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Edwards stages bill neutering for partisan interests

The confusing end to a bill that would create incentives for Louisiana’s local law enforcement agencies to follow federal law highlights how the electoral politics of Gov. John Bel Edwards overshadowed the merits behind the bill.

In its original form, HB 1148 by state Rep. Valarie Hodges would have tried to prevent LEAs from failing to follow federal law in conveying information about illegal aliens’ presence in the country. That law requires that LEAs create no affirmative impediment to reporting citizenship or immigrant status to federal authorities. Current policy in New Orleans and Lafayette Parish appear to do that. The penalty would have been restrictions on the ability to use bonding authority.

That bill Democrat Edwards desperately did not want to come to his desk. His party’s larger strategy has encouraged illegal aliens’ presence in order for them to gain citizenship and vote legally or to vote illegally in the belief that they will support disproportionately the party’s candidates. As Edwards’ successful election rested largely on a fiction that he would not govern from the left, he needed on social issues plausible deniability of his true ideological leanings. Having to veto this bill would puncture any tenuous myth that he would govern largely as a social conservative, exposing him as a full spectrum liberal to a center-right state electorate.

The Senate Judiciary A Committee represented his best chance to stop the bill. It had on it just seven members, including three Democrats. However, its lineup wasn’t ideal. While state Sen. Ryan Gatti, nominally a Republican, often voted with Edwards (the two are longstanding friends), constituency pressures would make it difficult for him to vote against the bill. The same applied to state Sen. John Milkovich, who even as a Democrat reliably voted for social conservative issue preferences that his district would expect. Both had supported Edwards in his campaign.

The ace in the hole was state Sen. Danny Martiny. Ironically, or perhaps tellingly, the formal leader of Senate Republicans, he also had supported Edwards in the campaign. During the initial hearings on the bill last week, he raised a number of objections to the bill, but insisted as long as Hodges would go along with a change adjudicatory mechanism to reduce the input that Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry had in the process, he testified his openness to bill passage.

At the initial hearing, another panel member Democrat state Sen. Jay Luneau prepared to offer amendments that essentially would gut the bill by making its enforcement toothless in removing the ability to restrict debt offerings. Out of time, committee chairman Republican state Sen. Sen. Rick Ward said they would take up the bill again this week.

But when the committee convened, both Luneau, the most strident critic, and Milkovich, who had made noises he would approve the bill, went missing. Typically, when key absences happen to discussion of a high-profile bill it means the fix is in, that one side has rigged the process to stage manage a result. The question here was whether concession made by Hodges had sealed enough support for the bill that opponents would duck it, or that Edwards had lined up enough votes to win so as to develop a script that would get his result and senators on the record the way they wanted it in the process.

To onlookers, the advantage would have appeared as Hodges. Only state Sen. Wesley Bishop showed up for Democrats, while all Republicans, including state Sen. Jack Donahue, attended. But as the testimony proceeded, it became more evident that Edwards had the upper hand. His and Martiny’s Republican-in-Name-Only ally Sheriff Newell Normand of Martiny’s Jefferson Parish went to a long, impassioned, and absolutely irrelevant jeremiad against the bill, arguing that the bill would force him to take certain policing actions that would bear no fruit because federal authorities seemed disinterested in catching illegal aliens.

Disingenuously, he dodged the central point that the bill asked only that LEAs not impede following federal law by having policies preventing cooperation with federal authorities. It in no way forced LEAs to question and round up every illegal alien whether incident to a crime nor hold them indefinitely waiting on federal authorities (federal law says 48 hours); it didn’t even say they could not have a sanctuary policy, just that the jurisdiction would have its debt issuance restricted. Contrary to his statements, it did not make his department do anything, just discouraged practices contrary to federal law.

After more testimony, Ward offered an amendment that would make evaluable the question of sanctuary policy not a matter of LEA policy, but only ordinance, greatly reducing the bill’s applicability, signaling his alliance with Martiny and Edwards. Then Donahue offered a set that would reverse that and give the attorney general the ability to use the court system to levy sanctions, including disallowing of funds by the state to an LEA to pursue sanctuary policies by legislative action and restriction of debt issuance – the compromise language pushed by bill supporters. Martiny then reiterated Newell’s line and said he had a simpler solution, just to declare it illegal for anybody to have a formal sanctuary policy in law.

Yet this was as disingenuous a statement as Newell’s. Local government did not have to have in ordinance a prohibition for its LEA and yet the LEA could have a sanctuary policy. But Donahue prevailed on the bill with his vote, Ward’s, and Gatti’s, against Bishop and Martiny. Then Martiny offered his idea as an amendment, removed the penalties except for toothless contempt of court remedies, plus a poison pill to make the state pay for costs to follow federal law. At this juncture, Ward, a former Democrat, switched his vote.

Then Martiny made a motion to defer the bill in its neutered form. Donahue took a walk and the motion tied with Martiny and Bishop voting to defer and Gatti and Ward not to, meaning the bill went nowhere. The choreography now completed, Edwards won in that he prevented a meaningful bill advancing, Ward in that he could straddle the fence by his voting behavior allowing him to claim he opposed sanctuary status yet helped Edwards take out the meaningful version, Gatti in that this alignment of forces allowed him to adhere to his district’s opinion yet not stop his ally Edwards’ preference from triumphing, and Milkovich, who had no competing committee duties that morning and who showed up that afternoon in the Senate’s session, to avoid having to choose between supporting his ally Edwards or doing his constituents’ bidding.

The losers, of course, were Louisianans, particularly in New Orleans and Lafayette Parish. Bad policy that discourages optimal actions for reduction of crime if not terrorism can continue. But that’s just another day in John Bel Edwards’ Louisiana, aided and abetted by a compliant Senate leadership of its chameleon Republican Pres. John Alario who willingly deploys the resources of the body to act as a sieve protecting the partisan interests of Edwards’ at the expense of the people’s.

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