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Last days of Legislature = wackiness

Lots of confusing yet interesting legislation gets passed in a session of the Louisiana Legislature, especially towards the very end, and 2005 was no exception. In fact, it might have been made even more interesting in that this was the first “hybrid” session that focused on money matters but also allowed some (5 per legislator) general-interest bills and unlimited local bills.

This recipe for unintended consequences coughed up a couple of good examples from northwest Louisiana. State Rep. Mike Powell’s HB 338 started out as an attempt to simplify standards regarding the assessment of distances from alcohol sellers to proscribed areas such as churches and schools. State law says 300 feet as a person travels; Powell wanted to amend it to allow municipalities to use as an alternative the simpler 300 feet as the crow flies.

The problem came when in the last month of the session the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that in-state and out-of-state wineries could not be treated differentially by state law in their abilities to ship wine. This meant that anybody in Louisiana could get wine shipped directly to them from anywhere. This spooked liquor wholesalers in Louisiana which fought for an amendment to get any sales to restaurants or stores to go through a wholesaler. In essence, direct sales coming from anywhere could have bypassed wholesalers for these large-volume buyers (individuals’ ability to order and have wine shipped were unaffected). Sen. Edwin Murray complied, and the Senate bought it, and the House on concurring with the Senate’s changes.

However, Louisiana’s smaller wineries have trouble getting wholesalers to carry their product, and now within the state they would lose the ability to ship directly to stores and restaurants, so their cost of business has gone up dramatically and may put them out of business. Powell and practically everybody else were unable to guess the effects of the bill, amended and passed in the last week of the session. If Gov. Kathleen Blanco signs it, she better send a message out to wholesalers that in exchange for the protection from competition they think they’re going to get they had better be awfully accommodating in stocking Louisiana wines; 2006 is a whole different chance to change the law.

It’s one thing to slip up on unintended consequences in a quick session where information can be hard to come by, but it’s another to consciously sow the seeds of sabotage in your own bill. Sen. Robert Adley brought that problem on himself and his presumed beneficiary, the Bossier Parish Levee Board, with his handling of SB 6.

The bill made the composition of the Board more manageable and inclusive by expanding it to an at-large, additional appointment to represent the whole parish. But, as a favor to Sen. Francis Heitmeier who served with Adley on the conference committee empanelled to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, he assented to Heitmeier’s inclusion of an amendment that, in effect, quintupled the salary of the Orleans Levee Board President, and pal of Heitmeier’s, Jim Huey. This looked really good after the Board just lost a suit for $45,000, the winning plaintiff against blaming Huey for the incident.

Adley failed to mention the potential salary boost in getting unanimous approval in the Senate a day before the session’s end. But Rep. Warren Triche, among others, smoked it out in the House, and perhaps the lawsuit lay behind the House’s eventual rejection of the conference report, killing the bill for the year.

There, acting in the stead of Adley to get the bill passed was Rep. Billy Montgomery, who argued that the money to pay for the increased salary would be borne by Orleans taxpayers alone. But that was a rather puerile line of persuasion; lawmakers should turn the other way while bad policy is being made because it’s not in their district?

Adley eventually succeeded in his own hijacking of a bill to get the change enacted, but Adley, a veteran of many years in the Legislature, showed questionable political skills on his original bill. Either he was oblivious to the controversy behind the Orleans Levee Board or he knew and maybe thought he could slip it through which, given the suit’s publicity, was a poor judgment. Why he went so far out on a limb for Heitmeier is another interesting question; it seems that such a big risk would require a big reward, something Heitmeier was in position to give as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee which handles the budget matters.

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