The longest-running joke in the just-ended annual legislative session was each legislator's answer to the question: How are you going to spend the 30 minutes of “free time” between the regular session ending and the next special session beginning?
Nobody asked me, but my answer is simple: I compiled my annual (for more than 30 years now) recap of the legislative carnage, otherwise known as Da Winnas and Da Loozas.
Because lawmakers are already in special session to repair the damage they inflicted earlier this year, the fate of some major players could soon change from “winna” to “looza” and vice-versa. With that caveat, let’s begin with …
1. Gov. John Bel Edwards — The guv lost some big fights (equal pay and minimum wage among them), but he won the most important battle of the session — the one for control of the state budget. It’s not the budget he ultimately wants, but it is the one he wants to hold over lawmakers’ heads as they go into the special session. TOPS and public hospitals face horrific cuts, which puts lots of pressure on leges to increase revenues. Equally important for Edwards, House Republican leaders looked dazed and confused in their handling of the construction budget on the final day. On other fronts, Edwards backed the “Raise the Age” bill to put 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system and a “real” REAL-ID bill, which will make it much easier for Louisianans to travel on domestic airlines in the future.
2. Business Interests — How can Big Business win if a Democrat governor also wins? By playing good defense. Those big fights that JBE lost (to raise the minimum wage and strengthen the state’s equal pay law) were opposed by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI). Overall, LABI improved its scorecard this session by narrowing its focus and pickings its battles wisely.
3. Gambling Interests — Casinos and video poker interests avoided any kind of tax hikes in both special sessions by specifically not being included in the governor’s “call” or agenda. In the just-ended session, the video poker industry also got all four of its key bills passed and signed into law, proving once again that the house (as in the gambling house) always wins.
4. The Cannabis Industry — Get used to that term. Passage of Sen. Fred Mills’ medical marijuana bill was a milestone in the long march toward making marijuana available to people with severe medical conditions. When it comes to cannabis, we’re not yet Colorado — but we’re no longer the old Louisiana.
5. Charter Schools — They beat back any significant attempt to restrict their domain, both in New Orleans and statewide. After winning the initial skirmishes, their opponents agreed to drop hostilities … for now.
6. The Orleans Parish School Board — State-run (Recovery School District) schools will begin coming back under local control, but with some conditions. It was not a total victory for local control, but it was a key first step. Charters will retain a lot of independence, so this one is a “win” for both sides in New Orleans.
7. The Four Seasons Hotel Group — Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a bill to accelerate a final decision in a lawsuit that has tied up the Four Seasons Hotel project (at the old World Trade Center site) for more than a year. The bill helps not just the Four Seasons but also all public benefit corporations that lease public lands.
8. Pro-Lifers — Louisiana now will restrict access to abortions by requiring a 72-hour waiting period.
9. Physical Therapists — Under a measure by Sen. Fred Mills, patients will now be able to get physical therapy directly, without first having to get a “referral” by their doctor. The “direct access” bill passed by large margins, but the governor is now “studying” the issue. PTs statewide treat hundreds of thousands of patients (read: voters), and they’re very organized in support of direct access. Edwards has not vetoed any major bills thus far, and this one would be an odd (and politically dicey) choice if it were to become his first.
10. The City of New Orleans — Defeating the so-called sanctuary cities bill and passing the Four Seasons bill ranked among the top priorities for Mayor Landrieu and the city. Landrieu also got a four-bill package passed to finalize his deal with local fire fighters to end decades of litigation. A bill to impede removal of Confederate-era monuments also was bottled up in a House committee.
11. LGBTs — The so-called Pastor Protection Bill (declaring that pastors don’t have to perform same-sex marriages) died, and Edwards issued an executive order expanding protections for transgendered people. This was perhaps the clearest sign of all that the Religious Right is no longer in charge of the Legislature and the governor’s office.
12. Local Indigent Defender Boards — They got a guaranteed (65 percent) slice of all state funds for indigent defendant representation in criminal trials. Critics say that could threaten the quality of defense efforts in capital cases, but it will also take a lot of pressure off local indigent defender boards and the local governments that fund them.
13. Immigrants — People who literally have no lobbyists nonetheless won a major victory when Sheriff Newell Normand and others helped beat back the so-called sanctuary cities bill.
14. Teachers — While K-12 education got whacked in the general budget, teachers won two key battles: they secured a one-year delay of accountability measures; and lawmakers reduced from 50 percent to 35 percent the portion of a teacher’s evaluation that is based on performance measures.
Which brings us to …
1. Women — The equal pay bill died an ignominious death in committee one day after some frat-house antics on the House floor garnered embarrassing international attention. A “joke” amendment on an anti-human trafficking bill (more on this below) signaled that Louisiana is still in the caveman era when it comes to treatment of women.
2. Public Hospitals — The new operating budget cuts the Department of Health and Hospitals by more than $170 million, and while that number will hopefully decline after the just-begun special session, health care and higher education remain the primary targets when the state is short on cash.
3. Higher Education — TOPS was cut by more than 50 percent and direct state funding for colleges and universities also was cut by some $55 million, although that could change significantly after the current special session. There are a few bright spots on the horizon. Lawmakers approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would confer “tuition freedom” on university systems if voters approve the concept. Equally important, TOPS awards after the next school year will be frozen at that year’s level, which means future college tuition hikes won’t adversely impact the state budget. Until then, higher ed remains on the ropes.
4. Attorney General Jeff Landry — His GOP allies in the House tried to give him a separate budget, one not touchable by the governor, but Edwards and the Senate would have no part of that. Perhaps to teach him a lesson, his budget got put back into the general appropriations budget — with a trim. Landry also was on the losing side of the so-called sanctuary cities fight; the measure didn’t even make it out of committee.
5. The House GOP Leadership — Regardless of the final budget outcome, it’s clear the Republican leadership of the House is not completely in control. Appropriations Committee Chair Cameron Henry got smacked down by his colleagues when he tried to push a budget that funded TOPS at the expense of public hospitals. Henry’s failure to beat back amendments on the House floor underscores the fact that, for all his rants against Edwards, he still does not have a real alternative to the governor’s proposed revenue increases. In the final days of the session, the House refused to take up the Capital Outlay Bill, ostensibly because of unspecified “technical issues” — but in reality it was a ham-fisted effort to gain leverage by pushing the bill back into the special session. That one could become a case of “be careful what you ask for…”
6. Environmentalists — Lawmakers killed measures to require fence-line monitoring by facilities that break state and federal environmental guidelines, and they killed a bill to prohibit open burning of munitions in Louisiana.
7. The Caveman Caucus — That’s my name for the House male chauvinists, who are going to become big political targets for women voters, including conservative women, for their frat-house antics during debate on the stripper minimum age bill. Rep. Kenny Havard, R-Jackson, filed an amendment setting age and weight limits on strippers, saying it was a “joke” and an attempt to highlight his opposition to “government overreach.” Still, he voted for the bill as originally presented in the House. A day later, he refused to apologize, which only made things worse. This fight is far from over, as Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, has gained traction with her digital “It’s No Joke” movement. Watch out, boys.
8. Strip Clubs — They opposed a bill to raise the minimum age (to 21) to work in their clubs, but the measure ultimately passed overwhelmingly.
9. Poor People — They always seem to lose, but only rarely does it happen in such a public manner as the defeat of a bill to raise the minimum wage.
10. K-12 Education — For the first time in a long while, lawmakers cut state aid for public elementary and secondary schools. Here again, that may change after the special session, but these days nothing is certain. The gains that teachers made in some areas could be offset by pay cuts and layoffs in some poorer school districts.
11. College Students — The cuts to the beloved TOPS program in the current version of the state operating budget, even if they are undone in the special session, create a world of uncertainty for Louisiana’s college students.
As is often the case, lawmakers performed down to low expectations.