POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

Jeremy Alford Thursday, July 2, 2015 0
POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

Geymann Looks To Future

Having just hammered out what was thought to be an impossible compromise on Common Core, and with term limits awaiting him this fall, Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, is starting to open up a bit more about the future. His future.

Advocate reporter Will Sentell recently pointed out that Geymann was being mentioned as a possible candidate for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. But that can definitely be crossed off the list.

“I have no plans to run for BESE,” Geymann said, adding that he has been encouraged to be on the ballot.

What’s more likely is a run for Congress. But only if Congressman Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, vacates the seat, which is always possible. Boustany is said to have an interest in the U.S. Senate should David Vitter win his bid for governor.

Looking Past The Session

Revenue Sec. Tim Barfield played a lead legislative role for Gov. Bobby Jindal this session, primarily trying to make sure lawmakers avoided a net tax increase. While this was going on, other politicos were encouraging him to run for mayor of Baton Rouge.

Barfield, who was charged by Jindal with playing point on revenue and tax bills this year, confirmed the recruitment effort over a lunch of chicken parmesan poboys at Digiulio Brothers, four miles outside the shadow of the Capitol.

“I’ve never had any interest in running for public office,” he said, fiddling with the sugar packets on the table, then looking up. “My wife, even less so.”

Soft-spoken at times, Barfield is a product of the Jindal brand, having previously served as the governor’s executive counsel and as director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission. His full-time focus over the last two months or so has been on the session — balancing his position of revenue secretary with that of a special legislative liaison role.

When lawmakers had questions about whether bills satisfy the governor’s definition of “revenue neutral,” it was Barfield who issued the answers. He was dealing with a complicated framework, in which for every $1 raised in taxes by lawmakers, they had to attempt to cut a corresponding $1 from the budget.

It was the session’s undoing in its final days. Barfield was at the center of the storm.

“I’ve met with the governor quite a few times this session, but I meet with his staff daily,” said Barfield. “The biggest challenge has been trying to get a compromise that the administration finds acceptable and that is acceptable with the House and Senate. It’s like getting Mars and Jupiter and the moon in line. You need a political solution for the Legislature and we want a practical solution that doesn’t have the state making cuts in six months.”

Critics complained that Barfield was pushing a plan that places Louisiana in a zero sum game, where revenue equals reductions. But lawmakers also said they appreciated Barfield’s approach to negotiations, with many citing his corporate background. He was previously CEO of the Shaw Group and chief development officer for Amedisys.

Is a return to the private sector in the cards for Barfield as Jindal’s term comes to an end, or at least in the foreseeable future?

“I think that’s very likely,” Barfield said. “I’m really focused on getting through this session. There will be time later to sit down and look at all of the options.”

The Politics Behind TIMED

In March, 1989, the Louisiana Legislature approved a plan that was later backed by voters to implement a 4-cent gas tax increase to bankroll 16 infrastructure projects.

Since then, and especially recently, the TIMED program has met with widespread criticism that transportation priorities are not being met — that it overlooks important projects and there’s not enough money to finish the original vision voters approved. Cash is actually being diverted away from the regular, rank-and-file projects to keep TIMED afloat.

How did this happen? Well, at least partly, politics are to blame. As House Transportation Chair Karen St. Germain, D-Plaquemine, explains it, votes were bought to pass the TIMED program in the late 1980s when Buddy Roemer was governor. “The first projects that were listed in TIMED were all about getting those legislators who you needed their votes to actually go and vote for it,” she said. “It was all done on the back of a napkin. There were meetings for that and that’s how it was done at the time.”

During her testimony before the Ways and Means Committee this month, St. Germain said the legislative handlers at the time asked one question of the swing voters, then handed them a pen. The question was: “What will it take to pass? Just write (a figure for your project) down and we’ll figure it out later.”

That’s how project costs were determined.

St. Germain pushed HB 778 this session. The bill fell short of the two-thirds vote it needed on the House floor. It would have levied a new .01 cent sales tax to expire in 10 years to construct 18 projects in critical corridors across Louisiana.

Campbell Talks Governor’s Race 

“I’m not running,” said Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, getting that out of the way.

But what of north Louisiana, a turf Campbell knows well? He won re-election to the PSC’s north Louisiana district last year with 61 percent of the primary vote in spite of opposition from the Louisiana Assoc. of Business and Industry.

In the governor’s race, U.S. Sen. David Vitter performs best in north Louisiana in the latest Southern Media and Opinion Research poll. He carried 46 percent of the piney north region in the poll — 52 percent of the 4th Congressional District and 35 percent of the 5th District.

Campbell said he hasn’t heard of any candidates surfacing from north Louisiana, and he suggested the region could become competitive if all of the factors are right.

“Vitter doesn’t own north Louisiana. Someone could come up here and really make a connection,” said Campbell. “But I’m not hearing any of the candidates talk about those issues. If you leave north Louisiana alone and no one makes a real play for it, Vitter probably does pretty good.”

All the candidates have visited north Louisiana. Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle is the latest. He’s touring every parish in the region, and recently launched a TV buy there.

Campbell compared the political climate to his cattle, noting most of the candidates want to follow the path and policies of Gov. Bobby Jindal. Every now and then one of his cattle gets stuck in the mud and has to be pulled out or it’ll die, he said. But more often than not, the cattle will go back to the same exact spot and get stuck again.

“Here we got all these politicians going to the same damn mud hole,” Campbell said. “If we don’t try something different we’ll all be stuck.”

Contracts Questioned Again

Last year, a bill to reduce the amount of government money spent on the state’s consulting contracts that was unanimously passed by both chambers of the Legislature was vetoed by Gov. Bobby Jindal. A variation on this bill appears to be heading to the governor’s desk.

This is the fourth attempt by the duo of Treasurer John Kennedy and Rep. Dee Richard, No Party-Thibodeaux, to cut the amount of money the state spends on professional, personal and consulting service contracts.

The House Appropriations Committee approved without objection the latest incarnation of the measure.

HB 30 would allow lawmakers on the Joint Legislative Budget Committee to reject or approve practically any consulting contract with an annual value of $40,000 or more. The money saved by rejecting contracts would then be placed into the proposed Higher Education Financing Fund.

If it is approved, Kennedy said the new bill would allow lawmakers to have the final say on as many as 1,700 contracts worth $2 billion, based on an annual report from the Division of Administration, which reviews contracts. Division officials, however, said the number would be closer to 150 or so contracts, valued at $21 million.

The debate drew a distinct line in the sand, with the bill’s author and Kennedy contradicting the arguments of the administration.

The treasurer cited several examples of contracts lawmakers might be in a position to reject, thus creating more money for higher education. For instance, Kennedy mentioned $413,000 spent with Rutgers University in New Jersey to study the aftereffects of the BP oil spill. While there might be some benefit to the research, the question of who should receive the money is the big one, he said. “Should we be giving that money to McNeese or ULM or LSU or Southeastern?” Kennedy asked.

Other questionable contracts lawmakers didn’t get to review in the past, according to Kennedy, included one to promote seat belt usage for the Hispanic population of Rapides Parish, and others directing taxpayer money to groups like Young Audiences of Louisiana, God’s Little Angels, Little People’s Play Station and Angels in Training.

Kennedy cited nearly $47 million in coastal restoration contracts this fiscal year that lawmakers could have negotiated. “Don’t tell me they can’t do the job for 10 percent less,” Kennedy said.

Officials with the Division of Administration argued that the bill would extend contracting periods by 30 days at a minimum and up to 60 days at most. They complained about being micromanaged by lawmakers and labeled the savings touted by Kennedy and others as unrealistic.

Some lawmakers also voiced concerns about dedicating the savings only to colleges and universities.

“The biggest problem we have is lack of flexibility,” said Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington. “I support higher ed as much as anyone, but we cannot keep dedicating all of our money.”

Budget Move Bugs Lottery

As lawmakers moved closer to the end of their session, the possibility of using $27.6 million from unclaimed lottery winnings to plug an ailing budget remained on the table. Lawmakers had not yet triggered the option by filing the required legislation or amending the state budget for the next fiscal year.

The proposal came from Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration before the session. The money was to go to elementary and secondary public schools. The move would also help free up general fund dollars for higher education and health care.

Rose J. Hudson, the president of the Louisiana Lottery, said current law already directs plans for this money — it must be used for future scratch-off prizes or promotions. “Simply put, unclaimed prize funds belong to Lottery players,” Hudson said in a written statement. “As you can imagine, our players love this.”

By funneling the unclaimed money back into prizes, she said the Louisiana Lottery has increased scratch-off sales more than 40 percent the last five years. “In a nutshell, more sales equals more money for the state,” she said, noting that 35 percent of lottery revenue is constitutionally dedicated to K-12 public education.

Removing the lottery’s ability to use unclaimed prize funds to supplement scratch-off prizes would cause sales to decrease, according to a recent performance audit report conducted by the Legislative Auditor. The resulting net annual loss in state revenue could be as much as $16 million. “It causes me concern that in the rush to patch a gap, we would unintentionally create a chasm,” Hudson said.

Gaming Opposes Fantasy Bill

Weeks ago, Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, moved his push to legalize fantasy gaming for football, basketball, baseball and the like to the Senate, where he had hoped lawmakers would agree that fanatics should be able to pay to play and win prizes if they’re good enough.

The House voted for it 71-20. But following HB 475 to the Senate was opposition from Louisiana’s legal gaming community.

Alton Ashy, lobbyist for the Louisiana Video Gaming Assoc., said the legislation could create unnecessary competition for an industry that’s already heavily regulated and paying taxes. Moreover, he added, there could be problems with allowing players to participate in a one-day league, as opposed to an entire season. Also, there are no mechanisms in the bill to ensure operators are paying taxes to the state.

“It could lead to full gaming sites with little or no regulation,” Ashy said. “We’re happy to try to work with Rep. Lopinto on this bill, but we have some serious concerns.”

Lopinto said Louisiana is only one of five states that prohibit fantasy games. He says his legislation tracks federal language. Sometimes prizes amount to nothing more than a t-shirt, he said. Louisiana’s 1997 Internet gaming law shouldn’t apply in such an instance.

“I’m trying to change an antiquated law,” Lopinto said.

The bill was assigned to the Senate Judiciary B Committee, but Lopinto said the opposition may stall it there.

 

For more Louisiana political news, visit www.LaPolitics.com or follow Jeremy Alford on Twitter @LaPoliticsNow.