A higher minimum wage for Louisiana workers, more flexibility to allow the New Orleans Police Department to take officers off time-consuming tasks, money to bring Interstate 10 to the new terminal at Louis Armstrong International Airport and a measure to block a repeat of the legal showdown that nearly saw Mayor Mitch Landrieu put under house arrest last year are all on the city’s wish list for state lawmakers to take care of this year.
But as the regular legislative session gets into full swing in Baton Rouge, the city also will find itself fending off several bills seeking to undo or pre-empt measures championed by Landrieu and the City Council.
The challenges, largely filed by lawmakers from outside New Orleans, take aim at plans to remove controversial Confederate monuments from public land, city policies urging contractors to hire local workers and a proposal to impose a tax on plastic bags.
All those measures will be tossed into a session where legislators also must come to grips with a projected $700 million shortfall for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
One of the main elements of Landrieu’s agenda is also the one that likely will face the stiffest opposition: changes to the minimum wage laws that govern both the state and local governments.
Louisiana has no minimum wage and defaults to the federal rate of $7.25 an hour. A law passed in the late 1990s also bars local governments from setting their own minimums. Though New Orleans voters approved a minimum wage hike in 2002 and former Mayor Marc Morial’s administration fought the state law, that increase eventually was ruled unconstitutional.
State Rep. Joe Bouie and Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, both New Orleans Democrats, each have filed bills that would set the state minimum wage at $8 starting in January and $8.50 in 2018, a plan supported by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration.
Bouie also has filed a bill that would allow cities to set their own minimum wage if they have a population of at least 320,000, a threshold only New Orleans meets. Similar bills, filed by state Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe, would allow any local government in the state to set its own minimum wage by ordinance or state law.
The Landrieu administration and the City Council have been inching for the past few years toward a higher wage within the limits set by the state law, first with Landrieu setting the minimum that can be paid to city workers at $10.55 an hour and then with a measure authored by Councilman Jared Brossett requiring that workers on any new city contracts get the same rate.
Both Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni and Brossett, who unsuccessfully pushed similar measures while he was a state representative, said the goal is to raise the minimum wage for all workers in New Orleans to match that rate.
“I think it would definitely help our service industry workers, single parents who are raising children,” Brossett said. “It’ll lift people up.”
Both the statewide measure and the local option, however, are expected to face significant opposition in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
A major, if largely uncontroversial, part of the city’s agenda is bills aimed at codifying changes to the city’s pension system for firefighters that were part of a deal struck by the city last year.
Firefighters agreed to the changes — which are expected to save the city hundreds of millions of dollars over coming decades — during negotiations that saw the city agree to pay firefighters $75 million in back pay and to keep current with future pension payments.
That the two sides are on the same page this year is a marked change from previous sessions, which sometimes saw a flurry of competing bills filed by the city and the firefighters, to be sorted out by legislators.
The acrimony of the legal battle over back pay hangs over a separate bill, however. As the fight reached its climax last year, Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese said the decades-old lawsuit firefighters were pursuing against the city had gone on long enough. He held the city in contempt and ordered that Landrieu be placed under house arrest on weekends if payments didn’t start.
Landrieu never ended up in house confinement due to a last-second stay from the state Supreme Court. And this year, state Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, has filed a measure that would prevent a state court from punishing public officials for failing to appropriate money for such claims.
Louis Robein, an attorney for the firefighters, argued that would take away a tool that could be used to force the city to pay off legal judgments it owes, something state courts cannot do otherwise.
“The way this is structured, these types of judgments would essentially not be enforceable through the power of contempt,” Robein said.
Two bills would relieve New Orleans police officers of some of the duties they now perform, as a way of freeing up resources on the depleted force to deal with more serious crimes and reduce lengthy response times.
Officers are now required under state law to investigate any traffic crash, no matter how minor. Under a measure backed by the city, New Orleans officers would be required to respond only in cases of death or injury, if one of the parties could not produce identification or if one of the drivers was believed to be intoxicated.
That essentially would legalize practices that already are in common use, where drivers swap information in minor crashes and let their insurance companies sort it out.
Those involved in an accident would be able to file a report with police online. That could save NOPD officers between 3,000 and 10,000 hours of work a year, time they could spend on more serious incidents, Deputy Chief Jonathan Wisbey said.
Another measure would allow civilians to handle traffic control in the area of the Central Business District, something NOPD officials argue could free up officers who now have to spend time manning barricades and waving on vehicles. That’s a particular problem during major events: 78 officers and 10 sergeants were tied up with traffic duty downtown on New Year’s Eve, Wisbey said.
The city also is looking for $4.6 million from the state’s capital budget — which is distinct from the operating budget that faces a giant deficit in the coming year — for a flyover on Interstate 10 to bring traffic into the new terminal at the airport. Another $1 million is sought to pay for drainage improvements involved in the project.
Then there are the bills from other legislators taking aim at city initiatives. With a government and population politically to the left of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, its not unusual for New Orleans initiatives to come under fire at the Capitol.
Perhaps the most high-profile measure will be one seeking to force any local government to go through a state commission before it can remove some types of public monuments — a bill clearly aimed at Landrieu’s efforts to remove statues of three Confederate officials and a white supremacist militia. City officials have argued that even if the law passes, it would not be able to stop the city from doing what it wants with public monuments on public land.
Lawmakers also will consider a bill barring so-called “sanctuary cities” that, like New Orleans, do not instruct police or other public agencies to check on the immigration status of people who are arrested.
A proposal by Councilwoman Susan Guidry to put a fee on plastic and paper bags at grocery stores also is in the crosshairs, with a bill specifically aimed at blocking that type of legislation.
And the mayor and council’s determination to get city contractors to hire more city residents is under fire by the same legislator pushing one of the city’s pet initiatives. Appel said the city’s local hiring preferences put unfair restrictions on businesses and run afoul of state bid laws.
Many of those seeking to undo city efforts say the city has no place meddling in consumer affairs, that history, no matter how controversial, should be preserved and that “sanctuary” policies shield immigrants with criminal pasts.
However, to have four bills seeking to curb local government policies is hardly uncommon, Appel said.
“We pass bills all the time dealing with muncipalities or parishes that, I’ll say, sometimes go beyond the pale,” he said.