I got there a little late, and when I walked up Edwards was speaking. He had turned a vibrant shade of purple and he was in a near rant about the horribly dishonest things which had just been said. The crowd looked…uncomfortable.
And when I asked, I was told that Edwards was reacting to Louisiana treasurer John Kennedy, who had just spoken before Edwards. Kennedy gave his usual stump speech, or a variant of it – which is to say he put forth some clever words aimed at driving their intended target to distraction.
In this case, as Jeremy Alford reports, it was Kennedy’s standard narrative on Louisiana’s fiscal situation…
One of three U.S. Senate candidates who appeared before the group gathered outside the Capitol Park Welcome Center, Treasurer John Kennedy strayed from his campaign speech to question the policies of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration. He accused the governor’s Medicaid program of being riddled with fraud and criticized Edwards’ tax proposals, many of which were adopted in this year’s special session.
“His plan is for Louisiana families to cut their budgets so Louisiana government doesn’t,” Kennedy said.
He also had another punch aimed at Edwards’ face…
Kennedy told those in attendance, who were expected to be meeting with lawmakers later in the day, that they should carry an anti-tax message to the Capitol. “Tell them to get off your backs,” Kennedy said. “Tell them you’re mad as hell and you’re not going to take it anymore.”
There aren’t any taxes to be debated in the current legislative session, of course; it’s by law not a fiscal session and therefore legislators have to cut spending to resolve a budget. But Edwards has already said he’s going to call the legislature back in July for a tax-raising special session to pair with the tax-raising special session they just finished last month before starting the current regular session.
With so much chin music thrown his way, it probably wasn’t a surprise that Edwards went off the rails. Marc Ehrhardt, who chairs the Grow Louisiana Coalition and MC’ed the event, had to introduce Edwards after Kennedy was finished. “Either our timing is perfect or incredibly awkward,” he said.
Then Edwards departed from his prepared remarks to go ballistic on Kennedy, repeating his customary lines that the state was in a $2 billion deficit when he took office, that the taxes he buffaloed the legislature into raising merely funded a “continuation budget” to finish the current fiscal year and that there is no growth in the size and scope of government associated with anything he’s doing.
And, recognizing his audience was some 400 people making their living in the oil and gas business, he trotted out the old “I’m with you fellers” act.
He added that the energy industry was shielded from any major tax changes in the special session as well.
“I did not propose a single measure targeted at the oil and gas industry,” Edwards said. “I know now is not the time to do that.”
The governor described Kennedy’s accounts of Medicaid fraud as “inaccurate,” noting private companies are on the hook for that, not the state of Louisiana. He added he is not trying to grow state government either through tax increases.
How the state isn’t hurt by Medicaid fraud is a contention Edwards might need to explain further. In any event, he was sputtering about Kennedy’s characterization of his job performance and fiscal record, prompting one observer standing near me to call him “Gov. Rabbit-Ears.”
There were a few industry speakers who testified to the extent of the economic damage the oil and gas industry has suffered as a result of the current slump in prices. Bryan Hanks, CEO of Beta Land Services in Lafayette, uncorked a litany of ugly news about how bad things are in the oil patch – including the fact that his own company, which in good times will employ several hundred landmen researching titles and securing leases and rights-of-way, is down to just seven employees. Hanks’ recital of energy stock prices among Louisiana-based companies and those with a heavy effect on the state (Chesapeake being a prime example) was bitterly depressing; many of those proud companies are practically penny stocks now.
Hanks did say there was one interesting effect of the current times where he was concerned. “I’m in the fourth year of a two-year term as chairman of LOGA,” he joked.
The other speakers were a trio of congressmen, two of whom are vying with Kennedy for the Senate seat coming open with David Vitter’s impending retirement. Both Charles Boustany and John Fleming held forth on the terrible effect the Obama administration has had on oil and gas. Boustany, like Fleming a doctor, noted that the hippocratic oath’s exhortation to “first, do no harm” has completely escaped the administration and everything it has done has had the effect of throwing obstacles in the industry’s path. Fleming noted the administration’s fairly relentless weighing-down of the scales in favor of wind and solar energy and against oil, gas and coal, and he made a prediction that before Obama is done he’ll attempt to damage the industry even further.
And Garret Graves finished off the event with a stirring defense of oil and gas and its relatively successful record of coexisting with Louisiana’s economy. Graves rattled off an impressive string of statistics about Louisiana’s prominence in oil and gas production, particularly offshore, and paired it with another string of statistics about how Louisiana’s commercial and recreational fisheries are world-class and its ecosystem is the envy of the continent. This, he says, proves that Louisiana can have both a burgeoning oil and gas industry and a healthy environment. Graves also drew on his experience heading up Louisiana’s coastal restoration efforts to point out that the primary cause of the state’s loss of coastline and wetlands is none other than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Corps’ decisions with respect to river management. The Corps leveed the Mississippi River to its mouth a century ago at a time when Louisiana was growing land, Graves said, and since then the loss of coastline has been the most destructive environmental disaster in American history.
But when he asked the trial lawyers currently attempting to sue oil companies over the loss of coastline, ostensibly because of service canals cut through the marsh, why they weren’t suing the Corps, he said he was told “because they won’t cut us a check.”
The lawsuits filed by Jefferson, Plaquemines and Cameron Parish, plus the one filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, against the oil companies are a sore topic between the oil and gas industry and Edwards, who never came out against them. So is his increase in sales taxes, which will hit the industry with a burden it’s ill-equipped to carry. And Edwards’ endorsement of Foster Campbell for Senate, which has been known for weeks but was back in the news recently, is also a sore spot; not only is Campbell the state’s leading anti-oil politician (ironic as that may be given the large chunk of his personal wealth derived from the industry) but there is another Democrat in the race, Joshua Pellerin, who is an actual business owner in the oil and gas industry.
So it was little surprise that Graves’ speech met with raucous applause while the reception Edwards received following his rather bitter riposte to Kennedy was…polite.
It’s never not political season in Louisiana. But the one set for full flowering this fall is clearly already in bloom.