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CenLamar Pledge Drive: Buy My Loyalty

Eight years ago, when I started this little blog, I never imagined that it eventually would be read by over a million people, that it would be referenced in national and international media, or that it would be honored with the Ashley Morris Award at the annual Rising Tide conference.

Among other things, this little website has allowed me to sit on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in 2008 and on the back of a Coast Guard helicopter in 2010, surveying the damage of the worst environmental disaster in American history. It’s provided me with the opportunity to talk about the legacy of slavery in the American South with BBC News and the life of Andrew Breitbart with ABC and Fox. But perhaps most importantly, it has connected me to an incredible, diverse, and fiercely dedicated network of writers, activists, advocates, intellectuals, and community leaders- young and old, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Independents- from all over Louisiana and the country.

During my first year as a blogger, I wrote almost exclusively about my hometown of Alexandria, Louisiana, and as fascinating as that subject often is, it’s not exactly something you can build a career out of as a blogger. To be sure, I’m still not sure you can really build a career simply as a blogger.

Since then, I have expanded my scope, but this has always been a labor of love- and not a business- for me. I’ve never attempted to monetize my website. I’ve never sold a single advertisement. I’ve never taken a dime from a political campaign.

But it’s true: Even a website like mine- which is free to you and presented without the annoying banner, pop-up, and video ads- isn’t free to me. It’s a commitment of time and energy, sure; I can deal with that. But it also requires real money for hosting, design, public records requests, IRS reports, ad blocking (yes, I pay to actually block ads), social media promotion (which works, trust me), and, because I’ve been away in law school for the last few years, occasionally, it requires travel expenses.

For the last week or so, I’ve been asking my friends and family on Facebook to consider making a donation to help me cover the costs of these expenses, and they have delivered. They’re awesome. But I still your help too.

If you are one of the next dozen people to donate $30 or more, I will send you this awesome tote bag- just like NPR does- as thanks for your donation. If I can get 25 more donors to pledge $30 or more, you’ll also get a tote bag- as thanks.

10406488_10100100077810091_4372667498100079411_nYou’ll need to register through PayPal to make a donation. If you’re one of the first dozen to donate $30 or more, I will contact you personally to confirm your shipping address, and this lovely bag will be on its way to you in a few short days. If you’re not one of the first dozen (and I hope you’re not, no offense), then you’ll be in the queue to receive a bag once I can fill an order for another 25 bags. And if you don’t want a bag, it’s cool. I will still take the donation. No worries.

One rule: I won’t accept any donations from political campaigns. Donating to my website should not be considered a campaign expense, ya’ heard?

Here’s the link:

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I guess I should remind folks: My first name is Frederick, so if you donate, that’s the name that will show up on your receipt.

PS: “Buy my loyalty” is a joke.

PPS: No it isn’t.

PPPS: No, seriously, it is.

Louisiana Family Forum Isn’t A Charity; It’s A Tax Shelter For The State’s Most Powerful Lobbyist

The Louisiana Family Forum is the most powerful and successful lobbying organization in a state brimming with lobbyists and special interests, and Gene Mills, its President, is arguably Louisiana’s single most powerful registered lobbyist.

Mills would likely not dispute this characterization. In a recent video statement to supporters, he claimed that 2014 was his organization’s most successful year ever, boasting that, during a debate about a bill pertaining to surrogacy, he presented the bill’s author with a list of “non-negotiable” demands that “were required in order for his bill to move forward.”

“The author,” Mills said, “blocked nine of those ten repairs and found out that when the LFF says, ‘It’s not negotiable, well, it’s not negotiable.'”

“LFF blocked bad bills, advanced good ones, and amended dozens of others to remove their threats,” Mills said. (emphasis added).

Even though he has never been elected to public office, Mills talks like someone who believes he controls the legislature, someone who thinks he possesses the same type of veto authority as the Governor, and it’s not puffery: He does.  

Every year, Mills releases a “legislative scorecard,” ranking legislators based on their support for his agenda. Those who support him the most are awarded with trophies at a lavish annual banquet attended by the Governor and members of the media. He published this year’s scorecard a few days ago.

This year, the top prizes went to legislators who voted against taking billions in already available federal funds to expand Medicaid for hundreds of thousands of uninsured Louisiana families; supported a law allowing the “open carry” of guns in bars; opposed protections for gay and lesbian citizens in workplace and housing discrimination cases; rejected the repeal of an unconstitutional, dead letter statute mandating the teaching of creationism in the pubic school (not to be confused with the LSEA, this law was actually already struck down by the United States Supreme Court nearly 30 years ago); and agreed to prohibit the sale of alcoholic ice cream, among other things. 

Because that, to Gene Mills and the Louisiana Family Forum, is the proper litmus test for an “outstanding family advocate.”      

Gene MIlls, President of the Louisiana Family Forum, rests his hands on Governor Bobby Jindal's head in a prayer held during the organization's annual award banquet.

Gene MIlls, President of the Louisiana Family Forum, rests his hands on Governor Bobby Jindal’s head in a prayer held during the organization’s annual award banquet.

*****

I’ve written this story before, once in 2011 and again in 2012, but after Mills’s banner year, I thought it’d be appropriate to return to the topic.

You see, the Louisiana Family Forum may be led by a lobbyist and it may be commonly thought of as a lobbying organization, but for the purposes of the Internal Revenue Service, it is actually a tax-exempt, tax-deductible, 501(c)(3) “educational” charity. The Louisiana Family Forum doesn’t pay taxes, and if you donate to them, you can take a cut from your taxes as well. 

However, because 501(c)(3) organizations are severely limited in the amount of lobbying activities they can conduct, a few years ago, Gene Mills formed another organization, a 501(c)(4) called Louisiana Family Forum Action. It may sound technical and confusing, but it’s actually pretty simple: 501(c)(3) organizations, named after the chapter in the tax code, are what most of us understand as charities. They go out in the world and do good things: They feed the hungry, care for the sick, provide resources for people victimized by disaster or violence, and research cures for diseases, among other things.

In exchange for this, not only do we exempt these organizations from paying taxes, we also incentivize donations by making them tax-deductible. 501(c)(3) organizations are supposed to provide a charity, and no matter how ignorant some of our lawmakers may be, “educating lawmakers” isn’t the proper mission of what most of us would consider to be a real charity. Instead, that’s just the definition of “lobbying.” 

But we also recognize that not all lobbyists are created equal: Some lobby for legislation that lines the pockets of their clients, and others lobby for legislation related to social welfare and justice, religious freedom, and equal rights. And that’s why the tax code allows social welfare organizations to incorporate under 501(c)(4). 501(c)(4) organizations are also tax-exempt. However, unlike traditional charities, they are allowed to engage in lobbying, and, to a certain extent, they are even allowed to endorse candidates, provided that their campaign activities are related to their “exempt” purpose. But there’s another important distinction between 501(c)(3) organizations, like the Louisiana Family Forum, and 501(c)(4) organizations, like the Louisiana Family Forum Action: Donations for lobbying, campaigning, electioneering, and influencing legislation are not tax-deductible.

The reason for this is very simple: We want to incentivize and encourage donations to legitimate charities that provide services to the public, but we do not want to create a system by which wealthy donors can receive tax deductions for influencing legislation, no matter how meritorious that legislation may be.

Suffice it to say, it is significantly easier for a tax-deductible organization to attract donations. Just ask Gene Mills and the Louisiana Family Forum. 

Throughout the last several years, the Louisiana Family Forum has quietly funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax-deductible donations to prop up its lobbying arm, the Louisiana Family Forum Action, packaging the exchanges as “grants.”

Consider this from 2011:

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As an example, according to the Louisiana Family Forum Action’s 990 reports from 2011, the organization spent $190,983 on educational programing and lobbying. 

Where did it receive that funding? Well, the report doesn’t say. However, it does provide a line item for program revenue:

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This is from Louisiana Family Forum’s 990 report that same year:

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It’s not mentioned on the LFFA’s 990 reports, but it is as clear as day here on the LFF’s report: $151,616 of the $151,617 (99.9%) of the action organization’s program revenue came directly from moving tax-deductible donations collected by the LFF into its coffers. 

This is not a minor issue. It strongly suggests that, without the incentive of a tax deduction, the state’s most powerful lobbyist would struggle to fund his own salary and his organization’s operations.

There is a reason to believe that Mills is no longer attempting to pretend as if he can continue this charade. In his most recent filing from 2012, he discloses that Louisiana Family Forum Action is basically dormant: 

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And this, in many ways, is even more of a cause for concern, because it suggests that Mills is, once again, housing all of his lobbying activities under the umbrella and auspices of a 501(c)(3). Again, you just can’t do that. (It also shows how dependent the Louisiana Family Forum truly is on tax-deductible donations. The LFFA, after all, was only able to attract $2,600 in donations in all of 2012). 

As of 2012, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, the Louisiana Family Forum reported to the IRS that the vast and overwhelming majority of its work is related to “abstinence” education. 

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It’s a joke. If 80% of the organization’s work was about promoting sexual abstinence education, why would their homepage look like this?

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In fact, the word “abstinence” doesn’t appear at all on their website, only on the forms they submitted to the IRS.

A couple of weeks ago, I met Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, a man generally considered to be the nation’s leading expert in campaign corruption, and I told him about what I had uncovered about the Louisiana Family Forum’s accounting gimmicks. Professor Lessig wrote an entire book about the ways in which money, particularly corporate money, has sullied and poisoned American elections and the legislative process. A few days after I met him, he plugged my research on Twitter, with a hashtag that echoes, almost exactly, what he said to me in person:

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*****

To some, it may seem ironic that an organization ostensibly dedicated to promoting “Judeo-Christian family values” would ever abuse the tax code, but the evidence should seem obvious enough to those who care to look at it. After all, other than lobby the legislature, grade lawmakers, and throw an annual awards banquet, what- exactly- does Gene Mills do that could even remotely qualify as “charity”? Even if you support and endorse his entire agenda, you have to admit: The Louisiana Family Forum functionally operates as a lobbying organization; it’s definitely not an educational non-profit, and it’d be generous to consider them a legitimate “social welfare” organization.

It’s a tax shelter. And it just celebrated its most successful year in company history.

If You Want to Hide Something From Bobby Jindal, Put It In a Law Book

In the late 1950s, Louisiana Governor Earl K. Long once said that the state’s attorney general didn’t know the difference between a jumpsuit and a lawsuit. “If you want to hide something from Jack Gremillion,” he said, “put it in a law book.”

Compared to the current Governor of Louisiana, Uncle Earl would probably have to admit that old Jack Gremillion seems like a legal genius. After more than six years as a tenant of the fourth floor in the House That Huey Built, Bobby Jindal is now the least popular Governor in contemporary Louisiana history and one of the least popular elected officials in the entire country. According to the most recent polling, Jindal is approved by only 32% of Louisiana voters. If he ran for President, he’d lose Louisiana to Hillary Clinton. And in a hypothetical race for Governor against Edwin Edwards, Jindal would get trounced. “Bobby Jindal continues to have the worst poll numbers of just about any elected official in the country,” Dean Debnam of Public Policy Polling explains. “If he gets into the Presidential race, he’ll be doing it with very little support from his own state.”

Governor Earl K. Long

Governor Earl K. Long

To outside observers, Jindal’s abysmal poll numbers in Louisiana may seem astonishing. After all, Louisiana is considered a reliably, solidly Republican state, and Jindal has spent the entirety of his tenure throwing red meat to the right wing. Even though his response to President Obama’s first-ever address to a joint session of Congress was a huge disaster (and a comedy goldmine), Jindal has somehow maintained his national reputation as a conservative leader. Last year, he was the head of the Republican Governors Association. He’s a regular on the Sunday talk shows and on the conservative conference circuit. He tours the country stumping for fellow Republican candidates and, despite his sinking numbers in Louisiana, he’s still considered a long-shot contender for the Republican Presidential nomination.

There is a conventional explanation for why Jindal’s astronomical popularity (at one point, he was the most popular Governor in the country) has plummeted so dramatically: He seems to care more about building up his own national profile than actually doing the job he was elected to do. If you believe this, then Bobby Jindal is simply the victim of his own hubris, a man who thought Louisiana voters cared more about him being on Fox News than him being in Baton Rouge, a politician who mistakenly believed he was elected to be a celebrity.

That explanation, I’m afraid, is far too generous. Bobby Jindal is unpopular in Louisiana for one simple reason: He’s been a terrible Governor who never understood his own state.

*****

A few years ago, one of Jindal’s closest confidants told me that the Governor had very little patience for lawyers. He intended it as a compliment. Lawyers look for reasons things can’t be done, he explained, and to paraphrase the old adage, Jindal would rather seek forgiveness later than permission first. To some, perhaps that seems like an attribute of a real leader. To me, it seemed like a dishonest and troubling excuse for incompetence. It may seem folksy to attack lawyers for inconveniencing you, but if you’re a lawmaker, your success hinges on your understanding of the facts and the law.

Only a few months after he took office, Bobby Jindal signed the Louisiana Science Education Act, a law that was written and promoted by far-right religious organizations seeking to allow the teaching of new earth creationism in the public school science classroom. Although the law has yet to be legally challenged (largely because the State Department of Education pulled back on its implementation), it is most assuredly unconstitutional.

Similarly, among other things, Jindal’s school voucher program, his state retirement plan, and his teacher tenure and evaluation “reforms” have all been ruled unconstitutional.

Jindal also championed the passage of a thoughtless, overly broad constitutional amendment that critics rightly warned could allow convicted murderers the right to possess semi-automatic weapons. After Judge Pitre ruled the law did just that, fortunately, the Louisiana State Supreme Court found a creative way to preserve the state’s prohibitions on felons owning guns, though the law is still considered “an immediate threat to any existing and future firearm legislation.”

In the upcoming months, courts will consider the constitutionality of a number of other laws signed and enacted by Governor Jindal, and if his batting average holds steady, the chances are that Jindal will continue to strike out. During the previous legislative session, Jindal signed a law that attempts to shield oil and gas companies from otherwise legitimate lawsuits seeking damages for breach of contract and negligence, a law that was brought to Louisiana at the behest of the very companies who are responsible for the degradation of the state’s coast and marshland and a law that was championed by a State Senator who made his fortune from the oil and gas industry. Notably, the oil and gas industry has collectively contributed more than $1 million to Governor Jindal’s campaign fund, despite the fact that he’s prohibited from running for Governor again until 2019. By signing the law, Jindal potentially keeps these companies off-the-hook for the tens of billions of dollars in damages for which they are allegedly responsible.

This year, Jindal also enacted a pernicious and duplicitous law that would force the immediate closure of three of the state’s five abortion clinics by requiring physicians at those clinics to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, a regulation that experts claim to be “medically unnecessary” and almost identical to the laws in Mississippi and Alabama that have both been overruled as unconstitutional during the last two weeks. As the United States Supreme Court held in Casey, a state may not impose an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to access contraceptive or abortion care, and to paraphrase the court in Alabama, if you’re closing three of the state’s five clinics based on some new law that isn’t even medically necessary, you’re not fooling anyone: This is about imposing an undue burden, and it has absolutely nothing to do with caring for a woman’s health. According to a friend who claims to have publicly exchanged a series of letters with the bill’s author, the State Representative didn’t care about medical care; she cared only about “God’s will,” and apparently, she had deluded herself into believing that she was God’s ordained messenger. With all due respect to her, if a court considers her legislative intent persuasive testimony about the purpose of this bill, they’ll be able to knock it out without ever even considering the other issues.

And I’m just skimming the surface here: There are equally valid and compelling criticisms of Jindal’s stubborn refusal to recognize equal rights under the law for LGBT Americans, his complete dereliction of duty in implementing the Affordable Care Act and in expanding Medicaid, his persistent rejection of federal funds that would be used to build broadband internet capabilities in rural Louisiana and a modest commuter rail line on existing infrastructure in between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

*****

I am a progressive Democrat. That much should be obvious. And if you’re even marginally familiar with my work, you likely know that I’ve never been a fan of Governor Bobby Jindal, though, at times, I’ve wanted to be.

I am a true believer in the cult of Louisiana, and even though I’ve spent the last three years away in Texas at law school, I’ve been able to see more, experience more, and learn more about the people, the history, and the places in my home state than I ever did while living in Alexandria. My distance from the state provides some perspective, and my work as a law student provides some flexibility. During the last three years, while living in Dallas, I’ve spent a combined total of five months all over the entire state of Louisiana.

I have family, on both sides, that settled in Louisiana way back in the early 1700s- distant grandfathers and uncles who fought on all sides of those wars. We are, of course, a nation of immigrants, and while my ancestors don’t earn me a special sticker or badge on my driver’s license, I was taught, from a very young age, to appreciate the ways in which our history informs our present: slavery and the Civil War, the complexities of Reconstruction, Prohibition and the Great Depression, Jim Crow and school desegregation, the forced subjugation of African-Americans and the forced assimilation of Cajuns, the strange and complicated definition of Creole, the cultural differences between Bayou Cajuns, Prairie Cajuns, and their more sophisticated neighbors down in New Orleans. I grew up in a city that had been burned down, and I was born into a family that made its living building the city back, literally.

*****

Jindal’s miscalculation isn’t just that he cared more about being a celebrity than a politician, and it’s not simply that he treats the law as an inconvenience. He’s a terrible Governor because it’s abundantly clear that he doesn’t possess a burning and blinding passion for Louisiana, which should be the most important qualification for the job.

He’s just not authentic, and people, inevitably, see right through him. To be clear, this has nothing to do with race or ethnicity; after all, he was elected twice statewide, by large margins. And although Jindal is a first-generation American (his parents actually conceived him from their native India), he was born, reared, and educated here, in Louisiana public schools. But despite his bona fides, he just doesn’t “get” Louisiana, because he’s always preferred Washington, D.C.

Throughout his tenure as Governor, when he’s not traveling the country promoting partisan politics, Jindal has essentially bankrupted his own political capital on policies, reforms, and projects that may appeal to national Republican pundits but that prove tone-deaf to the people of Louisiana. He enacted a series of ethics reforms acts, promising to increase transparency in government. Yet the law’s most notable accomplishment was the expansion of exemptions he provided to himself.

All of his other major legislative achievements eventually became disasters: The tax overhaul, the voucher program, and teacher tenure reform were all plays for national attention, much like the misguided constitutional amendment he supported on deregulating guns or the battle he is currently waging over Common Core and his efforts to effectively ban abortion.

He promised to be a policy reformer, and instead, he has become a hackneyed culture warrior who counts his victories by the number of soundbites he receives in the conservative media. It doesn’t matter how many times he loses in court or how many of his laws are struck down as unconstitutional or how many millions of public dollars are squandered defending laws that should have never been signed in the first place.

Recently, former Governor Edwin Edwards was asked about his thoughts on Jindal. “Doesn’t hunt, doesn’t gamble, doesn’t eat crawfish,” he said. “He likes to travel. Let them make him Secretary of Transportation.”

That may seem like a joke, but considering Jindal’s record, it’s actually sensible career advice.

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