Compromise Caucus A Grand Experiment

Bernie Pinsonat of Southern Media and Opinion Research is fond of saying, “If you’re in the middle in Louisiana politics then you’re roadkill.”

Things do tend to die if they piddle around too much in the middle of Louisiana’s highways, both conventionally and politically paved. It's just too easy to become a target if you’re in the middle of the road. Plain and simple.

But there’s a quiet and likely small movement afoot in the state Legislature that dispenses with such notions. The thinking of those involved is that the middle of the road is the only place to be, particularly in the GOP-dominated House.

When this term of the Louisiana Legislature comes to an end, one its lasting legacies will be the bitter battles that pitted Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Senate against the conservative House.

It has only been a year and a half already we’ve seen the Senate president brought to tears, a regular session adjourned without a statewide construction plan, another concluded without an actual budget and headlines that screamed — SCREAMED! — drama of all sorts.

So, yeah. Anywhere on the political spectrum would be better than where our state government is parked right now. Whether the proverbial middle is that prime locale will be a grand experiment worth keeping tabs on.

Here's what's going on... A small working group of state representatives met for the first time this week to begin laying the foundation for a new House caucus that will strive for compromise in the increasingly divided House.

It has been called the Centrist Caucus by one of the lawmakers involved and the Middle Caucus by another. Someone else has recommended calling it the Louisiana Caucus. But the name doesn’t matter. The fact that it’s even happening is more important.

“The goal is to come up with a package of bills and try to have 70 or 71 votes in place,” said Rep. Gene Reynolds of Minden, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus and the man charged with holding the party line as the minority leader. “There’s an urgency now that wasn’t there before. This is doable.”

GOP Rep. Rob Shadoin of Ruston has been trying to put a group together over the past few months and Reynolds and others are offering a helping hand. While the first gathering was slated for Monday, with a dozen or so legislators expected to attend, a subsequent meeting was already being planned for next week as well. “We can’t keep having special sessions and a regular session each year with a lot of activity and no productivity,” said Shadoin.

Another member of the team is Rep. Julie Stokes of Kenner, who was building out a moderate strategy for her state treasurer campaign before her cancer diagnosis forced her out of the race. Stokes, a Republican, was actually looking to establish a coalition of centrists when she heard about Shadoin’s efforts. “I’m trying to repurpose the work that I had put into the campaign into a new caucus of problem-solvers in the House,” Stokes said via text.

The optics are worth taking note of — and the storylines will sprout with ease if any real momentum is gained. (Here’s a one-sentence story pitch for editors: As the state faces another budget test in 2018, known names from the state House are ready and willing to peel off from others in their own parties.) It’s a marketable concept at this given moment, and will be even more so once the next session convenes.

Just think back to the Fiscal Hawks of yesteryear — that influential bloc of House votes that during the administration of former Gov. Bobby Jindal advocated for budget and spending changes. It all started with a group of four freshmen in 2008, and eventually swelled to 28 or so members that ranged from committed to not-so-committed.

But they managed to gum up the process, get some key concessions and, most memorably, generate a ton of press coverage. A few of the early members even built brands out of the political exercise, with Rep. Cameron Henry of Metairie moving on to become the House Appropriations Committee chair and former Rep. John Schroder of Covington running strong for treasurer with the same Fiscal Hawk mantras. “You’ve got to have worker bees who are ready to work and not ready to push their own agendas,” Schroder said of start-up caucuses in the Legislature. “You have to be willing to grind it out.”

That means success doesn’t often arrive overnight.

If the numbers do come together for the Centrist-Middle-Moderate-Louisiana Caucus, it will likely be heavily-weighted toward Democrats, of which there are 40 in the House, many of them willing to compromise on the budget and taxes. There are 60 Republicans in the chamber, meanwhile, and that’s the contingency worth watching. Any moderate movement will need a significant buy-in from the GOP ranks. There are also, of course, three independents in the House.

All of the legislators involved in this push to the center certainly know that the middle is a dangerous place to be in Louisiana — this greening and watery land where party diehards and special interest groups like the lanes as they’re currently carved. Thankfully those same legislators are willing to accept the political risks. Because anything is better than what we’ve seen over the past year and a half.

Are Lawmakers Worth What We Pay Them?

Would you become a Louisiana legislator for one year if someone paid you $16,800?

Some of you are probably thinking that there’s no amount of money that would convince you to get behind the pawns on the Capitol chess board. There are others, though, who would surely do it for free.

But there is an annual salary attached to the gig: $16,800. Lawmakers worked long hours for it in 2016, with more consecutive days spent in session than in any other year since 1812.

On the other hand, the Legislature failed to adopt a construction plan on time last year and couldn’t agree on a budget before the most recent regular session adjourned in June. We all know what would happen if you missed your deadlines at work. There would be no paycheck.

But government is not business, nor should it be run like one. Unless they’re independently wealthy, legislators want to be compensated for their time just like we do — and $16,800 seems like a small sum for the efforts invested.

Skeptics and critics have every right to be offended by that opinion, but they shouldn’t needlessly worry. The political landscape isn’t right for an increase in legislative salaries.

The $16,800 wage was established 37 years ago and was determined at the time to be a fair shake for a part-time government job. Lawmakers did try to boost their own pay in 2008, when former Gov. Bobby Jindal initially agreed to a plan that would have increased their base salary from $16,800 to $37,500 a year.

This was despite his promise during the preceding election cycle not to support legislative pay raises. But Jindal, reading the political tea leaves, broke free from his vow to lawmakers and delivered a veto that mirrored his earlier campaign promise — thus double-crossing legislators instead of voters.

Radio show hosts like Moon Griffon and bloggers like late Hammond attorney C.B. Forgotston were quick to remind Jindal of his first promise. They accused lawmakers of being greedy and pointed out that a few of them didn’t even have full-time jobs outside the public sector. (Back then many were also pulling down local and state pensions.)

At the time, former House Speaker Jim Tucker told WAFB-TV the “goal was to assure that citizens from all walks of life could afford public service.” In that interview Tucker also pointed to what remains the real problem: “The Louisiana state constitution currently requires that the Legislature set its own pay and this should be changed.”

The law, of course, hasn’t been changed since Tucker made his recommendation. Maybe it’s time to take another look at the idea.

Across the nation legislative salaries in 2017 remained largely unchanged from recent years, according to a study released three weeks ago by the National Conference of State Legislatures. In the 41 states that actually pay their legislators an annual salary the average pay was $35,592, the study found.

Some of the study’s other findings, however, do serve as a reminder that lawmakers in other states are in a much tougher position than their Louisiana counterparts when it comes to paychecks. In New Hampshire legislators get $100 per year and Texas lawmakers have a salary set at $7,200 annually. But House and Senate members here are most certainly jealous of California legislators, who are the best paid in the nation and take home a $104,118 salary.

It’s important to remember that while $16,800 is the salary cap in Louisiana the figure doesn’t represent total compensation. Lawmakers likewise get a $6,000 per year unvouchered expense allowance and a $156 per diem for every day of official work in and outside of Baton Rouge. The numbers can add up quickly and quite commonly passes the $50,000 mark — all in — for the folks who have to be at the Capitol the most, like committee chairs and the legislative leadership.

If lawmakers surprisingly take up the issue, which is unlikely, they should probably watch their backs when opening up the law for review. Four years ago legislators in Illinois found themselves in a strange position when former Gov. Pat Quinn shepherded a unique pay provision onto the books that mandatorily required representatives and senators to forfeit one day of compensation per month.

Why? They were dragging their feet on unfunded pension liability.

That’s an idea. Lawmakers in Louisiana definitely think government employees should have to reach benchmarks to receive funding and to, yes, get a paycheck. The Legislature shouldn’t be exempt from such a review process involving taxpayer dough.

Louisiana's legislative salaries could even be tied to the median household income. Or a commission could be charged with taking over the process, removing lawmakers from the equation altogether.

But given the budget problems facing the state, legislators probably won’t be talking about their own pay scales in the next regular session. That’s for the best — for the time being at least.

Hidden Issues On The October Ballot

Louisiana elections produce much more than winners and losers. They also generate new insights into the modern political landscape, foreshadow policy debates to come and offer us an opportunity to take the temperature of the electorate on any number of issues.

To that end, here are four questions that will likely all be answered before, during and after voters walk into the polls on Oct. 14…

1. Will the campaigns be televised? 

Of course they will be televised. But probably not at the levels we’ve seen in recent election cycles.

Just take a look at the current costs for getting television commercials on the air. To purchase 1,000 points per week on TV this cycle a candidate would have to spend, on average, about $100,000 in the New Orleans market and $95,000 per week in Baton Rouge.

(Every 100 points of airtime purchased by a candidate for their commercial will in theory result in each average viewer in that particular market seeing the ad at least once. In other words, a 1,400-point media buy made by a campaign for its commercial is supposed to create 14 separate viewing opportunities for the rank-and-file television consumer.)

Elsewhere around the state the prices aren't much better. The Shreveport weekly rate is roughly $75,000 for 1,000 points. In Lafayette and Alexandria it’s $60,000, Lake Charles, $50,000; and Monroe, $45,000.

Now connect those numbers to the money our statewide candidates for treasurer actually have to spend.

Former state Rep. John Schroder of Covington has reported $638,000 in the bank, which is enough to blanket New Orleans for about a month and a half only. By comparison former commissioner of administration Angele Davis of Baton Rouge has $315,000 in cash on hand and state Sen. Neil Riser of Columbia has $201,000.

That’s all to say the media side of this election cycle — particularly in the race for treasurer — might not look like the traditional statewide campaigns we’re familiar with. It may even be another month or so until we actually see any serious television outreach.

2.) Does anyone care?

From aldermen and village mayors to constables and district judges, the 105 elected positions that were up for grabs during qualifying barely caught the attention of candidates. In fact, more than half of the races either drew one candidate each or no candidates at all.

That’s among the many reasons why Secretary of State Tom Schedler is aiming low — very low — in terms of turnout predictions for the October ballot. “It’s way too early for an official prediction,” Schedler said in a recent interview, “but I don’t think you even hit 20 percent.”

The exception could be New Orleans, he added, where there’s a competitive race for mayor and for various seats on the city council.

3.) Will there be a legislative backlash?

Rarely does an election cycle go by without a member of the Legislature running for another office. It’s quite common, and this year is no exception. In all there are two representatives and two senators seeking positions outside of the Legislature on the October ballot.

There’s Riser, a state senator, running for treasurer. He’ll also be joined by Schroder, who was a legislator just over a month ago. It’ll be interesting to see if voters are willing to look at the two men differently — or if they'll be lumped together and held equally accountable for their past votes.

State Sen. Danny Martiny has likewise qualified to run for the Jefferson Parish Council against Kenner City Councilman Dominick Impastato. While we’ve seen a couple of lawmakers return to the local level this term already, this race will be yet another experiment on how voters feel about that kind of shift.

Finally, look to the Big Easy for the only legislator-versus-legislator matchup this fall. It’s going to be state Rep. Joe Bouie, chairman of the Black Caucus, against state Rep. Helena Moreno for an at-large seat on the New Orleans City Council. There are two other candidates in the race as well, but a Bouie-Moreno runoff would probably produce the loudest fireworks.

4.) Could this be the death of gas tax chatter?

Lawmakers made relatively quick work of rejecting an increase in the state gas tax during this year's regular session. Despite the ever-increasing backlog of construction projects, and despite the poor condition of Louisiana’s roads and highways, the Legislature decided that this was not the time.

However, there are some vestiges of that debate on the October ballot. The third and final proposed constitutional amendment voters will weigh in on would create safeguards for the proceeds of any new tax levied on gas. So if lawmakers decide to hike the gas tax in the future, the resulting dollars could only be used for construction, maintenance and a few other purposes — if the amendment is approved.

If that happens, if the amendment passes, proponents of an increase will immediately interpret that success as a signal that voters are open to doing something (anything) about transportation funding. If it fails, on the other hand, then opponents won’t take long to point out that voters are sick and tired of hearing about the issue.

Again, there will be winners and losers on the Oct. 14 ballot. Someone, for instance, will become our next state treasurer as five other politicos figure out a way to live with defeat. It’s the same story up and down that ballot, from the open Public Service Commission race to the election for the Beauregard Parish School Board.

But elections are much more than personalities. Pay close enough attention and you’ll certainly see that yourself in the fall.

When Politics & Law Enforcement Collide

Louisiana has been parked at the intersection of hard-nosed politics and law enforcement controversy for an entire year.

First it was a set of police-involved shootings in Baton Rouge, during the heat of last year’s summer, followed by protestors and national media coverage.

Then the Tangipahoa Sheriff’s Office and Hammond Police Department were raided shortly before Christmas as part of a federal investigation. Making for an ever messier PR situation, the sheriff in question just happened to be the brother of Louisiana’s sitting governor.

By the time Mardi Gras had hit its peak in February, four State Police officials, including the head of internal affairs, fell under public fire for a “side trip” to Las Vegas. Those involved were also receiving overtime pay, investigators discovered. Less than a month later the state’s political landscape was rocked when Col. Mike Edmonson, Louisiana’s top trooper, announced his retirement in the wake the bad publicity.

In an attempt to move on, the Louisiana Legislature used its spring session to address a variety of criminal justice and law enforcement issues. There were major policy wins and emotional debates; spirits were mostly high at the close of that lawmaking exercise.

Then last week happened.

Fox 8’s Lee Zurik, a New Orleans-based investigative reporter, broke a story about State Police Commissioner Calvin Braxton allegedly fixing tickets and threatening a trooper. Given the dark clouds already hovering over State Police, it wasn’t much of a surprise late Friday afternoon when Braxton, a gubernatorial appointee, tendered his resignation.

But between the time of publication and resignation, before the State Police controversy could even be compartmentalized, federal subpoenas started appearing in Amite. (In a completely separate incident.) The news came from WDSU-TV, which aired accusations from a local councilman saying a member of law enforcement had been targeted.

Is anyone else noticing a pattern? There’s a shared narrative building for what could become one of the most significant public policy and political trends in Louisiana. It’s a trend that’s building because these storylines are about to add new chapters.

A year has passed since the police-involved shootings in Baton Rouge, but protestors can still be found. Plus a second investigation is being conducted by State Police and the Attorney General’s Office, which will yield findings that will again be put under a media microscope. Given the high-profile nature of the shootings, and the surprising resignations internally, it’s safe to say that State Police officials are working extra hard to ensure the Capital City investigation will be free of hiccups.

In another important Bayou State city, there’s a field of candidates running for mayor of New Orleans and campaigning heavily on crime prevention and enforcement. Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell may have won The Soundbite Contest when releasing her platform: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” (The bullets do need to stop. In this year alone, as of late June, more than 350 people had been killed or wounded by gunfire in New Orleans, according to The Times-Picayune.)

Leveraging tough-on-crime stances for gain is nothing new. Maybe that’s why U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and Attorney General Jeff Landry have been taking aim at New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. In terms of red-meat fodder and earned media coverage, the tactic seems to be working out pretty well for the two Republicans. Kennedy even aired some of his complaints during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Landry, meanwhile, took to the local radio airwaves last week with Moon Griffon. While laughing, Landry criticized Landrieu’s “hug-a-thug policies” on Griffon’s show. That turn of phrase was promoted digitally by email two days later by Citizens for Louisiana Job Creators, a pro-Landry super PAC. So it was a marketable moment if nothing else, and it’s definitely playing into the early tone of the mayor’s race.

If we don’t see some smart crime policies emerge from that election, there’s still hope for the 2018 regular session. Some lawmakers are considering a few followup bills to this year’s successful criminal justice reform package.

One surprising byproduct of this developing trend is just how close to the flame Gov. John Bel Edwards has been forced. For starters, he stands by his brother, and it’s unclear what if any connection there are between the December raids and Tangipahoa Sheriff Daniel Edwards.

The governor also found a little cover in regard to that just-resigned State Police commissioner, who was actually an appointee of former Gov. Bobby Jindal. There is a published paper trail, though, that shows the Edwards Administration heard complaints about Braxton in the past but took no immediate action.

The governor has a degree of separation in many of these incidents. He can likewise point to last week’s editorial board piece from The New York Times. It called the administration’s criminal justice reform package “one of the most ambitious” in the nation and described its enacted parts as “historic.”

Shocking levels of crime, a shakeup in the State Police leadership structure, perceptions of corruption, police-involved shootings and abuses of power could be labeled as historic as well.

Let’s just hope it all remains a part of our history in Louisiana. It’s better off there than in our future.

Do We Really Need A State Treasurer?

The timing couldn’t be better for a conversation about eliminating the position of state treasurer. Or at least dumping the gig as we know it today.

Voters will select the next treasurer on Oct. 14, or more than likely on Nov. 18 should the contest advance to a runoff. There’s no incumbent, so technically none of the candidates are working to protect their job.

It has been 17 years since Louisiana hosted an open race for treasurer, which in turn prompted seven contenders to qualify for the position. There are four Republicans, a Democrat, an Independent and a Libertarian. Among them are six men and one woman. Two are black and five are white. They hail from Baton Rouge, Columbia, Harvey, Lafayette, Opelousas and Ponchatoula.

The field is a diverse bunch. But there’s something missing…

One of the higher-profile candidates should be campaigning on the promise that they’ll eliminate the elected job. It would certainly capture the attention of the electorate, most of which is completely unaware that an election cycle has just gotten underway. It would also generate a debate about streamlining a corner of government that has gone overlooked for too long.

There’s already a readymade, hire-me-to-fire-me campaign template to follow. In 1999 Suzanne Haik Terrell of New Orleans won her bid for election commissioner by, in part, vowing to bury the job. During her term she did just that and oversaw the merging of her department with the Secretary of State’s Office.

Baton Rouge attorney E. Eric Guirard had a “hire me to fire me” platform in 1995 as well when he ran for lieutenant governor. At times the effort was as humorous as the TV commercials Guirard produces for his law practice. “If the governor dies, I'll resign,” he told The Shreveport Times 22 years ago. “You don't want me as your governor.”

Voters viewed Guirard’s PR blitz as more of a sideshow, worth about 5 percent of the total electorate in the 1995 primary. Terrell and her messaging, meanwhile, managed to topple a well-known politico in a runoff four years later with 59 percent of the vote.

So a serious effort that avoids gimmicks could gain traction this cycle. There’s no denying that voters are ready to hear something different. Platitudes may even be toxic in this red state that President Donald Trump won. More importantly, voters are also well aware that government is a work in progress.

This conversation should start with an understanding of what exactly the state treasurer does. First and foremost, the treasurer is Louisiana’s official banker and accountant. Keeping records of how much state money is received and spent; managing debt and investments; and advising and serving on the Bond Commission are among the duties the treasurer is charged with upon being elected.

It’s a serious job. But do voters really need to be involved in electing such a figurehead? There are currently 16 states that don’t even have elected treasurers. In 12 of those states the position is appointed and in four of them the Legislature selects a treasurer.

The dismantling operation here wouldn’t be nearly as complicated as some believe. The treasurer’s office in Louisiana could easily be merged with the Division of Administration, which is the lead budget agency in the state. It could also be swallowed up by the Revenue Department, which already plays a critical role in revenue collections and projections.

There’s plenty of overlap between these areas of state government — so much so that someone should be crunching the numbers to investigate possible cost savings and target duplications of services.

But let’s slow down a bit. Obviously there’s another side to this story.

Voters deserve direct accountability on fiscal issues, and there’s no better way to keep a bureaucrat on a short democratic leash than to have them regularly ask the public if they can please — Please! — keep their job.

Plus there’s an unwritten responsibility of the treasurer in Louisiana, a role ushered in by U.S. Sen. John Kennedy when he held the post, to serve as the unofficial watchdog of state government. Voters love a politician with a bite, or short of that a loud bark. And that role is best filled by someone with an elected pulpit.

An alternative route would involve beefing up the position of treasurer, rather than eliminating the job. Texas, for example, has an elected comptroller who serves as the state’s chief tax collector, lead accountant, revenue estimator and treasurer. That's an election-worthy gig.

But that’s not what we have in Louisiana today. We instead have an elected position with a much smaller reach.

Just ponder this question: If the job of treasurer in Louisiana were eliminated today, how would your state government and your life be changed tomorrow?

How you answer that question is probably an indication of where this public conversation should be headed. If a conversation is had at all.

There’s A Task Force For That

Are you worried about property tax payments that are offset by state credits? So is the Louisiana Legislature, which is why it created a task force last year to tackle the topic.

How about feral hogs? Are those wild piggies tearing up your garden and destroying your property? Well, there's also a task force for that.

Then there’s bullying awareness, along with Medicaid fraud detection and the Lower Pearl River Basin. You guessed it — yes, all of these subject areas have legislatively-sanctioned task forces.

Lawmakers rarely meet a task force they don’t like, although it does happen on occasion. That's because the bills and resolutions that host these advisory commissions represent easy votes for representatives and senators.

For example, when the Legislature approved a resolution last month forming the Task Force on Secure Care Standards and Auditing, lawmakers were not voting to take any specific stances on the matter. Instead they took votes to seek information on everything from isolation cells to phone call privileges, as they relate to secure care facilities.

That’s how most of these task forces operate. The Legislature comes up with the criteria for how task force members should be appointed and it drafts the research directives as well. But the most important element in any such legislative instrument is the deadline — meaning when the task force has to report back to lawmakers with its findings and recommendations.

There’s no doubting it can be a helpful process, as task force studies sometimes lead to significant policy changes. Just like the criminal justice reform bills passed by the Legislature this year. Those ideas came from a government task force that explored prison and sentencing issues.

Yet task force studies can also lead to absolutely nothing, wasting the time of state workers and policy wonks alike. That was the case with the Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy, which was the first high-profile task force that was created this term.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and various lawmakers had vowed to use the related findings to craft an agenda for this year’s fiscal sessions. That never happened, but fans are still hopeful that the Capitol's elite might lean on the document in 2018, or during the next special session, whichever comes first.

With that in mind, has the time come to start questioning the value of these task forces? Are there too many of them?

Here's what we know... Since February of last year the state Legislature has created the equivalent of roughly two task forces each and every month. The tally includes more than two dozen brand new task forces and a small handful of study groups that were reconvened or renewed.

Maybe lawmakers have become more curious over the past 18 months. Perhaps they’re just seeking better information to base their decisions on. Either way, the Legislature is on a hot streak.

Task forces have been created this term to look into permanency for foster children, certain trucking permits, a statewide electronic filing system for civil pleadings and ambulance transfer alternatives. There’s likewise a new task force that’s supposed to make annual assessments of state contracts.

That’s just a sampling, of course. Other task forces have been developed this term to look into installing lights on the Sunshine Bridge, adding oversight to health care licensing boards, increasing school bus safety and cracking down on defendants who don't pay child support. Plus there’s a group that will be studying the best delivery methods for Medicaid enrollees with serious mental illnesses.

Many of these efforts are noble in their intentions. Nonetheless, we’ll never hear about most them ever again. Findings will be ignored, deadlines will be blown and, possibly, a few of these task forces won't even be filled with members.

Some, though, have promise. There’s a task force considering updates to the financing formula for elementary and secondary education and another that will be revisiting Louisiana’s riverboat and gaming statutes. The popular TOPS scholarship program is going to be reviewed throughly as well by a task force during the legislative off-season.

Recommendations of any kind coming from those three task forces — on public school funding, gaming or TOPS — will surely generate a buzz in Baton Rouge. Lawmakers have tried to usher in major policy alterations on these fronts in recent years but haven't had much luck. (At least not as much luck as representatives and senators have had this term with creating task forces.)

Inside the rails of the House and Senate, lawmakers must know that their task force creations are in danger of meeting the same shared fate as those that came before. Put another way, no one needs more “shelf art,” which is a term some folks use to refer to the outdated and unused reports produced in years past.

They do little more these days than collect dust and take up space. Let’s hope that trend ends now, because new policy approaches are needed in every corner of state government.

Maybe the Legislature can establish a new task force to study how to make state-created task forces more relevant. A task force to end all task forces — that’s an idea.

A Mayoral Shift In Louisiana

The new mayor of Lake Charles took office over the weekend and residents of New Orleans will finally find out this fall who will become their next mayor.

Baton Rouge, meanwhile, saw a new mayor-president sworn in just six months ago, in January, and Lafayette experienced the same electoral shift a year prior, at the start of 2016. Plus another new mayor took her seat in Shreveport 13 months earlier, at the close of 2014.

It you’re not recognizing a pattern yet, then mentally plot these political changeovers on a map.

Lake Charles… New Orleans… Baton Rouge… Lafayette… Shreveport…

Hopefully you can visualize five of Louisiana’s six largest cities now, each representing a significant portion of the Bayou State’s beating heart. There’s fresh leadership in all of these cities today. But what’s truly impressive is that the new mayors were elected during the past two and a half years.

That's all to say that they could collectively create an important mile marker in Louisiana politics. Time will tell. We do know that together they have already replaced institutional names in their regions and individually promised new ways of governing.

This should have been a noteworthy transition of municipal power, especially given the turf covered. But the storyline has somehow slipped past the prognosticators since December 2014, when Shreveport Mayor Ollie Tyler succeeded former and current state Rep. Cedric Glover.

Tyler’s brief term was supposed to be marked by an outsider’s touch and influenced by someone who wasn't entrenched in the courthouse politics of yesteryear. Instead she has been burned by local editorials questioning her leadership, a defamation suit that has been dismissed and growing criticisms about crime. (The latter at least is something most modern mayors can relate to these days.)

After that former state Rep. Joel Robideaux replaced Joey Durel as mayor-president of Lafayette Parish. With a year now behind him, Robideaux is faced with a perilous budget situation and he's asking residents to help generate ideas to increase revenue.

As the only other African-American woman elected from this crop of politicos, former state Sen. Sharon Weston Broome took over the mantle of East Baton Rouge mayor-president from Kip Holden. Like many newcomers, she inherited a bit of a mess — a city plagued by racial tension, disrupted by last year’s floods and disheartened by a string of police-involved shootings.

Broome’s biggest test, however, is yet to come. With the federal government backing away from the shooting death of Alton Sterling, local and national advocates are now waiting on the state to complete its investigation. When the time comes for that final announcement, a voice of reason will be needed.

Most recently, Nic Hunter was sworn in as the new mayor of Lake Charles on July 1. He replaces longtime, popular Mayor Randy Roach, but has already made his own mark in some ways. Hunter is the first Republican ever elected mayor in Lake Charles and, at age 33, is also the second youngest politician ever elevated to the position.

Finally, there’s New Orleans, which will elect its next mayor either on the Oct. 14 ballot or, as needed, during the Nov. 18 runoff. It’s likely to be the hottest election hosted in Louisiana this year and, since it’s a city that lives in the imagination of the word, the contest should produce a touch of national press coverage.

At the Essence Festival this past weekend, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu refused to view his exit as bittersweet. "No, I'm all sweet," Landrieu said, according to The Times-Picayune.

Landrieu’s supporters may buy that line, but there will likely be a handful of candidates running against the mayor’s record this summer and fall. It’s practically formulaic. All of the new mayors elected to represent Louisiana’s largest cities over the past two and half years vowed fresh approaches.

So what’s the big picture? Are there any ties that bind? Is there a collective breeze of municipal hope flowing through Louisiana?

Right now it’s difficult to judge. A particular mayor’s impact is best gauged from the perspective of a decade or more out from their final term.

Yet from a political perspective, it’s worth pointing out that only one of these mayoral seats was turned. Hunter, a Republican, snagged a seat that was previously held by a Democrat. In doing so Hunter likewise flipped an important Louisiana city that supported both Hillary Clinton and Foster Campbell in 2016.

For donors and party faithfuls, that’s the kind of takeaway that’s definitely worthy of remembering. After all, the benches from which both parties can pull from for candidates for higher office have always been filled with mayors. And they still are; only the faces are different.

It will be interesting to learn in the coming years whether this wave of new mayors in Louisiana is creating any kind of novel policy changes or altering local governing norms. That would certainly be nice to learn — and it’s a much better topic of discussion than rehashing just more of the same, which we’ve already experienced plenty enough of in this state.

They Said It At The Capitol

This year’s session-palooza lumbered into view on Feb. 13 brimming with proof that love and politics don’t always mix so well.

“To your spouses and significant others who will spend yet another Valentine’s Day without you, I am sorry,” Gov. John Bel Edwards told lawmakers on the opening day of the first special session of 2017.

Representatives and senators had already been through a sausage grinder of sessions — three in all last year, each hosting controversial votes that foreshadowed the dark and loveless politics ahead.

“Arrows are being shot at me left and right,” Sen. Barrow Peacock said just prior to the governor’s February speech. “But they’re not from cupid.”

That first special session lasted roughly a week, with debates focusing on how much money should be pulled out of the state’s special savings account. Conservatives and the House leadership wanted a smaller number, while Democrats, the Senate leadership and the governor preferred a larger withdrawal.

That put politics behind the steering wheel on a few occasions. “The reason I wear cowboy boots is because it gets pretty deep around here,” Peacock noted as the inaugural session of 2017 wound down and the current fiscal year shortfall was corrected.

The rest of February and all of March provided lawmakers with a short break before the governor had to open up the regular session on April 10. It was also the anniversary of the maiden voyage of the Titanic, but Edwards didn’t mention that in his second speech; he already knew it was going to be difficult to keep his tax agenda afloat.

The most prominent topic of discussion on that front was the governor’s doomed commercial activity tax, or CAT tax. It generated countless puns.

“The CAT is a dog and that dog don’t hunt,” said Rep. Barry Ivey.

Fellow opponent Rep. Julie Stokes later added during one heated discussion, “I don’t want to get into a CAT fight.”

Rep. Blake Miguez, meanwhile, took aim at the acronym. “I thought CAT tax meant ‘Carry your Ass...ets to Texas,” he told Revenue Secretary Kimberly Robinson during a Ways and Means Committee meeting.

Before it died on the legislative vine, lawmakers and special interests were picking apart the CAT tax with zeal. When a lawmaker scanned the audience during another Ways and Means meeting, hoping Robinson could answer a question he had, the secretary offered this unconvincing reply: “She’s not here!”

Taxes in any shape or form were a tough sale in the House during the regular session, even though the governor and Senate wanted increases. In the end, no reformative tax bills were even passed. “There are only bits and pieces of bodies coming out of here,” Rep. Chris Broadwater said of the Ways and Means process.

Why? Rep. Kenny Havard knows why. “A good tax is one someone else pays and a bad one is one I pay,” he observed when lawmakers finally started hearing tax bills.

Not even a gas tax — meant to improve transportation infrastructure — could gain traction during the regular session. “In other parts of the world they drive on the left side of the road,” Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson told lawmakers during one of his testimonies. “In Louisiana we drive on what is left of the road.”

Of course there were other non-tax issues debated, which brought voters and citizens from across Louisiana to Baton Rouge. A few of those exchanges, between elected legislators and visitors to the process, were memorable.

Testifying before the House Education Committee on standards-based assessments, Walter Brown, a former Caddo Parish educator, offered up some real talk. “I do not believe those students in 10th grade all of sudden got dumber over the summer,” he said. “But it does happen. I’m not gonna lie.”

Edgar Cage of Together Louisiana did the same thing while addressing the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee. “I’m so tired of hearing about the toolbox for economic development,” Cage said. “This tool in the toolbox… It’s a screwdriver. And guess who’s getting screwed?”

Even though negotiations over the state’s annual spending plan exploded toward the end of the regular session, some lawmakers learned to keep their cool . “I could call you a bad name but I been praying,” Rep. Dorothy Sue Hill told Rep. John Schroder during a round of questioning on the House floor.

The second special session of the year convened on June 8, just 30 minutes after the regular session adjourned without the state’s main budget bills being sent to the governor.

The mood inside the Capitol was strange at best. “Roses are red, violets are blue, I’m schizophrenic and so am I,” Rep. Rob Shadoin said during those final days.

To be certain, no one from the Legislature wanted to go into another session — the sixth of this term so far. “Special sessions are getting expensive to absorb,” Senate President John Alario offered at one point. “We are going to have to lay off five Democrats.”

The second special session of 2017, of course, ended last week with lawmakers and the administration reaching a compromise on the main budget bills.

That’s also when Sen. Sharon Hewitt tried to explain the concept of LST, or Legislative Standard Time, while debating a bill. In doing so she likewise uttered the truest words spoken during this year’s session-palooza.

“Weeks feel like months,” she said of the pace of governing. “Months feel like years.”

How The Legislature Got From There To Here

Many lawmakers entered the Memorial Day weekend not thinking about backyard barbecues or dreaming about seaside resorts. Thoughts instead gravitated towards one question: “What in the hell is going on?”

With the regular session scheduled to end soon, as in next week, they weren’t the only ones. Others tracking the process — and even those ignoring it — would have been satisfied just to learn exactly how the Legislature got here, this place where important bills are somehow stalled in legislative purgatory and a complete meltdown is a likelihood.

Well, those with keen eyes received their first glimpse into the darkness of impasse on May 4, 2017. That’s when the Louisiana House of Representatives approved a skinny state budget without the meaty tax increases sought by the Governor’s Office and Senate leadership.

It was a surprise to no one. At the time the House had refused to move most of the key tax bills out of the committee process, and insiders doubted the measures would have made it much further even if they had been. GOP representatives hadn’t rallied around permanent tax increases since Gov. John Bel Edwards took office last year, and they weren’t going to start now.

Edwards, working in his office three floors above the House chamber, immediately labeled the budget document as a non-starter.

Democratic representatives were enraged too, some even more so nine days later when the House passed a bill requiring public votes before military memorials could be uninstalled. The removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans helped ignite the floor hearing, which ended with members of the Black Caucus staging a walk-out. Issues of race drove that debate and the process of picking sides completely destroyed some relationship inside the rails of the House, leaving behind only anger and resentment.

It was another nine days later, on May 24, when hope truly started to escape from the Capitol’s limestone exterior like it was a leaky pipe. On that day House Democrats, in a surprise move, blocked the funding mechanism needed to underwrite construction projects statewide. Privately Republicans howled while black Democrats, still steaming from the military monuments bill, didn’t hesitate to assist their party brethren.

It was a classic hostage move. Democrats wanted concessions from the House GOP leadership on the budget and tax increases. At least those were the reasons initially offered. What Democrats really wanted was better representation on the lower chamber’s budget-writing and tax-creation committees. (As negotiations on that front started this week, Republican representatives were digging in to concede nothing as Democrats prepared to die on their swords.)

This was around the same time that separate negotiations between the House and Senate on the budget seemed to deteriorate. At the heart of the matter is $206 million that the House wants to sock away and that the Senate and governor want to spend. On the page that’s a tiny sum in a $29 billion budget. But it’s also proof that ideology — in this case cutting versus spending — is the diet of the day at the Capitol.

When all of these moving pieces came into full view in Baton Rouge recently, the governor, House speaker and Senate president all predicted, practically simultaneously, that another special session would be needed. Last week Edwards even went so far as to have his staff start drafting a call for that fourth special session of the term to convene 30 minutes after the regular session ends on June 8. Just in case.

Yet there’s still time remaining, which is to say the Edwards Administration, House and Senate deserve the benefit of the doubt.

All of the bills that have been stalled are just that. They’re not stuck in political concrete. Additionally, all of the goodwill has not yet escaped from the limestone. More can be generated, and rather easily. Critical services are not officially underfunded at this moment, either, even if it looks that way. The final budget bill is still pending.

Time remains for solutions.

The exception, of course, is the $1.3 billion fiscal cliff of 2018. Lawmakers have not been able to replace the temporary tax revenue that’s falling off of the books next year and they’re unlikely to make great strides in these remaining days. A special session will undoubtedly have to be called for this shortfall eventually, maybe in the fall or next year.

If lawmakers fail to forge a compromise on the budget over the next week or so, however, and the governor doesn’t bend as well, then an immediate special session will be needed. And there will be plenty of blame to go around for that unneeded lawmaking event. Plus, if Democrats and Republicans in the House can’t find a way to work together and fund those construction projects now in legislative limbo, there will be blame doled out for that as well.

Until then, we’ll wait and see. But the benefit of the doubt will expire soon.

Personalities Emerge In Quiet Treasurer’s Race


It’s completely possible that whoever does win the expected runoff this fall for state treasurer will spend less than $1 million during the primary. That translates into an affordable victory for some lucky Louisiana politician.

Few voters are probably even aware that a race for treasurer is being waged. Maybe it’s because U.S. Sen. John Kennedy previously held the office for 17 years and failed to generate any serious opposition. To be certain, it is a title that is won and not inherited. And that means competitive campaigning and retail political marketing — a pair of practices that are never boring in the Bayou State.

Still, it’s a low-dollar affair so far, with two legislators personally loaning their campaigns big money. Rep. Julie Stokes of Kenner has $250,000 at stake and Rep. John Schroder of Covington has $184,000 worth of skin in the game. An important question moving forward is whether both will be willing to spend that loot.

If not, and even if they do, that could make earned media — or unpaid appearances or references in newspapers, online and on TV — all the more important in this contest. The lack of funding across the field could likewise create fewer than usual statewide media buys. The candidates may instead choose to focus largely on regional advertising, like in New Orleans, where a high-profile mayoral race will turn out voters.

While the early stages of this election have been quiet, there has been an interesting development. The four main contenders are already showcasing their various personalities and giving us hints of the exchanges to come. That much was evident recently during what was the first forum of the election cycle for most of the declared candidates.

Stokes, for example, introduced herself to the Louisiana Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives as a candidate with “humble” roots. She talked about having a blue-collar father and a stay-at-home mother. “We lived in a 1,000 square foot home and I went to public school,” she said.

But more strikingly, she offered to bring a new look and feel to the office of treasurer, which Kennedy molded into an unofficial watchdog post over the years. Stokes, who endorsed former Congressman Charles Boustany over Kennedy in last year’s Senate race, said she wanted to move away from “insincere politics” and “political answers to practical questions.” She described her background as a CPA as her most valuable asset. “The state of Louisiana has never had a CPA managing its money. Just simmer on that for a minute,” she said, adding, “If Louisiana were a private company, the CEO, CFO and most of the management for this financial disaster would have been let go a long time ago.”

After he talked about his military service, a serious injury suffered while on duty and how his own family overcame economic hardships, Schroder told the audience that, if elected, the first thing he would do is create a website where citizens could learn where “every dime” of taxpayer money is spent. Schroder added that the next treasurer must be an “advocate for conservative policies” while in office and even Kennedy-like. “John Kennedy has changed the role of this office in a major way,” Schroder said. “The people of Louisiana have come to appreciate someone who is unwavering and someone who can say, ‘No, we can’t do that.’”

Sen. Neil Riser of Columbia, meanwhile, has something no other candidate in the race has — a north Louisiana zip code. Riser, however, told those gathered at the forum that his strengths run much deeper than locale. He  shared his memories of being 22-years-old when his father passed away, which forced him to take over the family funeral business. Prior to that, Riser said he was on the ground at the age of 14 in the timber industry, a tough job that cost him most of his hearing in one ear. “I’ve never had a job that was 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or Monday through Friday,” he said. “Never.”

Absent from the forum was Angele Davis, a fellow Republican and the president of the Davis Kelley Group, who was ill that day. After raising more money last quarter than her declared opponents, all three of which are stuck in a regular session in Baton Rouge, Davis is left free to roam the state and build up her campaign kitty. She also doesn’t have to take tough votes on issues that might play well on opposition direct mail pieces.

While Davis has her work history with former Gov. Bobby Jindal — extremely dated work that will nonetheless be thrown at her — to deal with, she could still have a small opening in this race to label herself as an outsider. Being the only non-legislator in the field is a distinction we’re likely to hear more about in the coming months.

In fact, you can expect to hear a whole lot more about the entire field of candidates. All you have to do is listen.