Senate Judiciary B Committee is where socially conservative legislation goes to die, if proponents of those issues are to be believed.
Take the example of Benjamin Clapper.
The executive director of the Metairie-based Louisiana Right to Life advocacy group is not one for histrionics. But last week, Clapper claimed that supporters of a House-passed measure furthering abortion restrictions were “hung out to dry.” Senate leadership had sent House Bill 701 to the Jud B (pronounced “jude bee”) committee for a hearing instead of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, whose members are more amenable to anti-abortion measures.
Clapper’s comments came moments after Jud B voted 2-2 on the measure, which means the bill won’t advance further, unless there’s a new hearing and another vote. The Louisiana Family Forum, a Baton Rouge-based advocacy group called the outcome “surprising.”
Twenty-eight anti-abortion bills and resolutions have passed since 2008; most went through Health and Welfare. HB701 created an ability to file a lawsuit and levied penalties for people who participate in abortions based on the sex of the fetus. So, the measure was assigned to Jud B to review for the full Senate.
But also true is that Clapper and his colleagues got caught up in what one legislative leader says is a quiet effort by leadership — and even some rank-and-file legislators — to keep the focus on a state budget that still could end up requiring deep cuts to state support of colleges, universities and health care for the poor.
Normally, legislative sessions are free-for-alls. In years past, some of these very same lawmakers spent endless hours happily debating the net value of banning droopy drawers or allowing chickens to box or forbidding dogs from riding in pickup trucks. They’ve also spent equal amounts of time angrily arguing more serious matters like Real ID, same-sex marriage and protections for surrogate mothers.
Not so much this year.
Facing impolitic votes on what the business community calls tax increases, senators and representatives tamped down divisive and distracting issues for this session.
Partly, they want to spare themselves too many votes certain to be featured in opponents’ campaign ads this fall. And partly the leadership wants to avoid issues that create animosity while they try to build and hold onto the majorities needed to balance the state’s budget within the strict guidelines imposed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.
The Jud B committee is not alone. Similar criticism has been raised about House committees — Education and Civil Law to name two.
State Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, says he hadn’t asked for a Jud B committee hearing for his resolution for fear it would be shot down. His House Concurrent Resolution 2 would put the Louisiana Legislature on record as wanting to call a convention of the states to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution that would impose fiscal restraints, term limits and power constraints on the federal government.
HCR2 was approved May 6 on a 60-38 vote. Garofalo assumed the resolution would be assigned to Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, like a similar measure last year.
Now, Garofalo is trying to find a way to move his resolution out of Jud B and into another committee.
If Garofalo can’t get the measure recommitted, he said he’ll go ahead and face the consequences in Jud B. “It’s important to hold a hearing and begin the debate,” he said, “even if it’s ultimately defeated.”
New Orleans state Sen. J.P. Morrell, the chairman of Senate Judiciary B, dismissed the accusations with a roll of his eyes and a wave of his hand. “I’m offended when they say there’s some sort of trickery going on. Everyone gets a fair and thoughtful hearing in Jud B,” Morrell said.
Bills are assigned by leadership based on rules, subject matter and expertise. Anything else is forum shopping, Morrell said.
Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor, of Baton Rouge, complained on the Senate floor last week that it didn’t seem, at least in some cases, that bills were being assigned the way they had been traditionally. “I’m not saying it’s against our rules, but it’s contrary to the way it traditionally has worked,” he said.
But this is an unusual session.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@the advocate.com, and he is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog/.