If Louisiana populists, liberals, Democrats, and defenders of the status quo in the issue area of education get tired of any single concept during this legislative session, it is the thought that elections have consequences, as committee deliberations of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee demonstrated this morning.
At stake were a couple of retreads from past sessions. This year’s HB 89 by state Rep. Tony Ligi would prevent local elected bodies from making collective bargaining decisions in executive session, which by law do not have to be in a public setting. It stemmed from an incident two years in Jefferson Parish, where its school board’s members, after a pro-union majority had been defeated in elections, tried to push through additional union recognition in the system. Mainly through (un)lucky timing, it never got implemented and the new board negated any chance of its resurrection.
Last year, Ligi brought forward essentially the same bill as he did this year to the committee. There, his HB 204 got rejected by the same committee – but with a much different membership even as it had a Republican majority then. Then, the bill was defeated by a vote of 8-7, aided by four GOP absences but, more crucially, two Republicans voting for defeat – state Rep. Greg Cromer, no longer part of the committee, and former state Rep. Jane Smith, term-limited and then defeated in a bid for the Senate, in part because of the vote cast by this former Bossier Parish school superintendant.
But times changed, principally the composition of the committee’s membership. This year, Ligi made basically the same argument: that to exclude the public from the actual negotiating process when a public body met allowed for potential mischief to take place, collusion between a body and union that may not be in the public interest. Left unsaid was the rationale why this could be expected in an environment cordoned off from public view: this collusion would not be in the citizenry’s best interest but biased towards unions, because unions had great political clout that disproportionately could assist members and their political allies in reelection efforts or future political office-seeking, in exchange for favorable decisions.
A year ago, all sorts of specific arguments about the concept were made by opponents, some worthy of consideration, but only one ever addressing the only real point of the legislation that nothing about the bill was damaging to the process of governing in general, or specifically in the collective bargaining process. This counter, again brought up this year, was that having the public present at these times would create a circus-like atmosphere with lots of public comment.
But, so what? These bodies can regulate the amount and decorum of public input, where a typical standard is to limit time per speaker to five minutes. And if meeting lasts hours because of that, what’s wrong with that? The answer to that, unspoken by union representatives, is that they cannot use their time-honored strategy of throwing as many union members as possible onto the podium to intimidate policy-makers because long meetings get in the way of work days. So, what they want to do is to make the threat to keep the bill from becoming law, hoping policy-makers don’t realize it is empty, hoping these officials don’t figure out that by waiting them out, by putting up with long meetings, they can defeat this heavy-handedness.
In fact, one union representative openly made this threat in this year’s testimony, that if the bill passed, there would be a couple of hundred of his members present at the next negotiating session. Ligi wouldn’t bite, called him out on it (netting a hasty denial from the heavy despite the lack of ambiguity of what he had said moments earlier), saying he welcomed all that public input, and asked to be invited to give some himself in future situations under his bill.
Also this year, the officials tried to argue the lack of the law’s necessity by virtue of the outcome in Jefferson Parish that defeated the surreptitious contract, and that, if something was not going on in the public interest, voters could eject the elected officials responsible. Again, Ligi was having none of it and slew the argument easily: why not prevent something like that from happening in the first place with a modification that would not in any way injure the process, instead of letting the harm happen and then dealing with it? Opponents had no answer for this retort. Indeed, Ligi closed debate as he had the previous year, pointing out the public should review contracts because the employer in these instances is the public, and it was entirely appropriate that they should observe employer-employee matters where specific personnel decisions were not being made.
Not surprisingly, a year later the outcome was far different. With seven Republicans and four Democrats on the committee, the bill advanced 8-2, with Democrat state Rep. Mike Danahay voting in favor (although he previously had voted favorably on a substitute motion to defeat the bill, and voted against it last year) and one Democrat absent. And as a result, this appeared to take the wind out of the sails of union representatives, who found another bill of even longer history not to their liking.
Two years ago, state Rep. Steve Carter brought forward HB 410, to put a consecutive three-term limit on school board members if a mandatory local option election produced an affirmative vote. Then it passed both the committee and House, only to have been sat on to death in the Senate. Vigorous debate from legislators and from the public through comments in committee had ensued then.
This year, with state Rep. Steve Pugh now carrying the idea in his HB 292, almost perfunctorily the committee passed it along, 5-3, all Democrats present opposing. None of the opposing representatives spoke against it, and only Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, from the public spoke against it. Predictably, he also had spoken against HB 89, where he had made lucid if easily rebutted points, however now he launched into a rambling jeremiad, implying that elections should obviate the need for limits, threatening recall elections as a form of term limitation, but spending most of his time talking about how this and other bills dealing with education seemed to show a democratic deficit in the state, saying we should mourn the situation, blaming the public for it, and maintaining that limits on members would allow the staff to take over running things.
To conclude, he said, “Go for it.” All in all, it was a desultory, if not dispirited display for all the world sounding like somebody who knew he had no chance of winning this argument, both bitter against but also resigned to a larger environment that he clearly understood was not going anytime soon the way of his special interest (and for their wackiness his remarks should be heard by readers in full: go to around the 2:01 mark here). After Chairman Tim Burns chided him for the erroneous observation, where Burns said he thought the newcomers to the House courtesy of term limits were an informed and thoughtful bunch, the vote confirmed the fate of Monaghan and his ilk, who oppose limitation because it disrupts compositions of boards they have captured through holding out benefits of a symbiotic electoral relationship they can establish with long-standing members.
It was as if the HB 89 outcome was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Entrenched for decades unchallenged in their abilities to bring home the bacon for their special interest, in the process giving scarcely a thought to how to improve education in the state and none whatsoever to increasing accountability to the public, this slow erosion of this position of power and privilege has turned into this session – and it’s early yet – a full scale dam bursting. They knew it was headed this direction, but full realization of the new, permanent order only now seems to have invaded fully their consciousnesses. Not just the success of HB 89 but the way in which it succeeded – no Republicans taking a walk, no strays to pick off, and both of these conditions now indicated on the Democrat side of the debate – clearly signals this and the several other bills designed to reign in special interests’ power in education are going through, leaving these opponents only with empty threats and delusions of grandeur marking their placement in the public policy-making process.
And it all comes back to the consequences of elections. The state’s voters simply concluded they no longer could afford these prior privileged dragging down efforts to pull the state’s educational attainment out of decades’ worth of morass, leaving the prior privileged now railing impotently against the world they never made in which now they must exist. For the sake of children and opportunity in this state, it’s just so sad it did not happen so much sooner.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 15:40