Talk radio stations around Louisiana gave ample time last week to the merits of Coke with whiskey, Bloody Mary mixes, vodka tonics, tequila-supported margaritas and other spirited concoctions. It was as if bartenders everywhere dropped their shakers to find a phone, but it was mostly normal folk on the lines. Everybody wanted to weigh in on a bill by Democratic Sen. Ed Murray of New Orleans to make Sazerac a French brandy blend created in the Crescent City the "official state cocktail" of Louisiana. It happens every year, often without praise. Some lawmaker wants an official state song or official meat pie or official bass-fishing parish. In the general session that springs to life next week and won't go away until June 23, there's also an effort by Rep. Nickie Monica, a Laplace Republican, to designate the fleur de lis as the official state symbol. Not to be outdone, GOP Rep. Jeff Arnold of New Orleans, a Democrat, has filed legislation that would create an official logo for the Louisiana Byways Program using an image of a "red, four-passenger coupe, modeled after the Ford Motor Company Lincoln LeBaron manufactured from 1927 through 1931."
Of course, legislators will debate more serious issues, many ripped straight from the headlines. For instance, CQ Press, a division of Congressional Quarterly, recently published its national crime rankings, and Louisiana came in as the second most dangerous state in the U.S., up from the No. 10 spot. The ranking likely will be invoked many times after the session commences. Even before the news broke, there was an eager confluence of lawmakers ready to throw the book and kitchen sink at crime-related issues, due chiefly to tough promises made on the campaign trail last year.
There's the Pay-Your-Way bill by Rep. Damon Baldone, a Houma Democrat, which promises to generate hours of gab on talk radio. It would require inmates in work-release programs to use their wages to pay for their incarceration, from meals to boarding. Big Tobacco, meanwhile, will hire top-dollar lobbyists to fight a measure by Rep. Walker Hines, a New Orleans Democrat, which would make it a criminal act to sell cigarettes to anyone under 21.
Creating new crimes, in fact, is a favorite pastime of Louisiana lawmakers, one that will only grow in popularity once the session begins. There are hordes of bills that create, among other things, the crimes of battery of an adult protective services worker, criminal damage to rental property, home invasion, harboring an illegal alien, creating fake IDs, vandalism by graffiti, forged insurance documents and much more. Other bills would raise the minimum mandatory sentences for felons possessing firearms and those convicted of armed robbery.
The latter approach triggers an annual debate in the Legislature how to be tough on crime without overcrowding jails and breaking the state treasury. For example, a bill by Rep. Elbert Guillory, an Opelousas Democrat, would prohibit judges from suspending sentences for a long list of crimes. That one will surely swell the jails. As a part of that delicate balancing act, Rep. Rickey Hardy, a Democrat from Lafayette, is proposing legislation to allow certain drug offenders to swap jail time for military time.
On health care, more than three dozen topic-specific bills already have been filed, but one of the political fault lines will surely reflect geography. Tehjan Martin, chair of the Louisiana Association for Behavioral Health and from Lafayette, credits the administration for the attention it has given Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard and other hurricane-impacted parishes, but he also wants the "entire state leadership to recognize that there are behavioral health needs beyond New Orleans."
According to a recent report on Louisiana's health-care delivery and financing systems, prepared by Price Waterhouse Coopers, all of Louisiana not just the greater New Orleans area was already suffering from limited ambulatory mental-health care before hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "The state was stretched to the limit of what it could provide its residents," Martin says, adding that most of the suffering parties are still waiting for help.
In the arena of natural resources, invasive aquatic species are sure to stir the waters. Sen. Robert Adley, a Benton Republican, says he will file legislation dedicating roughly $40 million in sales tax revenues to the problem, but as of deadline no such measure was in the hopper. A recent state report noted that "the problem needs to be constantly monitored or it could cripple commercial and recreational interests." When an invasive or exotic plant species enters a new habitat, it threatens the existing balance by competing for resources. "It's a messy problem that isn't getting the attention it deserves," Adley says.
Finally, there will be a huge focus, as usual, on the governor's proposed state operating budget. Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis, who oversees the multi-billion-dollar spending plan, is making department heads justify every penny. Many were even asked to make a list of budget items they could live without. "In terms of policy, this executive budget marks a stark departure from the status quo," Davis says.
One of the loudest yelps may have come from Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who is facing a proposed $10.6 million cut in his Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. Landrieu contends the massive decrease in state dollars will impact parks, libraries and other public services. "The new budget puts us in a precarious situation," he told Gambit Weekly.
The polite tit-for-tat is amusing and revealing because of the major players' previous relationship. Before going to work for Jindal, a Republican, Davis was the head of culture, recreation and tourism the No. 2 post under Landrieu, a Democrat. One can't help but wonder if Davis put forth those numbers in an effort to tow the Jindal Administration line or if the cuts reflect an intimate knowledge of where alleged pork and slush reside in the department. Either way, budget drama like this one will make for interesting political theater in the coming weeks.
- Lawmakers are lining up a slew of bills to be considered during the regular session, including one by Rep. Walker Hines of New Orleans that would make selling cigarettes to anyone under 21 a criminal act.