After five months of nonstop fiscal fights, state lawmakers have finally gone home — hopefully for the rest of the year — leaving behind a slew of new taxes and millions in budget cuts. That’s about the worst possible outcome, but it should surprise no one.
Herewith a final installment of 2016’s “Da Winnas and Da Loozas.”
1. House Republicans — For the first time in a while, House Republicans are truly a functioning caucus. They warned Gov. John Bel Edwards not to call a second special session right away. They told him he would not get everything he wanted — and they kept their promise. The House GOP leadership found its legs in this latest session, but the caucus also exposed its Achilles heel: House Republicans voted to cut TOPS, which is popular among their own constituents. Also, they’ve proven they know how to say “no” to taxes, but can they find the will to say “yes” to real fiscal reform next year? That remains to be seen.
2. Individual Taxpayers — They were spared any income tax hikes when the House declined to adjust the rates or tinker with itemized deductions, which is bad news for long-term fiscal (tax) reform but good news for middle-income taxpayers and folks earning more than $100,000 a year.
3. Oil & Gas Companies — Lawmakers passed a bill that rewrites the formula for calculating corporate income taxes owed by large companies — but only after amending the measure to exempt “integrated” oil and gas companies from the new calculations. Integrated oil and gas companies are those involved in every step of oil and gas from extraction to final sale. Here’s the kicker: The lawmaker who offered the amendment — Rep. Jim Morris, a Republican from (where else?) Oil City — couldn’t explain it beyond saying that it would help oil and gas companies. That was good enough.
The U.S. Senate showdown between incumbent Mary Landrieu and challenger Bill Cassidy is not the only hotly contested race on the Dec. 6 ballot. Several other local races are providing almost as many fireworks as the Senate shootout. Here’s a look at some of them:
• The PSC Race — The most interesting match-up on the local scene is the runoff for the District 1 seat on the Louisiana Public Service Commission (PSC). The five-member commission regulates public utilities, and while its meetings are not watched closely by most voters its decisions affect virtually every citizen and business in the state. Two Republicans of very different stripes face each other in the runoff.
Incumbent Eric Skrmetta has been on the PSC since 2009 and is the utilities’ go-to guy on the commission. He gets most of his campaign money from those utilities, and that has become a flashpoint in this election. Challenger Forest Bradley Wright formerly worked for the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a consumer advocacy group based in New Orleans. Wright gets much of his campaign money from solar energy companies, which are not regulated by the PSC but do compete with public utilities.
Wright pulled off something of an upset in the primary, narrowly leading Skrmetta by a 38-37 percent margin. Third-place finisher Al Leone got 25 percent and is backing Wright in the runoff.
Is it the sex, or is it the hypocrisy? I keep asking myself that question when I think about U.S. Rep. Vance McAllister, R-Swartz, who will forever be remembered as “the kissing congressman” for being videotaped in a passionate lip lock with a 33-year-old aide who also happens to be the wife of a longtime friend.
This story hurts on many levels, but the hypocrisy is what riles me most of all — and there’s plenty of it to go around, at all levels of both political parties.
As for the sex part, well, that’s as old as the Holy Bible, which a legislative committee voted to make the official state book three days after the video of McAllister’s make-out session went viral. Coincidentally, another Louisiana House committee voted a day earlier to decriminalize anal and oral sex. Hmmn.
Freeing the sodomites while we embrace the Good Book sure makes us look, um, morally confused, but hypocrisy too is as old as the Bible. By the way, Jesus forgave the adulteress and the prostitute — but he consistently condemned hypocrites.
Which calls to mind our self-righteous governor, Bobby Jindal, and state GOP chair Roger Villere, who both wasted no time calling McAllister’s indiscretion “an embarrassment” and demanding that he resign. That prompted many, including many Republicans, to wonder where Jindal’s and Villere’s moral outrage was in 2007 when Louisiana’s U.S. Sen. David Vitter admitted to a “serious sin.” Vitter’s sin turned out to be bedding down with hookers — to the point of taking calls from a prostitution ring while voting in Congress.
Legendary bank robber Willie Sutton reportedly was once asked why he robbed banks, to which he allegedly replied: “Because that’s where the money is.”
If Sutton had been an oilman, he no doubt would have plied his craft in south Louisiana. Because that’s where the oil is. And the gas.
Sutton also would have felt right at home in the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA). Mind you, there’s nothing criminal about prudently extracting oil and gas from the marshes of south Louisiana and piping it through miles of man-made canals, as long as you have the drilling rights and valid permits.
But there is something inherently wrong, and possibly illegal, about ruining the environment in the process, particularly when state permits require restoring the marshes afterward — or at least maintaining the canals so that they don’t degrade the marshes around them.
That’s the central question in the landmark environmental lawsuit filed last July by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies. The suit claims the defendants failed to honor obligations imposed by their state permits and, as a result, contributed significantly to coastal land loss and the increased risk of flooding in southeast Louisiana.
The energy industry and LOGA are scared to death of this lawsuit. They, along with Gov. Bobby Jindal and others, have called it a money grab by greedy trial lawyers, said it was based on “bad science,” and predicted it would chase oil and gas companies out of Louisiana.
LOGA took it a step further and filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of SLFPA-E’s contract with its legal counsel. The contract includes a handsome contingency fee. LOGA’s lawsuit specifically claims the SLFPA-E suit would cause “irreparable injury” to LOGA members and have a “chilling effect on the exploration, production, development and transportation” of oil and gas in Louisiana.
Two-term at-large New Orleans Councilmember Jackie Clarkson will announce on Tuesday that she is running for the District C seat being vacated by Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who announced last week that she would not seek a second term.
From the moment Palmer announced she would not run again, Clarkson's cell phone lit up with callers urging her to run — including Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Clarkson has been a staunch ally of the mayor for the past four years and often refers to him as "the best mayor I've had the pleasure to serve with." The plan, according to a source close to Clarkson, is for Landrieu to formally endorse her at her announcement on Tuesday, along with a group of civic, business and community leaders.
In running for the District C seat, Clarkson will be returning to her roots. Her first foray into elective politics came in 1990 when she won an open election for that seat. She lost a bid to keep that seat in March 1994 to state Rep. Troy Carter, but then won Carter's state House of Representatives seat in a special election in the autumn of that same year. She captured the District C seat again in 2002, then lost her first bid for an at-large council seat in the spring of 2006.
When Oliver Thomas resigned from the Council in the midst of a bribery scandal in the summer of 2007, Clarkson won the special election to succeed him that November. She has held that at-large seat since.
Clarkson easily will be the front-runner in District C, and her entry could keep some others from running — though the Feb. 1 primary is sure to be contested. The only other announced candidate thus far is former judge and one-time mayoral candidate Nadine Ramsey. Qualifying runs this week from Wednesday through Friday.
The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) meets this Thursday morning to consider scuttling — or doubling down on — its environmental lawsuit against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies. One of Gov. Bobby Jindal's new appointees, lawyer Joe Hassinger, has said he plans to introduce a motion to suspend the suit. It didn't take him long to pass his "litmus test" for Jindal and "coastal czar" Garret Graves.
But Hassinger may have a conflict of interest that will prevent him from even participating in the debate, let alone making or voting on the motion to suspend the lawsuit. That's because he works at a law firm — Galloway Johnson — that boasts of its big-shot clients in the energy industry. Hassinger is a "director" (read: partner) in the Galloway firm, which means that any conflicts that the firm may have are legally imputed to him. The firm's web site lists Hassinger's areas of practice; they include "environment."
Hassinger's potential conflict doesn't end there. His brother, Tim Hassinger, also is a firm director at Galloway — and Tim practices in the area of energy law.
Under state law, an "appointed member of a board or commission who recuses himself from voting pursuant to [state ethics laws] shall be prohibited from participating in discussion and debate concerning the matter. See La.R.S. 42:1120.4(B). A related section of state law (R.S.42:1112) provides that conflicts of interest extend to matters that involve immediate family members and entities in which the appointed official is "an officer, director, trustee, partner, or employee."
WWL-TV's Paul Murphy had the jump on this story today at 5PM. You can see it HERE.
Team Jindal claims that Galloway does not represent any of the 97 energy companies named as defendants in the SLFPA-E lawsuit, which begs the question on several counts:
• Even if Galloway does not represent any of those companies at present, did it ever represent any of them?
• If, as claimed on its web site, Galloway is a major player in the legal representation of energy companies, it's hard to imagine that the firm did not ever rep any of the major players named in the suit — or that the firm won't one day seek to represent such companies.
• What about other energy companies that may have partnered with any of the defendants named in the suit. It's common practice in the Oil Patch for companies that might otherwise compete with one another to joint venture or partner up. There's that much money to be made.
Sometimes I can’t write about just one topic because there’s so much going on at once. This is one of those times.
In state politics, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) has a new leader — one with close ties to Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Locally, the “nominating committee” charged with vetting applicants to serve on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) appears, sadly, to be towing the governor’s line against the reappointment of John Barry.
And if you ever doubt that one person can make a difference, check out blogger C.B. Forgotston (forgotston.com), who has made state funding for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) a hot-button issue.
LABI’s New Leader — When LaPolitics Weekly broke the news that former Jindal aide Stephen Waguespack had the inside track to succeed Dan Juneau as LABI president, it raised eyebrows. LABI under Juneau was the most influential lobby in the Capitol.
There were times when the business group had more stroke than the governor. LABI’s opposition to Jindal’s “tax swap” plan (to replace the state income tax with the highest combined sales tax rate in the nation) effectively killed the controversial proposal.
From the moment the regional flood protection authority filed an environmental lawsuit against nearly 100 oil and gas companies, members of the board have been the targets of intense political pressure from the governor, his minions and state lawmakers. Now, finally, some are starting to push back.
The lawsuit, filed in late July, seeks to make 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies pay their share — and only their share — of the costs of restoring lost wetlands in southeast Louisiana and protecting metro New Orleans from the increased threat of flooding. Those costs are a direct result of thousands of miles of oil and gas canals carved out of south Louisiana’s wetlands over the past 80 years. The oil industry admits this much; it just wants taxpayers to foot the bill.
Given that the suit could surpass the Tobacco Litigation in damage awards and legal impact if it goes to trial, it’s understandable that the energy industry — through its lapdog, Gov. Bobby Jindal — would pull out all the stops to quash the litigation as quickly as possible and by any means necessary. Jindal and his coastal czar, Garret Graves, want the flood authority’s president and vice president, Tim Doody and John Barry, removed from the board. The terms of both men have expired, but they can be reappointed. The political pressure in response to the suit has been relentless and, until recently, one sided.
Last week, two prominent voices defended both men and the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) against Jindal’s attacks: former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who supported levee board reforms in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; and Ruthie Frierson, founder of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, which initiated the grassroots push for levee board reform after the storm.
Garret Graves, who chairs the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) and advises Gov. Bobby Jindal on coastal issues, took to Twitter in recent days to continue his boss’s campaign to scuttle the lawsuit filed against oil and gas companies by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E). The flood authority sued 97 energy companies, seeking damages and reparations for decades of coastal land loss. Jindal and Graves were the first to take up Big Oil’s case.
Graves, tweeting as @garretgraves, blasted the flood authority’s lead counsel in the lawsuit, local environmental lawyer Glad Jones, on July 23. “For atty Gladstone Jones to say the Corps’ funding of Katrina levee repairs absolves them of coastal loss liability is ignorant,” Graves tweeted.
Later that same day, he took another shot at Jones: “Gladstone Jones is so out of his league. Has no business litigating coastal issues with such irresponsible statements.”
Actually, Jones is one of the most successful environmental lawyers in the state. He previously won the state’s largest coastal loss case, collecting more than $100 million in damages from Exxon and Noble Energy on behalf of client Bill Dore, who was oilman of the year on several occasions while serving as the founder and largest shareholder of Global Industries, a publically held oil service company located in Sulphur, La.
Jones also successfully sued Exxon on behalf of residents of the tiny town of Grand Bois in the 1990s. Since then, he has litigated environmental cases across the country. Jones’ other environmental clients include former Gov. Mike Foster, who is no friend of trial lawyers. Foster filed a legacy lawsuit for damage to his property in St. Mary Parish.
Emerson once wrote of a political poseur, “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.” I thought of that quote when I noticed that the two biggest losers of the just-ended legislative session — Gov. Bobby Jindal and Mayor Mitch Landrieu — were the first to claim victory after adjournment sine die. Their self-congratulatory press releases hit my in-box literally minutes after the final House and Senate gavels fell.
The lads doth protest too much, methinks.
The 2013 session was unusual in many respects. It produced some of the oddest political bedfellows in memory. With few exceptions, this year’s session also lacked big ideas. The few bold initiatives that did get floated mostly got shot down in short order — starting with the governor “parking” his ill-conceived tax-swap plan. Truth be told, Jindal’s plan was never really in gear. And soon after he retreated on that front, he pretty much stayed on the sidelines for the duration of the session.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. As is our custom after a legislative session, before we pick the bones of the losers we first must pay homage to …
1. The Fiscal Hawks — They began as an ideological band of GOP outliers. Formally organized as the Louisiana Budget Reform Campaign, the hawks initially focused on budget reform, challenging Jindal’s use of one-time money to balance the budget year after year. They gained traction when the annual Southern Media and Opinion Research poll showed the governor with lower voter approval ratings than President Obama, then broke into full gallop when Jindal pulled down his tax-swap plan on the session’s opening day. They reached out to Democrats and the Black Caucus to cobble together a House majority, and when the governor disengaged from the process after “parking” his tax-swap plan, they filled the power void by rewriting the administration’s proposed budget.
As the session wore on, the hawks showed their mettle. When the Senate, as expected, put the budget back into a form more to Jindal’s liking, they stood their ground (with their new allies) and, for the first time in memory, brought both the Upper Chamber and the governor to the bargaining table.
The hawks also won key concessions on future budgets. Their tactics galled “mainstream” Republicans, but the hawks believe they stood for genuine GOP values and rediscovered the party’s fiscal compass. Along the way, they gave the Legislature something it hasn’t seen in generations: real independence. They also imparted a valuable lesson to anyone who happened to be paying attention: compromise and coalition building get a lot more done than name-calling and ideological gridlock. They also imparted a valuable lesson to anyone who happened to be paying attention: compromise and coalition building get a lot more done than name-calling and ideological gridlock.
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