Louisiana Spotlight: Treasurer will follow Kennedy's path
BATON ROUGE — Republican John Kennedy spent many of his 17 years as Louisiana state treasurer quarrelling with governors, criticizing spending practices and generally raising the profile of an office that hadn’t drawn nearly as much attention before he held the job.
The top contenders vying to follow him into the position may run into the same problem he found, however. Louisiana’s treasurer has a megaphone to raise the profile of the state’s financial issues, but the job doesn’t come with a lot of power to fix them.
A governor and Louisiana’s Legislature chart the spending policies for the state, deciding how the budget will be balanced and what dollars they’ll use. State lawmakers determine who will be taxed and by how much.
Louisiana’s treasurer is essentially the state banker, investing, disbursing and managing the state’s money and its savings accounts. The treasurer also chairs the Bond Commission, which oversees state borrowing and debt levels.
Kennedy won election to the U.S. Senate and took the seat in January. An Oct. 14 special election has been scheduled to choose a successor for the man who had been Louisiana’s treasurer since 2000. Outspoken, folksy and quick with a quotable soundbite, Kennedy drew attention to the office after getting into several high-profile clashes with governors both Republican and Democrat over spending and budget-balancing tactics.
“He brought it to the forefront, the role being showing the people and letting them know where wasteful spending is going on,” said state Sen. Neil Riser, a Republican running for the treasurer’s job. “He did a good job of doing that, and I also want to do that.”
Kennedy was one of the earliest — and loudest — critics of Republican former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s use of patchwork financing and raided savings accounts to piece together the budget, practices that continued cycles of budget shortfalls.
Before that, he sparred with Democratic former Gov. Kathleen Blanco over construction financing and borrowing policies. Most recently, he clashed with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards over Edwards-backed tax hikes and spending plans.
But while Kennedy sometimes could force change by drawing consistent attention to an issue, more often he was simply yelling from the sidelines, an approach that got him accused of showboating.
The position’s limitations didn’t stop the three top candidates in the race — those with backgrounds in state government and reported fundraising — from talking about Louisiana’s entrenched, lingering budget woes as though the treasurer had some ability to solve them.
The major candidates include: Riser, a funeral home owner from Caldwell Parish who once chaired the Senate tax committee; Angele Davis, a Baton Rouge Republican who worked as a budget administrator for former Gov. Mike Foster and as Jindal’s top budget adviser for two years; and former state Rep. John
Schroder, a Republican businessman from St. Tammany Parish who spent years in the House criticizing state spending levels and financing schemes.
As they registered for the ballot last week, each directly or indirectly referenced Louisiana’s ongoing financial troubles: a decade of midyear shortfalls, a budget gap of more than $1 billion on the horizon and recently downgraded credit ratings.
They said they wanted to be Louisiana’s next fiscal watchdog, hoping to influence change.
“With my qualifications and experience, I expect to bring solutions to the table,” Davis said.
New Orleans lawyer Derrick Edwards, a Democrat in the race with no reported fundraising so far, said the treasurer should focus on “letting people know exactly how their tax dollars are being spent,” through a quarterly report.
Riser and Davis similarly said they’d bolster efforts to tell people where their taxes go.
Schroder said he’d have far more influence as treasurer than he could as one of 105 House members. He said the treasurer gets more media attention and can facilitate meetings among agency leaders to discuss spending.
“I think (Kennedy) did an outstanding job at elevating the position of treasurer to where it’s become extremely relevant to most citizens of this state,” Schroder said. “I think most people expect the treasurer to be that spokesman for them, to watch their back.”
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte