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For good and bad, process used to shape bill substance

Legislative hijinks continue unabated as the 2009 Regular Session passes its halfway point in Baton Rouge, with legislators looking for ways to use process to affect substance creating winners, losers, and everything in between.

By this time in the session, with introduction of bills long over, legislators must get creative if some issue grabs their attention and they want to get it into the process with a chance to become law. Or, they can try the same tactic to resurrect a stalled measure either to give it new life, or to counter another. This can be done in committee easily (as long as the informal custom of the author giving permission is followed) and with certainty on the floor, so long as the presiding office concludes the amendment is germane and/or the chamber declares it germane.

A winning example concerns HB 719 by state Rep. Bubba Chaney. This bill became a vehicle to include the state’s deal with the New Orleans Saints to shovel money in the direction of the team’s owner to entice the team to remain. Instead of the straight-up giveaway of the past decade, now at least the state gets something back in the form of leased space for state offices that admittedly is sorely needed. Amended in committee, it passed the House without a lot of trouble.

The journey of HB 138 also provides another lesson. Most legislators aren’t exactly known for their courage when it comes to actions on bills, displaying a distinct preference for trying to have their cakes and eat them, too. This means privately they may feel one way about a bill and wish it a certain fate, but publicly they will act and say differently if they can find a way to have the fate they desire for it fulfilled in another fashion.

Originally, the bill got bottled up in committee on a close vote, but author State Rep. John LaBruzzo’s scaled down its scope to require medical drug testing for a narrow range of public entitlement recipients. Yet this version looked like it might garner a fight when state Rep. Walker Hines objected originally to its passage. But he relented when he learned it bill likely would have to head to the House Appropriations Committee as it would incur an expense of greater than $500,000, and out the bill sailed from committee.

The reason why opposition evaporated was Appropriations, in this year of tight budgets, probably would spike the bill on that basis. This gave Hines and other opponents the perfect excuse to not oppose the bill so they can claim they are for not handing taxpayer dollars to drug addicts even as they defeated its previous incarnation and may have stopped this one as well. Thus, they rely on process to give them results they actually want even as their actions try to convey something different.

(This is the first time I have mentioned the freshman Hines since a post last year where I called him “liberal” on the basis of the unmistakably leftist tilt to a number of bills he had introduced that surprisingly went nowhere. He protested the label in a note to me, and while I explained to him how richly he deserved the appellation from the content of his legislation, I promised at the next available opportunity that I would base my next description of his ideology on his score from the year-end scorecard I compile for my Louisiana Legislature Log. The time is here, and with a 2008 score of 70 for now I officially change my assessment of Democrat Hines to call him a “moderate,” and almost borderline conservative. Interestingly, the previous post also addressed Hines’ actions in the context of trying to convey an image of something he was not.)

Losing in the process, however, was House Speaker Jim Tucker who tried to slip an amendment onto another uncontroversial bill, HB 892 by state Rep. Michael Jackson. It would have had the effect of negating the substance of HB 841 by Rep. Avon Honey, who pulled off the most prominent example of this genre in years when he took his innocuous bill and slipped into it an amendment on the floor that would force the state to accept federal spending bill money that would expand unemployment benefits and turn them from an insurance into a welfare program.

But unlike when Honey caught conservatives napping, liberals were attentive on this occasion and made a germaneness request. With Tucker making the motion, he could not be in the chair for the moment held by Speaker Pro-Tem Karen Peterson, one of the liberals’ own and an HB 841 supporter. The subject matter of Jackson’s bill, information provision about unemployment insurance, was not that divorced from the amendment as both dealt with the disposition of unemployment insurance benefits, but Peterson ruled it nongermane.

This brought a move to override the speaker’s ruling. But Tucker counseled not to do so, even though a clear majority of the House appeared to favor the amendment and opposed HB 841 in its current form, arguing to uphold the ruling preserved the “process.” The override attempt was defeated.

While Tucker as speaker would have an interest in fending off challenges from powers he can exercise, in this case he needed to act otherwise. Honey’s amendment had not been germane yet went through, and it clearly was the will of the chamber that his language not be passed out of the House. Slavishness to process should not be the end-all when a basic tenet of democracy, majority rule that does not violate fundamental liberties, is subverted as a result.

Process is important to observe in understanding substantive impact of legislative actions, but it should not be used as a substitute for it.

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