The recently concluded 2005 legislative session has been widely panned as a dud. True, Gov. Kathleen Blanco and the Louisiana Legislature failed to make any significant progress in three critical areas: teacher pay, health care reform and improving our state's ethical image. However, the session didn't end without at least some accomplishments. Here are a few.
• Blanco continued to keep her 2003 campaign to oppose "expansion of gambling" in Louisiana, says government watchdog C.B. Forgotston. Blanco scuttled legislative attempts this session to create riverboat paddlewheel casinos and to allow casino gambling at Louis Armstrong International Airport.
• Thanks to state Treasurer John Kennedy, area motorists may one day be able to drive from Gretna in Jefferson Parish to the town of Gretna in Manitoba province, Canada --Ê"and never hit a red light," says Gretna (La.) Mayor Ronnie Harris. Kennedy devised a plan to help fund nearly $100 million a year in federal highway improvements to Louisiana's I-49 North and South, which is designed to improve state trade routes to Canada (via I-29) while giving New Orleans area residents another major hurricane evacuation route. Passed as HB654 (by Rep. Billy Montgomery, D-Haughton), Kennedy's idea allows the state to use $15 million a year in unclaimed property and refunds as collateral for bond funding. The bonds help the state pay its share of the cost for the billion-dollar highway project by attracting an 80 percent federal match.
• State Rep. Karen Carter and Sen. Diana Bajoie of New Orleans led the fight for creation of a downtown bioscience economic development district. HB742 aims to stimulate the "creation of high-paying jobs" -- up from the 24,000 people employed in higher-than-average medical and bioscience jobs in the city in 2004. Bounded by Earhart Boulevard, Carrollton Avenue, Loyola Avenue and Iberville Street, the district is designed to attract federal funds and new bioscience projects while combining the potential of existing facilities in the district, including Xavier University, the Delgado School of Nursing and the Louisiana State University and Tulane medical schools. Local business groups joined the mayor and universities in support of the plan -- a first for New Orleans.
• SB341 by Sen. Ann Duplessis of New Orleans creates a six-year "phase down" of tax credits starting at 20 percent for the nascent digital media industry designed to lure high-tech, permanent jobs to the state. "Industry leaders have been watching us for months because of this legislation," says Mark Drennen, president and CEO of GNO Inc.
• In a rare show of unity in the 2005 session, Republicans and Democrats came together to support a phased-in tax credit to help more poor working families pay for child care, says lobbyist Russell Henderson. Championed by Sen. Lydia Jackson of Shreveport and Sen. Duplessis and Rep. Charmaine Marchand of New Orleans, SB59 extends the child-care tax credit to families earning below $25,000 a year. The phase-in begins with a 25 percent credit for tax year 2006 and escalates to the full credit by tax year 2008. A full one-year tax return for two kids could mean a maximum refund of $1,050 a year, says Judy Watts, director of Agenda for Children, a statewide advocacy group that supports SB59.
• HB203 by Reps. Bobby Faucheux of LaPlace and Mike Walsworth of Monroe requires group health insurance plans to provide a 30-day enrollment period to prevent children from being caught uninsured. Otherwise, kids can be left uninsured due to changes in insurance coverage because of marriage, placement for adoption, or in cases where the child no longer qualifies for the Louisiana Children's Health Insurance Program (La-CHIP).
Rep. John Alario of Westwego, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, says there was good news for the metro area in the Legislature's capital outlay bill. Highlights include:
• City Park will receive $1.5 million toward planned improvements, thanks to racetrack slot machine proceeds.
• The Jefferson Parish Performing Arts Center received $20 million for construction on the LaSalle tract near Zephyr Field in Metairie.
Elsewhere, the Women's Health Access Project, a statewide coalition of some 400 groups advocating better health care for women and children, showed increasing organizational skills in its second year. Project spokesperson Cheron Brylski says the coalition is gaining respect at the Capitol. In prior years, a female legislator sponsored the Equal Pay for Women Act. This year, Rep. Willie Hunter Jr. of Monroe sponsored the legislation as HB444. The bill failed -- again. "But this time we had a guy introduce it," Brylski says.
Even in defeat, there is hope for next year. Quinn For Senate In this Saturday's runoff election to fill the 6th Senate District seat vacated by the death of John Hainkel Jr., we reaffirm our endorsement of Republican Julie Quinn. In the House District 87 race to fill the vacancy left by Derrick Shepherd's election to the state Senate, we make no endorsement. Above all, we urge our voters in those districts to vote.