Some Lawmakers Lacking In the Spirit of the Season

The second week of this session was another short work week for lawmakers, partly due to an approaching storm system prompting cancellation of Thursday’s scheduled House committee meetings. Additionally, traditionally, neither chamber nor its committees work on Fridays during the early weeks of legislative sessions, and this week it’s Good Friday, marked as the anniversary of Jesus’ crucifixion.

In the Christian faiths, the entire week from Palm Sunday to Easter – including Good Friday – is generally referred to as Holy Week.

Louisiana is proud of its Christian heritage, with the state seal and the state flag both bearing the heraldic device known as “the pelican in her piety” – a mother pelican using blood drops from her own chest to feed her fledglings. The symbol, which has been documented as far back as medieval illustrated manuscripts from the 13th century, is generally considered emblematic of Christian charity, or of the nobility of self-sacrifice.

A Pelican Feeding her Young, illustration in medieval Bestiary, circa 1277, in the UCLA Library collection.

Yet this week some legislators – from both chambers – seemed notably lacking in charitable responses to constituent concerns.

Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary C committee heard testimony on SB 146, authored by J.P. Morrell (D-New Orleans). It would prohibit jailing domestic violence or sexual assault victims that refuse to testify against their abusers. Prosecutors and even defense attorneys presently have the option to get a “material witness warrant” issued, and hold a victim in jail to compel her (or his) testimony at a criminal trial.

“Simply put, you re-traumatize a victim by incarcerating them to make them testify,” Sen. Morrell explained. “And there have been instances where a victim gets more jail time waiting for a trial than the person ultimately convicted gets for the crime.”

Darren Browder from CourtWatch NOLA provided Orleans Parish figures from 2016, when seven witnesses were jailed: some for a single day, others for a week or more, and one for 179 days. Charges in those cases ranged from rape to aggravated assault with a firearm to attempted second degree murder.

Morgan Lamandre with STAR – Sexual Trauma Awareness Response – advised the senate panel that nothing prevents victims incarcerated on a material witness warrant from being held in the same location as the perpetrator.

“Additionally, there’s no ‘right to counsel’ for a victim who does get jailed,” Lamandre said, “Because they are not charged with a crime.”

New Orleans Councilwoman Helena Moreno, who, during her years as a state representative, was known for her advocacy and legislation on behalf of domestic violence victims, told committee members it’s time to end the practice of threatening victims.

“This practice is now considered to be archaic, unwise, and just plain wrong,” Moreno said. “As Houston District Attorney Kim Ogg wrote in a recent editorial for USA Today, ‘In many jurisdictions it is prohibited, as it is an abuse of prosecutorial discretion and an affront to the prosecutor’s duty to further the pursuit of justice’.”

And, Moreno added, “The recent re-authorization of the federal Violence Against Women Act actually calls for states to do away with these policies. Federal funds that go to victim services – in Louisiana, that’s about $5-million per year – are going to be contingent upon compliance.”

“Further victimizing the victims is barbaric,” Sen. Troy Carter (D-New Orleans) agreed, as he acknowledged his co-authorship of this particular bill.

Detail of “Pioneers” sculpture by Lorado Taft, which flanks the front steps of Louisiana’s Capitol.

But Sen. Bodi White (R-Central) wasn’t finding much empathy.

“There are thousands of these cases and we only got data on seven instances, so how bad can it be?” White asked.

“Those seven cases were from one year in one parish,” Sen. Morrell replied.

“Well, except for one case, it wasn’t more than one day,” White blustered. “Of course, nobody wants to go to jail – I don’t want to go to jail – but it is just one day. This is a tool our DAs need, because the rapists and abusers are going to keep doing it again unless we put them in jail.”

“It is an archaic practice that most DAs – including your own – have moved past,” Morrell responded, with exaggerated calmness.

“It’s a tool they need, and a tool that they like!” White insisted.

“They liked non-unanimous juries, too,” Morrell replied, pointedly. “This bill is for victims. It is here at the request of victims’ rights groups.”

“This bill needs work,” said White, who is not an attorney. He owns a security guard agency.

Five of the seven members of the committee were feeling much more charitable toward victims than Sen. White was, and they prevailed, voting to advance the measure to the full Senate.

The bill is presently scheduled for full Senate debate on Monday, April 22.

The most egregious examples that the current cadre of lawmakers lack in benevolence came with the required public testimony on the proposed budget. Until the present term began in 2016, public testimony was held over two full legislative days. Sometimes, the committee would convene on a Saturday to make it accessible for more citizens. This Appropriations chairman, Rep. Cameron Henry (R-Metairie) cut testimony back to one day, and this session, restricted public testimony to a half day.

He scheduled public testimony for this past Wednesday, the same day all lawmakers – House and Senate – were scheduled for their annual afternoon of required ethics training. That meant they would only be able to listen to public comments and pleas for funding for a little over four hours.

Appropriations Committee, Wed., April 17, 2019, during public testimony on budget.

As this photo of the hearing room shows, many of the committee members didn’t even bother to listen to the public for that much time.

Some of the committee members who did stick around for the public comments endeavored to sound compassionate.

Evergreen Life Services assists 35,000 developmentally and intellectually disabled state residents, and regional vice president Sharon Gomez told the House money panel, “We’ve been operating in the red for many years because you’re not fully funding these programs, which are the lowest cost option.”

“There is little we can do today, other than advise you that our ears and eyes are open to your difficulties,” said Rep. Rick Edmonds, (R-Baton Rouge), who is a Baptist minister and the former vice president of the Louisiana Family Forum. “43-million dollars was mentioned. Would that bring you up to a sufficiently funded level?”

“That is just the amount needed to restore rates that were cut in 2008,” Gomez replied. At that time they were reduced to what was appropriate in 2002. That is not an appropriate rate today. The law says rates are to be rebased every three years, based on appropriations of legislature. They have not been rebased since 2008, and that was a reduction.”

“Do you have this information in written form that you can share with us?” Edmonds asked. “That will be helpful and we’ll all have it use when we speak next with LDH.”

Edmonds’ mere mention of the Louisiana Department of Health triggered Rep. Tony Bacala (R-Prairieville), who has denounced that department at every available opportunity.

“Your cries have somewhat been heard,” Bacala told Gomez and other disabilities advocates seated at the testimony table. “We’re proposing an increase of $9-milllion, but not the $43 million you’re asking. That’s because another part of the health budget is getting $1-billion. And, of course, that’s the part where we’ve been finding all the difficulties. That’s where people are cheating the system, using dollars fraudulently that could otherwise go to you.”

Louisiana citizens with disabilities wait outside Appropriations Committee room. The room could not accommodate all those in wheelchairs that showed up for public testimony on the budget.

A possible funding increase of $9-million is welcome news, as the committee has not yet made public how they intend to apportion the additional $119-million in revenue recognized by the Revenue Estimating Conference last week. Yet despite the fact that Rep. Bacala is considered one of the Appropriations Committee’s “insiders”, disabilities advocates were reluctant to begin rejoicing at his words, since his obvious antipathy for the Medicaid program has him persistently exaggerating the facts. In the case of his statements on Wednesday, his slant leaned heavily toward blatant untruth.

“We appropriate broad amounts in categories,” Bacala said, “We give them a bag – a bank account with a finite amount of money – and the Health Department administration decides whether you get it, or the person sitting next to you gets it, or somebody who doesn’t deserve it gets it.”

You’re missing the point of charity, Rep, Bacala. It’s not about “deserving”. As the old German proverb says, “Charity sees the need, not the cause.”

Do baby pelicans “deserve” their mother’s blood?