Columns » The State of the State by Jeremy Alford

Battling in Baton Rouge

Jeremy Alford on the state legislators who are trying to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee

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During his prime, Muhammad Ali's weight often ballooned between fights. The Champ was known to sometimes throw down three steaks for dinner and had a very real love for ice cream and soft drinks.

  State lawmakers don't have the luxury or the time this year to get flabby between bouts. Many are still licking their wounds from the just-ended special session on redistricting. From March 20 to April 13, they were beaten down by the politics and pressures of drawing new districts for themselves and Louisiana's U.S. representatives, and this fall those who aren't term limited will face the politics and punches of re-election.

  Meanwhile, the annual regular session convenes Monday, April 25, and the challenges are daunting — a record $1.6 billion budget shortfall looms for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

  In this case, it's the state budget that has ballooned. Like Ali, it can be argued that lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal did it to themselves. It remains to be seen if leges and Jindal can float like a butterfly or sting like a bee.

  Because this is an odd-numbered year, lawmakers must focus (mostly) on fiscal issues like taxes, tax incentives and, of course, budget cuts. The state constitution allows each legislator to file up to five nonfiscal bills.

  Taxes will be a tall order. Lawmakers face re-election in the fall, and Jindal has vowed to veto any tax bills. In fact, any tax measure likely will fall harder and faster than Jimmy Robinson (Ali, first round, 1:38).

  That hasn't stopped some lawmakers. Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, has filed House Bill 63 to boost the state sales tax on a pack of cigarettes by 70 cents. He'll probably make a persuasive argument, being both a smoker and funeral home owner.

  There also may be a push to revise the tax exemption on drilling in the Haynesville Shale. Predictably, Jindal opposes it. Other opponents maintain that the changes would stifle the current $10 billion investment in north Louisiana's record-setting shale play.

  As in previous years, Jindal may let a few punches land in the form of "fees" — as opposed to "taxes." Already more than 20 fee-related bills have been pre-filed. House Bill 121 by Rep. Ernest Wooten, No Party-Belle Chasse, would increase Louisiana's probation and parole fees by $10. House Bill 25 by Rep. Dee Richard, No Party-Thibodaux, would allow higher education to charge students more money based on credit hours.

  Because of the recent redistricting session, there haven't been many pre-filed bills this year — only 300 or so — and most failed to generate much pre-session media attention. Eventually, that number could jump to 1,000 or more.

  Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, says the state is developing legislation that will better mix parish leaders into the current emergency command structure. "You have so much experience on the local level ... in dealing with disasters, and we need to recognize that," Graves says.

  Some issues will sneak in like sucker punches, such as House Bill 75 by Rep. Truck Gisclair, D-Larose, which allows for taking mullet for bait purposes only. Others might bring you to your feet, like House Bill 128 by Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, which would prohibit retailers from asking for personal information like phone numbers and ZIP codes before processing a purchase.

  For now, there's only one worth remembering: House Bill 1, the bill number assigned to the governor's budget proposal. It currently stands at nearly $25 billion, but it will undergo changes via committee and floor hearings — and then it will go to Jindal, who will take out his red pen to line-item veto specific appropriations he doesn't like.

  That little red pen has been known to strike the same kind of fear in lawmakers that Ali's red gloves put into his opponents. At a minimum, it will keep lawmakers on their toes.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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