The recently ended session of the Louisiana Legislature was historic in several ways. It marked the first time that term limits will force state lawmakers out of office, and it produced a record $32 billion state budget. The impact of term limits will be softened by the fact that timed-out House members can legally run for Senate seats, and vice versa. Still, given the restive mood of voters, no politician should consider himself or herself "safe" this fall. The most controversial measures were, predictably, a bill that would impose tighter ethical restrictions on lawmakers by requiring full financial disclosure (it failed) and the engorged spending bill. The bright spots included passage of bills to help southeast Louisiana recover from Hurricane Katrina and put arts back into public education. But, overall, much remains to be done.
Among the session's highlights:
• The 2007-08 state operating budget is by far the largest in Louisiana's history. It contains pay raises for teachers and many public employees, as well as enhanced retirement benefits for many in the public sector who previously chose not to participate in the state's generous retirement system. The governor should use her line-item veto power to kill the enhanced retirement benefits. They are costly to taxpayers and an affront to public employees and officials who "opted in" long ago and contributed their own money to the system for years. On the bright side, the budget also contains many millions to help jump-start infrastructure improvements in New Orleans, finance higher education and repair roads, and begin coastal restoration projects.
• The ethics package touted by a statewide coalition of 50 business and civic organizations ran into entrenched opposition from lawmakers who didn't want full financial disclosure to start with themselves. They amended the bill to include virtually every elected official in the state, knowing full well that would cause the measure to sink under its own weight. They now will cynically inform voters that they voted for a tough ethics bill. Don't buy it, folks. Voting for a measure that you know won't pass is not "good government" -- it's demagoguery. The reformers, who call themselves LAEthics1, will be active in the fall elections and back with the same ethics package next spring. And next year, they will spend whatever it takes to let voters back home know when a legislator breaks his or her promise to support the ethics bills as written. That will be fun to watch.
• Arts, culture and tourism fared well this year. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu promoted several bills aimed at shoring up Louisiana's "cultural economy" via tax credits, tax breaks and special cultural districts. Not all of those bills passed, but the most far-reaching ones did -- particularly the "cultural product districts" bill that will allow local governments to create special districts in which unique works of art can be sold without sales taxes and historic properties can be restored via tax incentives. Landrieu also was a driving force behind the "arts in education" bill that will put music and the arts in every public school classroom by 2011. On the tourism front, lawmakers approved a measure by state Rep. John Alario, D-Westwego, to lift the cap on tourism funding. That will significantly increase (by nearly $7 million) the money spent to promote Louisiana as a premier destination.
• "Broadway South," the brainchild of New Orleans-born actor Roger Wilson, will combine state and federal tax credits to restore historic theaters across the state and help lure Broadway-bound productions to Louisiana. The measure, by Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, also grants refundable income tax credits to local musical or theatrical productions. This measure will have enormous impact in downtown New Orleans, where at least five theater venues are prime candidates for restoration under the act. We urge Gov. Blanco to sign this measure into law.
• Cockfighting has finally been outlawed, but the ban doesn't take effect until Aug. 15, 2008. However, a separate bill by Sen. Art Lentini bans gambling at cockfights immediately. Without the "rush" of betting on the outcome of the fights -- and with stiff criminal penalties for allowing gambling during the bouts -- devotees of the blood sport could close up shop faster than the law requires. Good riddance.
• Louisiana's insurance crisis will not end soon, but lawmakers made some attempts to ease the burden on property owners. State Rep. Karen Carter, D-New Orleans, authored a measure offering $2 million to $10 million to qualified insurance companies willing to insure Louisiana residential and commercial properties, provided that at least 25 percent of those properties were previously insured by Louisiana Citizens and half of the properties are located in storm-ravaged parishes. Carter's bill also gives individual income tax credits equal to 7 percent of the premiums paid to insure primary residences in 2008. Another bill by Carter abolished the Louisiana Insurance Rating Commission -- the last state rate-setting commission in the country.
• Last-minute tax breaks flew through the House and Senate on the session's final day, but many of them take effect a year from now and thus will not affect the current fiscal year budget. Still, they could tie the hands of the next governor and Legislature. We support allowing income taxpayers to deduct home mortgage payments and charitable contributions -- but not tuition at private schools.
A word of caution to the new governor and lawmakers: The post-storm "boom" won't last. Get ready to tighten your belts.