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Disturbances in the legislative force


June 6, 2017
By Jeremy Alford
Originally Posted on Greater Baton Rouge Business Report

There were a few occasions during the 2017 regular session where Capitol watchers caught themselves channeling Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Why not? The plot of the session wasn’t too dissimilar from Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope. Only instead of an eclectic group of warriors battling the Empire to save the galaxy we had a mismatched bunch of elected officials battling each other to save the state from politically-induced pauperism.

Yet despite the challenges at hand—in Louisiana, not in outer space—lawmakers still had to make time for a number of issues that offered little to no fiscal salvation. Those were the times that Capitol watchers would recall the words of warning from Obi-Wan Kenobi in the inaugural Star Wars film.

“I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced,” Obi-Wan says in the movie with eyes wide. “I fear something terrible has happened.”

Each session disturbance over the past two months, by comparison, helped silence the cries for budget and tax reform. Interestingly enough, the biggest distraction of the regular session actually was a tax reform proposal that carried Gov. John Bel Edwards’ endorsement.

Things did not end well for Edwards’ signature proposal, the commercial activity tax, and the time wasted by the administration and lawmakers on it was shameful. The death of that legislation was spectacular—with a boom as big as the exploding Death Star that Luke Skywalker and his proton torpedoes left in their wake.

It’s a rare thing to see a sitting governor put so much political capital into such an ill-fated proposal. The bill’s conclusion was so predictable that even mainstream newspaper accounts were noting its expected demise before the first committee hearing was ever convened.

Another disturbance in the Legislative Force came much later in the session when The Advertiser, a well-read newspaper in Lafayette, published an opinion piece calling for House Speaker Taylor Barras to step down from the lower chamber’s top leadership position. Barras, however, wasn’t willing to die on his lightsaber like Obi-Wan.

The bit of negative press sent several conservative groups running to the side of Barras to offer a collective defense. The Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority called the editorial “ridiculous” and signaled to Barras that “you are exactly who we need.” Stephen Waguespack, the president of the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry, took to Twitter, writing, “What is his crime? For being a conservative leader of independent House? That is a fireable offense in today’s Louisiana?”

There’s no doubt that leaders should be constantly questioned and challenged. But, simply put, lawmakers didn’t need another reason this month to take their eyes off of the proverbial ball.

Something else that captured the attention of the Capitol during the regular session was a seemingly innocuous bill that sought to rename the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts by adding “Jimmy D. Long Sr.” to the front end. Alumni didn’t take kindly to the idea and reacted by filling committee rooms and overloading lawmakers with emails and phone calls.

The hubbub turned a bill that should have been another rank-and-file X-Wing Starfighter into the Millennium Falcon. By the time the session entered its final week the bill was definitely taking up a lot of room in a Capitol building that already had emotional topics stacked atop each other in the corners.  

And while the school is no doubt important to those involved with this issue, it’s regrettable that the same kind of audiences didn’t pack the hallways and committee rooms when this year’s tax and budget bills were debated. In fact, Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry said he heard more from citizens on the school renaming bill than he did on the state budget his committee helped craft.

All of it distracted lawmakers unnecessarily, possibly not unlike this exercise of indulgently comparing A New Hope to the regular session. Nonetheless, there are some worthwhile takeaways between this most recent gathering of the Legislature and what has become the world’s best-known, space-based soap opera.

To that point, A New Hope was just one part of a larger story. Sequels and prequels followed, allowing that original storyline to continue playing out in the years that followed. This regular session, of course, long after its June 8 adjournment, will likewise reverberate in future sessions and our everyday lives.

We haven’t yet heard the last of what transpired—and what didn’t transpire—in Baton Rouge this spring. Like the Empire and the Jedi before it, someone or some groups from the regular session will be striking back in some way, shape or form as we see the return of the same critical tax and budget issues that have been repeatedly debated this year and last.

(Cue Darth Vader’s “Imperial March” music.)