A cell phone rings, and Ginger Sawyer picks it up and listens. "OK, but we have to be on the floor for one o'clock," she says before ending the call almost as soon as it began. Sawyer is well aware there are only a few days left in the Legislature's regular session. It's a manic time when bills are rushed through the process via whispered deals and nudging lobbyists.
She's in legislative mode and has been for nearly half a year, along with everyone else at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), where she works as the political action director.
Sawyer recalls buying into the February special session on ethics reform and walking away happy from the March special session on business tax relief. But talk of the recent regular session, which kicked off on the heels of the second special session on March 31, is much more formulaic. That's probably because everyone, especially lawmakers, is ready to go home. Veteran lawmakers are accustomed to working only three months or so each year, and all in one session, which might explain the political gall that set off their pay-raise land mine.
Unlike the two narrowly focused special sessions in February and early March, which produced limited but measurable results, the regular session (which ends Monday, June 23) is leaving mostly unanswered questions in its wake. Lawmakers adopted a historic workforce development plan, but it has a dizzying array of moving pieces and a price tag that's yet to be determined.
As the session wound to a close late last week, issues that LABI thought were dead were being resurrected. Moreover, lobbyists were still trying to discern the politics of the House of Representatives, whose 60 new members (the political children of term limits) cast votes that were often contradictory and never predictable. "It's a steep learning curve," Sawyer says. "We're all just going to need some time."
Sawyer has time, with another three years of sessions to spend getting to know the new House members. Starting this week, she'll spend her resources on the aftermath of this year's legislative season trying to make sense of it all. Here's some of what she and others are likely to conclude:
Working It Out Gov. Bobby Jindal came out of the gate swinging for workforce development, calling it his top priority. It was. It prompted the complete reorganization of the state Department of Labor, which will be renamed the Louisiana Workforce Commission. Lawmakers adopted new training programs for all Louisiana employers and set aside $18 million for community and technical colleges to begin the task immediately. Another $10 million will go into a rapid-response training fund.
One of the more impressive features of the package brings the department back to the regional level via Workforce Investment Boards. It also reaches deeper for local participation by partnering with community groups nonprofits, shelters and churches to recruit workers who have been left out of the traditional workforce count. Senate President Joel Chaisson II, the Democrat from Destrehan who co-sponsored the workforce package, says this formula creates a holistic approach for unemployed workers, employers and the state. "Louisiana will be better prepared to guide and train workers," he says.
The new laws likewise help different state agencies communicate like never before, an attribute that has been largely glossed over. Agency sections are being merged, leadership positions are sharing responsibilities and old boundaries are being erased. For instance, if a Labor Department official needs GED information from the Education Department or child-support data from Social Services or tax identifications from Revenue, that official no longer has to stand in line with everyone else. He or she is part of the system.
The only lingering question is cost. The "fiscal notes" (official estimates of a new law's cost) attached to the main bills, the special funds created with those bills and the reorganization of the department set the price tag at nearly $40 million over a five-year period. But that's just a guess. Many officials admit it's a moving target as unexpected expenses are bound to come up, from changing logos to setting up regional operations.
A House Divided Business and industry were understandably happy after the March special session on taxes. Lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to eliminate the sales tax on utilities and accelerate the phase-outs of taxes on machinery and corporate debt. Lobbyists thought they had the House figured out after the second session, but they were wrong. In the current session, House has proved inconsistent at best. Meanwhile, the Senate, which has many former House veterans, has remained predictable on business issues.
On the legal front, a revamping of the way asbestos litigation is handled was shot down despite intense work by industry. On the medical front, Sawyer says she was surprised to see movement on mandates for hospitals and other health care providers after House members made an unofficial vow to stay away from them about 10 years ago. "It was surprising to see all these new and wide-eyed faces revisiting issues we thought were settled or already relatively settled," she says.
Freshmen also aren't following the time-honored rule of following up with lobbyists if they find they have to change their minds after promising to vote one way or the other. Erosion of that old honor code caused many lobbyists to grumble about how much harder they're having to work. "One of the biggest things is the lack of institutional knowledge and historical perspective," Sawyer says. "They just don't know protocol."
Reducing the unemployment tax was viewed as an accomplishment from the regular session, as was the Legislature's endorsement of a bill that would cut state income taxes by $359 million each year beginning in 2009. Small businesses joined the income tax reduction movement after seeing benefits for LLCs and Subchapter S corporations.
Of course, there are always sleeper issues. The business lobby was disheartened to see the much-ballyhooed statewide groundwater policy torn apart by lawmakers for the sake of Iberia Parish and local control yet another bill that forced second looks at the House. Legislation prohibiting businesses from banning guns locked in private vehicles on company property also caught lobbyists by surprise as they mounted liability arguments in opposition and voiced concern over the safety of workplaces.
Above the Horizon The big question now is whether Jindal will call another special session this year. The latest rumblings suggest a possible December gathering, but there's nothing official out yet unless you count the call of Shreveport's mayor for a special session on tax incentives or lawmakers wanting special sessions on health care and insurance.
Otherwise, the next regular session is roughly 10 months away starting at noon on April 27, 2009.
- Karron Clark
- Senate President Joel Chaisson speaks to lawmakers during the waning days of the session. He co-sponsored the successful work-force development legislation which, among other things, will reorganize the state Department of Labor, set up new training programs for employers and provide money for community and technical colleges.