The first legislative salvo has been fired but it remains to be seen whether it will become merely an isolated sniper’s round or if it will escalate into an all-out battle between state lawmakers and Gov. Piyush Jindal.
Rep. Jerome “Dee” Richard (I-Thibodaux) Wednesday morning sent an email to his fellow legislators in the Louisiana House and Senate asking for their support in calling a special session of the legislature to consider reversing what he describes as “a complete disregard of the Legislative branch’s powers by this administration.”
Richard’s email comes as a result to deep budget cuts to higher education and health care, as well as the announcement of hospital and prison closures—all announced by Jindal since the end of the regular legislative session and without prior notification to legislators in the areas affected by the cutbacks.
The Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center in Houma, part of the LSU Health System that is undergoing massive budget cuts, is in his area as is Nicholls State University in Thibodaux. “If they reduce Chabert to a clinic, it will cripple that facility,” he said.
Asked if he was concerned that Jindal might strip him of his committee assignments as he did with Rep. Harold Ritchie (D-Franklinton) and Rep. Jim Morris (R-Oil City) who voted against Jindal-backed bills in the last legislative session, Richard said, “The governor can do what he wants to do; I do what I have to do.”
Richard serves on the House committees on Education, Labor and Industrial Relations, and Transportation, Highways and Public Works.
He said he was not attempting to threaten the governor. “I just want the legislature more involved,” he said.
The procedure for legislators’ calling themselves into special session requires for one-third of each chamber’s membership (35 in the House and 13 in the Senate) to sign a petition which would then be delivered to the clerk of the House and secretary of the Senate.
They, in turn, would be required to send individual petitions within 48 hours to each member of the legislature for his or her signature. Lawmakers would then have 20 days in which to return their individual petitions and once a majority of each chamber concurs, the presiding officers (Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, and House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles) must issue the call for the special session.
Richard, like other members of the House and Senate, is also upset at Jindal’s habit of leaving legislators out of the loop so that they often find out about administrative decisions that affect their legislative districts only after announcements are made by the governor’s office.
Two cases in point are the recently-announced closures of Southeast Louisiana Hospital in Mandeville, scheduled for next month, and last Friday’s announced closure of the C. Paul Phelps Correctional Center in DeQuincy.
Lawmakers in both areas say they were not notified in advance of Jindal’s plans to close those facilities. One of those legislators is House Speaker Kleckley.
The Phelps closure will mean that some 940 prisoners will have to be moved to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel. But of even greater concern to lawmakers is the fate of more than 250 prison employees who will face layoffs in a rural community that is largely dependent on the facility for employment.
Likewise, the closure of the 174-bed Southeast Louisiana Hospital, slated to begin Oct. 1, will mean the loss of about 300 jobs. The closure of Southeast, along with the earlier closure of state mental health facilities in Orleans Parish, leaves the entire southeastern area of the state without access to state mental health treatment.
Following the 2009 closure of New Orleans Adolescent Hospital, Jindal said those patients would be able to receive treatment at Southeast. Now that Southeast is facing closure, one reader asked, “Where will they go now, to Mississippi?”
Rep. Dorothy Sue Hill (D-Dry Creek) said she learned of the closure of C. Paul Phelps Correctional Center about a half-hour before the announcement was made by Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc.
“I was devastated,” she said, adding that DeQuincy is in the rural northern part of Calcasieu Parish and that a large number of its residents are dependent on the facility. “I don’t understand why they (the administration) don’t realize that rural people need jobs also,” she said. “This is a good place for jobs. We can’t all move to Baton Rouge or New Orleans. They don’t want to live there.”
Rep. Brett Geymann (R-Lake Charles) called the abrupt announcement without advance notice to legislators “a lack of respect” for area legislators.
Rep. John Smith (R-Leesville) echoed the sentiments of Hill and Geymann when he said the secrecy of the move “perplexes me more than anything.”
Sticking to what has become an increasingly obvious policy of revealing as little as possible, the Department of Corrections did not respond to questions about why southwest Louisiana lawmakers were not included in the decision-making process.
“This is a good deal for Louisiana taxpayers and will result in significant savings while maintaining public safety,” was the only official response from the department. There was no further explanation as to where savings might be realized or how the closure was a good deal for the state—explanations that would seem easy enough to provide if the administration chose to do so.
Having provided the backdrop for the simmering resentment of Jindal that apparently has been building in the legislature, here is the content of Richard’s letter to his colleagues:
I respectfully ask that each of you read this email in its entirety and then ask yourself if you agree that we should immediately call ourselves in to special session. If you agree I ask that you respond to my legislative email address in order to begin the process of petitioning the body in order to reach a majority. While I acknowledge that this is not easy for each of us to decide I feel that it is time for us to get back into the process and our Constitution provides for that to happen.
Like many of you, I am passionate about the well-being of this state and its people and will continue to stand for the things that I believe in whether it be during session or while we are not in session. I believe that we are witnessing a complete disregard of the Legislative branch’s powers by this administration and must address this immediately or we shall find ourselves completely left out of the budget process. When we as a body are not convened in regular session, but have important matters to address, we do not have to wait until next year’s annual session. Our state Constitution provides a mechanism for us to meet in other times in order to enable the Legislature to continue the checks and balances of state government.
Extraordinary Sessions and the Need to Convene
As per Article III, Section 2(B) of the Constitution, the state “legislature may be convened at other times” in “Extraordinary Sessions,” (informally known as special sessions). It is during special sessions that legislators may address important items or “objects” as they are referred to in Article III.
Since our adjournment in June, there has been almost a billion dollars in reductions to the state budget without any input from the Legislature. And thanks to some media outlets we are now learning of still more cuts to healthcare without any input from the Legislature. And we know that mid-year cuts are approaching and these will be made with no input from the Legislature. We spent many hours during the past session debating the budget and trying to protect health care and higher ed and then after adjournment cuts were made with no input from legislators.
I believe it is time for us, as Legislators, to aggressively reinsert ourselves into the budget process by using the Constitutional rights given to us. We should not have to relinquish our legislative duties to the administration once we pass the budget at the end of regular session in times like this. I am tired of explaining to constituents and at civic gatherings that there is nothing we can do once the budget is passed.
There IS a PROCESS:
As stated earlier, Article III, Section (B) of the Constitution authorizes the Legislature to call itself into session for up to a maximum of 30 days. A majority of House members (53) and a majority of Senate members (20) must be in favor of convening and, if so, its members choose the time and the Call.
I would like to see the Call include the discussion of health care and higher ed and how we can determine just how reductions are made. The Constitution allows for us to set the agenda and each of you may have other interests to bring before the body.
Please understand that Louisiana Revised Statutes 24:11 sets forth the procedure for calling ourselves into special session. First, we will need a petition signed by 35 members of the House and by 13 members of the Senate, which would be delivered to the presiding officer in each. Within 48 hours of receipt of petition, the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House are then required to send individual petitions to each member for their signature. We, as Legislators, then have 20 days to return our individual petitions and once a majority of each house is reached, the presiding officers must call the Legislature into special session.
It is OUR CHOICE.
This is how I look at the situation: we can either continue to stand by and allow the administration (to) amend the budget; or we can do what we were elected to do; to represent our constituents. The Constitution gives us that right. The choice is up to each one of us.
In closing, I fully understand that convening and conducting a special session will not be easy but think about the cuts that our hospitals and universities are having to make and will continue to be forced to make while we, as local elected representatives, sit back and try to defend those cuts that we know nothing about. Please know that I respect each and every one of you, regardless of your decision to support or not to support a special session. I simply ask that you take the time to respond to this email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jerome “Dee” Richard
La. State House of Representatives
District 55, Lafourche Parish
Thibodaux, La. 70301