30 May 2007

Floor action, May 30: HB 730

HB 730 would provide minimal additional income disclosure for legislators. Rep. Michael Jackson the author said only legislator or spousal income above $250 from the state or gaming sources would be reported, and of any ownership of land over $5,000 in value, publicly- traded securities that do business in the state, any company owned 10 percent or more, any loan over $5,000, without having to give any exact or even approximate values.

Rep. Troy Hebert asked a number of hair-splitting questions, such as whether something owed in the course of a business meant the name of a creditor would be revealed. Hebert argues that a bill that would truly reveal potential conflicts would be much more expansive, said this was useful only as a starting point. Jackson said it was better than nothing (a stronger bill had been altered in committee), and told Hebert Louisiana’s low-ranked perception would improve somewhat even with this weaker bill.

Rep. Danny Martiny wondered why publicly-traded stocks and bonds had to be concluded. Jackson said some of them from the state would have an interest in what legislators do. Martiny also questioned the reporting of property which now could be revealed because of conveyance records, and wondered what it had to do with ethics. Martiny said it went too far and made a bad impression.

Rep. Willie Hunter wanted to know why spouses were included. Jackson patiently explained that a legislator might be influenced through spousal connections. Hunter wanted to know whether there was definitive proof this could happen. Jackson said he knew of none, but community property rules put the potential there. Hunter painted a scenario where a legislator could make a completely separate transaction from a spouse, and wondered where it was justified that one would have to report that connected to the other. Hunter claimed it violated what he said in the Constitution was a “right to privacy.” “What bidness is it of the Ethics Board for me to report something I’ve been playing around with for years?” he argued. Jackson reiterated it was a chance to show the general public of potential conflicts of interest. “It needs work” Hunter said.

Rep. Gary Smith offered an amendment to apply it to all elective offices. “If we’re serious about ethics, we need to be serious about it for everybody.” He reminded Rep. Jack Smith that legislators have no contract power and little discretionary spending power on their own, unlike other officials. Rep. William Daniel IV asked about fitting in appointed officials, and Smith said that was a good idea. Rep. Carl Crane wondered whether day trading in stocks would count; Smith hoped the authors would address that question.

Jackson opposed the amendment to try to place rules on officials outside of the Legislature. Rep. Don Cazayoux said local officials could regulate themselves. But Rep. Jeff Arnold said other officials had more potential for corruption. The amendment passed 80-18.

Rep. Jean-Paul Morrell then offered an amendment to apply the standards to the Ethics Board. Jackson said he didn’t like his seatmate’s amendment, but didn’t object to it. Then Rep. Cedric Richmond wanted to amend it to put in a phrase in the oath of office that the legislator would not act corruptly. Jackson objected, thinking it was nongermane. Speaker Joe Salter ruled it was. Richmond said legislation like this was perpetuating a stereotype, but then withdrew the amendment. “This bill crosses the line.”

Rep. Mert Smiley offered an amendment to speed up implementation from Jan. 1, 2008 to Aug. 15, 2007. The effect would be to apply it to candidates this fall. Jackson objected because they wanted to have it apply to future election cycles. It was adopted.

Daniel came back with an amendment to include all appointees anywhere. Jackson didn’t object.

Speaking against the bill, Rep. Charlie DeWitt said legislators shouldn’t have to put themselves and their families under a microscope. If voters didn’t like what they did, they could vote them out. Martiny called the question but Hunter objected and more legislators spoke. Rep. Lelon Kenney said legislators already made great sacrifices to serve and this would make it even more onerous on them.

Rep. Alex Heaton moved to table the bill. The motion failed 9-83. After Hunter expressed his displeasure once again, Cazayoux defended the bill by saying it reported in extraordinarily general ways that nevertheless gave the public useful information to the voting public. The bill passed 85-14.

Sometimes perception is reality
Jackson to Martiny on HB 730

There isn’t a redneck in Rapides Parish that doesn’t know what I have or don’t have
DeWitt’s remarks on HB 730

THURSDAY: SB 52 and SB 98 are scheduled to be heard by the Senate Finance Committee.

26 May 2007

Legislative regular session through May 26

THIS WEEK FOR THE GOOD: HB 113 with minor amendments passed committee; HB 614 passed committee and the House; SB 22 with major amendments passed committee; SB 29 was defeated in committee; SB 66 with minor amendments passed committee and passed the Senate; SB 185 with minor amendments passed committee and the Senate;

THIS WEEK FOR THE BAD: HB 119 passed committee; HB 158 with minor amendments passed committee; HB 407 passed the House; HB 528 passed committee, was substituted by HB 962; SB 1 passed the Senate.

Total House introductions: 964; total Senate introductions: 362.

Total House good bills: 29; total Senate good bills: 11.

Total House bad bills: 14; total Senate bad bills: 8.

Total House good bills heard in committee: 18; total Senate good bills heard in committee: 9.

Total House bad bills heard in committee: 8; total Senate bad bills heard in committee: 6.

Total House good bills passing committee: 10; total Senate good bills passing committee: 3.

Total House bad bills passing committee: 7; total Senate bad bills passing committee: 2.

Total House good bills passing the House: 4; total Senate good bills passing the Senate: 3.

Total House bad bills passing the House: 2; total Senate bad bills passing the Senate: 1.

TUESDAY: SB 126 and SB 145 are scheduled to be heard by the Senate Judiciary B Committee.

22 May 2007

Committee action, May 22: HB 113

HB 113 would make it easier to prosecute organized theft rings. These gangs steal small-valued items that then resell them, often out of the country. The problem is separately the items are petty which makes prosecuting difficult, but together they add up to significant losses to retailers and consumers. This would be different from shoplifting because the “fencing” would be the object of the law. This would be felony.

Rep. Warren Triche wondered why 180 days would be the standard for the time period to add up the separate crimes, and then try to fence. Author Rep. Mike Powell said that was an outside limit, to gather evidence. Authorities could move immediately if they desired. Other amendments were offered to clarify language further, and added without objection.

Rep. Damon Baldone wondered why an amount under $500 would be a felony, which is uncommon in state law. Caddo Asst. Dist. Atty. Hugo Holland explained otherwise the thieves only could be charged with shoplifting, so the dollar limit should not apply. Still, to speed things along, an amendment was made to raise the aggregate to $500. Holland reminded them the felony provision, for both thief and fence could also kick in at any amount if there was a knowing attempt to resell. But Baldone wanted it only to be a felony at $500 or above. Thus, the amendment was reconsidered and undone.

Baldone was concerned that an occasional petty offender would get a felony. Holland said judicial system would have discretion in dealing with these offenders and would not have to charge such a person with this law. The bill was reported favorably without objection.

You have your own personal DA?
I mean, Caddo’s assistant district attorney – he’s Paul Carmouche’s.
Triche to Powell, after Powell introduced Holland in a way implying he was working for Powell.

WEDNESDAY: SB 98 is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee; SB 22, SB 295, and SB 320 are scheduled to be heard by the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee.

21 May 2007

Committee action, May 21: HB 262, HB 228, HB 575 and others

Today was conjecture day for spending surplus money, waiting on the Revenue Estimating Conference’s results tomorrow. In the House Appropriations Committee, several bills were reviewed outlining how money would be spent.

HB 722 by Rep. Roy Quezaire would create a new fund to roll sales taxes into that would be distributed according to the proportion of the fund paid in by a parish’s taxes; that is, the more a parish put in, the more that would come back to it for its road needs. This would be newly dedicated money on top of existing funds for roads in the state, although only some of the money, 31 percent, would be distributed that way. This money thus would be removed from the general fund.

Rep. Don Cazayoux complained the present system was preferable because it spread the money around. “This is a stark deviation … why decide to do it differently?” Quezaire said the new fund would better address immediate infrastructure needs, while projects of lesser priority would still be taken care of through the present system; nobody would be shortchanged because this would be a new pot of money.

Rep. Elcie Guillory wondered about the bill’s impact on ports. Quezaire said the 7 percent allocated to ports would be in addition to present current funding, essentially doubling the current allocation. The state supposedly gets $6 back for every buck spent on ports. Chairman John Alario advised the committee to move on to other matters, and so it did.

HB 168 by Rep. Bodi White would take 100 percent sales tax from vehicle sales to fund non-federal roads. He indicated there would be amendments which are that it would be phased in over a couple of years, not starting this budget year, and it would have a sunset provision to reassess whether it was needed after 2010.

Rep. Tom McVea asked about its impact concerning HB 722. White said there was no dedicated funding to things like ports, it also used the existing funding structure instead of creating a new class of prioritized road. Other members made approving noises concerning it.

HB 165 by Rep. Joel Robideaux also wanted the 4 percent sales tax. His bill would create a special fund to allocate by parish proportion of payment by its citizens. These funds would apply to all kinds of roads, including federally-matches. Treasurer John Kennedy indicated there would be no sunset provision because that would make it virtually impossible to use their shares to bond the money. Both the state and local governments would jointly decide what roads to utilize the money for. It would not deviate from the current priority project list because the parishes could recommend only those projects on the list.

Cazayoux pointed out that in essence it did deviate from the list because the list was statewide, but those projects that were unfunded from this new fund that were higher priority that those where funds were available from other parishes in essence would be jumped. Population, instead of being one factor of many, now became the overwhelming factor, he noted, which he thought unwise. Kennedy admitted it did this, but said the priority program was not doing the job and this would help. Cazayoux said it was a matter of money, not problems inherent to the program. Kennedy said dedicating the money would get more money to the actual building itself.

HB 691 by Rep. Pete Schneider would be to take 25 percent of the sales tax and distribute to the parishes for high-need roads.

HB 362 by Taylor Townsend would make any tax cuts or credits introduced into the budget apply to the state’s pending cap, meaning that tax cuts or credits could only come with a two-thirds vote. Rep. Steve Scalise pointed out that the reason for the cap and spending limit was to limit the growth of state government, which was not the same thing as giving money back to the people which helps growth of the private sector. Townsend argued that it would lead to better decision-making dealing with the budget. But then Townsend moved to voluntarily defer the bill, which happened without objection.

Scalise’s HB 228 would reaffirm by law that in computation of the expenditure limit figure would occur using actual, extant numbers rather than old data. Scalise noted past practice of using numbers already superseded by more current data was contrary to the intent of the Constitution, and the formula was not being faithfully followed by putting a formula into law which had yet to be done. Scalise said he believed there would be a court challenge if this bill was not passed, and quoted the Constitution to show how the formula now being used by the state contravened it.

HB 575 would force the state to send absentee voting material to everybody in the state. Reps. Juan LaFonta said the bill was going to be amended to do it just for residents of parishes affected by a declared disaster, at somewhat less cost, regardless of whether they had lived in the state since that disaster.

SB 29 would repeal income taxes over a four-year period. Author and Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee member Sen. Max Malone said other states did this and were doing fine economically. He said eventually $3 billion would be taken out of the budget annually. Sen. Robert Adley objected to it, saying this was too big oh a hit and would not be responsible. Sen. Ann Duplessis said other states without income taxes should be studied to find out how they can do it successfully. Malone said he knew property taxes were lower in Louisiana but otherwise things often were the same in terms of tax burdens.

Adley moved to defer the bill but Malone asked for a substitute motion to pass, which took precedence. Malone was the only senator on the committee to vote for his bill.

This bill would reduce reliance on H & R Alario for tax services
We haven’t done a fiscal note on the Alario firm
Rep. Blade Morrish to Alario talking about his HB 87 and making reference to Alario’s real job.

The compromise was made in the hallway about 20 minutes ago
You could have us saved that information
Rep. Warren Triche to Rep. Gordon Dove concerning HB 642

If you could provide us with $733 million in cuts, that would help us out … you will have that list of cuts for us, won’t you?
If you will co-author it
No, but I’ll look at it
Alario to Scalise and his rejoinder, as HB 228 in this fiscal year in effect would reduce the executive budget by that much.

TUESDAY: HB 113 and HB 614 are scheduled to be heard by the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee; HB 598 is scheduled to be heard by the House Education Committee; HB 528 is scheduled to be heard by the House Insurance Committee.

19 May 2007

Legislative regular session through May 19

THIS WEEK FOR THE GOOD: HB 26 with minor amendments passed committee; HB 266 passed the House; HB 486 passed committee with minor amendments and failed in the House; HB 860 was passed by committee and HB 960 adopted as a substitute; SB 185 was reported with minor amendments;

THIS WEEK FOR THE BAD: HB 407 passed committee; SB 40 failed in the Senate.

Total House introductions: 961; total Senate introductions: 360.

Total House good bills: 28; total Senate good bills: 11.

Total House bad bills: 13; total Senate bad bills: 7.

Total House good bills heard in committee: 9; total Senate good bills heard in committee: 4.

Total House bad bills heard in committee: 3; total Senate bad bills heard in committee: 5.

Total House good bills passing committee: 6; total Senate good bills passing committee: 1.

Total House bad bills passing committee: 3; total Senate bad bills passing committee: 2.

Total House good bills passing the House: 2; total Senate good bills passing the Senate: 1.

MONDAY: HB 154, HB 168, HB 228, HB 362, and HB 575 are scheduled to be heard in the House Appropriations Committee; SB 1, SB 48, SB 52, and SB 276 are scheduled to be heard by the Senate Finance Committee; SB 28 is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee.

16 May 2007

Committee action, May 16: HB 18, 19, 26, 27

HB 26 would amend the Constitution put a cap on the amount of money that a taxing authority can receive, beyond inflation increases, that could not be raised by the authority without citizen electoral input. Present law, when reassessment increases the value of property, allows the authority by a two-thirds vote of the seated membership to allow millages to remain the same; i.e., the total amount of money collected may increase.

Author Rep. Jeff Arnold pointed out to the House Ways and Means Committee that this bill was almost what had been passed tow years ago, but that the Legislature never really had intended for the authorities to have the ability to roll forward to its maximum without citizen input. Jefferson Parish Assessor Lawrence Chehardy said the argument in favor was more money was needed for local services, but that government should be entitled only to the rate of inflation to reflect increased costs, not any windfall from rapidly-escalating property values.

Dan Garrett, executive counsel of the Louisiana Police Jury Association, said in the previous bill that notification requirements were improved for greater public awareness, and that police jurors he spoke to said they never wanted to roll forward surreptitiously, and unless they really had to. He also criticized the designated metric to determine the inflation rate, the change in the national Consumer Price Index, was not accurate for many parishes. He said the law would hamstring local governments, and that they should wait for another round of reassessment to see if the previous change worked.

Rep. Ken Odinet commented to the opposition, “let me tell you how the real world works.” He pointed out some increases as a result of the hurricanes were astronomical and recounted a tale where he was the only person at a meeting by one authority, and that there were so many meetings you couldn’t get a lot of people, if any, to supervise. He said if needs are genuine, authorities could go to the people for an affirmative vote and it will be approved.

Arnold said there were many authorities that were one person, and their political positions were unimpeachable, they could roll forward with impunity. He also pointed out that in Orleans rolling forward almost always happened. Garrett argued that many authorities were comprised of elected officials and thus responsible to the people. He also didn’t like the term “windfall” used in the context of property value increases, equating it to as prices rise, sales taxes go up. He said the Orleans experience was “unique.”

Rep. Jane Smith said that Bossier schools (she was the superintendent before her election) never rolled forward despite many opportunities. But then whenever new money was justifiably needed, they always got millage raises. She implied that unilateral rolling forward would have soured the public on the school board and they would not have been in such a charitable mood concerning new taxes. “The people will come through when asked.”

Garrett objected to her use and others’ of the phrase “taxation without representation,” saying that at least with elected authorities by virtue of being elected there is representation. He said Smith’s experience just showed that the present system was working. Smith replied that a citizen vote led to an expectation of a set amount, but rolling forward often violated that expectation.

Arnold closed and moved to report favorably, as amended. It was passed without objection, bringing on HB 27 which is the companion bill to change the law. It got the same treatment.

HB 18 would increase the homestead exemption to (essentially) the first $150,000 value of a homestead. Chehardy pointed out that the last exemption change was in 1982 which had eroded by more than half the real value of the exemption through inflation. He pointed out that all other property tax exemptions are adjusted for inflation, which basically is what the bill would do.

Opponents pointed out that the existing level was the nation’s highest and that therefore few owners paid property taxes, while business and renters paid the majority; the burden would become even more accentuated with this bill. Rep. Billy Montgomery said what was good for business was good for the individual; if the state was phasing out taxes on business debt, then why should individuals be taxed on their debt? Odinet pointed out that individuals statewide paid 29 percent of all taxes, while business only paid 3 percent.

Rep. Israel Curtis wanted to pass out the bill, but the committee held off because author Rep. John Alario wanted to wait on the disposition of the appropriations bill. HB 19, which would institute only an annual inflation indexing of the exemption from its current level, was deferred as well for the same reason.

You had a roll going there and I wanted to stop it.
Montgomery, after asking a question to opponents of HB 18

Taxes paid by you, by me … if I were working.
Odinet, in trying to show individuals paid much more in taxes than businesses

14 May 2007

Committee action, May 14: HB 860

HB 860 by Rep. Karen Carter would abolish the Louisiana Insurance Rating Commission. The House Insurance Committee took up formal consideration of the bill after taking some testimony from it the pervious week. In its place it would give power to the Commissioner of Insurance to review and rule on the request in 45 days. A new office, Deputy Commissioner of Consumer Advocacy, would be created exclusively to take the side of the consumer in disputes. The bill would continue the practice of allowing a public hearing with the commissioner upon his request. As with below-10 percent present procedure, the department would review all requests and make a recommendation. As a result, “flex-band” approval for personal lines of insurance would change from 30 to 45 days; typically, requests for less than 45 days are uncommon.

Rep. Jim Tucker wondered whether the new position should be housed in the department. Deputy Commissioner Chad Brown argued the process would be more efficient and would not play favoritism to the department, saying that was the experience in other states. Scalise suggested public notification the results of decisions.

Rep. Troy Hebert asked how the state would be more attractive without LIRC, even with such high rights. Brown said the industry’s perception was negative about it, and in fact those high rates might be caused by LIRC, with insurers fearing that any cuts in rates when conditions warranted would not then be granted back by LIRC when conditions changed. Hebert wondered how many times LIRC went against departmental recommendations. Brown said it has happened often in the past, but not much recently. Hebert questioned that with high rates now, would rates go higher without LIRC. Brown said before the hurricane disasters on 2005, some companies were taking rates down and reemphasized that companies would file more appropriate rates to specific situations without the fear of a political body potentially interfering with market mechanisms.

Hebert pointed out that a political agent still would have ultimate authority. Chairwoman Carter replied that the shift from an unelected body to an elected official accountable to the electorate would eliminate an excuse used by industry to keep rates higher, and the bill was one thing in a series of things to help bring rates down. Hebert also drew the point that the new advocate was an appointee of the commissioner and that costs would go up.

Rep. Shirley Bowler wondered about consumer rights in the bill, and thought there were a number of imperfections in how they were stated. She said she will offer amendments on the floor to clarify by stating new rights would not be created, and one for the committee concerning the language of the rights. The latter was taken up immediately and adopted without objection.

Rep. Jean-Paul Morrell asked what were the results of states that had similar commissions in the past and what happened after abolishment? Brown could not give specifics but he said generally moving towards a broader implementation of file-and-use tended to bring rates down in other states.

Rep. Mike Walsworth wondered just how different the new advocate position would be. He argued that if complaints are being handled adequately now, why should a position be created strengthening the position. Carter said this was additional security, now that there wouldn’t be a commission to appeal to.

The bill, as amended, was reported without objection.

HB 436 was sent to the House Appropriations Committee, being that its fiscal note indicated greater than $500,000 would be spent on its implementation.

12 May 2007

Legislative regular session through May 12

THIS WEEK FOR THE GOOD: HB 266 passed committee; HB 436 with minor amendments passed committee; HB 474 passed the House; SB 127 passed the Senate.

THIS WEEK FOR THE BAD: SB 1 with minor amendments passed committee; SB 40 was pulled from committee onto the Senate calendar.

Total House introductions: 958; total Senate introductions: 360.

Total House good bills: 26; total Senate good bills: 11.

Total House bad bills: 13; total Senate bad bills: 7.

Total House good bills heard in committee: 8; total Senate good bills heard in committee: 3.

Total House bad bills heard in committee: 2; total Senate bad bills heard in committee: 4.

Total House good bills passing committee: 5; total Senate good bills passing committee: 1.

Total House bad bills passing committee: 2; total Senate bad bills passing committee: 2.

Total House good bills passing the House: 1; total Senate good bills passing the Senate: 1.

MONDAY: HB 860 is scheduled to be heard by the House Insurance Committee; SB 276 is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Finance Committee.

09 May 2007

Committee action, May 9: SB 1, HB 436

SB 1 by Sen. Joe McPherson would tweak indigent health care in Louisiana. Secretary of Health and Human Services Fred Cerise explained the broad outlines of the program. The plan would be to create “medical homes” to which the indigent would be assigned and could receive care. Any participating provider could provide their care and be reimbursed, so long as they agreed to install health information technology systems electronically based. The state’s existing charity hospital system was expected to be a major component of this system. All of this was to produce a more efficient system.

While various senators asked for more details, Chairman McPherson responded by saying this bill was intended to be a broad outline, containing the medical home and electronically-transferable records provision. While vague at this time, it was supposed to be brought into specific reality over time. Further, the state needed to create this outline now because it was currently not feasible economically from the private sector’s perspective unless government got behind it. Several supporting senators pitched questions to Cerise that gave him the chance to say money was available to get it going.

McPherson said the bill was supposed to be budget-neutral – no additional expenditures beyond current costs. He had produced a fiscal note which said the two regions (I and V) to be covered would be $227 million, although some costs were still undetermined. McPherson talked about finding ways to divert other federal funds to support the system, and said federal government rules were too rigid at present to allow some reforms they wanted.

Sen. Tom Schedler noted that, historically, the existing system had fought allowing a certain kind of federal funding (“disproportionate share’) outside of the charity system. He said this system had to be genuinely competitive, which he didn’t see in it and the system would resist letting those funds go outside of the system as a result. Through other questions, he noted that the vagueness of this bill allowed all sorts of promises to be made for more competitiveness but that they didn’t have to happen, and seemed skeptical that the bill would make any substantive changes.

Supporters who testified said the current system had costs that were too high and outcomes that were too low, and that this system would work. They also argued that the state had more poor and higher-cost insurance than compared to others, making giving the poor vouchers to buy their own insurance more problematic. Opponents, perhaps because the bill did not necessarily exclude market-driven solutions, were nowhere to be found to testify.

Technical amendments were offered and accepted without objection, and reported favorably without objection.

HB 436 is to reform the indigent defense system. Author Rep. Danny Martiny noted the present funding mechanism, a combination of low state funding, user fees, and local court fees, was unstable and inadequate that enabled little oversight. He felt this bill would provide for uniform delivery of indigent care even if it disrupts the present arrangement of the 41 separate boards (conforming to the state judicial districts). This would enhance chances of reforming the fiscal portion of the system, with the state chipping in more funds.

Martiny explained the 41 boards would be eliminated, and would be governed by a successor state board. Districts and their employees would remain the same. Regional districts could be created, up to 11. Existing funding would not be removed at the local level. More focus would be put on training and evaluation of public defenders.

Supporters noted that the concept of local boards has become obsolete, but that local districts would be given maximal freedom to run their affairs, as long as they showed accountability. They noted an impressive number of endorsements from the legal community backing the bill, and reflected best practices. Adequate defense meant real criminals would not escape punishment, and innocent people would not be jailed.

A number of specific, technical questions were asked, but members seemed pleased. Technical amendments were passed without objection, as was the bill.

I hope I live long enough to see it.
Schedler, when told the charity system was going to adopt a system more like the non-government sector in the future.

06 May 2007

Legislative regular session through May 5

THIS WEEK FOR THE GOOD: HB 25 passed committee; HB 248 passed committee with major amendments, enough to strike it from the list of good bills; HB 474 passed committee with technical amendments; SB 127 passed committee.

THIS WEEK FOR THE BAD: HB 214 was withdrawn; HB 575 passed committee with minor amendments; HB 619 passed committee with minor amendments.

Total House introductions: 912; total Senate introductions: 328.

Total House good bills: 26; total Senate good bills: 11.

Total House bad bills: 13; total Senate bad bills:7.

Total House good bills heard in committee: 4; total Senate good bills heard in committee: 2.

Total House bad bills heard in committee: 2; total Senate good bills heard in committee: 0.

Total House good bills passing committee: 3; total Senate good bills passing committee: 1.

Total House bad bills passing committee: 2; total Senate good bills passing committee: 0.

MONDAY: HB 266 is scheduled to be heard by the House Appropriations Committee; HB 23 is scheduled to be heard by the House Ways and Means Committee; SB 52 is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Finance Committee

WEDNESDAY: HB 436 is scheduled to be heard by the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee.

02 May 2007

Committee action, May 2: HB 474, 698, 248, 347, 575, 619

Rep. Jim Morris broke his maiden with HB 554, a bill concerning procedures regarding notarial exams, and received the hearty congratulations of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee. It also had now on it a new member to the chamber as well, Patrick Williams.

HB 474 by Chairman Charlie Lancaster cleans up a number of mostly technical matters dealing with the state election code. Sec. of State Jay Dardenne filled in the committee about the lengthy bill. Perhaps its most significant change was that it would not permit drivers’ license numbers and mothers’ maiden names to be released publicly. Technical amendments went unread and undebated, and everything about it was passed without objection. HB 698 by Lancaster did the same regarding the old-new closed federal election primaries to begin next year where otherwise there could be inconsistency in its implication (clarifying the mandate that no-party “independent” voters could vote in a major party primary unless the central committee resolved not to allow it). Amendments were placed on it and the measure passed without objection.

HB 248 by Rep. Glenn Ansardi would add a week of early voting and shorten by one hour on both ends hours of election day. Supporters argue that election commissioners are being discouraged from participating because of long hours on election day, and more early voting would create more beneficial flexibility.

Rep. Juan LaFonta said he had shown up just for this bill. “I’ve never liked this bill,” he said, and then got less complimentary. He said senior citizens needed earlier hours and that shift workers needed all 14 hours. He said there was no way he could vote for the bill. Rep. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock echoed that, saying she couldn’t understand why shorter hours would attract more commissioners and that early voting extended hours would not compensate because different kinds of people voted early.

Dardenne said his statistics showed the 6-7 AM and 7-8 PM hours had the least amount of participation, together less than 10 percent of the total. St. Tammany parish statistics showed between 7-9 percent turnout over several elections, with the evening portion being about double that of the morning. Clerks and other election officials testified that it was becoming increasingly difficult to recruit commissioners as training requirements have become tougher, and that long hours were a major impediment to recruiting.

Rep. Jeff Arnold said there were other alternatives that should be tried before cutting hours, such as split shifts. But officials reported this just would mean more training of more people and mid-day personnel headaches, plus continuity problems between “shifts” that might cause lawsuits. Arnold insisted that none of this would be known unless it was tried.

Vice Chairman Rick Gallot offered an amendment to strip out the reduction of hours. Since Democrats outnumbered Republicans and it fell on a party-line vote (with a GOP absence), it passed. The amended bill then passed without objection. Rep. Wayne Waddell apparently had been aware of this situation and had asked on this contingency to defer his similar HB 648, Lancaster announced.

Gallot’s HB 347 would increase salaries considerably for election commissioners, in most cases doubling them. Many had spoken favorably on the idea during the HB 248, so Lancaster moved to send it to Appropriations to investigate covering the $5 million-plus additional annual cost, which the committee approved without objection.

HB 575 by LaFonta would have absentee ballots sent unsolicited to all registered voters. He said this would increase voting turnout. Lancaster asked why not go all the way and get rid of precinct-based voting. LaFonta said he didn’t want to get rid of the precincts, seeing it as a disaster-related issue to supplement the current system, which is why its cost would be an extra $16 million. Dardenne said this would cause adoption of a two-track election system that would create tremendous issues; he said study rather than action was warranted.

Arnold said he was willing to introduce an amendment, if the disasters really were the impetus, to make the bill apply retroactively and the state could redo elections back to the end of 2005. On second thought, he said he wouldn’t. Acknowledging the sarcasm, LaFonta suggested that might have constitutional problems.

Lancaster said one system or the other should be picked. Gallot said study rather than action was appropriate. After a technical amendment, LaFonta asked for passage, but a motion was made to defer which failed along party lines. The same allowed the bill to prevail, and it also will head to the Appropriations Committee.

HB 619 by Jefferson would restore the legislation that allowed for displaced voting, with the provisions. This would include allowing first-time voters who had not positively identified themselves to election authorities. She called the prior experiment successful but said conditions had not changed enough so that it still was needed.

Dardenne testified that, from a policy standpoint, it was not a good idea, primarily because the previous rules applied only to the New Orleans city elections, not the entire state. “It would be a disaster” he said, creating far too complicated situations for an election to be run properly. He pointed out numerous options existed for displaced voters, including the existing early/absentee procedures. There were many technical problems with it, as well – for example, every satellite precinct would have to have ballots for every state election. “You are going to create chaos … if you pass this bill.”

Rep. Mert Smiley argued that the 38 percent turnout in the New Orleans mayor’s race wasn’t really that successful. Dardenne said as far as procedurally, it worked well. Arnold said only 5 percent turned out for recent judge’s races, but Lancaster pointed out these were very different kinds of contests. Dardenne emphasized the infrastructure simply was not there to handle this and would be much more costly. Jefferson disagreed that there would be chaos and that it could be figured out.

Lancaster asked what was possible without any large-scale changes. Dardenne said the FAX/mail procedure would not be very disruptive. Lancaster said at least the 3,700 or so who voted by that way should be given that chance again.

Rep. Hunter Greene noted that the bill did not require any official verification of a ballot that the person casting it was displaced. “You have to balance the possibility of fraud with these ways of voting,” he noted. He didn’t see why they couldn’t just make a request and drop an absentee ballot in the mail. He also noted that after a year and a half many of these “displaced” people were really more citizens of where they now live rather than being citizens of Louisiana. Jefferson insisted people were changing locations too often to have mail catch up with them.

Lancaster said Jefferson should strip the bill down and that he could only support a “reasonable” bill. “We can’t pass an ‘impossible’ bill,” he said, a term with which Jefferson kept complaining about its use. Rep. Charmaine Marchand said this attitude “disturbed” her. Lancaster offered an amendment that would take out satellite centers and create a sunset provision, as Dardenne had said the automatic sending of the absentee ballot to displaced voters, with adequate ballot security, was not that disruptive but would be very labor intensive and would delay reporting of the results.

But Jefferson said she “can’t compromise” and LaFonta asked for a vote. Once more, Democrats allowed the bill to prevail on a party-line vote.

The chairman admonished me not to touch anything while he was gone.
Gallot, after Lancaster ducked out for a moment.

We’re going to turn House and Governmental into Appropriations.
Lancaster, after a series of bills passed that would imposed tens of millions of new costs.

Next week, the controversial meeting.
Lancaster, referring to the slew of ethics bills coming up on the next week’s agenda.