By Jeremy Alford & Mitch Rabalais
In yet another signal that Congressman Ralph Abraham will be on the ballot in 2018 and probably 2019, the veterinarian-turned-physician told LaPolitics recently that his potential bid for governor would be anchored by a vow to rewrite key sections of Louisiana’s guiding charter.
Lawmakers are trying to do just that at the Capitol during the ongoing regular session. After one week of action, only one measure is moving, HB 500 by Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, which calls for a limited constitutional convention.
Abraham, for now, is the only potential candidate who has said publicly he would make it a priority as a candidate next year.
“If I decide to run for governor, my top priority would be to call for a limited constitutional convention to make fundamental changes to the way business is done in Baton Rouge,” Abraham said.
More specifics are forthcoming, particularly if Abraham, a native of northeast Louisiana, decides to challenge Gov. John Bel Edwards. But the congressman’s thoughts on the topic do reveal some policy interests.
“A government closest to the people can better serve the people, so local governments need to be able to raise and keep local tax dollars in their own backyards instead of sending them to a black hole in Baton Rouge,” said Abraham. “We have to give local governments the space they need to thrive and give the Legislature the ability to make the spending cuts that need to be made.”
As is the case with other policymakers interested in a constitutional rewrite, Abraham said he would want to point a spotlight on the budget process.
“We have some major problems in Louisiana, especially with the budget,” he said. “This is partly because we have a Constitution where Baton Rouge takes all of your tax dollars, gives most of them to special interests and the people might get the leftovers.”
Aside from the policy implications, Abraham’s interview with LaPolitics revealed he won’t shy away from political contrasts.
“Much oΩ our Constitution is sound and not all of our funds and dedications are bad, but if we really want to make meaningful, fundamental changes, then everything has to be on the table, and we must have an honest discussion about what stays, what goes and what’s revised,” he said. “We can’t have that conversation unless we have a governor willing to do the hard work, put the Louisiana people first and make the hard decisions that might not be politically popular, but have to be made.”
Abraham said the Constitution does too much to create an all-powerful governorship that freely picks winners and losers, adding,”It’s been a long time since we had a governor willing to do that, but if I run it’s exactly what I’ll do.”
Asked for his reaction, Richard Carbo, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ deputy chief of staff, said, “We’re glad to see that Congressman Abraham agrees with the governor that a constitutional convention is necessary, but it won’t do a thing to solve our immediate budget challenges. In fact, we know from his recent comments that he would make deep cuts to education, health care and law enforcement, which is not what the people of Louisiana want. That sounds like the farthest thing from a strong leader and actually puts his own political interests ahead of the needs of our state.”
Lawmakers getting serious about judgments
It has been three years since the state has paid legal judgments, and judicial interest has been running the entire time.
All in, the state owes $30 million in back judgments, mostly related to the Department of Transportation and Development.
With a tight and drama-filled budget cycle slated for the ongoing regular session, some lawmakers are eager to move the needle.
Sen. Rick Ward, the chairman of the Judiciary A Committee, said more legislators are tuning into the issue and he stands ready to help forge a compromise, as needed, on the Senate side.
Rep. Julie Stokes, for one, is working on legislation for a judgment registry and additional language that would count what’s owed in annual financial reports.
Her HB 471 has been assigned the House Appropriations Committee and would require the Division of Administration to establish and maintain the list.
Sen. Dan Claitor also said he’s been tinkering with a sort of prioritization system. His SB 390 has made it to the full Senate and was slated for a floor vote this week.
“I’m really growing frustrated hearing from people who are waiting on these judgments,” he said.
Political History: Plaquemines Parish’s “Little War”
On June 1, 1943, Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Louis Dauterive died suddenly.
Instead of an orderly transition amid a period of mourning, the sheriff’s death ignited an ugly conflict between then-Gov. Sam Jones and Judge Leander Perez, the parish’s undisputed boss. Jones and Perez were bitter political enemies, with Perez having little regard for the governor and Jones attempting to use the governor’s office to erode Perez’s power and influence at every opportunity.
According to the state constitution, at the time, the governor had the sole authority to appoint an interim sheriff to serve until the regularly scheduled elections of 1944. Perez, an ally of the Long family dynasty, had been used to his preferred candidates getting plum state appointments.
Jones instead picked a candidate that had repeatedly run against Perez to fill the sheriff’s seat. “The Judge,” as he was called, was outraged and filed lawsuits to halt the appointment of the new sheriff.
With his legal action pending, Perez installed Plaquemines Parish’s coroner as the interim sheriff and posted armed deputies on highways at the parish line, turning away non-residents. At the courthouse in Pointe á la Hache, more armed deputies barricaded themselves inside, turning the building into a makeshift fortress.
In response, Gov. Jones called out the National Guard, while Perez likened the governor to a dictator and encouraged residents to arm themselves.
The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in Jones’ favor, but Perez was not deterred, shutting down the only road into Pointe á la Hache. Traffic was diverted to The Judge’s property, where he personally determined who could travel on to the parish seat.
Fed up, Jones declared martial law on October 9, and sent the National Guard in to install his appointee as sheriff. The guardsmen encountered minimal resistance, arresting the troublesome deputies while Judge Perez fled via boat.
At the courthouse, important documents and equipment was destroyed or hidden to keep it out of the hands of the new sheriff. The National Guard would occupy the courthouse until the elections in 1944, when Perez’s chosen candidate for sheriff won by a four-to-one margin.
They Said It
“The sky has been falling since the day I walked in here.”
—Freshman Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall
“They’re like buzzards circling around Louisiana waiting to swoop in on the carcasses we leave behind.”
—Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, on out-of-state universities poaching top Louisiana students during a dire budget cycle.