Civic activism at the State Capitol has enjoyed an exciting recent history. In 2007, voters made sure term limits mattered and sent a crop of freshmen to the Louisiana Legislature. The following year, when lawmakers attempted to vote themselves a pay raise and Gov. Bobby Jindal promised to sign the bill, the Bayou State citizenry raised hell and forced Jindal into a veto. Earlier this month, citizens staged anti-tax "Tea Parties" across the state (despite whatever spin you want to apply to these gatherings, it's difficult to ignore any political rally that can actually draw thousands of concerned citizens).
All of these occurrences point to a public increasingly willing to hold elected officials accountable, a trend that appears to be on a collision course with the legislative session that begins this week. In fact, a variety of special-interest groups have dubbed April 27 "Black Monday" because of all the protests in the works beforehand. And that's just the beginning; lawmakers will remain in session until June 25. With each passing day, the state's forecasted $1.3 billion budget shortfall will weigh more heavily on lawmakers' minds. The traditional parade of controversial bills will take its toll as well.
With so much at stake, it's a signal for you to dip your toes in the political pool as well. Whether you're interested in the arts, higher education or the disabled, there's bound to be something that matters to you. More important, remember that it behooves you to make your voice heard because so many other people are already stirred up this year. Your enthusiasm can echo theirs.
Lawmakers, for their part, will listen if you're loud enough. Even at this early stage, bills are failing because of public opinion. For instance, Sen. Butch Gautreaux, D-Morgan City, wanted to make it easier for certain inmates to receive paroles. He pitched it as a way to ease the flow at packed prisons, reform the criminal justice system and save the state money. But when victims' rights groups and others weighed in, the legislation lost support of key state officials. Gautreaux now plans to withdraw the bill.
With advances in Internet-based technology, it's easier than ever to insert yourself in the legislative process. For starters, all bills can be searched by subject matter, author, bill number or keyword through the Legislature's Web site (www.legis.state.la.us). Live, streaming video can also be viewed at the site any time a committee or chamber is meeting. Hearings are archived and have quickly become the best-kept secret of opposition researchers, special interests needing to hold lawmakers to their word and bloggers who emphasize the importance of public remarks. If you want to get your piece of the action on a bigger screen, Louisiana Public Broadcasting will air live coverage of the session from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. every weekday.
If 21st century technology isn't your thing, personal assistance is available through the Public Update Legislative Services Line, which is taxpayer supported. Just call (800) 256-3793 and a legislative specialist will answer your questions about bills, direct you to the proper place for committee information or just explain aspects of the legislative process. It's an invaluable resource that more voters should utilize; it's available on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Every state lawmaker can be reached through the House (www.house.louisiana.gov; phone: 225-342-6945; fax: 225-342-8336) and Senate (www.senate.legis.state.la.us; phone: 225-342-2040; fax: 225-342-0617). If you're thinking about taking a regional approach, Orleans Parish has its own delegation (225-342-8301; http://house.louisiana.gov/H_Reps/By_Deleg/H_Reps_Deleg_Orleans.asp), as does Jefferson (800-325-4692; http://house.louisiana.gov/H_Reps/By_Deleg/H_Reps_Deleg_Jefferson.asp).
If you need information on the budget, want to complain about proposed cuts or give an "attaboy" on fiscal policy decisions, surf over to the Division of Administration (www.doa.louisiana.gov), which drafts the state's spending plan, or call (800) 354-9548. The House Fiscal Division (www.house.louisiana.gov/housefiscal/Staff/Staff.htm) will also have its hands on the budget, as found in House Bill 1, for the first few weeks of session.
As for Jindal, his site (www.gov.state.la.us) offers email addresses and links to all of the state's main agencies and departments. The governor can also be called at (866) 366-1121, or snail-mailed at P.O. Box 94004, Baton Rouge, LA 70804-9004.
Louisiana's many lobbyists represent a jumping-off point as well. Even more so if your cause is sexy or has good numbers – meaning people or money. The state Board of Ethics maintains a database of all registered lobbyists and the companies they represent (http://220.127.116.11/LobbyistLists.aspx).
Finally, don't forget the media. If you have a compelling story and a lawmaker or elected official won't listen, there might be a sympathetic reporter out there. The House maintains a decent list of the capital press corps (http://house.louisiana.gov/H_pio/index_CapitolPressDir.asp), and while the faces may change, practically all of the contact information is up-to-date. As for Gambit, this reporter's email is appended to each of his stories; the publication's editors can be reached at 486-5900 or email@example.com.
So far, there are 1,200 bills filed for debate during the regular session, ranging from religion and high school football to tax increases and levee work. These measures have the potential to impact your life, your family's future and your business' bottom line. If you can't find something in that to be passionate about, you're not looking hard enough.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.