Columns » The State of the State by Jeremy Alford

The beginning of the end

by

comment

"I wasn't planning on working Sunday."

  That's what Rep. Katrina Jackson told Speaker Chuck Kleckley last Tuesday afternoon. Jackson, D-Monroe, said it from the floor, after pulling her microphone out of her desk and being recognized by Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, who had just announced the session's final schedule.

  Each representative has her or his own microphone, which isn't to say the mics should always be used.

  Standing on his perch two levels higher than the floor, Kleckley, who already towers over most people at the Capitol, leaned into his reply. "Well," he said, "you don't have to come."

  It was true. Even if it wasn't the last Sunday of the session, no one was going to dock Jackson's salary or take away her $149 per diem, payable for all regular session days, worked or not.

  But smart lawmakers know the final days of a session — this one ends Thursday (June 6) — are when the real action happens. "I wouldn't leave you here by yourself," Jackson told the speaker. "I wouldn't do you like that. I promise."

  There has been no shortage of last-minute surprises in recent days, starting with the LSU Board of Supervisors, which approved four more of Gov. Bobby Jindal's hospital privatization contracts — even though the contracts included blank pages. Think of it as a Louisiana version of Obamacare, though this is one that Jindal wholeheartedly approves. Despite lacking financial and operational details, lawmakers are expected to pass a budget to support the deals.

  Most lawmakers know by now that the pay raises they've been advancing for assessors, clerks of court and judges will also hike the pay of other elected officials. A 2012 law stipulates that if district judges get a raise, so do sheriffs. On the local level, some parish charters likewise connect the salaries of parish presidents with those of assessors, sheriffs and clerks of court — the latter category is up for a raise this session as well.

  Then there's Senate Bill 226 by Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego. Even if the bill doesn't pass, it's the craftiest legislation of the session and lawmakers are already trying to work similar language into another measure that's connected to the budget. To get around the requirement that surplus money can only be spent on non-recurring needs such as infrastructure and debt, Alario's bill washes surplus cash through special funds so that it can be used to help plug annual budget holes.

  Specifically, it deposits $87 million of surplus money into the Coastal Protection and Restoration Fund, then withdraws the same amount (cash is fungible, after all) and places it into the general fund. When not serving as one of the Legislature's most powerful lawmakers, Alario is a tax consultant.

  The final days of a session can lead to confusion — and levity. Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, mistakenly called Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, by another member's name during debate on the Senate floor last week.

  "I guess we look alike," Donahue joked.

  "You and me?" Martiny responded.

  "Please," said Donahue. "No, senator. Gimme a break."

  "I have a full head of hair," Martiny said, pointing to Donahue's shiny dome.

  "Yeah, but you're so short," Donahue shot back.

  "Is that the worse thing you can say about me?" Martiny asked.

  "No," said Donahue. "You're pudgy."

  The session's final days also are an incubator for sharp rhetoric. Example: House Bill 238 by Rep. Patrick Williams, D-Shreveport, decreases the 5 cents-per-month tax on telephone land lines to 2 cents and then broadens the lower tax to cover cellphones. It's a small price to pay to help deaf people use cellphones, but Jindal and anti-tax coalitions are urging lawmakers to be strong (read: weak) and vote against it.

  Compromises are still being hammered out on the proposed overhaul of the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board and legislation plotting the next steps for the Crescent City Connection. The budget and construction bills are still being massaged as well.

  For all that's incomplete, lawmakers have worked eight weeks to get this far. Then the governor gets to weigh in with his veto pen, which often undermines whatever lawmakers think they've accomplished.

  That reality was reinforced by Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, last week during discussion on a bill granting tax rebates for donations to schools. "Didn't we have a similar bill last year?" he asked the bill's author, Rep. Patrick Jefferson, D-Homer.

  "It sailed through," Jefferson replied. "Collaborated, cooperated, kumbaya."

  Robideaux: "What happened to it?"

  Jefferson: "It was vetoed."

— Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. Contact him at jeremy@jeremyalford.com. Follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.

Add a comment