By Jeremy Alford and Mitch Rabalais
While a proposed hike in the state’s gasoline tax has been hogging the limelight in terms of transportation chatter at the Capitol, members of the House panel that has oversight of the broader policy issue have been wading through less controversial bills.
That action included votes to create a new specialty license plate to benefit the ALS work of former New Orleans Saint Steve Gleason and to reject a limited proposal that would have allowed a small community to use golf carts on streets.
The tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee will get the first crack at hearing the gas tax bill over the next few weeks. But it’s ultimately up to members of the House Transportation, Highways and Public Works Committee to help guide future policy on roads and bridges, and all things connected to them.
That means an agenda of half a dozen bills for the transportation committee, which held discussions on classifications in the state highway system, public-private partnerships, permit fees and toll violations.
The committee also approved HB 318 by House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, which creates the “Team Gleason Foundation” specialty license plate. If at least 1,000 plates are ordered, royalty monies connected to the $28.50 fee will help those who have neuromuscular diseases similar to Gleason’s.
Gleason is best known for his blocked punt during the first game in the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina. But Leger told the committee his impact is much wider. “He’s more famous now for the courage he’s displayed since being diagnosed with ALS in 2011,” Leger said.
Receiving a red light from the transportation committee was HB 117 by Rep. Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, which sought to authorize golf carts to be used for crossing certain Louisiana highways in the town of Church Point.
“I just have some major, major concerns,” said House Transportation Chairman Terry Landry, D-Lafayette, echoing other sentiments voiced before lawmakers put the bill on pause.
Senate Chair Reaches Out To Hank Jr.
If you were a Louisiana legislator pushing legislation that’s connected to the legacy of the late Hank Williams and one of his classic country ditties, who would you call for help?
If you’re Senate Natural Resources Chairman Norby Chabert, you reach out to the dude with the beard and the shades from Monday Night Football — Hank William, Jr., who was born in Shreveport in 1949. In a nod to that mile-marker, Hank Jr. wrote “Born to Boogie” in the 1980s, noting he was “Born on the bayou on the Texas line. Loved Louisiana and [was] raised on jambalaya.”
Chabert, a Republican from Terrebonne Parish, has filed SB 192 for the regular session to designate Hank Williams, Sr.’s “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” as one of the state’s official songs. The bill would also designate the Cajun waltz as the official state dance.
The senator’s staff has asked Hank Jr. to consider making a trip to the Capitol to support the issue.
“I think just having him here would be awesome,” Chabert said, admitting a Bocephus sighting this session is probably unlikely. He did say he has received letters of support from a country and western museum in Alabama.
While Louisiana already has two official songs on the books, Chabert believes that Williams’ song touches on the Bayou State’s culture far more than the others.
“‘Jambalaya’ speaks to the iconic status of a lot of the symbols that represent Louisiana,” he said.
The bill would not remove any of the state’s current official songs, “Give Me Louisiana” and “You Are My Sunshine,” the latter being the signature hit of late Gov. Jimmie Davis.
“We are in no way trying to change ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ as a state song,” Chabert said. “This is just us trying to add another song to our official playlist.”
Chabert said that he first noticed some glaring issues with Davis’ song after hearing it at an event for the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame and Museum in Winnfield.
“‘You Are My Sunshine’ is great, but it is a pretty depressing song if you get past the first few lyrics,” he said. “Plus, it is not really representative of Louisiana in any way other than Jimmie Davis.”
Chabert said he wanted to designate the Cajun waltz as Louisiana’s official dance after learning that other states had similar categorizations in place. Traditionally, other governors perform a state dance as the opening to their inaugural ball — a custom that Chabert hopes to bring to the Bayou State.
Con-Con Idea Lives On
No bills or resolutions have been introduced for the regular session to address the issue of another constitutional convention, which had otherwise become a perennial topic at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge.
And even if a proposal did surface, passage would still be a long shot.
On the political side, however, the issue is still very much alive. Public advocacy groups and business associations are expected to take up outreach campaigns this summer, and a well-funded activist organization intends to make the matter a campaign topic.
The Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority and Associated Builders and Contractors, for example, have asked candidates to discuss the issue in questionnaires.
Constitutional Coalition 2020, founded by businessman Lane Grigsby, has even gained commitments from newly-elected Reps. Chris Turner, Ryan Bourriaque and Mike Johnson, who all voiced support for a “People’s Constitutional Convention,” as consultant Kyle Ruckert calls it.
“It’s something that I am definitely interested in looking into,” Turner said.
Political Eyes Turn To Decided House Race
When a special election on the west side of the Mississippi River, in House District 18, yielded a 25-percent turnout — a nearly-unheard of number in this era of extraordinary legislative races — many politicos were left scratching their heads.
Democrat Jeremy LaCombe carried the district with 69 percent of the vote, crushing challenger Tami Fabre and ending the GOP’s hopes of picking up a district that had been a longtime target.
“We worked our butts off knocking on doors,” Rep. LaCombe said.
Republican consultant Chris Comeaux, who managed Fabre’s campaign, said the election carries big implications for other races that will be waged this fall.
“It is a wake-up call,” Comeaux said. “This is what they are going to do in October.”
Comeaux credited LaCombe’s victory with a huge GOTV effort, which the consultant believes could be deployed by the Democrats statewide in the regularly scheduled races this fall — or at least in cherry-picked legislative districts.
Maybe, he added, it revealed the working strategy of Democrats.
“My hope is that they played that card unnecessarily,” Comeaux said.
Democratic consultant Michael Beychok, who managed independent expenditures related to voter turnout, said that a targeted, professional ground game was key. But he wouldn’t divulge much more.
Those close to the process, though, suggest other high-profile consultants were involved, from New Orleans and Chicago, with one having firm connections to the successful campaigns of former President Barack Obama.
“We know on what doors to knock,” Beychok said. “As contact increases so does voter turnout.”
For more Louisiana political news, visit LaPolitics.com or follow Alford and Rabalais on Twitter via @LaPoliticsNow.