In politics, unlike other sports, you can win solely by playing good defense. At the same time, if you go for broke on offense, you can lose big-time. That's pretty much the way things shook out in this year's legislative session. Most of the winners played good defense, while the biggest losers "went long" too soon or too often.
Overall, it was one of the most contentious sessions in memory. It was also historic in that it marked the first of the new "hybrid" sessions. From now on, in odd-numbered years, sessions that formerly were limited to "fiscal only" matters (read: taxes) will also include some non-fiscal matters as well. Lawmakers may now introduce up to five non-fiscal bills each in odd-year "fiscal" sessions, along with an unlimited number of local bills. The change has significantly altered the legislative dynamic.
With that background, it's time to review this year's carnage, make a body count and compile our annual list of "da winnas and da loozas."
1. Big Tobacco -- There is no better example of playing good defense than the tobacco lobby this year. Before the session began, a tax on cigarettes to finance teacher pay hikes appeared to be a done deal. Then Gov. Kathleen Blanco over-reached. When the independent Revenue Estimating Conference increased official revenue projections for the current year and next year by a combined $360 million, it took the air out of her arguments for a tax increase. Or at least, it should have. Unfazed, she renewed her push for a $1-a-pack cigarette tax. Tobacco huffed and puffed, and blew her down in the House. When you beat a governor at her own game, you're the big winna.
2. The Republican Caucus -- If you like the kind of partisanship you're seeing in Washington, you're going to love where the Louisiana Legislature is headed. With 37 GOP House members, the party that says it stands for lower taxes has two more votes than needed to stop any tax, any time. Even though the Republicans stopped only one major tax this year (on cigarettes), they showed unprecedented unity and focus.
3. Commissioner of Agriculture Bob Odom -- They say you can't kill bad grass, and what better example than Louisiana's perennially controversial ag commish? Under indictment? No problem. Under media scrutiny for boondoggles? No sweat. Under-funded? Never! Odom had his way with rural lawmakers despite several years of bad press, and even after a scrape with The Governess earlier this year. He came away unscathed -- and he kept his $12 million slush fund.
4. Big Hospitals -- How can you win if you get taxed? Only in Louisiana! Larger private hospitals agreed to a provider tax, knowing they will get that money back several times over in the form of federal matches for providing health care to the poor.
5. Nursing Homes -- The bad boys of health care have been the subject of statewide media opprobrium for their huge profits and (in some cases) allegedly poor care of the elderly, but they remain quite popular in the corridors of power. They kept their major funding programs intact ($44 million for vacant beds!) and killed a bill that would have restored patients' right to sue for mental or physical abuse.
6. The Liquor Lobby -- When you're really good at playing defense, you kill a tax before the session even begins. That's how effectively the booze boyz worked their brand of political magic. This may be the most powerful lobby of all.
7. Casinos, Riverboats and Video Poker Operators -- Ditto the above. They got organized early and squashed Blanco's idea of taxing them, and then they killed bills that would have created competition at New Orleans International Airport and on the Mississippi River. Which brings us to ...
1. Gov. Kathleen Blanco -- She's easily the biggest loser this year, and she has no one to blame but herself ... even though she's officially blaming Republicans and "partisan traps." When Blanco went for broke on the $1-a-pack cigarette tax (after the Revenue Estimating Conference found $360 million in new money), lawmakers balked. Then they fought back, killing several administration measures and holding up others just to send her a message. Not since "Nutty Buddy" Roemer has a first-term governor lost so much standing among lawmakers so quickly. She did secure passage of the hospital provider tax, but that pales in comparison to her failure to get teachers a meaningful pay raise. Most agree this setback was completely avoidable.
2. Public School Teachers -- The only thing worse than getting no raises is getting no respect. The teacher union used to be a powerful weapon in support of tax measures, but this year it pretty much fizzled as a lobby. In the last days, senators found enough money to give teachers a one-time "bonus" of about $538. Otherwise, under the state's Byzantine education financing formula, teachers in some school systems will get nice annual raises while others will get little or nothing.
3. The Religious Right -- They were rebuffed once again in their attempt to ban certain types of stem cell research under the guise of an "anti-cloning" measure. To the extent that church folk also pushed a voucher bill, they lost again when lawmakers, despite huge levels of frustration with the Orleans Parish School Board, ultimately killed that proposal as well.
4. Mayor Ray Nagin -- Hizzoner put forth no capital outlay requests, which is unheard of for a New Orleans mayor. He also failed to get the $9 million in reimbursements he sought for city services in connection with Harrah's Casino. Nagin did join business and university leaders to support Rep. Karen Carter and Sen. Diana Bajoie's bill to create a bio-science economic development district downtown, but credit belongs to others for that victory.
5. Boutique Hospitals -- They will pay the new provider tax but, because they don't take Medicaid patients, they will not share in the generous federal matching dollars that the tax money will generate. Ultimately, their patients will pay the tax.
6. The Orleans Parish School Board -- The school system's sorry mess has caused it to lose all credibility among lawmakers. Legislators killed this year's version of a voucher bill, but the measure went farther in the process than ever before -- because lawmakers wanted to send the school board a message.
7. Local Economic Development -- In a brazen slap at Blanco, the House killed a bill to create local economic development districts -- right after passing it overwhelmingly. Blanco's floor leaders said after the House approved the bill that they wanted to add a few minor amendments for The Governess, who by then had angered many lawmakers by pressing them on the cigarette tax. When the just-passed bill was reconsidered, it failed, and suddenly it was dead for the session.
Memo to Gov. Blanco: Know when to quit.