Speaker Striking Out on Clout

It appears the Senate is not as enamored of Speaker Taylor Barras as his sycophants in the House. The Speaker’s marquee pieces of legislation have run into roadblocks in the upper chamber. Bills that are carryovers from the prior ineffective special session – measures that Barras demanded become part of that call – are stalled, awaiting hearings in Senate Finance. They include the “Louisiana Checkbook” bill, HB 510, and HCR 5 which recalculates and reduces the spending limit for the upcoming fiscal year. The spending cap passed the House on a unanimous vote, 97-0, and the transparency website measure advanced to the upper chamber on a vote of 96-2. That bill has a multi-million-dollar pricetag. Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary A Committee slammed the trunk closed on the Speaker’s bill to grant ride-sharing services Lyft and Uber authority to operate statewide – the same committee that put the brakes on a similar bill last year. In 2017, Rep. Kenny Havard (R-Jackson) carried the legislation, and the ride-sharing services – backed by LABI in their efforts – turned to Barras this year, hoping his weight behind the bill would help drive it through. Unfortunately the two companies, both headquartered in California, don’t quite understand how things work in Louisiana. And the Speaker – who should know how things work here – doesn’t have the clout to force a fundamentally flawed piece of legislation past certain senators. “Forty-four other states have consistent policy for these transportation network companies,” Barras told the committee, “And this is needed because access to ridesharing services in Louisiana varies widely. For example, you can access the service in Lafayette, but can’t get a ride from them in Broussard or Carencro.” The bill calls for the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry to regulate the industry. “Why in the hell are we having the Department of Agriculture regulate this?” asked Sen. Danny Martiny (R-Kenner). “Shouldn’t it be the Public Service Commission, just like conventional taxis?” “The Department of Agriculture actually regulates more taxis than the PSC,” replied Uber’s Nick Juliano. “They regulate the taxi meters,” Martiny replied. That is part of the Ag Department’s duties as the state regulator of weights and measures. Just as they certify gas pumps are accurately measuring fuel, and scales at grocery store checkouts are accurately weighing your fruits and vegetables, the Department of Agriculture certifies that cab meters are measuring the distance traveled accurately. Martiny wanted to hear the Public Service Commission’s position on all this. “Right now, we are the constitutionally designated regulator of passenger carriers,” stated PSC executive secretary Brandon Frey. “Is what Uber and Lyft do in any way different than the passenger carriers you regulate now?” Martiny asked. “No,” Frey replied, “It’s effectively the same. They may be using new technology, but – to give you an analogy – we also regulate telephone service. And just like cellphones and VOIP are new technologies, we still regulate them, since they are essentially still telephonic service.” “If the Legislature was to designate Uber and Lyft as common carriers – passenger carriers – the PSC would be required to regulate them?” Martiny inquired. “Correct,” Frey said. Another major cause for concern in the bill was background checks for drivers. “Let’s face it, the people who are driving for Uber and Lyft are nothing more than glorified cab drivers,” Martiny said. “But this bill says even though you do the same thing as those cab drivers over there, they’ve got to do more, and they’ve got to put up more money, and they’ve got to go through more testing. “Do you fingerprint your drivers?” Martiny asked the Uber representative. “No,” Juliano replied. “The only thing a fingerprint serves to do is discriminate.” “But what if they’re convicted sex offenders?” Martiny wanted to know. “Wasn’t Uber fined $8.9-million in Colorado, because of bad background checks? “We maintain that the federal fingerprint database is fundamentally unreliable,” Juliano responded. “We perform a check through a third party service, going that extra mile that simply checking fingerprints doesn’t do.” Throughout the debate, Speaker Barras stayed silent, not injecting himself in the discussion to explain or defend the provisions – almost as though he was utterly unconversant with the bill’s contents of the controversial provisions. As Speaker, he should have known. And in the end, Barras resorted to the ignominious end of asking to have his bill voluntarily deferred. Barras’ other piece of high-profile legislation is HB 553, which would grant a no-bid 30-year extension to Harrah’s operating contract for the land-based casino in New Orleans. Currently, that contract expires in 2024. The Speaker had no trouble with the measure in his own chamber, with the Criminal Justice committee giving it a 15-0 thumbs-up vote to advance. The full House approved it 79-12. But as The Advocate‘s Tyler Bridges has been reporting, the deal to increase the state’s annual payments from the casino from $60-million to $67-million while Harrah’s invests $350-million in improvements to the property, is not as tidy as presented by the Speaker in the House. First, there’s a five-year option to purchase the casino property and others owned by Harrah’s, which was filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as the Louisiana Gaming Control Board, last October. Extension of the present contract, which runs until 2024, would inflate the overall property value for purposes of that purchase. If, on the other hand, the contract expires, Harrah’s interest in the casino would be worthless. The Speaker has yet to answer whether he knew of the purchase option before Bridges revealed it. The Governor, Senate President, Criminal Justice committee chairman Sherman Mack, and Speaker Pro Temp Walt Leger – who co-sponsored the bill with Barras – have all said they were unaware, according to Bridges. Meanwhile, Harrah’s has reportedly sweetened the deal by offering an additional $21-million, retaining more than a dozen lobbyists to push the legislation forward. And, as Bridges has also pointed out, the bill says future contract extensions – after 2054 – would only go before the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, not the entire legislature. That’s something no one has quizzed the Speaker about. Barras has stated he’s reluctant to commit to an early end to the regular session, as long as the budget bill and the Harrah’s bill are unresolved. When a nola.com reporter asked the Speaker what might happen if the Harrah’s bill didn’t pass, he responded, “the building could go black until 2054.” That’s because the City of New Orleans has already extended the casino operator’s lease on the building till then. Since the questionable details behind the bill became public, Senate Judiciary B committee chairman Gary Smith (D-Norco) has twice kept the bill off his committee’s agenda. No one should be surprised at Barras’ insubstantial efforts to advocate for his bills. In his eight legislative years prior to ascending to the Speaker’s dais, he authored primarily local bills. The bills he carried of a more general nature – involving notarial functions, mortgage and lender regulations, and leasing laws – were decidedly non-controversial. Yet as Speaker he should have expected heightened scrutiny of any bill to which he attached his name, and – in the case of the Harrah’s legislation – he should have done his homework. Instead, he continues to waffle over ending the session early, using that as oblique pressure to try and keep the Harrah’s bill on track. Senate President John Alario told reporters Tuesday that he’d met with Barras that morning, and it appeared they were in agreement they could end the session by May 18. But when directly quizzed about it, the Speaker said the two had simply compared their calendars, agreeing that target might be “do-able” – calendar-wise. Barras insisted he’s made no decision as yet. As a clever tweet from @skooks described this: “Reporter: So the end of the session is May 18? Barras: Who? Reporter: Sine die. Barras: Third base!” Time to get sent back to the minors.
Previous articleThe (False) Frontal Assault Against Louisiana’s Medicaid Recipients
Next articleBudget Warfare Is Coming
Sue Lincoln
Sue Lincoln is a veteran and widely-respected reporter who has been covering Louisiana politics for nearly three decades. Originally from Long Beach, California, Sue’s career in journalism began on the radio in Los Angeles. After moving to Louisiana, Sue earned her bachelor’s degree. For ten years, from 2000-2010, she was the Assistant News Director at Louisiana Network. Sue also worked as the education reporter for Louisiana Public Broadcasting and has contributed to various state publications as a freelance journalist. But she is perhaps best known as the voice of the popular politics Capitol Access.