and told me there were 21 votes to pass the bill, but he would allow some amendments to lessen the impact if business would drop its opposition. I told him that with all due respect I disagreed with his vote count, and we walked into the Senate to see who was right. The bill never came up for a vote in the Senate because, in spite of the Senate President’s trial-lawyer-inspired bluff, they never had the votes in the chamber they claimed they owned.
As the trial lawyers stormed out of the Senate, the focus shifted to the Agency Shop legislation in the House. Labor chieftain, Vic Bussie, faced with no strong floor leader to handle the legislation, demanded that the House dissolve into a Committee of the Whole to allow outsiders to present information. He sent the AFL-CIO’s lawyer to the floor to handle arguments for the bill. I was joined by six others on the business side to argue against it. When the vote was taken the legislation was crushed 64-41. Labor union members in the building were shocked. I went over and shook Bussie’s hand and saw in his eyes that he knew Labor’s attempt at resurrection had ended.
About the same time, the education union’s attempt to impose mandatory collective bargaining was defeated and, as time was running out in the session, the LTLA made one last attempt to move a bill in its package, but that was defeated easily on the House floor. Against all odds, every bill in the most anti-business package of legislation ever assembled in one session had been defeated. Edwin Edwards, organized labor, the trial lawyers and the education unions were no match for an organized business community, in spite of the election losses business had suffered a few months before. It was a legislative session I will never forget.