Louisiana lawmakers generally avoid divisive, controversial issues in election-year sessions, and Louisiana governors generally have their way with lawmakers. What a difference a $1.6 billion revenue decrease makes.
The 2011 legislative session, which ended last week, contained more than its share of surprises, but in the end not much got done beyond the bare essentials. Despite all the advance wailing, the sky didn’t fall after lawmakers passed a smaller budget with no earmarks. That’s pretty much how everything went: This session will be remembered more for what DIDN’T happen than for what did.
Which brings us to our annual recap of the political carnage — da winnas and da loozas, starting with …
1. UNO — Defeat of the UNO-SUNO merger was a slap at Jindal but a godsend to UNO, as it ignited a push to get the Lakefront campus out of the oppressively controlling LSU System. The bill moving UNO to the eminently more hospitable University of Louisiana System sailed through both houses, and the UL System appears much more likely to perceive UNO as a partner rather than a competitor.
2. Higher Ed Governing Boards and SUNO — The state’s four post-secondary education boards survived Jindal’s push to combine them. The governor’s merger plan fizzled quickly after the UNO-SUNO merger failed to get off the ground in the House. SUNO, which has two employees serving as House members, wielded more clout than LSU this year.
3. Casinos — Even though the bill seeking to ban smoking in bars and casinos was amended to exempt casinos, the gambling moguls figured they were next, so they provided the muscle needed to kill the anti-smoking bill — and proved once again that they have replaced Big Oil as the Big Shots of state politics.
4. College Students and Parents — More tuition increases are in the offing at state colleges and universities, but the TOPS constitutional amendment, if approved by voters, will guarantee funding for the popular program for years to come. For many, that will offset any pain from the 5 percent tuition hike approved this year.
5. Major Landowners — It’s rare for Big Oil to lose a big issue in the Legislature, but when its adversary is Big Land (and trial lawyers, for good measure), the oil barons were no match. Landowners killed a proposal to take jurisdiction over oilfield cleanup lawsuits away from district courts.
6. Techie Drivers — A bill to ban hand-held cell phone use while driving was defeated, and lawmakers approved a measure allowing front-seat passengers (but not drivers) to be able to watch DVDs on front-seat screens. Buckle up and pass the popcorn, cher.
7. Private School Parents — They soon will be able to deduct up to $5,000 in tuition from their taxable income on Louisiana income tax returns.
1. Gov. Bobby Jindal — He lost just about every major issue that he took on: the UNO-SUNO merger, the four-cent tobacco tax hike (his veto was upheld by the House, but the same House then out-maneuvered him by tacking the tax on the TOPS constitutional amendment, which is not subject to a veto), the college boards merger, larger college tuition hikes, selling state prisons, increasing state employees’ retirement contributions — to name a few. Lawmakers also kneecapped his plan to privatize management of Louisiana’s $6.6 billion Medicaid program by making it sunset in 2014 — unless they vote to extend it. That provision, however, could be vetoed. Jindal’s one consolation: The ass kicking he received at the hands of lawmakers will have little if any effect on his re-election chances.
2. The LSU System — It lost control of UNO and lost ground on the local teaching hospital front when Jindal appeared to ratchet down his support for a 424-bed facility after U.S. Sen. David Vitter, House Speaker Jim Tucker and state Treasurer John Kennedy united behind a proposal for a smaller hospital. Clearly, LSU is no longer the 800-pound gorilla of Louisiana politics.
3. The Religious Right — Bills promoting several social and faith-based issues failed to win approval this year, which is unusual in the God-fearing (well, Christian Right-fearing) Louisiana Legislature. Among them: a bill to post the Ten Commandments on the Capitol lawn; Rep. John LaBruzzo’s draconian anti-abortion bill; LaBruzzo’s perennial welfare drug-testing bill; and a measure to give local school boards more freedom to use money for non-approved textbooks (a scrim for creationism and “intelligent design” texts).
4. Big Oil and Big Business — The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) doesn’t lose many legislative battles, particularly when it joins forces with Big Oil, but both lost the battle to rewrite the rules for cleaning up oilfield sites.
5. Anti-Smoking Advocates — Even though the 4-cents-a-pack cigarette tax extension made it onto the TOPS amendment, anti-smoking advocates lost the bigger battles. Bills to increase the cigarette tax by 70 cents a pack and to ban smoking in bars and casinos died without a floor vote. They also could not hold 70 House votes to override Jindal’s veto of the 4-cent extension in the face of Team Jindal’s lobbying.
6. Birthers — A bill to require presidential candidates (read: Barack Obama) to prove their U.S. citizenship before their names can appear on a state ballot died in committee.
7. Gays — The “family values” and “Christian” forces browbeat lawmakers into killing bills to outlaw bullying at schools and to allow same-sex adults to adopt children together, which makes defeat of the Ten Commandments bill all the more metaphoric. What were those two greatest commandments again?
Oh well, maybe next year.