By Jeremy Alford, Sarah Gamard and Mitch Rabalais
Before the fundraising ban of the regular session took hold on March 12, Gov. John Bel Edwards managed to raise nearly $1 million during the first 10 weeks of this fiscal year, according to a spokesperson for his re-election campaign.
February was actually the best month on record for the campaign in terms of online donations, the spokesperson added.
The money counters argue that repeated attacks by political enemies had the effect of energizing Democratic donors, who balanced the criticisms against strong polling numbers for the governor.
So, how much is Edwards going to eventually raise? In a recent episode of The LaPolitics Report podcast, Andrew Bautsch, the executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party, said, “If you look at it, John Bel is on point to have, I’m thinking, maybe $10 million of his own funds by election day. And then you’ll have the DNC and other interest groups coming in to drop another $3 to $4 million minimum … That’s why we’re gearing up.”
State GOP Chairman Louis Gurvich, who is also featured in the episode, added that the previous spending record set during the 2015 gubernatorial race by Edwards and the rest of the field — totaling at least $50 million — won’t survive the next two years. “Absolutely, it’s going to be shattered,” said Gurvich. “No doubt about it.”
Earlier this year, Edwards reported having $5 million in his war chest for re-election — money raised during 2016 and 2017. The governor has a handful of potential opponents, but, so far, none have officially announced.
GOP Leadership Transition Underway
Louisiana Republican Party chairman Gurvich and executive director Andrew Bautsch, recently hired, have been on the job for roughly a month.
They revealed new plans to LaPolitics for recruiting minority and female candidates, as well as candidates who are younger than those traditionally seen in the GOP.
The party also wants to surpass 1 million party members in the state by 2020.
“It’s not a matter of what your great-grandparents were doing,” Gurvich said. “It’s a matter of what’s going on with us now.”
The state may also see more conservative candidates looking to replace incumbent and term-limited Republicans in the 2019 elections, they noted.
“Generally speaking, we want folks who are going to be part of our message for smaller government, lower taxes and more individual freedom to live your life as you choose,” Gurvich said.
Middle Lane Caucus Could Be Nonprofit
LaPolitics reported recently that a potential new legislative caucus of centrist representatives was in the works. Now members are thinking the group might not be a caucus at all, but a political nonprofit.
Five or six members have been meeting in private to discuss the paths the coalition could take. Earlier interviews identified about 30 members who have been meeting as a body since August, as well as corresponding via group text during the most recent special session.
But a handful of participants aren’t ready to be identified.
“There’s a little bit of an uncertainty,” said Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, adding that the group does not want to be “branded on the political spectrum.”
Names are still up in the air, but Stokes is considering calling it the “Louisiana Coalition.”
The coalition includes about a dozen Republicans and a dozen Democrats, she said, plus the Legislature’s three independents. In addition to Stokes, members also include Reps. Gene Reynolds, D-Minden, and Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston.
Candidate Vows To Rewrite Constitution
In yet another signal that Congressman Ralph Abraham will be on the ballot in 2018, and probably in 2019, the veterinarian-turned-physician told LaPolitics recently that his potential bid for governor would be anchored by a vow to rewrite key sections of Louisiana’s guiding charter.
Lawmakers are trying to do just that at the Capitol during the ongoing regular session. Only one measure is moving — HB 500 by Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, which calls for a limited constitutional convention.
Abraham, for now, is the only potential candidate who has said publicly he would make constitutional revision a priority as a candidate next year. “If I decide to run for governor, my top priority would be to call for a limited constitutional convention to make fundamental changes to the way business is done in Baton Rouge,” Abraham said.
More specifics are forthcoming, particularly if Abraham, a native of northeast Louisiana, decides to challenge Gov. John Bel Edwards.
The congressman’s thoughts on the topic reveal some policy interests.
“A government closest to the people can better serve the people. So, local governments need to be able to raise and keep local tax dollars in their own backyards instead of sending them to a black hole in Baton Rouge,” said Abraham. “We have to give local governments the space they need to thrive and give the Legislature the ability to make the spending cuts that need to be made.”
As is the case with other policymakers interested in a constitutional rewrite, Abraham said he would want to point a spotlight on the budget process.
“We have some major problems in Louisiana, especially with the budget,” he said. “This is partly because we have a Constitution where Baton Rouge takes all of your tax dollars, gives most of them to special interests and the people might get the leftovers.”
Aside from the policy implications, Abraham’s interview with LaPolitics revealed he won’t shy away from political contrasts.
“Much of our Constitution is sound, and not all of our funds and dedications are bad. But if we really want to make meaningful, fundamental changes, then everything has to be on the table, and we must have an honest discussion about what stays, what goes and what’s revised,” he said. “We can’t have that conversation unless we have a governor willing to do the hard work, put the Louisiana people first and make the hard decisions that might not be politically popular, but have to be made.”
Abraham said the Constitution does too much to create an all-powerful governorship who freely picks winners and losers, adding, “It’s been a long time since we had a governor willing to do that, but if I run, it’s exactly what I’ll do.”
Asked for his reaction, Richard Carbo, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ deputy chief of staff, said, “we’re glad to see that Congressman Abraham agrees with the governor that a constitutional convention is necessary. But it won’t do a thing to solve our immediate budget challenges. In fact, we know from his recent comments that he would make deep cuts to education, healthcare and law enforcement, which is not what the people of Louisiana want. That sounds like the farthest thing from a strong leader, and actually puts his own political interests ahead of the needs of our state.”
Edwards Predicts ‘Difficult Work’
Before delivering the prayer that opened the regular session for the lower chamber, Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, joked that he was considering drawing inspiration from the words of St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes.
“But we’re not there yet,” Connick said to a sprinkling of laughter.
It was an otherwise lighthearted start to a regular session that’s sure to be tainted in some way by the mistrust and acrimony that was kicked up by the failed special session. That’s when the House failed to forge a compromise on how best to address a budget shortfall that was said to be in the neighborhood of $1 billion. Now it’s closer to $700 million, due to an expected revenue bump from federal tax changes.
“I know you haven’t been away for very long, but I hope that in the past week you have had time to rest and refocus on the work that we have ahead of us,” Edwards told a joint meeting of the Legislature. “I do not want the roadblocks of the special session to hamper us from what’s most important — making life better for the people of this great state.”
Since this is an even-numbered year, lawmakers won’t be voting on the same tax bills that were proposed during the recent special session. The regular session will instead host a variety of policy topics and a debate over the state budget, which, if actually passed, will have to be balanced by lawmakers to reflect the $700 million reduction in revenue.
The lay of the land in the capitol will take some time to read properly, but the same basic philosophical divides remain. While Democrats — and some Republicans — are open to increasing certain kinds of taxes, many conservatives remain convinced that the state budget can absorb enough cuts to further shrink the anticipated shortfall that takes hold when the new fiscal year begins July 1.
“If that’s what you truly believe, now is your opportunity,” Edwards said during his opening speech. “To those that say we can cut our way out of this, it’s your time to step up to the plate and make the specific cuts that you insist can be made.”
Freshman Rep. Jean-Paul Coussan, R-Lafayette, said he’s willing to support cuts in the budget, but like Edwards and others, he’s still waiting to see if a spending document emerges from its originating committee and what it will contain.
“I think we have the right people on the Appropriations Committee to do the job they were elected to do,” Coussan said.
To be certain, lawmakers will feel the pressure soon. The governor said he has been working with Senate President John Alario and House Speaker Taylor Barras to end the non-fiscal regular session ahead of schedule, possibly in mid-May, in order to convene the year’s second special fiscal session — “at no additional expense to taxpayers.”
“And no, it will not be easy. I never said that it would be, but I believe it will be necessary,” Edwards said, later adding, “There is no denying that we have some very difficult work ahead of us. In this session, you are also supposed to pass a budget. As I’ve said before, I do not support or consider the budget recommendations I was constitutionally obligated to present back in January as a reasonable option. I’m certain the majority of you don’t either.”
But the budget isn’t the only item on the regular session menu. More than a thousand bills, ranging from gun control measures and constitutional convention calls to fishing license adjustments and equal pay campaigns, will help distract lawmakers from their fiscal charge.
Veteran Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, said he hopes the volume of legislation doesn’t actually serve as a distraction from the larger goal at hand. “I think because we’re hitting it all early, we’ll be OK,” he said. “But we’ve got to keep up that pace. In my committee, Senate Health and Welfare, we’re looking to consider 10 to 12 bills every week.”
Political History: Plaquemines Parish’s ‘Little War’
On June 1, 1943, Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Louis Dauterive died suddenly.
Instead of an orderly transition amid a period of mourning, the sheriff’s death ignited an ugly conflict between then-Gov. Sam Jones and Judge Leander Perez, the parish’s undisputed boss.
Jones and Perez were bitter political enemies, with Perez having little regard for the governor and Jones attempting to use the governor’s office to erode Perez’s power and influence at every opportunity.
According to the state Constitution at the time, the governor had the sole authority to appoint an interim sheriff to serve until the regularly scheduled elections of 1944. Perez, an ally of the Long family dynasty, had been used to his preferred candidates getting plum state appointments.
But Jones picked a candidate who had repeatedly run against Perez to fill the sheriff’s seat. “The Judge,” as he was called, was outraged and filed lawsuits to halt the appointment of the new sheriff.
With his legal action pending, Perez installed Plaquemines Parish’s coroner as the interim sheriff and posted armed deputies on highways at the parish line, turning away non-residents. At the courthouse in Pointe á la Hache, more armed deputies barricaded themselves inside, turning the building into a makeshift fortress.
In response, Gov. Jones called out the National Guard. Perez likened the governor to a dictator and encouraged residents to arm themselves.
The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in Jones’ favor, but Perez wasn’t deterred. He shut down the only road into Pointe á la Hache. Traffic was diverted to the judge’s property, where he determined who could travel to the parish seat.
Fed up, Jones declared martial law on Oct. 9, and sent the National Guard in to install his appointee as sheriff. The guardsmen encountered minimal resistance, arresting the troublesome deputies while Perez fled via boat.
At the courthouse, important documents and equipment were destroyed or hidden to keep them out of the hands of the new sheriff.
The National Guard would occupy the courthouse until the elections in 1944, when Perez’s chosen candidate for sheriff won by a four-to-one margin.
Lawmakers Get Serious About Judgments
It’s been three years since the state has paid legal judgments, and judicial interest has been compounding the entire time.
The state owes $30 million in back judgments, mostly related to the Dept. of Transportation and Development.
With a tight and drama-filled budget cycle slated for the ongoing regular session, some lawmakers are eager to move the needle.
Sen. Rick Ward, the chairman of the Judiciary A Committee, said more legislators are tuning into the issue. He stands ready to help forge a compromise, as needed, on the Senate side.
Rep. Julie Stokes is working on legislation for a judgment registry and additional language that would count what’s owed in annual financial reports. Her HB 471 has been assigned to the House Appropriations Committee. It would require the Division of Administration to establish and maintain the list.
Sen. Dan Claitor also said he’s been tinkering with a sort of prioritization system. His SB 390 has made it to the full Senate. “I’m really growing frustrated hearing from people who are waiting on these judgments,” he said.
They Said It
“We can’t even pass gas.”
— State Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, commenting on the Louisiana House of Representatives
“I understand lonely because I’m a Democrat from the South.”
— New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, during the recent Gridiron Show in Washington, D.C.
For more Louisiana political news, visit www.LaPolitics.com or follow Jeremy Alford on Twitter @