While it's true that no man, woman or child is safe in life, liberty or property as long as the Louisiana Legislature is in session, there tends to be a lot less carnage when there's a big trough of excess money at the Capitol. That was the case this year, as lawmakers got their fill of some $3.7 billion in additional pork -- um, revenue.
Not surprisingly, all that money also means there were lots of winners this session, and relatively few losers. Which brings us to our annual review of "da winnas and da loozas." Here goes.
1. Gov. Kathleen Blanco -- The Governess largely succeeded with her session strategy of emphasizing increased spending on education, roads, health care, recovery spending, public employee pay raises and government programs rather than tax cuts in response to the record revenue pouring into state coffers. She aimed at a tax cut level of about $175 million, and she finished a lot closer to her goal than conservatives did to theirs. Lawmakers at the last minute passed a gaggle of tax cuts that will be phased in, many of them (about $400 million worth) kicking in a year from now -- just in time for Gov. Bobby Jindal to have to deal with potential revenue shortfalls. For now, Blanco has to decide whether to veto some tax cuts or line-item veto some spending measures to make sure her last budget is in balance, as required by the state constitution. Look for her to do a combination of the two, with line-item vetoes aimed at Republicans' favorite projects. In the end, Blanco beat back repeated GOP attempts to rein in her record $32 billion spending plan. She even showed that she could adjust her game plan when she and her allies found a way to put $1 billion into the Road Home program, which otherwise would run out of cash later this year. After several disastrous post-Katrina sessions, Blanco gets to close out her tenure with a victory lap.
2. The New Orleans Area -- The city and the hurricane-ravaged, five-parish region did well this year, thanks to a broad coalition of local legislators and business leaders who united behind a single agenda of more state money for local colleges and universities, local governments, important infrastructure improvements and area economic development efforts. New Orleans did particularly well. Lawmakers approved big spending bills for the downtown health care district, fully funded the cancer consortium (which is based in New Orleans), and dedicated $23 million a year to the city for 20 years to jump-start infrastructure improvements. All of that will brighten Mayor Ray Nagin's star, but truth be told, the city benefited despite several political gaffes on his part. For example, his "March on Baton Rouge," at which he called out lawmakers, came the day after they voted for significant increases in money for the city. He also was out of town for most of the session's final week, during which many of the key decisions were made. Timing is everything, Mr. Mayor.
3. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu -- He successfully pushed several bills to increase funding for tourism and convention marketing, to require arts (and music) in public schools and to grant tax breaks to fuel Louisiana's "cultural economy." These include a bill authorizing local "cultural product districts" where works of art can be sold tax-free and old buildings can be restored via tax incentives. Landrieu also pushed legislation lifting the cap on tourism marketing funds, which will bring almost $7 million more to regional marketing efforts. Most of all, he showed that he still has considerable sway among his former legislative colleagues.
4. State Treasurer John Kennedy -- He sure knows how to pick his enemies. He successfully blocked state Senate President Don Hines' attempt to dilute the treasurer's leadership of the state Bond Commission, and in doing so he jump-started his re-election campaign with a statewide multi-media blitz against Hines' SB 14. Hines' heavy-handed attempt to gut Kennedy backfired badly. Rather than weaken the popular treasurer, it only made him stronger by reminding voters of his reform credentials.
5. The Recovery School District -- At the beginning of the session, the RSD was under attack in some quarters and looked as though it might be dismantled. That didn't happen. The conviction of former Orleans Parish School Board president Ellenese Brooks-Simms on federal bribery charges, while occurring totally outside the legislative process, reminded everyone why the RSD was created in the first place and probably cemented the district's future viability.
6. Teachers -- They finally got their raise to the elusive "southern regional average." Then again, by raising Louisiana's historically low teacher pay, that average is now higher -- so our teachers will still fall below that benchmark the next time the "average" is computed.
7. Broadway South -- It's rare for a novel idea, particularly one that is substantive and costs money, to pass in its first outing, but impresario Roger Wilson's proposal to use state tax credits to rebuild aging live theater venues and attract Broadway-bound plays got "bravos!" at every turn, with one exception: Blanco expressed concerns very late in the game about the fiscal impact of the tax credits. If she vetoes this measure, she should be roundly booed.
8. LSU -- Although the news was not great out of Washington, the state's flagship university got its wish from lawmakers and The Governess with passage of a resolution approving the business plan for the new LSU-VA teaching hospital in New Orleans. It was supposed to free up $300 million in federal hurricane relief funds to build the new medical complex, but that money may now have to come from the state. No matter, say some lawmakers, we've got plenty of it now.
9. Insurance Companies -- Despite screwing policyholders across south Louisiana in the wake of Katrina and Rita, insurers got more incentives to do business here -- and no discernable backlash in the form of increased penalties for bad-faith failure to settle legitimate claims quickly. The Louisiana Insurance Rating Commission also was dissolved.
10. ICF International -- Lawmakers did little, if anything, to penalize the Road Home administrator for past sins, nor did they do much to encourage or enable ICF to pay storm victims faster. At the same time, the LRA and lawmakers did throw more money at the Road Home's projected shortfall in hopes of convincing the feds to bail out the beleaguered program.
11. Public Defenders -- In lopsided, bipartisan votes, lawmakers established a statewide system to give poor people charged with crimes meaningful legal representation. It's never popular to spend money on indigent defendants, but it's a moral and constitutional obligation -- and much cheaper in the long run than defending endless federal appeals based on ineffective legal counsel.
12. Video Bingo Operators -- The newest form of gambling will continue growing like a weed as lawmakers killed a bill to outlaw the devices that replicate the "action" of slot machines. So far, only three video bingo halls are open, but 14 more have license applications pending -- most of them in parishes where video poker is illegal. A lobbyist for "Cadillac Jack" (the brand on the bingo machines) argued that a ban would hurt charities that might contract with new bingo halls to share the gambling revenue. Funny, I must have nodded off when the pope showed up to testify against the ban.
Which brings us to ...
1. The Republican Caucus -- Led by House Speaker Wannabe Jim Tucker of Terrytown, the GOP caucus flexed its muscle early by stalling key money bills in an effort to stop the Democrats' and The Governess' spending spree. It got them great headlines and lots of kudos from conservative bloggers, but in the end the Republicans refused or were unable to expand their effort beyond party lines, which made their blockade easy pickings for Blanco and veteran free-spenders. Worse yet, the GOP's all-or-nothing approach portends a new era of hard-core divisiveness along party lines that Republicans seem to want, perhaps anticipating a GOP takeover of at least the House of Representatives and, very likely, the Governor's Mansion. But what happens to Gov. Jindal when the Democrats, who next year will likely hold a lot more House seats than the GOP currently holds, decide to respond in kind? If you like the gridlock and party-line bickering that typifies the U.S. Congress, you're going to love the "new" Louisiana Legislature.
2. Reformers -- I keep telling myself that all those efforts to reform Louisiana's ethics code were just a warm-up act for next year, but I still can't get over how shoddily some leges treated proponents of ethics reform this session. A coalition of some 50 organizations, led by the Baton Rouge Chamber, formed LAEthics1 and offered a sweeping set of reforms that didn't get far. The cornerstone of the package was House Bill 730, which would have required legislators to disclose the sources and ranges of their incomes. Lawmakers amended it to death, literally expanding the scope of the bill until it died under its own weight. As they say in baseball, wait 'til next year. Of course, voters get to weigh in between now and then, so some reform opponents might not be around next year.
3. Cockfighters -- They officially got one more year in business as a last-minute compromise, but cockfighters shouldn't be buying any green bananas -- or gamecock eggs. Lawmakers voted to make the blood sport illegal after Aug. 15, 2008, and there's no shot at a reprieve next year as most of cockfighting's defenders are term-limited. Worse yet, Sen. Art Lentini's Senate Bill 221, which passed and has already been signed by the governor, bans any form of gambling at cockfights -- and it imposes a hefty $20,000 fine (plus jail time) for anyone who allows cockfights on their property when there is gambling. Watching chickens tear each other apart will likely lose its allure when gambling is not part of the "cultural experience" -- which may mean that cockfighting will die a lot sooner than next August.
Now that's something to crow about!
- Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and the New Orleans area were big winners during the legislative session. The gains for New Orleans should brighten Mayor Ray Nagin's star, despite his periodic gaffes.