With two more legislative sessions on the way just a hop away from each other and Easter it's understandably difficult to keep up with the politics, the people and the policies that are in play at the Capitol. In an effort to help, here's a brief primer.
Last Call With all of the changes ushered in during the first two months of Gov. Bobby Jindal's nascent administration, a few of us may have forgotten that the no-fundraising-during-sessions rule brought forth by his predecessor, Democrat Kathleen Blanco, is still on the books. It's a tough spot for legislators, who just spent more than two weeks in a special session on ethics and launched another special session over the weekend on business and budget matters. Plus, there's a three-month regular session slated to convene March 31.
What's a cash-strapped lawmaker to do? Lobbyists, who are limiting what they spend on meals but not campaign donations, can attest that last week (which fell between sessions) was prime time for fundraising, especially for committee chairmen.
In Baton Rouge, GOP Rep. Hunter Greene, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, held a $500-a-head event at the residence of former Gov. Jimmie Davis. In Lafayette, Rep. Don Trahan, who heads the Education Committee, was joined by fellow Republicans Jim Tucker, the House speaker, and Jindal for a grip-and-grin at the Blue Dog Café. Another half-dozen or so lawmakers had issued notices for early March fundraisers, according to the state Ethics Board.
Keeping Promises/Cutting Jobs The new governor keeps presenting unique policy juxtapositions, like the time he required transparency from lawmakers during a special session on ethics but opposed a public records bill aimed at his own office. The next doozie or two should come in the regular session during budget debates.
For starters, even though Jindal described state government spending as "out of control" during his 2007 campaign, his first budget proposal increases the state's portion of the next fiscal year's budget by roughly 6 percent. However, some of that total is federal hurricane relief money. Nonetheless, that higher budget figure could force some interesting votes during debates over House Bill 1, which carries the state's spending plan, especially for Republicans who ran as fiscal conservatives last year.
Jindal also is seeking salary increases for some of his top cabinet members about $75,000 more for Stephen Moret, economic development secretary; a $10,000 increase for Jimmy LeBlanc, secretary of state prisons; and a $2,000 bump for Mike Edmonson, Louisiana State Police superintendent.
In a public hearing last week, Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, a New Orleans Democrat, called the increases "offensive." Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis, for her part, suggested that the Legislature should come through with the money because Jindal had promised his hires certain numbers.
The "Huh?" factor will slip in when Jindal explains to lawmakers during the regular session that money should be made available for his people, but not for the 1,300 state jobs he wants trimmed from his proposed budget.
Crumbling Schools How do Louisiana's public colleges and universities plan to defend their $80 million line item in the current special session's supplemental appropriations bill?
By playing the crumbling-school card.
The $80 million is needed to help public colleges and universities repair and update campus facilities, which are long overdue for routine maintenance and, in many cases, critical repairs. "[The money] will go a long way toward bringing many of the state's aging and neglected educational facilities up to a reasonable state of repair and serviceability," says outgoing Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Savoie.
The Board of Regents routinely requests an appropriation for building maintenance in its annual higher education budget proposal, but each year only limited funds are made available. The result, Savoie adds, is a continually growing backlog of "deferred maintenance." In fact, a backlog of some $308 million has been identified as "currently critical."
The overall backlog of deferred maintenance stands at approximately $1.8 billion, making the $80 million wish list a drop in the bucket.
Food Banks' Budgets While ports, local governments and others will be competing for money from the supplemental appropriations bill during the current special session, Louisiana food banks will be lobbying lawmakers for $15 million from the state's 2008-09 budget in the regular session that begins March 31. The Louisiana Food Bank Association, comprised of the five regional food banks covering every major region of the state, wants the dough to purchase "nutritious food from Louisiana farmers, fisherman, vendors and wholesalers to serve hungry Louisianans."
The LFBA was gifted $5 million in last year's budget and was able to purchase more than 9 million pounds of food. With a surplus on the books and a new governor and Legislature in place, the group is hoping for a healthy increase.
'The problem of hunger remains urgent in Louisiana," says Natalie A. Jayroe, president of the Second Harvest Food Banks in New Orleans and Acadiana. "According to all available and trustworthy data, the number of people living in poverty is close to its pre-Katrina and Rita level. The cost of living has skyrocketed and the country faces a recession. Thousands of families who have lost everything and are struggling to rebuild, and who may never have needed our help before, deserve our help now."
- Cheryl Gerber
- There should be some interesting moments in the regular legislative session when Gov. Bobby Jindal tries to explain why lawmakers should come up with money to give raises to his top cabinet members, but not for the 1,300 state jobs the governor wants trimmed from his proposed budget.