Stephanie Grace: Good thing Legislature could have done less

In the days since the Legislature finally wrapped up its 2014 session, a couple of favorite lines have been running through my mind.

One is by the late, great Louisiana political journalist John Maginnis, who died unexpectedly last month. “Overall, this Legislature could have done less, but they ran out of time,” Maginnis wrote after the 2011 session, although the assessment resonates just as much today.

Then there’s the old joke that Woody Allen told at the beginning of “Annie Hall”: “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’ ”

In other words, given what legislators did do this year, maybe it’s just as well that they didn’t accomplish more.

Let’s start with just a few of the arenas where, despite ample consideration, nothing will change.

There will be no further reforms of the controversial Tulane Legislative Scholarships, despite a spate of recent stories of continued favoritism. There will be no changes to TOPS, the hugely popular tuition program for students at public colleges and universities that many insiders consider financially unsustainable.

There will be no reduced penalties for marijuana possession, even though a rare coalition from the left and right made a big push. Nor will medical marijuana become available for people suffering from debilitating ailments. If you ever wondered whether Louisiana’s sheriffs and DAs are as powerful as they used to be, there’s your answer.

Lawmakers couldn’t bring themselves to remove a couple of unconstitutional laws from the books. So on paper, anyway, schools in the state can still teach creationism, and cops can arrest people who engage in certain types of private, consensual sexual relations.

On a related note, there will be no new restrictions on discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

There also will be no changes to the school board structure in East Baton Rouge and no other measures to either impede or address issues fueling the St. George breakaway movement.

Efforts to raise the minimum wage and make payday loans more affordable went nowhere. And Louisiana will not allow voters to decide whether they want to overrule Gov. Bobby Jindal and accept a largely federally funded expansion of Medicaid for a couple hundred thousand needy citizens.

Voters all across the state will, however, get to weigh in on whether New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu will be able to seek higher property taxes from his constituents. So that’s something.

At the behest of state Rep. Joe Lopinto and state Sen. Gary Smith, whose own families have faced fertility challenges, the Legislature did vote overwhelmingly to establish a legal framework for surrogate births. But while lawmakers sought to neutralize objections from the religious right by excluding potential parents who are not married, opposite-sex partners — a depressing prerequisite for any legislation designed to help families these days, it seems — Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed it at the Family Research Council’s urging.

As for money matters, lawmakers decided to join Jindal in just keeping their fingers crossed that the Obama administration will reverse itself and accept the state’s hurriedly revised funding plan for all those privatized public hospitals. They certainly didn’t do much to prepare for the massive budget hole that continued rejection could create.

Not that the Legislature didn’t do anything productive. It did pass merit pay raises for public employees, and toughen human trafficking laws, and create a $40 million higher ed incentive fund targeting programs in high-demand fields. It found enough money to save a well-regarded network of New Orleans-area health clinics for low-income patients. It also mustered the collective will to head off attempts to pull out of the Common Core educational standards, despite a highly publicized flip-flop by Jindal.

It also, though, did something that may turn out to be spectacularly unproductive. At Jindal’s urging, the Legislature insisted on passing a bill retroactively killing the lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East against 97 oil and gas companies over coastal damage caused by the industry’s activities. Not only does that give a pass to the industry and take the fight out of its proper venue — the courts — but it puts a wide array of claims against BP at risk, according to Attorney General Buddy Caldwell.

So, in the name of attacking a single lawsuit they don’t like, lawmakers may wind up undermining a host of governmental entities’ efforts to seek redress through the legal system. Despite Caldwell’s warning, Jindal appears poised to sign the bill, anyway.

So it’s probably a good thing the session had to end Monday. Who knows what other trouble they could cause, given the chance?

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