by mark BALLARD
Capitol news bureau
June 11, 2012
Republican state Rep. Valarie Hodges said she vividly recalls a day a few weeks ago that made her question why she ever wanted to serve in the Louisiana House of Representatives, where she was one of the 31 freshmen who completed their first legislative session last week.
Though running late for a House committee hearing that morning in May, Hodges said she had rushed to clean up a mess from a washer that didn’t drain and organize repairs for a suddenly broken-down pickup, when she was stopped in the driveway of her Livingston Parish home by a constituent angered by one of her votes.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I came here. But it turned out a lot more stressful than I thought it would be,” said Hodges, a Denham Springs minister. The incident underlined for her the truism that the work of state legislators directly affects people she sees every day, she said.
The 69th Louisiana Legislature, which took its oath in January 2008, had more new members, about 50, compared with 31 in Hodges’ Class of 2012. Predominantly Republican, many of the 2012 newcomers were elected in aggressive campaigns funded by Gov. Bobby Jindal and/or U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the state’s two leading GOP elected officials.
Within the first week after the 2012 Regular Legislative Session began on March 12, House members were working until midnight on Jindal’s overhaul of public education. Then came the bruising debate over how to change retirement benefits for state government employees. Then came debate over whether the state budget should spend money not likely to be found next year on services that must be funded year in and year out.
State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said with a laugh that her freshman class in 2008 voted for legislative pay raises, but the 2012 class tied up the governor’s budget over principle.
“Our freshmen class (2008) for the most part, even to the bitter end, gave the governor everything he wanted,” Smith said. “When you look at this group (2012), a lot of them came in supporting the governor, but by the end they decided they were going to vote their feelings.”
“I’ve been told that no freshman class had the pressure put on it as we had,” said newcomer state Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany.
Almost immediately upon arrival, state representatives were asked to push through legislation to revamp the way education is handled in Louisiana, he said.
The bills were submitted just days before the session convened in March.
“I would have liked more time to study the bills,” Mack said. “I didn’t like the speed it was taken through.”
Mack joined a group calling itself fiscal hawks. The group of roughly three dozen members — short of the 53 needed to approve a bill — delayed passage of Jindal’s state budget bill until the day before the session ended over a fight about the use of “one-time money.”
Seventeen members of the freshman class voted May 11 on an amendment to House Bill 1, the state budget, which basically eliminated the use of one-time money.
As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, state Rep. Jim Fannin is sponsor of HB1, which authorizes state government to spend public revenues on services for the fiscal year beginning July 1. He argued that because of deep budget cuts during the past few years, state services could not sustain the reductions required to replace $267 million in one-time money.
“When you have new members that come in hoping to make a difference, it takes a lot of cooperation and understanding. Everyone’s district is different. You have to compromise,” said Fannin, D-Jonesboro. “It was unusual, unusually difficult.”
Jindal was able to win passage of his state budget, with its one-time money component, only by persuading committee chairmen and vice chairmen to abandon the fiscal hawks.
“I don’t know what you get for being a committee chairman, but it must be something great,” said state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge.
Technically a political newcomer, running for office for the first time at age 30, James was a policy adviser to Gov. Kathleen Blanco and a staff attorney in the Louisiana House. From talking among the 2012 freshmen, both Democrats and Republicans, James said he was misled into thinking the Louisiana House would assert its independence from the executive branch. But the freshmen only accounted for about 30 percent of the members — enough to influence, but not enough to control, he said.
“It’s very depressing for me to see that this branch of government is run by those people in the corner,” James said, pointing at an area reserved for the governor’s aides to sit and communicate with legislators during the session.
In December, departing House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, advised the newcomers that as legislators, they wouldn’t be able to go in public without running into a constituent asking for help or complaining about a vote.
“Don’t buy into all the BS you’ll get from lobbyists and people who are going to kiss your behind as an elected official. It doesn’t last,” Tucker said. “The real reward is serving your constituents.”
That was sage advice, said Republican state Rep. Kenny Havard, a newcomer from Jackson.
Serving in his first session in his first elected office, Havard said he was surprised at the partisanship of the Louisiana House. He said he was disappointed by the attempts from leaders to dictate positions that have very little to do with the people in the northern part of East Baton Rouge Parish and in East Feliciana and West Feliciana parishes.
“I am very, very conservative,” Havard said. “But I promised to represent my neighbors for their best interest. So I found myself pulled to the center on some issues.”