Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote of a political poseur, "The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons." I thought of that quote when I noticed the two biggest losers of the just-ended legislative session — Gov. Bobby Jindal and Mayor Mitch Landrieu — were the first to claim victory after adjournment sine die. Their self-congratulatory press releases hit my in box literally minutes after the final House and Senate gavels fell.
The lads doth protest too much, methinks.
The 2013 session was unusual in many respects. It produced some of the oddest political bedfellows in memory. With few exceptions, this year's session also lacked big ideas. The few bold initiatives that did get floated mostly got shot down in short order — starting with the governor "parking" his ill-conceived tax-swap plan. Truth be told, Jindal's plan was never really in gear. And soon after he retreated on that front, he pretty much stayed on the sidelines for the duration of the session.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. As is our custom after a legislative session, before we pick the bones of the losers we first must pay homage to ...
1. The fiscal hawks — They began as an ideological band of GOP outliers. Formally organized as the Louisiana Budget Reform Campaign, the hawks initially focused on budget reform, challenging Jindal's use of one-time money to balance the budget year after year. They gained traction when the annual Southern Media and Opinion Research poll showed the governor with lower voter approval ratings than President Barack Obama, then broke into full gallop when Jindal pulled down his tax-swap plan on the session's opening day. They reached out to Democrats and the Black Caucus to cobble together a House majority, and when the governor disengaged from the process after "parking" his tax-swap plan, they filled the power void by rewriting the administration's proposed budget.
As the session wore on, the hawks showed their mettle. When the Senate, as expected, put the budget back into a form more to Jindal's liking, they stood their ground (with their new allies) and, for the first time in memory, brought both the Upper Chamber and the governor to the bargaining table.
The hawks also won key concessions on future budgets. Their tactics galled "mainstream" Republicans, but the hawks believe they stood for genuine GOP values and rediscovered the party's fiscal compass. Along the way, they gave the Legislature something it hasn't seen in generations: real independence. They also imparted a valuable lesson to anyone who happened to be paying attention: Compromise and coalition building get a lot more done than name-calling and ideological gridlock.
2. The hospitality industry — The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) gained authority to add a 1.75 percent "assessment" to local hotel bills, which could double the CVB's budget. But the big story for the hospitality industry was fending off Jindal's attempt to "sweep" $100 million from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center's reserve fund. The convention center also convinced lawmakers to expand the "footprint" in which it can partner with private developers — and to expand its bonding capacity. This may have been the most successful session for the hospitality industry since the 1984 World's Fair. (Disclosure: From 2001 through 2009, I was a member of the CVB's board of directors.)
3. House Democrats and the Black Caucus — The enemy of my enemy is my friend, or so goes an ancient Arabian proverb. The Democrats and the Black Caucus no doubt had that notion in mind when they teamed with their ideological opposites, the fiscal hawks, to vanquish a common foe — Gov. Bobby Jindal — on the budget. The Dems and "the caucus" leveraged their new alliance to get millions for teacher pay raises, K-12 public education, and Southern and Grambling universities. They also joined the hawks and business interests to kill the governor's tax-swap plan before the session began.
4. Delgado Community College — Actually, all community and technical colleges are big winners as a result of an "end run" around the capital outlay process that could put more than $250 million in construction funds into the regional campuses. Of that amount, some $92 million is earmarked for Delgado.
5. Parochial officials — Judges, assessors and clerks of court (as well as some sheriffs) will get pay raises this year, even though state employees haven't gotten raises since Jindal took office. The clerks and assessors will have to generate the money for their pay hikes, but the judges' raises will come from the state.
6. Public school teachers — Thanks to the odd alliance of Democrats and GOP fiscal hawks in the House, teachers finally got a pay raise this year. It proves there's no limit to what can happen when strategy trumps ideology.
7. New Orleans firefighters — The biggest blaze that local firefighters put out all year was the political conflagration that threatened to engulf their pension fund. Mayor Mitch Landrieu pushed several bills to take over the fund in the wake of scandals, but firefighters doused Hizzoner's measures and won passage of watered-down reforms that keep the fund under their control, with some needed restrictions.
8. Public sector unions — Who would have thought labor could win in a "red" state where the GOP controls the Governor's Mansion and both legislative chambers? Labor killed an attempt by Big Business to eliminate dues check-offs for public sector unions. HB 552 was modeled after a similar Wisconsin measure, but it died in committee.
9. Local ferry riders — State Sen. David Heitmeier, D-New Orleans, filed SB 215 to keep the Chalmette and Canal Street ferries in operation in the post-toll era. The bill authorizes the Regional Transit Authority to contract with the state to operate both ferries, with a combination of state funding and local fares. All fares must be used for ferry operation and maintenance.
10. Gun lovers — A pair of patently unconstitutional bills seeking to thwart federal gun control laws died in the Senate, but several other measures expanding concealed-carry rights handily passed. HB 8 would penalize the intentional publication of handgun permit holders' information, while HB 98 would allow sheriffs to honor handgun permits issued by adjacent parishes. Another gun-related bill allows for lifetime handgun permits.
11. Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne — The lieutenant governor will henceforth control the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board under a bill by Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Chauvin. The board will move to the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, which Dardenne oversees, and he will name all members of the board — as well as its executive director. Which brings us to ...
1. Gov. Bobby Jindal — By the end of the session, folks were drawing comparisons between Jindal and former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who famously disengaged himself from governing in his disastrous second term. Jindal threw in the towel on his tax-swap plan on opening day of the legislative session, no doubt assuming lawmakers would wander aimlessly and then come crawling back to him for guidance. He guessed wrong.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and Jindal left a big one. Senate President John Alario easily filled the void in the Upper Chamber, and to the surprise of many, the fiscal hawks picked up the gauntlet in the House. As a result, Jindal lost control of the budget. The hawks rewrote vast portions of the spending bill, then made the Senate and the governor back down on budget reforms. Jindal feebly tried to take credit for the eleventh-hour budget compromise, but everyone knows the deal was done before the governor even got to the table. Above all, Jindal lost his patina of invincibility. Now everybody knows the little emperor has no clothes.
2. Mayor Mitch Landrieu — Hizzoner has a 70 percent approval rating among voters, but his negatives among local legislators may be more like 90 percent. He fought with, and disrespected, just about every local lege. They responded by killing or hijacking all of his major initiatives. His bills to reduce the number of Juvenile Court judges and gain control of the firefighters' pension board died in committee. Landrieu took credit after the session for revising membership on the Sewerage and Water Board (S&WB), but his version of the "reform" was not the one that passed. The final S&WB reform bill more closely resembles the recommendations of the Bureau of Governmental Research than the bill Landrieu pushed. Overall, his relationships with local lawmakers are at a low point. As one observer put it, "You can't pick a fight with everybody in the bar and expect to walk out unscathed."
3. Republicans — Years ago, GOP leaders longed for the day when their party could wrest control of the Legislature from Democrats. Now they're like the dog that finally caught the car. In politics, growth brings diversity, and factions, and that complicates things. Under Jindal's spell, the GOP never gave proper respect to the fiscal hawks. The hawks responded by reaching across the aisle to Democrats and the Black Caucus, who were only too eager to deal — especially if it meant embarrassing Jindal. By the time "mainstream" Republicans realized what was happening, it was too late.
4. The poor/uninsured — A handful of bills designed to force Louisiana to accept the expansion of Medicaid died. It may have been the only example of Jindal getting off his duff — although GOP lawmakers hardly needed him to tell them to vote "no" on those bills. As a result, hundreds of thousands of working poor will remain uninsured.
5. Public universities — Public support for higher ed has been cut by at least 85 percent since Jindal took office, and it's starting to show in lower standards. As Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Covington, noted near the end of the session, "It won't be long before we're spending more on rebates for motion pictures than we are on higher ed." State colleges didn't even get freedom to raise tuitions, further sealing their fate.
6. Traditional utilities — They wanted to end state tax credits for solar power immediately, but the solar industry rallied behind a bill that phases out the credits over a five-year period.
7. Big Business — Business has had its way for decades in the Louisiana Legislature. This year it saw a rare defeat when it failed to end dues check-offs for public sector unions.
8. Oil and gas — Like business interests generally, Big Oil rarely loses a legislative fight, but this year it got spanked for climbing into bed with Jindal on "tax reform." Lawmakers killed a measure to lower severance taxes. Message received.
9. Public hospitals — Four more LSU-run public hospitals were approved for takeover by private hospital companies, giving Gov. Bobby Jindal a rare victory. This fight ain't over yet, however. The state Civil Service Commission rejected Jindal's privatization plan because it would lay off 3,000 state workers.
10. State employees — Yet again they got no pay raises, but they had to watch parochial officials get theirs.
11. Breakaway school districts — Bills to establish "independent" (read: majority white) school districts always face a tough fight, but they usually prevail. Not this year, as Baton Rouge public schools defeated an attempt by unincorporated areas to form their own district.
All in all, it was a session of low expectations — few of which were met or exceeded. Until next year, keep a close eye on the spoons.