After most legislative sessions, it's easier to name the vanquished than it is to find the victors. Recent years have not been kind to the Louisiana economy, and that makes legislative politics testy at best. But this year, thanks to huge infusions of post-Katrina cash, the Capitol was awash in money -- and that means there were lots of winners. In fact, if you lost this year, chances are it's because you just didn't show up.
There were, of course, issues that did not revolve around the budget -- cockfighting, ethanol, consolidation of New Orleans government, to name a few. Those certainly produced clear winners and losers, and now that the session is over, it's time for the annual body count.
So, without further ado, let's start with
1. Gov. Kathleen Blanco -- Rumors of the Queen Bee's political death are greatly exaggerated -- and premature. The polls don't show her popularity soaring yet, but you can't be governor of Louisiana and spend more than $26 billion in one year without seeing your numbers rise. Overall, she chose her battles carefully -- and won them all. She force-fed local lawmakers a set of far-reaching political changes in New Orleans, forged a compromise on the so-called legacy bill (governing the cleanup of abandoned oilfield sites) and pushed through a $1,500 across-the-board teacher pay raise. She came in for criticism for not doing more at this stage in our history, but she has wrought more political reform than any governor since Buddy Roemer. She also will benefit from windfall state tax revenues in the wake of Katrina (everybody's buying new stoves and fridges) as well as federal largesse, which her administration will spend. "The historic significance of this session will lie in the establishment of the largest public housing initiative in U.S. history -- The Road Home," says the Public Affairs Research Council, an independent think tank. That was her baby, too.
2. Bob Odom -- The agriculture commish has long been a powerful force in state government; now he's the gasoline czar, which reminds me of that ancient wisdom, be careful what you ask for. The sugar industry birthed the ethanol bill, which Odom took over and made his own. The ethanol bill mandates that gasoline sold in Louisiana be blended with ethanol when production of ethanol reaches certain levels. A subsequent measure put a panel in charge of making sure the mandate doesn't kick in unless the price at the pump remains stable.
3. Animals and Animal Lovers -- Okay, we didn't ban cockfighting, but the bill to outlaw it moved farther this year than ever before, mostly because of legislative in-fighting over ethanol. All the same, it's clear that public opinion has turned against the blood sport, which has become the Cajun equivalent of the seven New Orleans assessors -- how much longer will Acadiana leges be willing to trade votes on everything else just to perpetuate something that everyone knows is outmoded and unjustifiable? Of equal significance, lawmakers passed the nation's first pet evacuation bill, one that will be a model for the rest of the country. The LA/SPCA and the Humane Society established a presence and tons of credibility. On a lighter note, lawmakers rejected a bill to regulate small "constrictor" snakes, such as boas and pythons. Was that, like, professional courtesy?
4. Environmentalists -- In the early days of the session, Blanco vetoed Freeport-McMoRan's proposed open loop LNG offshore processing plant, which opponents claimed would hurt Louisiana fisheries. Blanco followed the advice of her own fisheries advisors as well as environmentalists and fishermen, and her move created a domino effect in other Gulf states.
5. School Teachers -- Teachers got raises averaging $1,500 per year, while support personnel got $500 pay hikes. Also, the state agreed to pick up the higher costs of health insurance for retired New Orleans public school teachers who lost their jobs because of the state takeover last year -- and then saw their premiums skyrocket.
6. Citizen Activists -- The "ladies in red" from the Committee for 1 Greater New Orleans joined with citizens across the state to demand -- and win -- some hard-fought reforms. At least one fight is not over, however, as the constitutional amendment establishing just one assessor in New Orleans has to pass statewide and in New Orleans. Opponents will surely launch a counter-offensive at the local level.
7. New Orleans -- Our mayor was The Invisible Man for much of the session, but, thanks to local lawmakers, the city for the first time in years got full funding of the $3.6 million in costs related to the land-based casino's operations. Lawmakers also passed a measure broadening the powers of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) and making it a significant player in the city's rebuilding efforts. Nagin dissed the NORA bill at one point because its author, Sen. Ed Murray, supported Mitch Landrieu for mayor, but hizzoner came to his senses after meeting with Murray to talk things over.
8. Nursing Homes -- The bad boys of the health-care industry continue to elbow their way to the front of the feed line at the public trough. Lawmakers restricted the state's ability to cut nursing homes' share of the hospital budget by shoring up nursing home reimbursement rates for things like the growing number of unoccupied beds. No, that's not a typo; they get paid for unoccupied beds.
9. Phone Companies -- Ma Bell will be allowed to compete with cable TV providers. Let's see how fast those premium channels go down in cost.
Which brings us to ...
1. Big Oil -- They'd rather not have to deal with ethanol blending, although it's required in parts of Texas already. Blanco's veto of open-loop LNG technology could push a lot of offshore projects onshore, and the compromise on legacy suits leaves the door open for locally elected judges to step in on the side of plaintiff lawyers if the court doesn't like cleanup plans drafted by the state Department of Natural Resources, which typically favors oil companies and not consumers or landowners.
2. New Orleans Assessors -- How many ways does seven go into one? Not many.
3. New Orleans Judges and Parochial Officials -- Local criminal, civil and juvenile court judges will all be on the same court by 2015, and the city will have one sheriff and one clerk of court. We'll also lose the separate offices of recorder of mortgages, register of conveyances and custodian of notarial archives. At the end of the day, we'll be like every other parish -- and upstate lawmakers will have a lot fewer reasons to pick on us.
4. Big Tobacco -- A smoking ban in restaurants and other public places will make it harder than ever to light up. Smoking also will be verboten in your car if you have kids under 13 aboard, although it remains legal in stand-alone bars, including those with limited food menus, as well as in casinos and hotel rooms.
5. Taxpayers -- We were tapped to pay at least 75 percent of the health-insurance costs for certain retired legislators for the rest of their lives in one bill. This was the snake bill of the entire session, and Republican leges who voted for it were so chagrined that they piously took to the airwaves afterward to ask Blanco to veto it. She obliged, but if those GOP leges care so much about us poor taxpayers, why did they vote for this piece of crap in the first place? Were they asleep -- or complicit until they got caught? This bill was stinky enough that it is sure to be used against any incumbents who voted for it.
6. Poetry -- The only thing more tasteless than some leges' clothing is their sense of rhyme (or reason). They passed one bill establishing an official state poem, which ends, "I propose this toast to her/With my meager pen in hand./I somehow feel so primitive/to her majesty so grand." As if that weren't ghastly enough, they piled on by adopting a new "culture" poem, which concludes, "Well, I'm the Mississippi/As it rounds the bend/I am Louisiana/Y'all come back again." Verse like that makes me hope lawmakers never return to Baton Rouge.
- The polls don't show Kathleen Blanco's popularity soaring yet, but you can't be governor of Louisiana and spend more than $26 billion in one year without seeing your numbers rise. Overall, she chose her battles carefully and won them all.