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Lean, Mean, and Fighting Machines

By now, everyone should be painfully aware the proposed budget for the next fiscal year – which begins July 1 – is too lean to ...

By now, everyone should be painfully aware the proposed budget for the next fiscal year – which begins July 1 – is too lean to adequately pay for all the necessary state government services. It’s why state lawmakers are rushing to finish the work of the current regular session, so they can start a special session next week and provide some revenue nutrition.

Whether House leadership has an appetite to do so remains the big question. We should be able to gauge their hunger quotient somewhat on Thursday, as the full House will discuss and vote on the Senate’s changes to the budget bill. Expect plenty of partisan posturing, and more than a few raised voices, as the lengthy workdays needed to complete stacks of pending legislation have eroded proprieties among the legislators.

Maybe it’s exhaustion that’s bringing out the bigotry, but certain lawmakers are no longer hiding their meanness. Last week, Rep. Kenny Havard (R-Jackson) was again the model of misogyny, offending his female colleagues during debate over a bill to address safety and hygiene issues for female prisoners. It prohibits male correctional officers from entering areas where women prisoners might be undressed without announcing their entry. Havard, who has made no secret of his disapproval of female guards in male prisons, offered an amendment to require the same of women guarding male prisoners.

“We all want to be equal until it’s time for men to be equal,” he said, when the ladies of the House objected.

For the Women’s Caucus, it was Havard’s “third strike” on their scorecard. He had previously made derogatory comments about female prison guards in the early weeks of this session, and in 2016, he authored the infamous “stripper amendment”, trying to tack weight and age limitations for exotic dancers onto a bill intended to combat human trafficking.

This week’s poster child for prejudice is Rep. Tony Bacala. The Prairieville Republican has been delivering a diatribe on his belief that Medicaid recipient fraud is rampant in Louisiana at every available opportunity. His insistence on its existence and his determination to root it out triggered the meltdown of the earlier special session this year.

He brought the bill back this session, and when arguing Tuesday for the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee to advance it, here’s what he said:

“Every dollar we divert to someone who should not get it is a dollar we keep from someone who could use it. If we’re really worried about our poor and needy, we should be dividing the pie of money for the Louisiana Department of Health among those who are truly deserving. The pie remains the same, and we can spend more per capita on those who deserve it if we don’t spend on those who don’t deserve it.”

Leaving aside momentarily the judgmentalism implicit in the use of the word “deserving”, the foundation of Bacala’s argument is a lie. That’s not how Medicaid funding works.

The state receives a set amount of money PER Medicaid enrollee. If someone is disqualified from the program, the state does NOT get to keep the money and share it among others who do qualify. Louisiana has to give the funds for that individual back to the feds. The pie does NOT remain the same.

As for who might – on Bacala’s ledger – qualify as “deserving” of assistance, his argument for Sen. Sharon Hewitt’s SB 400 is revealing. The bill shuts down some of the “stat deds”, statutorily dedicated funds, and sweeps their dollars back into state general fund use. Bacala could have used any of the forty funds being eliminated as an example. He chose one.

“Take for example the ‘Sickle Cell Fund’,” Bacala said on the House floor Wednesday afternoon, “It is of no use. It’s been there since 2015, no money in it, so I don’t think it had a real purpose.”

Sickle cell is an inherited form of anemia that most commonly affects African-Americans. Those with the genetic disease are a ”protected class” under federal labor laws.

As was said during the House floor debates over Bacala’s Medicaid bill during the prior special session, “It is what it is.”

Also on Wednesday, the big distraction from numerous weighty issues lawmakers are still considering was the report that a House member and a Senate member had gotten into a bar fight the night before – over a piece of legislation. Sen. Norby Chabert (R-Houma), chairman of the Senate Natural Resources committee had allegedly punched Rep. Stuart Bishop (R- Lafayette, chairman of the House Natural Resources committee over SB 433, changing the makeup of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority board.

Initially reported mid-morning by Gannett’s Greg Hilburn, the story quickly hit the wire services and social media, and prompted each lawmaker to make a formal apology to his respective chamber, with each insisting that they are “still friends. We had a gentleman’s disagreement and settled it with our hands.”

By afternoon, each was in demand by reporters, as well as by circles of lobbyists. I asked Bishop – who had said his swings on Chabert never landed – if he was going to display his bruises. He pointed to his ribs on each side and the back of his shoulder and told me he was “pretty banged up”. Chabert displayed no visible signs of the alleged fist fight, not even reddened knuckles. And subsequent inquiries made to the Baton Rouge Police Department resulted in a statement that they had no record of being called to the bar the night before.

However, several lawmakers told me they had no doubt the incident had occurred, and that Chabert was the aggressor. He has a reputation for trying to settle disagreements with his fists.

Rep. Kenny Cox (D-Natchitoches) recounted an incident that occurred during the 2017 regular session. Cox, who is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, had a bill to require polluting industries that were “repeat offenders” to install fenceline monitoring equipment. Chabert came over to the House to inform Cox his bill would not, under any circumstances, be getting a hearing in his committee. When Cox protested, asking why, he says, “The senator put up his dukes and advanced on me.”

Other nearby members of the Black Caucus stepped in and defused the situation, and Cox says, “He apologized later, admitting he’d been under tremendous pressure from the Chemical Association to kill the bill.”

What is now verifiable about this most recent “fist fight” seems to resemble something known in radio broadcasting as “stunting” – when a station plays uncharacteristic music, done when they’re about to change format, call letters, frequency, or even ownership. It’s a way to generate more publicity and audience attention.

It’s certainly in keeping with Chabert’s prior campaign themes. He had this billboard:

And in February 2014, Chabert did this video campaign ad, called “Norby Chabert Fights Like Hell”.

For what change is this particular attention being sought?

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