“I’m a Cajun” bill clears final legislative vote

Louisiana motorists could have “I’m a Cajun” added to their driver’s license — no proof required — under a measure that cleared its final legislative approval Monday.

The proposal, Senate Bill 201, breezed through the House 74-8 after less than five minutes of discussion.

The state Senate passed the measure earlier this month 38-0.

Backers say that, aside from the novelty of the addition to driver’s licenses and official identity cards, the legislation will help finance French immersion programs, which have been hard hit by budget cuts in recent years.

Under the bill, motorists who pay $5 annually on top of the normal fee would get the words “I’m a Cajun” written underneath their picture on their license. The change would also apply to identification cards.

Money raised by the special designation would help finance scholarships offered by the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, or CODOFIL.

Those scholarships allow students to learn the language in France, then return as teachers in French immersion programs, said state Rep. Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge and House sponsor of SB201.

CODOFIL backers have been working to establish at least one French immersion school in each of the 22 parishes that make up Acadiana.

Huval said the aim of the bill is to expand the classes beyond south Louisiana “to areas that once had the French language, but for whatever reason it is not there.”

Students who attend French immersion schools do better in all subjects, not just languages, backers said.

State Sen. Fred Mills Jr., R-St. Martinville, said the idea for the legislation stemmed from an effort to help CODOFIL. “What a neat way for a driver’s license to kind of be that billboard for them to help promote what they do,” Mills said of the group.

The legislation requires no proof of heritage.

Technically speaking, Cajuns are descendants of the French-speaking residents of Acadia — now the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island — that the English in the 1700s forced to move from their homes. A large number of the French Acadians, or Cajuns, ended up in Louisiana.

But Mills said it is not necessary for a present-day Louisiana resident to trace his ancestry back to the “Great Expulsion” in order to get the “I’m a Cajun” stamp.

“Even if you support CODOFIL and are not from the area, get it,” Mills said.

CODOFIL was set up in 1968 to help revive the French language in Louisiana. The group is supposed to preserve, promote and develop the state’s French and Creole culture, heritage and language.

Efforts were launched several years ago to address the shortage of French teachers in the state.

LSU and other state schools have sent students to France, where they teach students English, absorb the culture and language and return as high school French teachers or work in French immersion schools.

Exactly how much money would be raised is unclear.

Mills said he does not expect problems getting Gov. Bobby Jindal to sign the legislation.

The Legislative Fiscal Office said the measure would cost the state about $50,000 in onetime costs for format changes.

Mills said state officials said earlier they can likely absorb those costs.

“I think we are okay,” he said of prospects that the measure will become law.

The proposal approved on Monday is just the first of a two-bill package.

Huval is sponsoring another proposal that would add “I’m a Cajun” to Louisiana license plates, with those proceeds also benefitting CODOFIL.

Mills said in future sessions he may want to look at trying to add the words to Visa and other credit cards, much like LSU and Saints symbols are offered by some merchants.

Money from that push would aid state roads.

“This is kind of a test model,” he said of the driver’s license bill.