BATON ROUGE -- Castration for sex offenders, human cloning, cockfighting, flag burning, computer-assisted hunting, an official state song.
Some of these are perpetual issues for the Legislature, topics that traditionally take up more time than they deserve. Others are just downright curious and will likely – regrettably – make national news for the state.
When asked about these bills, some of which were garnering media attention even before the ongoing regular session convened, Gov. Kathleen Blanco shook her head and rolled her eyes in agitation. She appeared like she wanted to unleash during her interview last week when the subject was brought up, but decided against it.
“You know, we have so much work to do,” Blanco said, gazing out of the window of her black Yukon Denali and watching the landscape of downtown Baton Rouge whisk by. “These hot button issues are so distracting. I really hope they don’t turn the process upside down.”
After enduring five other sessions as governor, Blanco seems to have come to the realization that there is very little she can do to control the Legislature. A few hours earlier in her speech to open the session, the governor told lawmakers to “have at it,” be partisan and bicker all they want – just make sure the work of the state gets done.
Now she’s flying down River Road, heading towards Louisiana State University to watch the men’s basketball team take in a practice. After all, it’s not everyday that the state’s flagship university makes it to the Final Four – and it’s unarguably more exciting than the games being played back at the State Capitol.
For instance, the governor’s proposed $20.7 billion budget is brimming with competition. Some lawmakers are putting on a full-court press to resurrect the controversial urban and rural slush funds. Before being abolished, partly by Blanco, the funds were traditionally used by governors to dole out cash to select lawmakers for pet projects back home. Blanco, who has line-item veto authority, has declared that any move to restore the funds will be squashed.
“I will stand my ground on that,” she said. “Legislators cannot just dial up anytime they want and send money somewhere.”
Rep. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, has vowed to carry out the mission and restore the funds personally. Maybe that’s why Blanco singled him out during her opening speech this week when she announced the state would purchase 1,400 acres along Interstate 20 in Richland Parish for economic development.
"Before you jump to conclusions, let me quickly reassure you that Francis Thompson does not own the land," she remarked with a chuckle, referring to the state representative’s penchant for supporting projects he has a financial interest in, like the Poverty Point Reservoir in his hometown.
The offensive and defensive budget maneuvers have also begun over the issue of increasing teacher pay, which is a campaign promise Blanco made some time ago and attempted previously in another session before Katrina and Rita. This time around, the governor has proposed a $1,500 annual raise for Louisiana’s estimated 59,000 certified teachers – a total investment of $105 million.
“The proposal is both fiscally and educationally sound,” Blanco said. “Our teachers are among the lowest paid in the region and in the country. This is simply not conducive to long-term progress in education. After all, student performance is directly linked to quality teachers.”
Opponents argue that the issue is purely political and is being pursued to satisfy one of Blanco’s political bases. Others contend the money could be better utilized elsewhere, such as in the charity hospital system to bring them up to a number they claim is needed. The governor waved off the notion.
“Every year they say they don’t have enough money,” Blanco said. “We are redesigning the system and you can rest assure that health care will be taken care of.”
Overall, the budget is bigger than ever, swelling to a size that’s $1.6 billion larger than the spending plan approved last year. Blanco said that’s due to the monstrous sums of federal relief cash flowing into state coffers. Since it may offer a false sense of security, Blanco said her staff is looking into several options, such as placing the federal monies into another account or earmarking it separately.
While this year’s budget debate will set the stage for some fearsome fights, non-related issues could be just as volatile.
Just consider the bills to criminalize abortion. Blanco’s stance is clear, as it has been for years -- she thinks abortions should be allowed only in cases of rape, incest and to save a mother’s life. She also favors a ban on so-called “partial birth,” or late-term, abortions. Yet she doesn’t know what to expect from the coming debate. In the past when the Legislature has taken up the issue, the Capitol turned into a circus.
“I hope it doesn’t deteriorate into that, but I just don’t know,” Blanco said.
More than any other issue, abortion has the potential to knock Blanco’s agenda off course and disrupt the process. It could likewise overshadow hurricane recovery.
“That hasn’t happened yet,” she said, “but I know everyone is fretting.”
Property rights are another issue that will stir up emotions among constituencies. Thus far, Blanco has been relatively quiet on the matter, but she does seem open to most of the bills filed for debate, although she hasn’t taken a firm stance. Perhaps that’s because most of the legislation will be greatly altered before it reaches her desk.
There’s a constitutional amendment moving through the system that would allow the state to take private land for hurricane-protection projects and pay the owners only present-day fair market value -- and nothing else. Currently, landowners can take into account future value. For the record, Blanco supported a similar concept a few years ago for coastal restoration.
Eminent domain is being discussed as well and many lawmakers want to limit how it is utilized. It is the legal doctrine that allows governments to take private property for certain public uses that are supposed to serve the greater public good. According to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, those uses can include economic development that will ultimately yield higher property taxes.
“I support, to some degree, some types of eminent domain, but it needs to be carefully worked,” Blanco said. “There is going to be an abiding public need for different forms of this issue.”
Blanco is also pushing: to consolidate New Orleans government, a concept that faltered during the February special session; a $15 million program to expand and re-train Louisiana’s workforce; and an unexpected piece of legislation that could offer a compromise to the highly-controversial issue of legacy sites, which are properties that have been polluted by oil companies.
The governor’s most significant battle, however, may involve how she interacts with lawmakers – a sore spot for her administration. In the most recent special session in February, Blanco found herself with a variety of legislative problems. Some lawmakers staged walk-outs and her own leadership voted against a few of the administration’s priorities.
When Rep. Troy Hebert, D-Jeanerette, went against the flow during the governor’s first regular session, Blanco stripped him of his chairmanship of the House Insurance Committee. But when others did the same recently, the retribution was non-existent. It appeared as if the Queen Bee, as Hebert dubbed her after the firing, had lost her sting.
“The difference was this time they came and told me early on why they had disagreements,” Blanco said. “And I’m going to let them represent their people the way they want to.”
In her opening speech to the Legislature last week, Blanco struck a different tone with lawmakers. She joked with them in a familiar way and drew a firm line in the sand on certain topics. For instance, Blanco made it clear -- in very certain terms -- that she would veto any and all measures to expand gambling: “I want to reiterate my position on that: No. And if I'm not clear: Veto."
Additionally, the governor has restructured some of her staff. She also indicated in her interview that she may be “reorganizing a few different areas” in coming months as well. But for now, she has a new legislative director on staff with a “fresh point of view” -- Brigadier General Hunt Downer, a former state representative from Houma who is well liked amongst lawmakers.
If all of this sounds strikingly different, then it is, and it was all orchestrated by Louisiana’s first female governor. The new attitude and approach are both untested, but a regular session brimming with hot issues is a perfect place to try out the strategy.
“I was trying to strike a different tone,” Blanco said of her session speech and staff changes. “I wanted to spark some humor. I’ve put (lawmakers) through a couple of intense special sessions and we had some serious things to take care of. It was time to transition. There’s a yearning in the public, and in the body, for a sense of normalcy. It will help speed up recovery.”