Covering Louisiana

Jan 10, 2011 6:00 AM by Nichole Larkey & AP

Louisiana lawmakers face a tense, tricky 2011

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana's lawmakers couldn't face a worse case of nasty political timing.
The need for a massive redrawing of the state's political district lines combined with a deep budget crisis - all before lawmakers and statewide elected officials go before voters in fall elections - is creating a maelstrom of political tension at the
Louisiana Capitol.
Welcome to 2011, the year many legislators already want to be over. They've talked of it with dread for months. They were even lamenting how tough this year would be when they were in the regular legislative session last year.
Things really get rolling in March, when Gov. Bobby Jindal unveils his proposals for next year's state budget.
The 2011-12 spending plan, due to lawmakers by March 11, will have to include ideas for coping with a $1.6 billion state general fund shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1. The shortfall
equals more than 20 percent of what the state is spending this year
in general fund cash.
Budget cuts are expected to be hefty. Services will likely be
cut. That's not an enticing set of options for people who a few
months later then will be asking for re-election to their jobs or
election to new ones.
The budget decisions will be made during the regular legislative
session that begins in April and must end by June 23.
Before lawmakers make their final cuts and pull together a
balanced budget, however, they face something even more politically
tricky: redistricting.
They'll meet in a special session that starts March 20 to redraw
congressional, legislative, Public Service Commission, state
education board, Louisiana Supreme Court and appeals court
districts to account for population shifts over the last decade.
The session, which could last up to three weeks, is expected to
be a contentious one.
Louisiana is losing one of its seven congressional seats because
the state's slow population growth has been outpaced by other
southern and western states. Meanwhile, post-Hurricane Katrina
population shifts will force significant changes to the maps for
legislative districts.
Politicians will try to protect themselves, help their friends
and damage their enemies.
Partisan, regional and racial divides are all at play.
Term-limited legislators interested in staying in politics will
be looking for ways to work the situation to their advantage.
Redistricting is tied to the release of the 2010 Census data,
and Louisiana has a maze of federal restrictions and court cases
that guide how the political maps must be drawn, to protect
minority voting strength.
The U.S. Justice Department must approve the redrawn districts
before they can be used in the fall 2011 elections, so the timeline
is a tight one.
Haggling will be intense about how to shrink the state's
congressional delegation and about which two incumbent
congressmen's districts should merge, and about which legislative
districts to preserve and which to sacrifice in New Orleans and
other areas with population drops.
"Obviously it's a very personal issue. It's a very intense
process. This year I think will probably be even more so," Jindal
has said, describing what legislators face.
Lawmakers will head from those fights into the budget battles of
the regular session with only a couple weeks off in between, at
most.
Awaiting them will be decisions of whether to shrink college
campuses, close public hospitals and shutter social services
programs.
Not exactly the jovial environment that often has marked the
beginning of legislative sessions, and when the budget-cutting
ends, those seeking re-election or a new elected post will have to
hit the campaign trail and defend their actions. The statewide
primary is Oct. 22.

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