Stephanie Grace: At Capitol, not all petitioners are equal

This was a good week to be Drew Brees.

OK, there are probably a lot of weeks when it’s good to be Drew Brees. Still, most Louisianans who look to the Legislature to mediate their disputes, lighten their loads or cure their woes can only dream of the reception afforded the star quarterback and a few dozen of his fellow Saints.

By the time the players’ bus arrived at the Capitol, their issue had been resolved. State Rep. Chris Broadwater had wisely pulled his bill to alter the rules for workers comp, a proposal that was suggested by team owner Tom Benson and vehemently opposed by Brees and the NFL Players Association. House Bill 1069 would have changed the formula to calculate payments based on when an injury occurred, potentially lowering the payout for injuries sustained in the offseason, particularly for lower-salaried players hoping to make the team. That left nothing but the fawning and photo ops. Even the governor showed up, which made it an unusual day indeed.

Still, nobody who watched their Twitter feeds clog up with look-who’s-here snapshots could have missed the basic message: all who petition the Legislature are not equal.

Although it was the ultimate outcome, the players didn’t travel to Baton Rouge to drum up goodwill or provide busy lawmakers with a welcome diversion. They had real concerns.

“As you can see behind me, we’ve got about 40 guys here, driving up after practice through the rain to get here,” Brees said on the way in. “So that just shows how important it is to us. At the end of the day, it’s about showing how important protecting our workers comp rights as Louisiana workers is, and we’re here to make sure those rights are protected.”

Close observers of the Legislature might notice a particular irony. The football hero, long a leader in the NFLPA, was basically there as a labor leader, speaking for what passes in pro sports as the little guy.

It’s not too often that most Louisiana lawmakers are delighted to see someone with that point of view. I don’t recall too many photos of legislators posing with others who sought a break — those who would have benefited from Medicaid expansion, say, or protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, or the right to use medical marijuana to ease the pain of terminal illness. As the daily newsletter from the progressive Louisiana Budget Project wryly put it, “a similar trip to the Capitol earlier in the session by minimum wage workers had much less of an impact on pending legislation and garnered no photo ops.”

Still, another incident from the Legislature’s closing days suggests that star power isn’t the only way to get attention. Sometimes a rare outbreak of blunt talk can do the trick.

A recent meeting of the Senate Finance Committee featured an exchange so jarring that it seems to have gotten results. Taking up the House-passed state budget, the committee stripped new money to help developmentally disabled people stay in their homes, and added a $4.5 million windfall for improvements to the NOLA Motorsports Park in Jefferson Parish for an upcoming IndyCar race, as promised to race organizers by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

“We’re taking money away from the disabled community and giving it to motor sports?” state Sen. Dan Claitor asked. After an aide fumbled to find a more politically correct response, Chairman Jack Donahue, interjected: “The answer to your question, Sen. Claitor, is ‘yes.’ All right, any other questions?”

The reaction was so swift and damaging that, by later in the week, the full Senate was happily restoring $1.2 million to the disability program, and insisting that no harm was intended. By Wednesday, senators were acting so solicitous toward the yellow-clad advocates in the chamber that you’d have thought they were, well, a busload of pro football players.

The moral of the story? If you can’t wow them, the next best strategy is to shame them. It’s too bad that, some weeks, those seem to be the only options.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter @stephgracenola.