Black caucus calls out what it sees as legislative hypocrisy

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus and other social justice advocacy organizations will hold a news conference today at the Capitol to express their concerns about the outcomes of several bills during the session—some that passed, some that didn’t—that they say harm underserved communities and exacerbate existing disparities in the state.

Two seemingly unrelated measures in particular have grabbed their attention. 

One, which died in a House committee late last month, would have allowed inmates convicted by a non-unanimous jury to seek a rehearing.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2020 ruled that split jury verdicts were unconstitutional but refused earlier this spring to make the ban retroactive. HB346 would have skirted that rule and given some 1,500 mostly Black inmates an opportunity to apply for parole or a new hearing.

The other measure, SB203 by Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, would allow industry to nominate its own employees to the agency that regulates the source of fresh drinking water in Baton Rouge. In so doing, the bill would retroactively undo conflict-of-interest ethics charges filed in 2020 against five members of the Capital Area Groundwater Conservation Commission by the state ethics commission.

Representatives of Together Baton Rouge, a community organizer, are among those asking Gov. John Bel Edwards to veto SB203.

Beyond that, however, they’re hoping to point out what they see as the hypocrisy between the Legislature’s handling of the two measures.  

“What struck us was that on one hand we had this bill that would have clearly benefited poor, mostly African American people in prison and given them a shot at a new hearing and it was killed in committee,” says the Rev. Betsy Irvine of Together Baton Rouge. “Then, on the other hand, we have this bill that retroactively clears ethics violations for members on the commission and makes a clear path for industry to appoint its own representation to the commission, which is like the fox guarding the hen house. That’s what sort of brought us to our knees.”

Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, says the Legislative Black Caucus is also concerned about the apparent hypocrisy between the two bills. The voluntary deferral of HB346 by Rep. Randall Gaines, D-LaPlace, in late May was a crushing blow to social justice advocates, she says.

But she is also concerned about the precedent White’s bill will set if it becomes law.

“That’s a slippery slope when you start passing legislation to undo what ethics attempts to do to keep down conflicts of interest,” she says.

Despite the many concerns, Marcelle says there have been a handful of legislative victories this session for social justice advocates, women, and minorities, notably, Monday’s passage of a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

“It hasn’t been all bad this session,” she says. 

The news conference is scheduled for 11 a.m. on the steps of the Capitol.