Tomorrow is the first day of early voting for the runoff in the 5th District congressional race, and that contest pits two Republicans, Luke Letlow and Lance Harris, against each other for a U.S. House seat currently held by the retiring Ralph Abraham.
Letlow was Abraham’s Chief of Staff. He’s been a staffer for Republican pols for quite a while, and he’s had a reputation in that time as a fighter for making Louisiana more conservative and less screwed up with old-school Huey Long politics. This is his first run for political office, though you wouldn’t really call him a newcomer to the scene given his background.
Harris, similarly, is not a political newcomer. His background, on the surface, is a pretty good one for a conservative voter to consider. He’s a self-made businessman who’s serving his third term in the Louisiana House of Representatives, and while he doesn’t currently have a leadership position in the House from 2012 until the end of last year Harris was the chairman of the Louisiana House Republican delegation.
On the surface, you’d look at these two candidates and you’d say the voters in the 5th District really can’t go wrong. They’re going to get a conservative Republican congressman who knows his way around politics either way they go.
We can speak to the work Letlow has done in his capacity for Abraham. Most of that would be in the weeds, though, as the things a congressional Chief of Staff does very often involve insider haggling over votes on bills and so forth.
But we can also speak to Harris’ record as a state legislator.
On balance, that record is going to look OK. For the 2016-19 term, when he led the House Republican delegation, his LABI score was 76 percent. In his first term, that score was 71 percent. This put Harris right on the borderline between somebody LABI would give an automatic endorsement to, and not. Harris’ scores were negatively impacted by some individual sessions LABI thought were lousy – in 2013 they rated him at 44 percent, and in 2015 he was a 39. In 2016 he was a suspect 61 percent.
But there were a couple of incidents involving Harris’ time in the Legislature we see as red flags that indicate he’s not what Louisiana’s voters are looking for in Abraham’s replacement.
The first came back in 2015. That was Bobby Jindal’s last year as Louisiana’s governor and the state had gone into a pretty serious recession due to the price of oil taking a dump. The failure of Jindal to effectively shrink the state’s budget had come back to bite him, because when oil prices and the wearing-off of federal stimulus dollars coming into Louisiana from the Obama administration meant Louisiana hit a “fiscal cliff.”
It was time for the Louisiana legislature to step forward and lead, and for conservative leaders to emerge who were willing to make some real budget cuts in an election year. That was the point where we as the voters of the state would find out who the people of principle were.
And what we got instead was a pretty massive tax increase.
First of all, the reason Harris was “questioned sharply” by the conservative activists at the Reagan Newsmaker luncheon yesterday was that he couldn’t name a single thing the legislature had agreed on cutting.
He said there would be cuts in the executive budget, but he couldn’t point to any specifics. He assured the crowd there would be cuts, but if he was serious about that you’d think that he’d be equipped to speak to a crowd of conservatives who would applaud the announcement of actual diminution in the size of government.
Instead, he tried to sell the audience on how devastating it would be if LSU-Alexandria took a big budget hit. It didn’t particularly make much of an impact. Asked “What about SUNO?” his initial reaction was to agree that it would be devastating if SUNO got cut. But when it was explained that SUNO is the worst public college in America and that it would be a good thing if it and its 11 percent six-year graduation rate were to disappear from the scene, and that if SUNO can’t be done away with in a year there’s a $1.6 billion deficit it’ll never be done, he didn’t have much to say.
Asked about the fact most of the tax increase bills the House passed didn’t have a two-thirds vote, and are therefore unconstitutional, and rather than pay those tax increases their victims will likely sue on that basis and win, what the budget impact would be, Harris had a peculiar answer. He said he relies on House Speaker Chuck Kleckley’s judgement as to what majority is required to pass which bill, and Kleckley said they didn’t need a two-thirds vote.
Kleckley, of course, isn’t on the state Supreme Court, which has already ruled on the two-thirds question and not in a way favorable to what the House did this session. Nor is Kleckley an attorney. To say this inspired confidence wouldn’t be an accurate reading of the crowd.
He was asked about the failure of the paycheck protection bill, and he said they didn’t have the votes and the author pulled it. That’s correct, of course, but as the leader of the House delegation his role is very similar to that of a majority whip in the U.S. Congress. But Harris didn’t whip the vote on paycheck protection, at least not in any way folks would be impressed with. In fact, that was a specific complaint we heard from the advocates of the bill both inside and outside the legislature. Harris blamed the failure on the unions unleashing lobbyists and pressure on Republican members, which begs the question why the leader of the Republican delegation has less influence over Republican legislators than Democrats working for the unions do.
And he spent a lot of time talking about all the dedicated money in both the state constitution and in statutes, but didn’t offer any deliverables in terms of success in reforms to that problem. We agree, as everybody seems to, that there is far too much money dedicated to this cause or that and not enough in the general fund that the legislature can use to prioritize spending – but you get elected to fix problems like that. Asked what’s being done on that score, he mentioned a couple of bills that didn’t pass…last year.
You can envision that as an all-too typical excuse-making session when your ineffective Congressman comes home from DC to explain away the Failure Theater which resulted in higher taxes and less freedom under a Biden administration, can’t you?
This pattern repeated itself in 2018, when the massive one cent state sales tax increase John Bel Edwards managed to force through the Louisiana legislature over a not-particularly-strong objection by the House GOP delegation was set to expire. If you’ll remember, that was when Edwards threatened to kill college football, among other things, if he didn’t get that tax increase, and it worked.
Two years later, in 2018, Edwards screamed about another “fiscal cliff” and demanded a renewal of that full cent of state sales taxes. This time there was more opposition in the House, and it was clear that full penny was a non-starter. In fact, there was a pretty good amount of sentiment to let that entire penny roll off, and just not spend money in order to balance the budget.
Lance Harris was not on board with that sentiment. In fact, Lance Harris actually authored a sales tax increase and dragged it through to passage in the House.
That wasn’t exactly statesmanship, by the way. Because when Harris’ bill got to the Senate Revenue & Fiscal Affairs Committee, then chaired by New Orleans Democrat J.P. Morrell, what happened was an exercise in legislative torture with thumbscrews and the rack. Our writeup of that ugly moment in history is worth a read, but essentially here’s what the Democrats did to Harris.
He brought a bill for a renewal of a third of a penny, or some $350 million in state revenue. At that committee he attempted to “big-boy” Morrell and Karen Carter Peterson, another New Orleans Democrat who at the time was also the state party chair, by saying the third of a penny was all the House would agree to.
Essentially, Morrell told him to get bent. And by the time Harris’ bill was finished in that committee they had increased it to a $650 million tax increase through amendments, and they had copied Harris’ tax bill and pasted its contents into a different tax bill passed by New Orleans Democrat Walt Leger which was also in front of the committee. That meant Harris no longer had control over his bill and couldn’t withdraw it, as he would have had the right to do, after they had stolen it from him.
What ultimately passed was a bill to renew some 0.45 cents of the state sales tax, or just under half a billion dollars. Which is a bit more than Harris declared the House would tolerate. And Louisiana ended up running a surplus large enough in 2019 that no tax increase would have been needed at all.
That, friends, is not the kind of record you want to pack up and send to Washington, DC and put against sharks like Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and the rest. Those people will cram an apple into Harris’ mouth and stick him in an oven and eat him for their socially-distanced holiday meal.
The fact that Harris was a late signer to the House petition to reopen the state, not getting on board until House Speaker Clay Schexnayder did, isn’t a great factoid, either. It doesn’t present a picture of somebody who’s a tough, smart fighter for limited government.
Quite the opposite.
Harris’ campaign took a shot at Letlow this week with an ad which is, frankly, one of the dumbest attacks we’ve ever seen. It says Letlow has gotten rich off the taxpayers because he’s “made over a million dollars” in government.
You make a million bucks if you work 20 years on a $50,000 salary, which is more or less what Letlow did. If you’ll notice, the ad itself admits Team Harris is just totaling up Letlow’s salary.
That’s pretty weak sauce. Honestly, it just doesn’t rise to the level of what we’re used to among Louisiana’s congressional delegation. Steve Scalise, Garret Graves, Mike Johnson and Clay Higgins don’t need ads like that.
It’s true that Letlow doesn’t have a legislative record per se. But he does have the endorsement of most of that delegation – Abraham, Higgins and Graves have endorsed, while so far Scalise and Johnson, both of whom are in the House GOP leadership, are staying neutral. That’s an indication they see Letlow as meeting the standard they’ve established.
It’s nothing personal. We just don’t think Harris’ record as a legislator is good enough to merit a promotion to Congress where getting abused by Democrats over taxes and budgets can be much more damaging. Vote Letlow.