The 2023 legislative session in Baton Rouge ended June 8 with a controversial last-minute budget bill and a package of bills targeting the transgender community. Attempts by Democrats to add rape and incest as exceptions to the state’s near total abortion ban, raise the minimum wage and abolish the death penalty were unsuccessful. Yet New Orleans’ Democratic contingent is able to tout some successes despite the tough political climate.
The 2023 legislative session was “challenging,” according to District 5 state Sen. Royce Duplessis. He was nonetheless pleased with several budget wins, including $44 million for early childhood education as well as stipends for teachers and support personnel. “I am committed to continuing the fight for a permanent pay rise because our teachers and our children deserve much more,” Duplessis said.
After four years of hard work, Duplessis was able to pass Senate Bill 111, which streamlines the expungement process for some criminal records and makes it easier and more affordable. “Having a criminal record, even for nonviolent offenses, can severely limit one’s access to employment, education, housing civic engagement and public assistance,” Duplessis explained.
Duplessis also passed SB 200, which will protect employees in their workplace by prohibiting retaliation against any employee for an absence from work due to cancer screenings. “Prevention is a necessary part of public health that can lower hospital costs and medical care costs, while creating healthier communities in the long run,” he said.
Duplessis’ SB 156 protects the rights of citizens to choose a public adjuster rather than being subject to the insurance company’s adjuster. A constitutional amendment destined for the fall ballot, SB 127, would provide “our hardworking first responders” with an additional property tax exemption of up to $2,500. Like many U.S. cities, New Orleans is having difficulty attracting and retaining qualified first responders, Duplessis stated.
He also introduced SR 131, which requests the Louisiana State Police and two other agencies to collaborate on best practices and models for effective gun violence prevention and interruption. He was disappointed that SB 212, a “common sense gun control measure to keep Louisianans safer,” did not pass this year but vowed to keep fighting on the issue.
Under Duplessis’ Senate Resolution 133, a plan to adequately fund juvenile justice services will be developed by the newly created Orleans Parish Juvenile Services Financing District. He also brought forward SR 98, which seeks Medicaid reimbursement for individuals, including juveniles, in detention.
“Despite the news headlines, we were able to make progress on so many issues this legislative session; but there is still so much more work to be done,” Duplessis said.
District 98 state Rep. Aimee Adatto Freeman voiced her enthusiasm for the state’s $44 million investment in early care and childhood education – which she lauded as the “largest state investment in the Child Care Assistance Program in over a decade.” While she was also pleased with the sizable capital outlay allocations for road and bridge work, water and sewer upgrades, and roof fortification, Freeman said was disappointed in the minuscule funding for teacher stipends — and is especially concerned over the $100 million slashed from the budget of the Louisiana Department of Hospitals.
“The budget was proposed to us 30 minutes before the end of the session, leaving little to no time for debate. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I fiercely advocated for a permanent teacher pay raise and will continue to do so,” Freeman said.
Her legislation to cover CAR T-cell therapy under Louisiana Medicaid became Act 294. Freeman also passed a resolution to create a task force to study public health outcomes related to the criminalization of HIV and another to request a study of the educational programs available in state prisons and jails.
In response to Act 545, the abortion ban spearheaded by state Sen. Katrina Jackson during the 2022 legislative session, Freeman introduced HB 522 to “change the draconian penalties (jail time and exorbitant criminal fines) imposed on medical providers.” The proposed law, which Freeman voluntarily deferred, would have clarified the intent requirement that would be necessary to prosecute a provider and allow a single physician to determine a medical futility exception. “There was not enough time during the session to reintroduce it,” explained Freeman, who could reintroduce similar legislation next year.
Two other bills Freeman introduced also did not complete the legislative process this year. HB 117, which was stalled again on the Senate side, would have required schools to provide free menstrual products in easily accessible locations. HB 596, the Paid Family Medical Leave Act in Louisiana, did not make it out of committee. “I am committed to improving the maternal health care outcomes in this state and will continue to work on these critical issues that affect all Louisiana families,” Freeman said.
District 91 state Rep. Mandie Landry said she had a “really successful session with some great statewide bills and several specific to New Orleans.” Landry’s popular HB 247 provides a $500 tax credit for individuals with firearms who purchase gun safes. Originally started in Virginia, the credit for gun safes “has proven to be the first step in Louisiana and nationwide towards a dialogue and potential joint venture, if you will, between far right guns rights advocates and those on the left who work towards gun safety. All agree that responsible gun ownership, including how to safely store a firearm, is extremely important,” Landry said.
Guns are the No. 1 killer of children nationwide and in Louisiana. “We also have an epidemic of guns being stolen from cars in NOLA and then being used to commit crimes. Gun owners have got to lock up their guns. This tax credit will encourage them to do so,” Landry continued. The bill had bipartisan support and passed without any nay votes.
Working with the city administration, Landry passed two bills that will directly benefit New Orleans residents. The first, HB 276, will empower the City Council to as much as double fines in quality-of-life issues such as tire dumping and illegal short term rentals. The other, HB 370, allows the city and district attorney’s office to prosecute slumlords who refuse to clean up their properties. “These apartment buildings, where people are forced to live in squalor, are magnets for crime,” Landry said. “This is an extremely important bill for the city, and working with the mayor’s team was great.” Also passed with bi-partisan support, Landry praised state Sen. Joe Bouie and Councilmember Eugene Green for their assistance with the legislation.
Landry also continued work she started last year on water and infrastructure protection. She passed a widely supported bill HB 255, a tax credit, which works with an already existing program that uses discarded oyster shells to build reefs along the coast. “This natural asset is an enormous help toward coastal restoration,” Landry said. She continued to receive state money on behalf of the city for a flood prevention project in the Hollygrove neighborhood. In 2022, Landry set up the Hazard Mitigation Revolving Loan Fund, which will receive federal grants and no-interest loans for localities and individuals to complete flood protection and similar projects, such as home elevations. “Louisiana is only the third state to set up this program, and we expect to receive the first release of money later this year,” she said.
Landry was also one of eight state representatives on the committee who investigated the death of Ronald Greene at the hands of the Louisiana State Police. “We ended up uncovering widespread corruption at the Louisiana State Police,” she said.
Landry was invited to the White House on Wednesday (June 14) for “a meeting of legislators in states hostile to reproductive rights.” Landry has been a key legislative leader in reproductive rights and has served as an attorney for Louisiana’s abortion clinics.
Elected to represent the voters in House District 93 earlier this year, State Rep. Alonzo Knox says he is striving to follow the footsteps of the district’s legendary previous officeholders, a list that includes Avery Alexander, Dorothy Mae Taylor, Dutch Morial and Louis Charbonnet. Though his election took place after the deadline to file general bills for the 2023 regular session, Knox was active on a number of serious issues, including homelessness, which he considers a “public health and public safety crisis.”
He introduced and successfully passed House Concurrent Resolution 73, which urges the Louisiana Department of Transportation to be more involved in addressing and leveraging its resources to remove and assist people living in homeless encampments within interstate rights-of-way. Knox was a co-author of HB 506 which created the Louisiana Interagency Council on Homeless within the Office of the Governor. He also spearheaded an amendment to the state’s Medicaid plan, which extends coverage for pregnant women at or below 185% of the federal poverty level.
Knox, a former Marine who fought in Operation Desert Storm, speaks openly about his own post-traumatic stress disorder. Knox became a co-author of HB 55, which provides mental health screenings to persons entering state prison facilities. The legislation also requires that prior to their release, inmates are given an appointment or walk-in instructions with a community mental health provider to ensure continuity of care. As a co-author of HR 71, Knox set the stage for future legislation and policy changes to address the state’s mental health crisis.
By co-authoring HB 309 and HB 294, Knox is helping to bring some relief to homeowners who are struggling with insurance premiums if the homeowner complies with guidelines from the Institute for Better Business and Home Safety. Knox’s interest in juvenile offenders let to HR 270, which will develop recommendations for appropriate education, rehabilitation and parole of juvenile offenders. Finally, Knox’s HR 210 will lead to a state study of workplace safety violations in Louisiana’s 1,368 dollar stores.
As chairman of the influential Senate Local and Municipal Affairs Committee and a member of the Joint Committee on Capital Outlay, District 3 state Sen. Joe Bouie is in a unique position to bring home the bacon. During the 2023 session, he worked collaboratively with the New Orleans legislative delegation to secure funds for city-supported projects and for specific projects in District 3, including $6 million for public safety improvements in the St. Bernard neighborhood. Working in conjunction with state Rep. Jason Hughes, $4.2 million was also secured for the New Orleans East Hospital and an additional $2 million for early learning center STEM programs.
A former chancellor of Southern University at New Orleans, Bouie has long been a fiery advocate for traditional public – rather than charter – schools. He firmly believes that there is no evidence that charter schools have improved student performance. Bouie said he will continue offering legislation to “stop the failed, flawed and illegal all-charter school district (in Orleans Parish) that is, after 18 years and $8 billion of public money, failing our children and our community.” Bouie is adamant that charter schools have created an environment that “has exacerbated juvenile crimes and the school-to-jail pipeline” while also destroying neighborhood support systems for schools.
Bouie introduced SB 25 and SCR 34 to address those issues. Both measures were killed in committee, Bouie said, by “efforts of charter school contractors.” Bouie is pleased that three of the seven education committee members who heard the bill voted in favor of the legislation, which could pave the way for its passage next year.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has already signed two pieces of Bouie’s legislation. SB 43 removes licensing requirements for certain sellers of trolling motors for fishing boats. SB 72 provides for the issuance of revenue bonds for building and equipping public safety complexes and troop or regional headquarters for the Louisiana State Police.
District 97 state Rep. Matthew Willard said this week that the 2023 Louisiana legislative session was nothing short of a rollercoaster ride all the way down to wire. “There was no shortage of bad news during the two months of session, but behind all of the noise, some good was accomplished for the people of Louisiana,” Willard said.
His first bill from the 2023 session to become law was HB 294, which Edwards “deemed worthy enough” to sign it into law as Act 1. Act 1 guarantees that any home with a fortified roof or built to the fortified commercial standards created by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety will receive an actuarially justified discount in the premium. The legislature also appropriated $30 million to the Louisiana Fortify Homes Program, which will provide grants to property owners with a homestead exemption to fortify their roofs. The program is set to begin accepting applications in July.
Blight and overgrown lots have been a nuisance and a serious qualify-of-life issue in District 97. Willard filed HB 270, now Act 159, to attack the issue. This legislation allows the city of New Orleans to address overgrown lots, blight, graffiti and other unsightly matters with more flexibility, while also enabling them to address the properties for two years, as opposed to one.
Willard also authored HB 272 to improve birthing outcomes by increasing access to doula care. A doula has been trained to provide physical, emotional and educational support, but not medical or midwifery care, to pregnant women. The new law mandates health insurance coverage for doula care before, during and after childbirth.
Willard also worked with the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice to pass HB 449, which creates an Americans with Disabilities Act compliance officer and a Voting Accessibility Advisory Group within the Secretary of State’s Office. It also makes other policy changes to improve voting accessibility for Louisianians living with a disability.
Willard introduced important tax legislation, HB 162, which never made it to the House floor for a vote. HB 162 would have doubled the earned income tax credit for Louisiana to aid the state’s neediest families. Willard also introduced HB 618 as a way to generate the funds needed to double the earned income tax credit. Currently awaiting the governor’s signature, HB 618 will clean up and eliminate triple dipping for a tax credit that Louisiana businesses and workers receive on income they earn in other states. The bill is forecast to save the state approximately $39 million annually, according to Willard.
A final piece of legislation that Willard introduced was HB 408, which makes changes to the state’s research and development tax credit. It will allow high-tech, innovative, STEM-based companies to benefit from both the R&D tax credit and the small business support programs Willard created during the 2022 session. Willard created the STEM Innovation Caucus in 2021 to spur economic growth and development by helping Louisiana businesses succeed.
Willard said his legislative priorities are continually guided by the “feedback and input from my constituents.”
All the legislators who provided information for this story will be up for re-election in the fall. Qualifying is set for Aug. 8-10.
Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, former City Councilman Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman at-large Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former City Councilwomen Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. She is a member of the Democratic Parish Executive Committee. Columbus can be reached at email@example.com.