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POLITICS / LOUISIANNA LEGISLATURE : Lawmakers Chart Their Own Course : Image takes a beating, but some say it’s all a sign of a statehouse on the mend.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This state’s Legislature may be on the wildest ride in its history.

Louisiana, one of the most backward and depressed states in the country, now finds itself at center stage, due almost completely to the bills introduced in the Legislature during the last several months.

First, there is the much-talked-about anti-abortion bill, which was passed by both houses of the Legislature, vetoed by Gov. Buddy Roemer, then passed again in revised form. The measure is the stiffest in the country and calls for a prison sentence of up to 10 years for anyone performing an abortion, except in the case of pregnancies caused by rape or incest, or to save the mother’s life.

As an example of how wild things have been, Rep. Carl Gunter--during debate on the abortion bill--went so far as to argue that there may be some merit to incest.

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“When I got to thinking, the way we get thoroughbred horses and thoroughbred dogs is through inbreeding,” he said. “Maybe we would get a super-sharp kid.”

Then there is the matter of the flag burning measure. This one sought to change the law so that anyone found guilty of beating up a flag burner could be fined no more than $25. It was dropped at the last minute as the Legislature raced the abortion bill through.

A third piece of legislation was a bill introduced by klansman-turned-legislator David Duke that would have weakened the state’s affirmative action statutes. Another bill, passed last week, created the strictist anti-obscenity record-labeling law in the country.

The Atlanta Constitution, in a recent editorial, suggested the state “appears to be doing just about everything possible to cultivate a reputation for being racist, sexist, backward and oppressive.”

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Not the best of images for this state, already crippled by the oil bust and known as a place that has for generations tolerated corruption as a way of life. The Legislature’s actions have brought on threats of boycotts and convention cancellations from a number of quarters and has apparently damaged New Orleans’ chances of wooing the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

There may, however, be a plausible explanation for this chaotic scene. Some observers here argue that the state’s lawmaking body is merely in the midst of growing pains. “We are in the process of transition from a banana republic to an infant democracy,” said political analyst and publisher John Maginnis. “I would take a situation like this over one in which the governor controls everything.

For decades, Louisiana’s governor ran the state like a feudal lord, passing out favors in exchange for loyalty. All that changed with the election of the reform-minded Roemer, whose no-nonsense personality grated on legislators accustomed to the backslapping ways of the past.

In addition, Roemer tried to order them around when he had little by way of patronage to hand out. As a result, lawmakers long accustomed to doing what they were told began striking back, sometimes in ways that seemed odd to outsiders. Add to that mixture the election of Duke last year from a white New Orleans suburb.

“Some crazy things started to happen,” said state Rep. Mitch Landrieux. Some of them, however, are not as peculiar as they might first appear.

In the abortion issue, Landrieux and others contend that Louisiana, with its large Roman Catholic population, is a natural place for the passage of such a strict measure.

Duke’s affirmative action bill passed the House only because the vote came immediately after a bloc of black representatives withdrew their support for a state lottery, thus enraging white lawmakers. The bill was dead on arrival in the Senate. Despite the attention accorded him, Duke has yet to have a bill he introduced signed into law.

Maginnis makes the case that while things may still be bad in Louisiana, they are not nearly as bad as they were before Roemer took office nearly three years ago. While legislators may look somewhat foolish at times, the word “corrupt” is no longer the adjective of choice to describe the state.

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“At least now when our politicians make the national news, it’s for something they did wide out in the open,” he said.


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