The 2019 legislative session defied early predictions that it would be devoid of controversy (as most election-year sessions tend to be). Lawmakers debated plenty of hot-button issues — minimum wage, abortion, marijuana, the death penalty and more. Ultimately, this session ended much like any other — the final frenzied minutes left some victorious and others vanquished.
Which brings us to our annual assessment of the legislative carnage: Da Winnas & Da Loozas, starting with …
1. Gov. John Bel Edwards — The guv convinced lawmakers to approve his proposed teacher pay raise and additional discretionary funding for local school boards (a tall order in the GOP-dominated House). He also brokered Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s deal with the hospitality industry. Those victories help constituencies crucial to his re-election bid in October. The governor also cemented his pro-life bona fides by signing strict anti-abortion measures. While that displeases liberal Democrats, it removes an oft-used GOP attack trope. Edwards’ legislative allies also killed House GOP attempts to phase out last year’s hard-won sales tax compromise.
2. Public school teachers and school boards — Teachers got a $1,000 pay hike ($500 for support personnel) and school boards got $39 million more in discretionary funding. Most important, the increases are permanent, not one-offs.
3. Uber and Lyft — The third time was the charm for the ride-sharing companies, which now can offer their services statewide. This year they dropped some of the most objectionable provisions of their previous bills — those skirting public records laws — and moved oversight from the Department of Agriculture (a laughable idea) to the state Department of Transportation and Development. It helped that Uber and Lyft hired practically every available lobbyist in the Capitol.
4. Mayor LaToya Cantrell — Heronner got three crucial infrastructure bills passed after reaching a compromise with tourism and hospitality leaders. The city will get $50 million in one-time money and potentially another $27 million or more annually. Cantrell also made valuable friendships among upstate lawmakers, which bodes well for future sessions.
I’m told by one pollster that her numbers are higher than her predecessor Mitch Landrieu’s at his peak.
5. Harrah’s Casino — After rolling snake-eyes on the final day of last year’s session, Harrah’s convinced lawmakers to extend its exclusive land-based casino license for 30 years (until 2054). Harrah’s will pay millions more in taxes to the city and state in return for a 340-room hotel and more restaurants — but not more gaming space.
6. Local tourism moguls — As part of the infrastructure deal with Cantrell, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center gave up some of its surplus cash but gained legal and fiscal certainty in its bid to build (and own) a hotel next to the convention center. Meanwhile, New Orleans & Co. (formerly the Convention and Visitors Bureau) will absorb the city’s Tourism Marketing Commission and get a cut of the tax on short-term rentals — if voters approve the proposed levy.
7. Right-to-lifers — Several anti-abortion bills passed by lopsided margins and were signed into law by Edwards. Louisiana thus maintains its place among (mostly Southern) states with the nation’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws.
“I am not man enough to tell a woman that’s had her insides ripped apart and been raped, ‘You know what? Live with it.’” — State Rep. Ted James, who dissented.
8. Trial lawyers — Lawmakers killed a bill aimed at curbing personal injury attorney billboard ads and shelved Rep. Kirk Talbot’s “tort reform” bill, which was touted as a way to reduce auto insurance rates. In truth, Talbot’s measure never guaranteed rates would go down. Plaintiff lawyers also helped kill a pair of bills that would allow juries in automobile-related personal injury cases to hear evidence that plaintiffs were not wearing their seatbelts.
9. Early childhood education — After 10 years of cuts (thanks, Bobby Jindal), kids up to age 4 will finally see renewed state support for early childhood education programs. A decade ago, the state served 40,000 poor kids under age 4. Today it serves only 15,000 — all via federal funding. With renewed state funding, Louisiana will serve almost 1,500 more. Lawmakers also increased state support for programs serving 4-year-olds.
10. CBD and hemp suppliers — Lawmakers passed several bills to legalize, regulate and tax industrial hemp and cannabidiol-based (CBD) products used to treat a variety of ailments, bringing relief to pain sufferers but not to those who favor recreational marijuana.
11. Louisiana’s seafood industry — Henceforth, restaurants across the state must inform diners if they’re eating imported shrimp or crawfish. This is a victory for locavores as well as local seafood producers and sellers.
As a shrimper, Kim Chauvin has certain standards when she eats seafood in restaurants. She also has questions.
12. Judges and sheriffs — Judges and sheriffs will get annual 2.5 percent raises for the next five years. Last year’s sales tax compromise provided the money, while the push for teacher pay hikes no doubt gave them political cover.
13. New Orleans bail bondsmen — Lawmakers approved a bill that gets local bail bondsmen off the hook from having to refund an extra 1 percent fee they have charged clients since 2005. That extra percent has generated millions of dollars and triggered a legal challenge by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Nothing impoverished about bail bondsmen; they’re politically active as well, which explains lawmakers’ willingness to bail them out this election year. Which brings us to …
1. LABI — The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry used to be the Big Dog of the Legislature. No longer. LABI declared Rep. Kirk Talbot’s omnibus “tort reform” bill the “most important bill of the session.” Trial lawyers and other doubters took that as a gauntlet, which they happily picked up and stomped. Lawmakers also killed a pair of LABI-backed “seatbelt” bills that likewise were part of the business group’s ongoing tort reform efforts. Elsewhere, business interests once again lost a bid to centralize sales tax collections in Louisiana.
2. Pro-choicers — Fighting for abortion rights in the Louisiana Legislature has always been an impossible task, and this year was no exception. Lawmakers passed virtually every possible abortion restriction, leaving pro-choice advocates no choice but to seek relief in the courts.
3. Poor people — Only the rich can afford lobbyists, which explains why the working poor consistently lose efforts to raise the minimum wage in Louisiana. Lawmakers snuffed out two minimum wage bills — one that would let parishes set local minimums and another proposing a constitutional amendment establishing a $9 hourly minimum.
Short of the two-thirds support needed in the state Senate, a proposal pushed by the governor to let Louisiana vote on a $9-an-hour minimum wa…
4. Women — Once again, the House killed several bills that would require equal pay for women. The House also killed a proposed sales tax exemption on diapers and feminine hygiene products. Lawmakers likewise quashed an attempt to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment. Many (though certainly not all) women also oppose abortion restrictions.
5. Death Penalty Opponents — These folks are truly “pro-life,” but they seldom get credit for caring about people whose lives are deemed expendable by so many God-fearing Christians. Several bills to end the death penalty died this session, though the tide appears to be turning in favor of abolishing it — particularly among voters.
6. Louisiana drivers — A proposed gasoline tax hike (to be phased in over several years) would have generated more than $500 million a year for road and bridge repairs, but it died quietly in the face of intractable opposition. Louisiana has a $14 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.
7. Pot smokers — Lawmakers remain opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana, though bills proposing it appear to gain ground every year. Smoke ’em (or vape ’em) if you got ’em, dude, but it still ain’t legal.
The Louisiana House today voted 82-0 to allow medical marijuana patients to inhale cannabis, sending the bill to the governor’s desk for final…
8. Plant-based food lovers — Lawmakers passed several bills outlawing soy milk and almond milk being “falsely” labeled as “milk,” cauliflower rice as “rice,” and likewise a long list of alternative meat and dairy products. The bills ostensibly protect consumers, as if we don’t know that milk and hamburgers come from cattle, not plants. On the bright side, the new law will be difficult to enforce and likely won’t affect products made outside Louisiana.
9. Sports Bettors — Every gaming interest in the state either wanted a piece of sports betting or wanted to kill it for fear of competition. In the end, those who wanted to kill it won the day. Worse yet, fantasy sports betting likewise died in the final minutes of the session. The big winner was Mississippi, which will continue to rake in millions from Louisiana sports bettors.
If you counted more winnas than loozas, you’re not imagining things. Lawmakers prefer to make powerful friends in election years.
Leave it to state lawmakers to find new ways to make Louisiana look dumb. In fairness, the latest example came at the hands of only 14 legisla…