Washington creeps into state Legislature

"Superhero Concert" (Gray)
April 6, 2010
May 1 ballot to include 5 mill tax
April 8, 2010
"Superhero Concert" (Gray)
April 6, 2010
May 1 ballot to include 5 mill tax
April 8, 2010

Washington’s arrived at the Louisiana Capitol.

The partisan, divisive issues of Congress and complaints about the “overreaching” of the federal government are working their way into the debates of the Louisiana Legislature in ways not always common in Baton Rouge – but growing each year now.

Lawmakers are debating the federal health care legislation here, considering if Louisiana can sidestep certain federal gun laws and proposing to call on Congress for fiscal restraint.

On the opening day of the state legislative session last week, tea partiers were on the Louisiana Capitol steps just like they rally in Washington, with flags and signs saying, “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Meanwhile, the Legislature’s black caucus was talking about its opposition to a lawsuit supported by Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell that seeks to throw out portions of newly passed health care overhaul approved by Congress.

An hour later, Gov. Bobby Jindal – who talks about Washington almost as much as he talks about Louisiana – included his perspectives on Washington’s fiscal and health care policy as part of his opening remarks to the Louisiana Legislature.

For a while, it seemed as though there was more discussion about federal policy than the state policy over which Jindal and the lawmakers actually have sway.

That hasn’t always been typical in state legislative sessions. In fact, Louisiana lawmakers often have prided themselves on bipartisanship, on the friendships between Republicans and Democrats and on disputes that don’t resemble the fights in Washington.

As legislators began saying their goodbyes in 2007 when the first round of term limits kicked in, one of the most frequent parting recommendations was to avoid the partisanship that colors debate in Washington and that was more regularly emerging in Baton Rouge.

“Don’t allow this institution to mirror the one that’s in Washington. By following their example, you will certainly not move our state forward, and that’s what’s important,” said then-Rep. Mickey Frith, D-Abbeville, in his farewell speech.

But partisanship is growing at the Louisiana Legislature, state lawmakers have their eyes on congressional seats and battles at the state Capitol are becoming more similar to debates in Washington.

Some partisanship can be attributed to the growth of the state’s Republican Party. Once upon a time in the Legislature, Republicans didn’t have enough strength to make many ripples. But as their ranks grew during Democratic former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s term and with the dawn of term limits, Republicans were able to force discussions and those discussions often came with partisan tones.

Political analysts, Capitol watchers and even lawmakers disagree about whether the partisan divide is damaging, beneficial or somewhere in between. Whatever the effect, Washington debates are firmly lodging themselves for this state legislative session.

One of this session’s most heated disputes is expected to center on a bill by Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell, attempting to nullify the federal health care revamp, arguing the congressional legislation is unconstitutional.

Tea party groups in the state have made Crowe” bill one of their top priorities for passage in the session, while the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus is vowing to fight it. Jindal applauded the legislation in his opening speech.

Meanwhile, a group of GOP lawmakers led by Rep. Nick Lorusso, R-New Orleans, is proposing legislation that attempts to force Congress to call a constitutional convention in which changes proposed by state Legislatures or state constitutional conventions would be considered. In a statement, Lorusso said the idea is to force Congress to show more fiscal restraint and to limit the size of government.

Like it or not, no one can argue that’s not meddling in Washington business.

As the session opened, some state lawmakers renewed their annual pleas about the need to keep partisan politics out of Baton Rouge and the need to keep their chambers from looking like Congress. That kind of talk seems a bit too late.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the state Capitol for The Associated Press.