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La. Politics: House Republican chair targets agency heads

April 16, 2018
By Jeremy Alford and Mitch Rabalais
Originally Posted on Houma Today

The last bill that Rep. Lance Harris managed to file for the ongoing regular session seeks to add “new layers of transparency” to the way agency and department heads do their state jobs and earn money.

Harris’ HB 849 has been assigned to the House Appropriations Committee and could receive its first hearing this week or next. The legislation takes a hard look at the top officials appointed by the governor and lieutenant governor.

Amendments are said to be in the works, but Harris’ bill as introduced would force secretaries and directors to work “at least seven hours per day ... and at least 40 hours per week.”

In what some see as more pointed language, the legislation prohibits department and agency heads from engaging in any outside employment related to the mission of their department or agency.

“I don’t think we have anyone doing that right now,” said Harris, a native of Alexandria who serves as chairman of the House Republican Delegation. “But maybe we’ll hear about it during the process.”

In somewhat related news, another bill is on the move to create an ethics code exception for licensed physicians to both work at the Louisiana Department of Health and to practice medicine outside of their departmental roles. HB 724 by Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas, has passed the House and is pending introduction in the Senate.

A procedural move by the Senate a couple of weeks ago, on a bill to reverse the so-called seat belt gag order, caught the attention of business lobbyists in a big way.

Many of them viewed the bill by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, as one of the few opportunities lawmakers would have this session to vote on something squarely in the realm of tort reform. That means it may become a memorable vote for the political action committees run by associations that play in legislative elections.

The Senate Transportation Committee amended Hewitt’s SB 382 to permit a judge to inform a jury if a driver was not wearing a seat belt, but only in relation to car accidents that produced personal injury lawsuits. Rather than the bill receiving a floor vote after that, a motion was approved by the full Senate (21-16) to recommit the measure to the Judiciary A Committee.

Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, wrote in a column soon after, “The stated rationale was simply to ‘follow the process,’ but the unstated goal was clearly to kill the bill. The motion passed, and this common-sense legislation will likely die in that committee.”

Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Winnsboro, has a similar approach with his HB 700, which has passed the House and was expected to receive its first Senate committee hearing this week.

“Why should you care about this tidbit of parliamentary procedure?” Waguespack asked in his column. “Because ‘following the process’ will once again quietly kill anything remotely close to legal reform in the Louisiana Legislature.”

When Hewitt’s bill received its first committee hearing, no one spoke in opposition.

When McFarland’s version was heard initially on the House side, Bob Kleinpeter of the Louisiana Association For Justice, which has a membership of mostly trial attorneys, offered several arguments against the bill. He said 39 out of 50 states do not allow seat belt violations to be entered as evidence under similar circumstances.