Around noon Monday, March 10, the 2014 session of the state legislature was gaveled in. This year, legislators have three months to pass some laws, and the state budget. The governor isn't wielding an axe this year, but the menu still features plenty of fresh cuts.
Along with the usual fare of guns, education and, as we already mentioned, abortion, this year's choices include pot, wine ice cream and Stand Your Ground. Here's a rundown:
Vouchers will still figure into some floor debates this year, but the hottest education topic in Baton Rouge is Common Core. The national curriculum standards, which are set to be fully implemented in the 2014-15 school year, have galvanized debate across the country, and the Bayou State is no different.
More than a dozen bills already include calls to scrap the new curriculum in Louisiana altogether, as well as mechanisms so the state can create its own standards. However, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) backs the curriculum, which went into effect in 2010.
One bill, filed by Rep. Rob Shadoin, calls for the standards to be phased in, with the first PARCC tests coming at the end of the 2016-17 school year. Shadoin's bill also calls for the state to provide curriculum guides to school districts and charter schools, and provide technology to schools that are not currently equipped to offer the tests.
Those beloved Bayou State pastimes of food and booze also figure heavily into this year's action. HB 471, offered by Rep. Marcus Hunter, looks to make it legal to sell wine ice cream in Louisiana. When Boonville, NY-based Mercer's Dairy tried to bring their line of wine ice cream into Louisiana, AG Buddy Caldwell's office ruled that ice cream was an "adulterated food." The legislation looks to reverse that course, and clear the way for another frozen beverage to up the alcohol content.
SB 204, offered by J.P. Morrell, seeks to add allowable container sizes of wine. Currently, wine that is shipped to the state is limited to 24 separate case sizes. Morrell's bill would give some more room to wine with containers of 19 and 5/10 liters, 20 liters and 500 mL. The law also changes all references of bottles to "containers," and exempts cider from any restrictions on containers. A companion House bill was filed by Rep. Bryan Adams
HB 294, offered by Stuart J. Bishop, extends an exception that allows cane syrup to be made at home. Under current law, some baked goods, jellies, and other food items are allowed to be produced at home for public consumption. The law extends that exception to people who want to sell their own cane syrup. However, the bill requires that cane syrup is made in an "open-sided structure on private property that shelters a cast iron kettle, evaporator, or other equipment for preparing cane syrup in the traditional manner."
A separate bill looks to get home pie-making operations legal. Offered by Rep. John M. Schroeder, the bill lays out regulations that would allow bakers to operate pie businesses out of their homes. The law spells out details on sanitation and other requirements.
Drugs and Guns
Speaking of baking, marijuana is also on the agenda, as the national legalization debate continues wafting into Louisiana. Rep. Dalton Honore filed a bill that clear the way for medical marijuana be reclassifying cannabis from a Schedule I substance (dangerous, no medical use) to a Schedule II substance (dangerous, some medical use).
A group of bills also deal with marijuana possession charges, seeking to reduce the long-term issues that result from such an arrest.
A bill co-sponsored by a gaggle of legislators that includes Rep. Austin Badon and Sen. J.P. Morrell changes the sentencing laws for marijuana possession. The bill calls for reducing prison time for multiple possession offenses. Currently, the maximum prison term is 20 years for four convictions. Under the bill, the maximum would be eight years on a fourth conviction. Before a fourth conviction, the maximum sentence under the bill would be five years.
Another Honore bill looks to remove pot possession from the list of laws that can count against a person in sentencing as a habitual offender.
While legislators are looking to relax marijuana sentencing, the penalty for having or selling heroin would go up under a bill offered by Sen. Dan Claitor. The bill would increase the maximum sentence for "manufacturing, distributing or possessing" heroin from 50 to 99 years.
A pair of legislators want restaurants to join the ever-growing list of places where people can carry guns. Rep. Joseph Lopinto and Rep. Jeff Thompson offered separate bills that pave the way for people with concealed carry permits and law enforcement officers to carry guns in restaurants. In Lopinto's bill, the officers don't have to be on duty to carry a gun.
In another gun bill, Rep. Ray Garofalo wants to allow teachers or administrators who already have concealed carry permits to bring their guns to school. As a condition, the bill requires an eight-hour tactical training course before the firearms can be carried into the schoolhouse door.
The City already laid out their agenda, but New Orleans figures into a few other bills that are already on the docket, as well. The Lower 9th Ward hasn't been forgotten by legislators this year. HB 1001 offered by Wesley Bishop, calls for abandoned Lower 9th Ward properties to be offered up for sale for $100 a parcel. Another Bishop bill, HB 489, allows the abandoned property to be donated to the City. Current law only allows the properties to be donated to nonprofit organizations.
HB 400, offered by Rep. Austin Badon, repeals the law that makes the term Jazzland a trademark. The former New Orleans East amusement park has sat vacant for years, and the bill would allow its name to be taken by others, even if they don't have The Jester.
Hot Buttons at Home
The national Dems aren't the only ones pushing a minimum wage. Sen. Ben Nevers filed a bill that would create a state minimum wage. Under Nevers' bill, the wage would either be the $9.50, or the federal standard — whichever is higher.
When it comes to health care, backers of the Affordable Care Act are attempting to go around the administration. Rep. Jared Brossett, who will take a seat on the New Orleans City Council later this year, offered a constitutional amendment that mandates the state to accept the Obamacare Medicaid expansion that Jindal turned down.
The death penalty is also up for consideration. Rep. Lopinto filed a bill that would bring back the electric chair. That would reverse a mandate issued in 1991 that executions be administered by lethal injection. Under the law, any execution approved after August 1 would be authorized to use the electric chair.
The Stand Your Ground law is another hot topic that's being considered in the House That Long Built. Rep. Bishop is offering a bill that repeals Louisiana's version of the law that the Trayvon Martin case made infamous.
A separate bill from Rep. Lopinto seeks to clarify justifiable force laws, saying a person is allowed to use violence when a person unlawfully enters their "dwelling, place of business or motor vehicle." The bill also looks to add a provision that says the person must be inside the above listed places "when the conflict began" in order for homicide to be justified.
Making it Official
Despite all the issues at hand, the legislature always makes a little time to offer up state recognition to a few items. This year, bills have been filed to designate the mayhaw as the state fruit tree, and the American Paint Horse as the state's equine designate. Another bill, filed by Rep. Thomas Carmody looks to designate an official state book: the Holy Bible.
One of New Orleans' most recognized bridges could also be getting a new name. Under a bill filed by Sen. A.G. Crowe, the twin spans over Lake Pontchartrain between New Orleans and Slidell would be named the "Frank Davis 'Naturally N'Awlins Memorial Bridge," after the famed WWL-TV chef and culture reporter that died in late 2013.