Political Horizons: When regular folks visit the Legislature

An interesting moment recently occurred in the Louisiana Senate when a handful of senators took turns at the podium whining at the harsh treatment they had undergone at the hands of the public.

State Sen. Robert Adley, the Benton Republican who has been the oil and gas industry’s go-to legislator, recounted how protesters walked around with his face depicted on their signs.

Republican Conrad Appel from Metairie, who as chair of the Senate Education Committee quashed all but the most benign efforts to roll back Common Core’s higher academic standards for public schools, joked about being dubbed a communist.

State Sen. Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales, complained about the number of phone calls his office had received in response to glossy mailers sent to his constituents by Change Louisiana.

As Amedee should know after more than a decade in office, the robo calls and direct mail fliers from faux grass-roots groups — such as Change Louisiana, which was organized by Louisiana Oil & Gas Association officials — is the norm in Louisiana legislative politics. The widespread involvement of everyday people is not.

And if the 2014 Regular Session of the Louisiana Legislature, which must end Monday by 6 p.m., is remembered for anything, it’ll be involvement of regular people in numbers that the State Capitol has not experienced in modern times.

Lawmakers seemed unprepared for the onslaught of real grass-roots opinions: parents seeking to revoke Common Core, pastors wanting to restrict payday loans, plumbers trying to protect their work standards, adoptees wanting access to their birth certificates, among many others.

For the most part, the throngs left empty-handed, their passion overwhelmed by the better organized, better funded businesses and industries, which got pretty much what they wanted.

“It’s difficult for people to come here and understand how it all works. There’s no guidance,” said Jim Harris, a Baton Rouge lobbyist.

A lot of folks, who are normally not part of the process, drop into the chaos of a Louisiana legislative session, then get angry when they compare their reception to that received by professional lobbyists.

But that’s not really fair, Harris said.

Lobbyists meet with their clients throughout the year, sounding out legislators, then refining presentations, developing the evidence to support their positions and working up strategies to get what they want, Harris said. They counsel clients on when to show emotion during testimony and regulate how often their clients show up en masse at the State Capitol.

That’s what the legislators are used to.

Regular folk show up with their hearts on their sleeves. They are unprepared for the trial by ordeal that all unfamiliar legislation receives.

Sierra Majors, a St. Landry Parish farmer, recalled her first legislative committee hearing when a happy discussion about raw milk quickly turned dark.

“For us as mothers,” Majors said, “we go way out of our way to make sure that the food we feed our family is safe and healthy. Then, for them to say I’m endangering my child’s life?”

She stops, perhaps recognizing the change in the tone of her voice and the increased speed of her speech. “It has been a roller coaster,” Majors said finally, adding that the experience was “90 percent positive.”

In another instance, urban churches rallied with community groups to impose some restrictions on the all-too-easy acquisition of short-term payday loans that often turn into a never-ending, high-interest nightmare for those who don’t quickly repay.

Store fronts offering the three- to four-week loans of a few hundred dollars are as ubiquitous in low-income neighborhoods as Starbucks are in wealthier areas. More than a dozen bills were filed.

The consumer loan industry and individual companies responded by hiring 42 lobbyists, according to records of the Louisiana Board of Ethics. The outcome was the passage of a single bill that strengthened the industry in Louisiana rather than helping consumers.

Democratic state Rep. Ted James, whose north Baton Rouge district seems to have more payday loan stores than working stoplights, says he has spent a lot of time recently consoling bitter constituents who felt that, if nothing else, legislators would have paid more attention to their sheer numbers.

“They believe their voices matter. But when they come here and see the reality, well, I hate that this was their first exposure to the process,” he said.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@ theadvocate.com