2018 Reflections: Deflections, Elections, and Connections

“The Year in Review is a news industry standard this time of year. Sure, there’s the tradition of reflection as we “Auld Lang Syne”, but it’s also a handy story to put out when many reporters are taking holiday time off and there’s not much “news” happening anyway.

Not wanting to be considered sub-standard by our readers, here is the Bayou Brief’s twist on our year in review: more than a simple look back on top stories, these are updates on the themes and stories we’ve covered. (And for our donor-subscribers, it’s a preview of some of the type of value-added content you can expect in our newsletters, which start in January!)

The first half of 2018 was dominated by the looming doom of the fiscal cliff, and tales of the Louisiana House leadership’s undisguised intention to send the state in a headlong plunge off of it. We even told you why, on March 1.

State Rep. Barry Ivey (R-Baton Rouge) publicly outed the plot on the House floor, saying, “The Republican leadership told me, ‘We don’t want the Democratic governor re-elected, and we don’t want to give him any kind of win with tax reforms’.”

As the blockading of budget solutions continued through session-after-session-after-session-after session (four in all!), we continued to direct your attention to the ill-disguised machinations of House leadership, and the scarcely-secret purpose behind them.

While the fiscal cliff was ultimately scaled, giving some stability and predictability to state revenue through June 30, 2025, the House Republican leadership’s has now renewed its strategy of budgetary obstructionism and deflection, as we head toward the 2019 statewide elections cycle.

On November 27, the Revenue Estimating Conference met to revise the state’s income forecast for the current fiscal year. House Speaker Taylor Barras had another commitment, so he designated House Appropriations chairman Cameron Henry in his stead. When both the legislative economist and the administrative economist recommended increasing the forecast amount, Henry (R-Metairie) wasn’t having any part of it.

“We’re concerned we’re going to spend more money than we need to right now,” Henry said, speaking for the House leadership. “What if the economists are wrong?”

Senate President John Alario (R-Westwego), endeavored to puncture Henry’s “reasonable concern” veneer, declaring, “If the game is just to delay this and not fund the allocations that are there, then just say it!”

Henry, predictably, denied gamesmanship was his motivation, despite the fact that changes to revenue projections require unanimous agreement by the four REC members, and his was the lone “no” vote.

But certain state spending was pre-authorized for the current fiscal year, contingent upon the revenue forecast increasing prior to Dec. 31. Totalling approximately $43-million, the legislatively-approved list includes payraises for corrections officers, and daily per-prisoner payments to sheriffs whose jails house state inmates.

Unwilling to leave those obligations unmet – when both of the state’s economics experts agreed total revenue will be higher than projected six months ago – the Revenue Estimating Conference met again December 10, when Speaker Barras was able to attend.

The result was the same, with Barras rejecting recognition of increased revenue for the current fiscal year and the next.

“Things are better, and you can’t bury your head in the sand and pretend they’re not better!” the exasperated Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne exclaimed. “Things are better!”

The stance taken by first Henry, and then Barras, certainly seems to be a reprise of the tactics they have employed repeatedly over the past three years – serving their party and its ideology, rather than serving the needs of the people of this state. Each of them is, however, term-limited at the end of 2019.

Remember last April, when a cast of cartoonish Republican officials – known for rootin’, tootin, and shootin’ their mouths off – decided to strut their stuff during the Bond Commission meeting? State Treasurer John Schroder, A.G. Jeff Landry, and state Rep. Blake “Top Shot” Miguez were up in arms over two banks’ policies for their own customers who deal in guns. They wanted to ban state dealings with those banks until and unless the policies – put in place in the aftermath of mass shootings in Las Vegas and Parkland, Florida – were changed.

“This is a very simple question: do we as the state of Louisiana want to do business if these companies are discriminating against our citizens and their Second Amendment rights?” Landry demanded.

They were unable to effect an absolute ban then, but in August, when Bank of America and Citibank bid on running Louisiana’s bond sales for some $600-million of road improvements, the same gang of gun-enthusiasts decided to “stick it to” the nation’s second and third largest banks, and bar them from consideration.

Bond Commission members were advised that excluding B of A and Citibank – which combined underwrite the largest national share of governmental bonds – wouldn’t harm the two banks, but would end up costing Louisiana more in both bond fees and interest rates.

“You can’t put a price tag on the Second Amendment,” Miguez insisted.

This time, the pro-gun group on the Bond Commission was able to marshal enough votes to “punish” the banking giants.

That was the result of one person on the Bond Commission switching his vote between April and August: Kyle Ardoin. In April, he was then-Secretary of State Tom Schedler’s designee and voted against banning the banks, as per the directive of his boss. By August, when he voted for it, Ardoin had ascended to interim Secretary of State, and – despite his insistence to the Legislature that he didn’t intend to run for the post – had entered the race for the fall election.

Now, as we reported just prior to the runoff, Ardoin was not overly selective in his acceptance of campaign donations, taking money from the wife of a voting software company owner. In view of Ardoin’s Bond Commission vote in August, his receipt of $5000 from Jeff Landry’s campaign is…interesting.

Also interesting was an announcement Ardoin made shortly after being elected – that there would be no new voting machines for next year’s statewide elections. He said that was partly because some the Secretary of State’s technology budget was used to pay that office’s share of the settlement in the sexual harassment lawsuit against his predecessor, Tom Schedler. He neglected to “take credit” for having mucked up the bid procedure, and getting barred from any involvement in the voting machine purchase procedures.

Throughout the year, we have reported on controversies surrounding the BayouBridge pipeline: from legislative committee debates over a proposed law to make pipeline protests a felony, to the application of that law on a small tract of land deep in the Atchafalaya Swamp, to the lawsuit filed by the owners of that property, who gave the protesters– but not the pipeline builders – permission to be there.

The landowners’ lawsuit for trespass and damages by Energy Transfer Partners excavating and laying pipe without full permission, versus ETP’s suit asserting eminent domain over the property has now been heard and decided. The judge ruled the pipeline company did trespass, but also awarded the company expropriation of the land, declaring each owner would be paid $150 in exchange. The property owners intend to appeal.

Our reports on the U.S. Senate race in Mississippi went viral, with the stories and videos on Cynthia Hyde-Smith being picked up by national and international media. Despite the coverage, Hyde-Smith won that election.

Yet another story we covered, involving the Plaquemines Parish Council, had an immediate and direct effect on the outcome of a proposal before that body. The council, just prior to the election for new members, was preparing to vote on withdrawing from its coastal lawsuits against the oil and gas industry. As we reported, some council members should have been recusing themselves from these votes all along, due to direct connections to some of the oil and gas companies being sued, and therefore raising questions about conflicts of interest.

When they met and voted on October 11, the cancellation came up one vote short of what was needed to withdraw. As Jason Browne with the Plaquemines Gazette reported, Councilwoman Nicole Williamson stated, “I’m going to be abstaining from this legislation due to recent information published that my employer may have affiliations with two of the defendants named in the suit.”

In subsequent conversation with that reporter, she said, “an Oct. 9 story by reporter Sue Lincoln in the Bayou Brief tipped her off” to the conflict of interest.

And despite the oil and gas industry pouring tens of thousands of dollars into influencing voters and candidates for the parish council elections, the majority of the newly-elected council members support continuing with the coastal lawsuits. The first trials in those lawsuits, which were filed in 2013, are scheduled to start in 2019.

As we look ahead to 2019, you can depend on the Bayou Brief for continued coverage of the unsolved environmental emergency in DeSoto Parish, as well as investigations into many of the other environmental concerns that plague Louisiana. We’ll also be bringing you in-depth coverage of the legislative fiscal session, which begins April 8, as well as insightful articles leading up to and through the statewide elections in the fall.

So here’s wishing you a New Year bright with health, hope, and good reads!