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Ruling Louisiana

Jim Gabour
23 July 2008

Important issues, matters which will define who we are as a people, took centre-stage at the just-ended legislative session in the state of Louisiana. The universal and the trivial roared through political processes and merged into a swirling storm of self-indulgence that eventually, through an extended sequence of events, had a very real impact on the upcoming American presidential race.

Jim Gabour's articles for openDemocracy are collected in the latest edition of the openDemocracy Quarterly For details of Undercurrent: Life after Katrina, click hereLawmaking is a varied and occasionally otherworldly business.

Just ask Mom for a note.

In a New Orleans grammar school, if you suspect there may be a shoot-out at "Bring Your Dad to School Day" and your own parents want to insure your survival, you must first get them to sign a permission slip a day in advance.

Bill 1153 proposed by representative Chris Hazel makes it a crime to wear body-armour or bullet-proof vests on school campuses or at school-sponsored functions. But as amended the bill will allow the wearing of body-armour on school grounds if the principal or chancellor is simply told in writing twenty-four hours prior to the child wearing a bullet-resistant vest.

Child molesters at carnival beware.

Molesters can only play dress-up on regular weekdays, but can on no occasion whatsoever carry Hershey bars, at least for distribution.

The house voted 89-3 to approve senate bill 143 by senator Nick Gautreaux that would prohibit sex offenders from wearing masks or costumes on Mardi Gras and other holidays. It also prohibits them from giving candy or other gifts to people younger than 18, at any time.

If you wish to murder your political-science professor, you should wait until next year to do so.

Representative Ernest Wooton withdrew house bill 199 and admitted he did not have the votes to pass the bill, which he designed to allow concealed weapons to be carried on the campuses of universities. Wooton claimed it lacked support because it was targeted by editorial writers and opposition from university officials. Onto whose campuses he would bring guns.

But he warned that he will bring the bill back "at every session I can", including next year's.

Dad, I didn't know I was an illegal alien.

House bill 738 by representative Damon Baldone was passed allowing children who are at least 12 years old to work in their parents' businesses, rather than waiting for the current legal age of 14. The bill requires parents to get employment certificates for their children if they ask them to help out at the family business.

The bill is headed to Governor Bobby Jindal's desk for signature into law.

Bobby Jindal. Remember that name. He is the new man in office, a prodigy -- the youngest-ever United States governor and the first person of Indian origin elected to the highest state office.

Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. He lives in New Orleans, where he is artist-in-residence and professor of video technology at Loyola University. His website is here A selection of Jim Gabour's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"This is personal" (23 April 2007)

"Cutting loose" (4 May 2007)

"Mahatma 189" (11 May 2007)

"Undercurrent" (22 June 2007)

"Cry Oncle!"(12 July 2007)

"Lessons in the classics" (6 August 2007)

"The recurring anniversary of wilderness" (28 August 2007)

"Native to America" (26 September 2007)

"Number One with a bullet" (22 October 2007)

"The upper crust" (8 November 2007)

"Windfall" (17 December 2007)

"Jesus pulls a right cross" (25 February 2008)

"Show me some ID, so I can kill you" (30 April 2008)

While Jindal spent time these last weeks honing the over-compromised and ornate ethics reform bills he had promised in his campaign, the legislature tackled the tougher issues. Desperate health and education needs lay dormant awaiting action, as politicians struggled with deeper personal crises.

State representative Nickie Monica, reaffirmed in multiple meetings that house bill 455 was important, despite a tide of criticism affirming otherwise. Monica wants to allow the fleur-de-lis symbol's use on official documents, and was incensed by charges that he was authoring insignificant and time-consuming legislation.

"What I wanted to do is to make people proud of the fleur-de-lis", he said to the press. After multiple meetings Monica agreed to make it "a" symbol rather than "the" state symbol. This he proclaimed a worthy compromise. "I didn't want to knock the pelican off the state flag", he said.

The flag of the city of New Orleans holds multiple fleur-de-lis, a variation on the flag of the Bourbons.

Coincidentally, bourbon is important in New Orleans.

Are we whirling yet?

And along those lines, the house and senate faced off in separate committee sessions on how to handle the Sazerac, one of the nation's oldest cocktails, since it first splashed into a glass in the 1830s. And even though it is made with rye whiskey rather than bourbon, some legislators felt it necessary to make a statement about the drink's importance.

But the full senate rejected senate bill 6 by senator Edwin Murray to make the drink the official state cocktail, saying it should be limited to being recognised as the official cocktail of New Orleans.

More conservative senators also protested, proclaiming that glorifying any alcoholic beverage would send the wrong signal to the rest of America, and even the world, who might now suspect imbibing in our midst.

In spite of that, the house favoured Murray's bill to make the drink the state's official cocktail, forcing the measure into a joint house-senate conference committee to resolve differences. The dual group dropped much of its other legislative agenda and considered the subtle implications of ennobling liquor over three more days of intense work.

The governor, too, was working or actually not working, at important governmental affairs, declining to confirm the English professor nominated by the prior governor to be poet laureate of the state. Jindal refused to send the scholar's name to the senate for confirmation, refusing him a poetic license.

Swirling.

As the session drew to a close, the legislature, exhausted by dealing with intellectual crises like those above, suddenly voted itself a 300% pay raise, over the vehement objections of both the public and media. Unlike the Sazerac affair, there was little debate and almost no committee meetings.

The all-too-arrogant politicians had not bargained for the uproar that ensued, but faced with the denunciations, and operating solely in the spirit of true democracy, diminished their raises to 200%. Public forums were if anything even more incensed by this second move. The voting public wondered aloud if their representatives were this far out of touch with the populace of the state, most of whom subsist on far smaller incomes than those who govern them.

Voters demanded the new governor veto the raise, which he had explicitly said he would do before his election, both in printed campaign material and in speeches. But it seems that when faced with trying to get his reform bills passed, he had subsequently assured the legislature that he would not get involved in their business, no matter his earlier commitments.

Jindal decried the bill as totally out-of-line with the interests of the state and encouraged the lawmakers to kill it before it became law, but over and over repeated adamantly that he would not use his veto power to stop the raise. It was their business, not his.

Then he left town.

Pathos swirling.

He had gatherings of more import than a mere state legislature to attend.

As one of the up-and-coming stars of the Republican Party, Jindal was invited, with two other prospective vice-presidential candidates, to an informal barbecue at presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain's ranch in Arizona.

"The senator is just having a few folks over for dinner", was how press aides tried to characterise the get-together.

Jindal went for the barbecue, posed with McCain in staged media events. He went to Washington and New York to be interviewed as a serious prospect for the second-in-command job. He is affable, good-looking, young (especially as opposed to McCain), of admirable ethnic origin, had been brilliant at bureaucratic problem-solving as a Louisiana secretary of health, was elected handily over Democrats, and now heads a southern state. All things the Republicans badly need.

National magazines lionised him, his wife, his family, his origins, and heralded his arrival on the national stage.

Then he came home.

To a raging firestorm.

The pay-raise controversy had spun out of control. Recall petitions for Jindal and five other legislators were receiving enormous attention. The front and editorial pages of every newspaper in the state were pointing out the discrepancy between his campaign promises and the current situation. The talk shows were seething with public discontent. At the same time, the legislators were literally screaming over the hubbub that he must keep his promise to them first, the public be damned.

Jindal caved, to the voters.

"I thank the people for their voice and their attention", he said in a news conference right before the raise was to become final. "The voters have demanded change. . . I made a mistake by staying out if it."

"The bottom line is that allowing this excessive legislative pay raise to become law would so significantly undercut our reform agenda and so significantly diminish the people's confidence in their own government that I cannot let it become law, so I have vetoed the bill."

He had also waffled. Even though he admitted he was wrong, he had waffled. In full view of his constituents. His once-overwhelming popularity numbers in the polls dropped out of sight.

And just like that, the brief McCain love affair was over.

Once courted, now spurned, there will be no more invitations to the larger forums.

Have a Sazerac, Bobby.

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