BEAM: Old-Timers Bring Back Memories

A gathering of former state senators and representatives here Wednesday brought back some personal memories of my first reporting experiences at the state Capitol.

Former Legislators Recognition Day has become an annual affair, and I have been covering their deliberations long enough to know most of them.

My first legislative experience came in the spring of 1968. Events unfolding at the regular session that year made it an historic occasion.

“The Legislature will snap tradition when it seats a Negro for the first time since 1898, elects a governor to a second straight term and grapples with the biggest tax program in a generation,” said The Associated Press report of May 12.

A 1966 reapportionment law brought new faces to the Legislature and cities gained new power in the House and Senate. Ernest Morial of New Orleans was the first African-American to take his seat in the House in the last century.

Gov. John McKeithen’s successful first term (1964-68) helped passage of a state constitutional amendment allowing governors to succeed themselves for one more four-year term.

As the new kid on the block, I found covering the Legislature wasn’t easy. The other reporters who made up the Fourth Estate made me feel as though I was only a member of the “Three and Three-Fourths Estate.”

The eight seats at the press table in the House were already occupied. I had to sit on the speaker’s rostrum floor next to a spittoon, not the most pleasant surroundings.

AP writer Bill Neikirk showed some sympathy and got me an arm chair, one like those used in tent revivals. So I was moving up, at least I was sitting next to the press table.

I sat next to Rafael Bermudez, United Press International’s capitol bureau manager. He spoke to me, and I never forgot his kindness. The late Bill Lynch, an investigative reporter for The Times-Picayune and New Orleans States-Item, also showed me some of the ropes.

The late Ed Price and Jim Hughes, editors at The Advocate, were also helpful. They let me work at their newspaper.

“… The fellows who write in the press room downstairs (at the Capitol) are finicky about strangers using the tools of the trade,” Price said.

The Southwest Louisiana legislative delegation was gaining more recognition in legislative circles and that was my ace in the hole. I had some insight the other newsmen didn’t have.

Some of the other reporters began to speak with me and wanted to know how our delegation felt about some of the major issues. It was my turn to play it coy.

“Things are developing, fellows, and I’ll keep you posted,” became my standard reply.

I finally felt I had earned my stripes and their confidence, and became a full-fledged member of the Fourth Estate.

My first big legislative story came on May 21 when I covered McKeithen’s plan for a broad tax program.

“Drinkers, smokers, drivers and wage earners will all be affected if a tax program unveiled today by Gov. John McKeithen gains legislative approval,” the opening paragraph said.

The new taxes were proposed for cigarettes, liquor, wine, vehicle licenses, corporations and gasoline. McKeithen also planned to make changes in the state income tax.

McKeithen wanted to raise the gasoline tax from seven to eight cents per gallon. It would finance a $200 million bond program for bridges and four-lane roads over the next two years. The program included a four-lane highway from Shreveport to New Orleans.

The proposals would have raised the cigarette tax from eight to 10 cents per pack. The liquor tax would go up from $1.68 per gallon to $2.18 per gallon. The wine tax would have been increased to 50 cents per gallon.

If approved, the taxes proposed by McKeithen would fund a nearly $1.5 billion budget for the next fiscal year. Currently, legislators are being asked to approve Gov. Bobby Jindal’s $25 billion budget he proposed for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

McKeithen abandoned his $125 million tax program in June and made plans for a special session later in the year. Legislators also rejected his taxes at that 30-day session. They never got through both houses.

Taxes are also taboo in these modern legislative times. The result has been an erosion of state services in areas like highways, higher education and health care. Budget deficits are an annual occurrence and retirement debt is in the billions.

Former legislators don’t have to worry about those things, and they could enjoy meeting again with colleagues.

Festivities for them began here Tuesday evening when Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, was host at a dinner for seven former speakers. Kleckley is the first speaker from Calcasieu Parish.

The others are E.L. “Bubba” Henry (1972-80); John Alario Jr. (1984-88 and 1992-96); Jimmy Dimos (1988-92); Hunt Downer (1996-2000); Charlie DeWitt (2000-04); Joe Salter (2004-08); and Jim Tucker (2008-12).

The late John Hainkel of New Orleans served as speaker and president of the Senate. He and Alario, the current Senate president, are the only two state legislators who served in both positions.

I felt right at home with the old-timers, and people often ask me why I am still working. It’s because of my lifelong interest in politics and this newspaper’s continuing support of our coverage of the Legislature.

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