By John Maginnis
Arriving for their day at the Legislature, the women of Alpha Kappa Alpha, clad in salmon and green, had no idea they were about to kill a bill.
They dropped in on the House Education Committee as Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, was explaining legislation he was carrying for state colleges to allow them to impose a “stabilization” fee, up to $300 per full-time student, to offset continuing cuts in state funding.
Broadwater and college leaders did not expect HB 1078 to win two-thirds House approval, but they sought to get it to the floor as a show of good faith in their ultimate quest to have funding cuts restored. With minimal Republican support expected, committee approval rested heavily on the panel’s African-American members, who were said to be for the bill.
AKA was about to change that. The author’s presentation completed, Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, quickly challenged the bill’s solution.
Walking through the round after round of budget cuts to colleges, matched with three straight years of tuition increases, Edwards concluded, “Rather than ever appropriating more money, we talk about putting it on students and their families.” He further argued, “Education cannot be the key to breaking poverty if the people in poverty can’t afford it.”
Heads were nodding and murmurs arising from the sorority women, as Edwards went for the kill: “It’s har-r-r-d for me in one year to guarantee Tom Benson money for the Hornets and then tell our students and families they have to pay more.”
“Amen!” rang out with a burst of applause from the AKA section. As the chairman gaveled for order, some of the black legislators realized they had urgent business to attend to outside the room. As other members began asking pointed questions, it became apparent that the only vote for Broadwater’s bill would be his own, and so he asked for it to be deferred.
For Edwards, who was barely able to slow down the governor’s education package in that committee, thwarting the colleges’ effort was a little win, but also makes his point to students and families about whose side the out-numbered Democrats are on.
With the Republican majority so broad that they have gone to fighting each other, Democrats, loath to get in the way, carefully pick their fights. On the sensitive retirement issue they found common ground with moderate Republicans to scale back administration proposals. On the floor, Edwards’ sharp questioning probes for weaknesses in GOP arguments. Operating in hostile terrain is not new to the former Army Ranger and West Point graduate, who might lead the party into the 2015 elections as its candidate for governor.
Tag-teaming with Edwards is Rep. Sam Jones of Franklin, former mayor and gubernatorial aide, who is both picky in his questioning and sweeping in his historical analogies. He goes to the mike often and sometimes goes too far, as when he compared Republican tactics on the education bills to the “brown shirts” of 1930s Germany, eliciting howls from the majority.
No Democrat has better cause to be discouraged than Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, given her mission is to reduce Louisiana’s world-leading incarceration rate. But her persistence is paying off as attitudes change. The House has passed her bills to increase good time and parole eligibility to non-violent habitual offenders and older inmates. If they pass, along with sentencing reform bills by Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, it would mark the bipartisan success story of the session, the first small steps toward a sane corrections policy.
If there is a brighter future for Democrats, they heard it early this session when freshman Rep. Katrina Jackson of Monroe rose to ask a question of venerable Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin. He was trying to fend off attempts by opponents of the school choice bill to have it returned to his committee to determine its budgetary impact.
The former director of the Legislative Black Caucus seemed to remember the same chairman last term insisting on the fiscal scrutiny he was now resisting.
Fannin, knowing she was correct, fumbled for an answer: “I have hard time remembering what I did yesterday.”
Heads turned as Jackson, with all due deference, pressed him, “If you don’t remember what you did in the last four years on indeterminable amounts, how can you be sure of being consistent?”
Fannin’s side prevailed, but it was clear who had won the argument. Prudent Republicans made mental note to be prepared for when the young Democrat rises to ask a question of one of them.