The main event during Louisiana’s recently wrapped-up legislative session, of course, was the budget fight, and the results there were mixed. Lawmakers managed to avoid catastrophic cuts to higher ed and health care, even if they put off the heavy lifting of addressing structural problems until the new governor and Legislature take office next year.
On other issues, though, there were some encouraging bright spots.
Given the oxygen-consuming challenge of closing a $1.6 billion hole, the Legislature had little energy or appetite for the sorts of knock-down, drag-out fights we often see.
And so rather than the showdown that Gov. Bobby Jindal and some Common Core opponents initially wanted, we got a widely endorsed path toward a final decision on the future of the controversial education standards next spring. That means the public meetings, state education board review and ultimate up-or-down decision won’t take place against the backdrop of Jindal’s presidential politics, which should take the temperature down a few notches. The “compromise,” spearheaded by Common Core critic and state Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, also pulls attention away from conspiracies about the big, bad federal government and shifts it back to the classroom, where it belongs.
Nor did the Legislature want anything to do with the latest power plays by Louisiana’s Jindal-aligned religious right. Rookie state Rep. and Bossier City Republican Mike Johnson’s proposed Marriage and Conscience Act, which would have allowed business owners who oppose same-sex marriage to refuse those couples service without government penalty, never made it out of committee (Jindal issued an apparently toothless executive order and claimed victory anyway). An inflammatory bill to ban abortions based on sex selection by state Rep. Lenar Whitney, R-Houma, made it through the House but died in a Senate committee.
Sure, lawmakers didn’t undo past damage — they once again declined to join with state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, and reverse the Louisiana Science Education Act that allows for teaching of creationism in schools, for example — but at least they didn’t compound the problem.
On other issues there was heartening agreement. Bills to allow the use of medical marijuana and to reduce criminal penalties for marijuana use made it through the process, and Jindal has said he’d sign both. The trend amounts to an all-too-rare recognition that even politically popular restrictions carry real human costs.
The move toward legalizing some forms of medical marijuana, led by state Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, was named in memory of 42-year-old Alison Neustrom, who held several high-level public and private sector posts in Baton Rouge and who had pleaded with lawmakers before her 2014 death from cancer to legalize the treatment. Neustrom’s father is Lafayette Sheriff Mike Neustrom, and her story apparently helped soften the previously staunch opposition from the law enforcement lobby.
The reduced penalties for some marijuana offenses, pushed by state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, represents a growing, and welcome, concurrence between conservatives and liberals that long sentences for nonviolent offenses hurt individuals’ chances of turning their lives around, and also cost taxpayers way too much money.
State Sen. J.P. Morrell and state Rep. Helena Moreno, both D-New Orleans, led the way in trying to address issues affecting victims of rape. Moreno’s bill creates a mechanism to pay for victims’ medical expenses that stem from the crime. Morrell pushed to create procedures to address sexual assault allegations on state college campuses.
The vote to increase the tax on a pack of cigarettes by 50 cents — the culmination of a crusade by state Rep. and longtime smoker Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa — was a big part of the budget showdown, but it also carries some beneficial side effects.
Public health advocates tout higher tobacco taxes not just as a revenue source but also as a deterrent; according to the American Lung Association, each 10 percent increase in the cost of cigarettes cuts consumption by roughly 7 percent among young people and 4 percent among adults. Sure, the Legislature could have — and should have — picked a higher number. But compared with where we were in 2011, when Jindal vetoed the renewal of a piddly 4-cent temporary levy rather than risk violating the Americans for Tax Reform pledge, well, let’s just say that we’ve come a long way, baby.