Louisiana Spotlight: Edwards, Landry engage in new clashes

BATON ROUGE — Attorney General Jeff Landry has notched another victory in his string of ongoing feuds with Gov. John Bel Edwards, and the two men are adding new clashes to their seemingly endless set of disagreements.

Few things are as certain in Louisiana politics as the assumption that if the Democratic governor is on one side of an issue, the Republican attorney general is likely to be on the other. Even if the two men agree on something, they can find a way to quarrel about it.

Since both took office in 2016, they’ve bickered over the state budget, oil spill funding, LGBT-rights protections and the constitutional authority of their offices. They launched yet another battle of words last week, this time about bills championed by Edwards to rewrite Louisiana’s criminal sentencing laws.

Landry, though, had the winning week in court.

The attorney general prevailed in the latest round of his court challenge of the governor’s executive order aimed at protecting LGBT rights in state government, with a three-judge appeals panel agreeing the governor overstepped his constitutional authority. The decision was unanimous, upholding a lower court ruling that has kept Edwards’ order from being enforced.

Edwards issued the order in April 2016, banning discrimination in government and state contracts based on sexual orientation and gender identity. But those LGBT protections have failed to win support in the Louisiana Legislature, and Landry argued the order was trying to circumvent lawmakers and create state law through the governor’s office.

“We do not live under a king in Louisiana,” Landry, considered a possible challenger to Edwards in 2019, said in a statement.

The governor contended he has the authority to issue a policy governing employment and contracting standards in the executive branch. His administration hasn’t said if it will appeal the latest decision, but Edwards defended the intent of his order.

“Discrimination is not a Louisiana value, and this decision does not change my conviction that hiring decisions in state government should be based on merit alone,” he said in a statement.

As Landry was celebrating that victory, he got another boon. His criminal division director, Brandon Fremin, was nominated by President Donald Trump to serve as U.S. attorney for the Baton Rouge-based Middle District. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Fremin would be a strong ally for the attorney general in the federal prosecutor’s office.

“It’s been a good week,” Landry said Thursday.

The attorney general also started another line of criticism against the governor, submitting a letter to a Lafayette newspaper that slams one of Edwards’ main achievements from this year’s legislative sessions, an overhaul of Louisiana’s criminal justice laws.

The package of bills — supported by a wide-ranging, bipartisan coalition — expand probation and parole opportunities and shrink sentences, mainly for nonviolent offenders. They also bolster spending on programs aimed at helping people who leave prison so they don’t reoffend.

But the release of roughly 1,900 inmates last week drew criticism from some corners, including Landry, who called it “dangerous legislation” and said it jeopardizes public safety.

Edwards shot back with a letter to Landry that said he was “either misinformed or knowingly spreading wrong information to the public in an effort to incite fear” for political gain. The governor noted Landry didn’t appear during “nearly 100 hours of public discussion” and legislative debate on the criminal justice package.

Even when Edwards and Landry seem in agreement on policy, the two men seem unable to agree on approach, such as in their support of litigation accusing pharmaceutical companies of worsening opioid abuse in Louisiana.

The Edwards administration filed a lawsuit in September through the state health department against more than a dozen drug companies. Last week, Landry’s office filed a motion seeking to take control of that lawsuit, so it can be expanded to cover more agencies.

Edwards’ chief lawyer Matthew Block said the governor agrees with adding more agencies and the administration had been talking with Landry’s office about working together. So far, they haven’t found a resolution, but Block said he’s hopeful the offices can cooperate.

He acknowledged, however, that the “relationship between the governor’s office and the attorney general’s office has been a challenging one.” He described that as “unfortunate.”

Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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