New legislator finding her way

Louisiana lawmakers generally take it easy during the first few weeks of the legislative session. They read a few bills out loud, hold a handful of committee meetings and by mid-week they’re headed back to their districts to enjoy a long weekend.

These carefree early days of the session may seem a little too lackadaisical, but they carry the benefit of allowing new legislators to ease into what will become the annual frenzy of deal-making, back-room vote counting and political maneuvering that defines springtime at the State Capitol.

State Rep. Ebony Woodruff, a Harvey Democrat, is the newest member of the Legislature. She was sworn in as the state’s District 87 representative Monday after winning a special election to fill the seat vacated by former Democratic Rep. Girod Jackson III, also of Harvey.

Jackson, 41, resigned in August after he was charged with tax fraud. On Thursday, he was sentenced to three months in prison and nine months of home confinement and was ordered to pay $97,000 in restitution for lying on his federal tax returns and failing to file twice.

Woodruff, who runs a civil law firm, called her first week in the Legislature “wonderful and very welcoming.”

At 33 years old, Woodruff said she decided to make her first foray into politics because the opportunity was there.

“The position became available,” she said. “I’m an opinionated person. I feel that, as citizens, people like to gripe about what they don’t like, but people don’t step up and do anything about it. I decided to be the change I want to see in the world.”

Woodruff said her first big challenge is to gather support for House Bill 906, a law she said would add some nuance to the state’s marijuana sentencing guidelines.

Possession of less than 60 pounds of marijuana carries with it a fine of up to $500 and/or up to six months in prison for first offenders.

Woodruff’s bill attempts to make the guidelines less broad and the penalties less severe, by assigning penalties for small quantities of the drug.

Her bill sets the maximum penalties for possession of up to 28 grams at $100, $150 and $200 for first, second and third offenses, respectively.

Woodruff also has bills that deal with food safety, including House Bill 828, which requires companies to disclose and label foods derived from cloned animals.

As a degree holder from LSU and the Southern University Law Center, Woodruff said spending the bulk of the next three months in Baton Rouge won’t be unfamiliar to her.

“I’m comfortable,” she said. “Everyone has been very supportive.”

As comfortable as she is, there’s likely to be a learning curve. Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, was in Woodruff’s position last year — a first-time legislator filling out the unexpired term of former Republican state Rep. Clif Richardson, of Central.

Ivey said the best advice he received as a new legislator was that everything is about money.

“The people who lobby you, whether it’s a constituent or a group, there’s usually a money component,” he said.

“But it’s not always a bad thing. Some people want raises, and you have to understand if they get that, there is a cost to the system.”

Ivey said one of the most eye opening realizations for him was just how different government budgeting is compared to a personal or business budget.

“You have to really do your homework and understand the process,” Ivey said. “You also have to understand that if you pull a nickel out of the system, you’re going to find out almost immediately whose nickel it is, because someone is going to start squealing.”

Ivey said the best advice he can give to a new legislator is to pay attention to the details, be proactive about learning how government works and try to soak in as much as possible.