Last Modified: Thursday, May 12, 2016 7:20 AM
By Jim Beam/American Press
BATON ROUGE — The ultra-conservative faction in the Louisiana House took unprecedented steps this week in what appears to be an early effort to help groom state Attorney General Jeff Landry to become the GOP gubernatorial candidate in 2019.
Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, missed out on his hopes of becoming House speaker, but he has managed to mount a serious effort to try and derail Gov. John Bel Edwards’ political agenda. Henry became chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and struck a blow for Landry when his committee followed Henry’s lead and voted 17-6 to remove the AG’s budget from the executive branch.
“I’m just trying to understand what you’re doing. We’ve never done this before,” said Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans. “So we’re just cutting out the division?”
Leger was Edwards’ choice as speaker, but the House chose Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, a compromise candidate. When Henry didn’t get enough votes, he threw his support to Barras and Henry got his powerful chairmanship as a consolation prize.
Edwards and Jay Dardenne, his commissioner of administration, appeared before Henry’s committee April 10 to explain their proposed cuts to the budget that was nearly $800 million short at that point.
Henry seized the occasion to let Edwards know the decisions were now in his committee’s hands and its members probably had better ideas. He delivered on that promise Monday when his committee reversed the governor’s proposed cuts and sprang the attorney general surprise.
Dardenne called the AG move “a clever, interesting, unconstitutional proposal.”
Edwards indicated he might veto the AG maneuver which is the subject of House Bill 105.
“I think it would be problematic to start breaking out agencies from the general appropriations bill,” the governor said. “I don’t see that it’s going to become law.”
Edwards had proposed to cut the TOPS scholarship program and funding for four of the public-private hospital partnerships. However, his goal is to call another special session to raise the revenues necessary to better fund or fully fund TOPS and all nine of the hospitals.
Henry and his fellow conservatives don’t think more money is necessary, but they made some serious budget cuts in order to fully fund TOPS that are going to cause real problems .
Another controversial move was the committee’s elimination of the Office of Inspector General. Some members said it was a duplication of services that can be handled by the attorney general and the legislative auditor, which is another effort to strengthen the AG’s powers.
Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, told The Advocate he isn’t surprised to see the IG’s office targeted.
“The stronger the effort to try to eliminate this investigator, probably the better the evidence that the investigator is doing something worthwhile,” Scott said. “If it’s ruffling feathers, it will become a target.”
Stephen Street, who has been IG since 2008, said his office has generated 24 federal criminal prosecutions in the past four years, and 20 of those cases led to felony guilty pleas. Three others resulted in guilty verdicts, and only one ended in an acquittal.
The IG’s office handles many investigations of local officials, which are often overlooked by state agencies. It is also free of political interference. The IG is appointed by the governor to six-year terms, which frees him from that interference.
Landry has already demonstrated he wants to be the law enforcement kingpin in state government, and this controversial move simply enhances his power and feeds his ego.
The Louisiana Republican Party hierarchy lost its preferred gubernatorial candidate when the voters soundly defeated U.S. Sen. David Vitter in favor of Edwards. However, the party had also moved quickly to back Billy Nungesser, who was elected lieutenant governor, and Landry, both considered staunch conservatives.
Both are now in position to take on Edwards in 2019, and it is obvious Landry is the preferred candidate.
Henry defends his controversial moves by saying other states handle the budget the way he is handling this one, and his committee wants to try budgeting differently. However, these are simply obstacles he is throwing in the way of Edwards’ priorities that are designed to get the state out of a financial quagmire created by Republican budgeting gimmicks used over the last eight years.
House members complain annually about the state Senate undoing their budget work, but they have only themselves to blame. You can be certain if this budget as proposed by Henry’s committee survives a full House vote, it will be dead on arrival in the Senate.
Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, has been helping governors achieve success for the last 44 years, and he has already demonstrated he is more than willing to do it again for Edwards. Yes, his cooperation has paid numerous dividends for the people he represents, but he has also helped pull the state back from the brink of financial ruin more than once.
The state GOP has made no secret since the governor’s election that its main goal is to make sure Edwards can’t succeed. Henry has been more than willing to try and become the David Vitter they couldn’t elect last year.
Veteran Republican lawmakers helped drag the state into its current financial swamp. The Henry budget bill is before the full House today. It will be interesting to see whether GOP members vote to continue creating turmoil or put the interests of their state ahead of their political manipulations and reject Henry’s budget cuts.