The innocent believe that the Louisiana State Capitol is a battleground of ideology. But the realists see it as the chessboard, or stock exchange, or lottery of the special interests.
Senators and representatives are part-time in Louisiana and inevitably represent a variety of occupations and personal backgrounds. There are a lot of lawyers, but also many former educators, either retired or moved on to other occupations. So education bills probably get more scrutiny from more members than other subjects. The same is true with bills that aim to change legal procedures.
The Legislature is heavily influenced by business interests, but members don't always follow the script. Because lawyers often benefit from lawsuits, bills to curb abuses of the legal system — a main goal of such powerful lobbyists as the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry — don't get nearly the traction that one might predict.
The worst bill for legislators is the measure that represents a collision of interests — no pun intended — like that between ride-sharing services and cabdrivers. Both have constituencies, both are business-backed, and a vote for or against is not necessarily easy for a legislator.
As part of a partnership with the Pro Publica's investigative reporting project, The Advocate's Rebekah Allen outlined the ways in which powerful Senate President John A. Alario, R-Westwego, derailed a bill on statewide regulation of Uber or Lyft services.
Gordy Dove has begged Uber and Lyft to make their ride-sharing services available in Terrebonne Parish, where he serves as parish president.
The bill passed the House 97-1, backed by the governor and sponsored by the speaker himself, but was killed in the Senate through unfavorable rulings by Alario, a close friend of a former senator who sells insurance to the cabbies. They hate the ride-sharing services.
Pearson Cross, a political science professor and an associate dean at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said the situation illustrates the way business is conducted in Louisiana and every other state legislature.
“It seems clear that personalities, interests and webs of influence matter a great deal to what does and what does not get passed by the state legislature,” he told Allen, adding that legislators are within their legal and ethical rights, per state law.
What can drain the swamp? Term limits, though often decried by political scientists, will mean Alario is no longer Senate president in January 2020. But Louisiana's law is rife with exclusions from the ethics code, one of which allowed Alario's friend, former state Sen. Francis Heitmeier to lobby the Legislature even though his brother was by then a senator.
That 2014 bill giving Heitmeier an exception to the ethics code passed the House 58-24 but only barely won in the Senate, with Alario's help.
Rolling back exceptions to the ethics code might help, but love of money is the root of all political evil, and much tougher restrictions on buying influence — er, lobbying and campaign contributions — could be enacted.
The wining and dining of legislators could be reduced. In Florida, its legislature manages to convene, and leave much sooner than ours does, under no-cup-of-coffee rules, restrictions that essentially mean a lawmaker can't even get a cup of joe from a lobbyist. Perhaps that would be bad for Baton Rouge restaurants, but there might be fewer fistfights in bars.
Campaign contributions and conflicts of interest are notoriously ill-policed, as Allen previously reported as part of her Pro Publica project. Enforcement, and penalties, could be a lot tougher.
But as in the case of Heitmeier's clients, and Alario's many other contributors, why should businesses or associations be allowed to write political checks at all? A ban on corporate contributions would be a significant change in the culture of the State Capitol.
You don't have to go as far away as Washington for a sleazy lawyer like Micheal Cohen, or a sleazy client like Donald Trump. But in Baton Rouge, as in Washington, if you started to really enforce the rules on the rich and influential, you would find out very quickly how you can be up to your navel in alligators while you try to drain the swamp.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.