Written by Jeremy Alford
Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Click. Click. Click. Ah, we’ve seen this one already. Click. Click. This one is from last year, right? Click. I’m not going to sit through this again. Click. Click. Click. It’s the same thing over and over! There’s never anything good on!
Although the Legislature has 39 senators and 105 representatives, each session seems to produce political issues that have already been debated — and in most cases rejected — during previous gatherings. For the most part, they’re reruns, or bills that have been buried in the past, ideas that were put on hold for one reason or another, concepts that simply weren’t a fit for the time slot.
But there’s always another chance to jump the shark. Just ask Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli. The next regular session premieres on March 29, and all of the following topics are on tap for prime time debate:
I-49, Where Are You?
Among the top priorities for the Lafayette delegation during the 2009 regular session was to create something called the Energy Corridor Commission, which would have basically been the new Lafayette Metropolitan Expressway Commission with additional membership. The whole idea was to place the conversion of I-49 South on solid asphalt and give the commission the power to explore funding mechanisms. But lawmakers balked.
Instead, supporters of the all-important road project had to make do with the branding job carried out by the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, which branded the New Orleans-Lafayette connector as “America’s Energy Corridor.” This 140-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 90 from Lafayette to the Westbank Expressway in New Orleans has the highest density of energy workers in the nation. Moreover, 4 percent of all energy laborers in the U.S. work along the corridor, and 36 percent of Louisiana’s population resides there, too.
Still, the Legislature seems reluctant to throw its support behind — and taxpayer money at — the project. That’s why Sen. Mike Michot, R-Lafayette, who authored the failed energy corridor bill last year, is stepping back up to the plate in the upcoming regular session to put more control in the hands of local stakeholders. While this year’s bill is still being drafted, Michot says it could potentially allow locals to institute tolls along the proposed connector, establish a special taxing district in the region or some other revenue-raising scheme on the local level.
Michot says he and Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel, along with other members of the Metropolitan Expressway Commission, are kicking around ideas to determine what might be the best approach. Whether it’s a mechanism that has drivers dipping into their pockets or businesses reaching into their coffers, you’ll just have to stay tuned to find out. “We’re looking at a few different options,” says Michot, “but we’re getting close to consensus. Overall, roads and infrastructure are going to be a top priority for us again this year.”
King of the Hill
If you perused this issue’s cover story already, then you know Rep. Joel Robideaux of Lafayette, who has no party affiliation, is poised to take over the No. 2 spot in the House. His election, however, may be the last of its kind if a term-limited senator with chairmanship status has his druthers in the coming months.
Sen. Butch Gautreaux, D-Morgan City, says he’s putting all of his political weight behind a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow lawmakers to elect their leadership in the House and Senate confidentially, essentially squeezing out the long-held influence of the governor in the process. “This would move us into the 21st century of politics,” says Gautreaux. “For as long as I can remember, and I think going back to the ’60s, the leadership in both the House and the Senate has been handpicked by the governor.”
In theory, the use of confidential ballots would allow lawmakers to vote however they choose without the fear of retribution from the administration. In the past, governors have been accused of endorsing a choice and doling out chairmanships and other windfalls based on who falls in line; it’s a perennial issue. “Once the governor picks his or her Senate president and House speaker, everyone gets on board or you get left at the landing,” Gautreaux says. “If a legislator hopes to be chairman of a standing committee, he had better be on board.”
Gautreaux, chairman of the Senate Retirement Committee, said the proposed changes would impact the election of the president and president pro tempore of the Senate and the speaker and speaker pro tempore of the House. Within 10 days of calling an organizational session to elect leaders, nominations would be made, and each lawmaker would be provided with a ballot. Those ballots would then be stuffed into blank envelopes, sealed and collected and counted by the secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House. When all of the votes are tabulated, the ballots would be destroyed, according to a draft copy of the legislation.
It would be a prodigious alteration of how modern politics play out on the state level, but Gautreaux thinks he has the votes to make it happen. “I polled the memberships of both houses a few weeks ago to see what members thought,” he says. “In all, I received five negative responses. Overwhelmingly, and with a lot of dialogue, members responded that they wanted a democratic process, without the stigma left from being with the wrong candidate.”
EXTREME HOME MAKEOVER
It’s a problem that residents all over south Louisiana, from Acadiana to Plaquemines Parish, are dealing with: contaminated Chinese drywall. It’s believed that the off-gassing by this toxic drywall has caused various health problems among residents, including difficulty breathing, asthma attacks, respiratory problems, coughing, recurring headaches, heart disease, neuro-behavioral problems, sore throats, throat infection, eye irritation, itchy skin, bloody noses, runny noses, allergic reactions and sinus infections. Additionally, the corrosive effects of the drywall on wiring and household appliances are creating potential fire hazards, state officials contend.
Lumping insult onto injury, most of the folks involved in this fight are storm victims. In fact, more than 1.1 million sheets of toxic drywall were imported through the Port of New Orleans and used in the construction, repair or rebuilding of Louisiana homes in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Attorney General Buddy Caldwell filed suit earlier this year against importers, builders, manufacturers and others, but it’s questionable how far he’ll get since many of the companies are located overseas.
This is a challenge that Sen. Julie Quinn, R-Metairie, knows all too well. Last year, she saw lawmakers shoot down her bill that would have originally allowed homeowners who used toxic drywall in their houses to sue the makers, distributors and sellers. “But we ran into problems because all of those companies were foreign entities and out of our reach,” Quinn says. Business and industry also opposed her legislation and viewed it as an undoing of tort reform laws that were adopted in 1996.
Residents, however, are still seeking relief and compensation. And Quinn, for her part, isn’t ready to give up. “I’m considering a new bill this year that would allow people to sue the U.S. distributor that’s working with these foreign companies,” she says. “I don’t think we’ll see the same kind of opposition, though.” Quinn adds that she’s also looking at legislation that would prohibit insurance companies from dropping coverage because of Chinese drywall, which is a concept that’s currently being debated by other state legislatures.
Head of the Class
School board reform was one of the more controversial issues debated during the 2009 regular session. And despite having heavy hitters behind the push — like the Council for A Better Louisiana, a good government group, and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the largest lobby in the state — the package failed to gain momentum. But it did garner headlines around the state for its bold ideas about term limits, less pay and more protection for superintendents.
Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, who sponsored the education package last year, will be back again this session with a similar set of bills, all of which are still in draft form. The first one on the chalk board that failed last year would establish certain term limits for school board members. Only this time around, the legislation would allow for local option elections for voters to implement term limits in their own districts. “When new people come in, they have fresh ideas,” says Carter. “It also allows different types of folks to serve, and they bring with them different points of view.”
Carter will also be pushing his so-called “micromanagement bill.” There are several moving pieces, and many of the same features will return, like requiring school boards to have a two-thirds vote to remove a superintendent. But Carter is likewise looking at a new provision that would shorten and streamline the process required to terminate a tenured teacher. “It’s a very long process as it is now, and the process can really upset the morale of students and teachers and parents,” he says. “We just want to make it more amiable.”
School boards from around the state opposed the package last year, but Carter says he has been traveling around Louisiana in 2010 in an effort to smooth out these disagreements before debate begins.
What Not To Wear
The last time a lawmaker tried to outlaw baggy pants in Louisiana (former Sen. Derrick Shepherd, D-Marrero, in 2008), he ended up as the butt of a pretty funny joke on Comedy Central, courtesy of John Stewart’s “Daily Show.” He was also sentenced to 37 months for money laundering, but that’s an entirely different story.
For Rep. Rickey Hardy, D-Lafayette, a former school board member himself, the issue is a serious one. His bill that has been pre-filed for the upcoming regular session would criminalize the wearing of saggy pants and punish first-time offenders with a $500 fine and 40 hours of community service.
The actual language in the legislation is enough to make Beavis and Butthead fall off their couch: “Proposed law provides that it shall be unlawful for any person to wear clothing in any public place or place open to the public view which intentionally exposes undergarments or the cleft of the buttocks.”
While the bill isn’t exactly family-friendly viewing, it will certainly offer a dose of comic relief during a session when lawmakers will otherwise be scrambling to fill a $1 billion budget shortfall. And if legislators balk at handling that task efficiently, then just tune back in around the fall of 2011, when voters will have a chance to boot someone — maybe more than one someone — off the bureaucratic island that has become our state government.
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