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Opinion | Smart Policy, Not Petty Politics, Guided Gov. Edwards To Reject GOP Leader Harris’s Proposals

Years ago, I would have never anticipated that Harris would be such a force in statewide politics, but that’s not because I ever underestimated him. I just never realized how hyper-partisan he would become.

In January, State Representative and Louisiana GOP Majority Leader Lance Harris announced his plan to eliminate $304 million in spending and thereby avoid the need for a special legislative session. His proposal, which he claimed did not represent any official position of the Louisiana Republican Party, was a one-page Excel spreadsheet. It was merciful for Republicans that their Majority Leader distanced his proposal from the party, because it was nothing more than an absurd stunt.

Harris, the owner of a series of successful convenience stores, told reporters that his plan represented “how I would do it as if this was my business.” Without offering any details or explanation, Harris called for $147 million in cuts to health care and hospitals, $22.9 million to transportation, $28.7 million to the Department of Education, and, notably, approximately $37.7 million in capital outlay projects.

Lance Harris is from my hometown of Alexandria. So too is Richard Carbo, the spokesman and now deputy chief of staff for Gov. Edwards, who, at the time, called Harris’s proposal nothing more than a bunch of “vague recommendations.”

Carbo was being generous with his assessment. There isn’t a single banker in the state of Louisiana or, for that matter, a single economist in the entire country who would look at Harris’s one-page proposal and vouch for its credibility. As it turns out, you can’t run a multi-billion dollar state government like you’re running a convenience store that needs to quickly liquidate its inventory.

There is a special irony to Harris attempting to solve the budget crisis, because as the Republican Majority Leader, he is arguably more responsible than any other legislator in creating the crisis. As a direct consequence of Rep. Harris and former Gov. Jindal’s leadership, Louisiana continues to suffer from a budget on the brink of failure. Its credit rating was downgraded. Emergency rooms were shuttered. Tens of millions of dollars for public schools were siphoned off to fly-by-night operations that claimed, for tax purposes, to be religious charities. For years, Louisiana balked at receiving more than a billion dollars in funding for Medicaid expansion- not because the state didn’t qualify for the funding or didn’t desperately need the funding, but because we were led by men who put their own partisan interests above the public good.

Under the leadership of Lance Harris and Bobby Jindal, Louisiana became a laboratory for a failed experiment in disaster capitalism, rivaled only by the catastrophic tenure of Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas. We outsourced our policymaking to national conservative think tanks that provided Republican legislators with readymade bills. We had a governor who wanted to be president, and a Republican legislature that thought they were elected to be politicians and not lawmakers.

A few days ago, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced a series of bills that he had signed into law and a series of bills that he had either vetoed entirely or decided to line-item veto. Among other things, Edwards vetoed Lance Harris’s HB 269, a particularly dumb piece of legislation, authored almost entirely by someone not from Louisiana. The bill, which is nearly identical to bills filed by Republicans in other states, sought to penalize universities who allowed students to engage in on-campus protests against speakers with whom they disagreed. Offered as an attempt to legislate civility, the bill was really a naked and shameless assault on our fundamental rights of freedom of speech and assembly.

To Jeff Sadow, the radically conservative LSUS associate professor hired by John Georges and Peter Kovacs as a columnist for The Advocate, Edwards’s veto was informed by nothing more than personal animus against Harris. According to Sadow, the bill was so milquetoast that it was essentially meaningless, which isn’t true at all. But, even if it were true, it’d still be more than enough of an adequate justification for striking down the proposed law.

Edwards didn’t veto the bill because Lance Harris sponsored it; he vetoed the bill because it was bad law, written by an outside interest group (likely someone from the Goldwater Institute or the Heritage Foundation) and handed to a conservative businessman from Alexandria who occasionally moonlights as a legislator. The same exact bill died in committee in New Jersey earlier this year.

I want to make this abundantly clear: Because we’re from the same hometown, I’ve known Lance Harris for several years, well before he ever embarked on a political career. We aren’t close friends, but he has always been willing to hear me out, politely and civilly. Years ago, I would have never anticipated that Harris would be such a force in statewide politics, but that’s not because I ever underestimated him. I just never realized how hyper-partisan he would become. Once upon a time, he hosted fundraisers for Democratic politicians at his home. I know, because I attended one of them. So, suffice it to say, it has been dispiriting to watch someone I know from my hometown become such a disruptive and, in many cases, destructive force in statewide policymaking.

I am making this disclaimer, because I know that my final point will likely be considered controversial to many in Central Louisiana.

HB 269 wasn’t the only piece of legislation with Lance Harris’s imprimatur that was vetoed by Gov. Edwards. Edwards also eliminated a proposed $10.8 million project for the England Authority, the unelected body that controls the property formerly known as England Air Force Base. Harris was once the Chairman of the England Authority. In fact, he still lists himself as Chairman on his official biography.

Remember how Harris recommended cutting $37.7 million in capital outlay? Well, he also recommended adding $10.8 million for the acquisition and development of property across the highway from his house, on behalf of the England Authority.

Gov. Edwards quietly vetoed Harris’s request, and he was absolutely right in doing so.

England Air Park is a jewel of Alexandria. It is immaculately landscaped. It features an award-winning golf course, a beautiful airport, the region’s best senior-living community, and an incredible office park.

Unfortunately, though, none of this is a part of Alexandria.

It should be.

Instead, it’s run by an appointed board of unelected commissioners, and although they have done a spectacular job, the England Authority should have been dissolved years ago.

During the last two decades, more than a hundred million dollars have been invested into England Air Park, public dollars, yet these investments have done almost nothing to increase the tax base of the municipality it serves. In fact, in some instances, the England Authority has directly competed against the City of Alexandria for state funding and business development initiatives.

Tyler Bridges of The Advocate (a hire that proves Georges and Kovacs aren’t always wrong) noticed that Edwards had vetoed the $10.8 million request for the England Authority, money they sought not merely to improve their existing infrastructure but to actually expand the domain of their unelected fiefdom, and he put the question directly to Harris, who refused to answer.

Bridges understandably wondered whether Edwards’ veto was motivated by political retribution.

No, it wasn’t. It was smart policy. I’ve written about this before. Most notably, in January of 2014, in a column titled “Louisiana Should Dissolve The England Authority.

It would be absolute lunacy to give the England Authority another dime in state funding before it becomes a part of the tax base. No American citizen should live in a community in which they are represented by an unelected authority of commissioners. Make a deal with the federal government. An artful deal.

That’s how I would do it as if this was my business.

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