Louisiana State Treasurer and current candidate for U.S. Senate John Kennedy is maliciously and wrongly accusing former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne of wastefully spending public money on two “world-class” works of public art installed at the new $1.1 billion University Medical Center in New Orleans, despite the fact that Louisiana’s “Percent for Art Program” law requires the state to spend 1% on art for any public building project worth more than $2,000,000. Moreover, neither Dardenne nor anyone in his former office “spent” money for this artwork. As the law clearly states, the agency responsible for constructing the public building is tasked with purchasing the artwork using a portion of the capital outlay (and, in this case, FEMA hospital replacement funds). Although the project was a public-private partnership, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals and the Division of Administration, presumably, took the lead roles for the state.
Former Lt. Gov. Dardenne and his previous colleagues at the Office of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism never were in the business of building hospitals, a fact that is perhaps unbeknownst to Treasurer Kennedy, a man who recently referenced a 21-year-old study as a primer on how to solve the state’s current budget woes.
Kennedy first broadcast his attack against Jay Dardenne, who is now Commissioner of Administration for Gov. John Bel Edwards, in a four page document sent to and published by Chad Rogers of The Dead Pelican. Rogers uploaded the file, curiously, under the title treasurer.pdf. He placed a link to the file above his website’s masthead. Quoting:
Kennedy grossly misled the public about Dardenne’s involvement. Dardenne did not spend his agency’s money on this artwork. The law only requires that the assistant secretary of the office of cultural development of the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, who was then one of Dardenne’s employees, select and certify that artwork is appropriate, alongside of a consortium of other stakeholders.
In an attempt to underscore his outrage, Kennedy also affixed a portion of a report he had written titled “Consultant Spending Spree Continues in State Government,” highlighting the purchases of the artwork.
Then, on March 17th, he took to his Facebook account, reiterating his outrage and, once again, completely lying to the public:
For good measure, he also included this charming photograph of him standing next to Dale Chihuly’s sculpture.
And most of the 2,200 people who commented and the nearly 4,400 people who shared Treasurer Kennedy’s post ate it up, not realizing that Kennedy was lying about Dardenne, lying about the source of the funds, and lying about the law. When a commenter asked Kennedy who purchased the artwork, he wrote, “The head of Culture, Recreaction & Tourism in 2015 was then Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne.”
It is worth repeating: Jay Dardenne did not buy this artwork.
To paraphrase Gov. Earl Long, if you ever want to hide something from John Kennedy, put it in a law book.
28 states have “Percent for Art” statutes. Here is the actual law in Louisiana (bold mine):
§900.1. Percent for Art program; established; implementation
A. Recognizing the responsibility of the state to foster culture and the arts and to encourage the development of artists and craftsmen, the legislature declares it to be the public policy of the state that a portion of the money spent by state agencies on the construction or renovation of state buildings shall be spent on the acquisition, installation, restoration, or conservation of works of art in, on, or on the grounds of such buildings. In pursuit of this policy, the Percent for Art program is established for the purpose of providing for art to be exhibited in or on state buildings and grounds and recognizing and assisting qualified Louisiana artists and craftsmen.
B. The following terms, as used in this Section, shall have the meaning provided in this Subsection, unless the context clearly indicates otherwise:
(1) “Louisiana artist” means an artist, artisan, or craftsman who is a resident of Louisiana.
(2) “Renovation” does not include a project the principal purpose of which is the rehabilitation of plumbing, heating, ventilating, air conditioning, or electrical systems.
(3) “State building” means any building, facility, structure, or park built or renovated using state funds, that will be owned by a department or agency in the executive, judicial, or legislative branch of state government, including any state-owned lands or space surrounding or integral to the building. “State building” shall not include parking lots (but it shall include parking garages), sidewalks, maintenance sheds, bridges, tunnels, sewers, trails, or warehouses, unless such structures are adjuncts of the principal element of the project.
(4) “Work of art” includes all forms of original creations of visual art, including but not limited to:
(a) Paintings, including all media and both portable and permanently affixed works of art such as murals.
(b) Sculpture, including bas relief, high relief, mobile, fountain, kinetic, environmental, electronic, and in-the-round sculpture.
(c) Prints, calligraphy, drawings, stained glass, mosaics, photographs, and works in fiber or textiles, wood, metal, plastic, or other materials or combination of materials.
(d) Mixed media, including any combination of forms of media.
(e) Any craft as defined in R.S. 25:897(C).
(5) “State funds” or “state money” shall not include federal funds or insurance proceeds for the construction, replacement, renovation, or improvement of a state building damaged by a natural catastrophe when conditions governing the expenditure of such monies preclude their use for the restoration or acquisition of art, nor shall it include state monies used as a match for such federal funds or insurance proceeds.
C. Except as otherwise provided in this Section, whenever more than two million dollars of state funds, whether obtained from the sale of bonds or otherwise, is to be spent by a state agency for the construction or renovation of a state building, the agency that contracts for the construction or renovation shall expend one percent of the state money to be expended for the project to acquire, conserve, or restore and install works of art for display in, on, or on the grounds of the state building. The work or works of art for the project shall be chosen as provided in Subsection E of this Section. In the case of a renovation of a state building, the required expenditure or a portion thereof may be for restoration or conservation of an existing work of art associated with the state building which is to be renovated.
D.(1) Notwithstanding the provisions of Subsection C of this Section, no state money or an amount less than one percent of the amount of state money to be expended on the project, as determined by the assistant secretary of the office of cultural development of the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, shall be expended to acquire, conserve, restore, or install works of art for a particular project, if the assistant secretary of the office, considering advice from professional staff of the Louisiana Division of Arts, determines that any of the following is true:
(a) A work of art would be inappropriate on the particular project.
(b) There will be little opportunity for public appreciation of any work of art in or on the state building or its grounds.
(c) The value of one or more features or characteristics inherent in the architectural design of the state building should be considered to apply toward the one percent requirement.
(d) The state building will be amply provided with works of art without the expenditure.
(2) Nothing contained in this Subsection shall be construed to obstruct the power of the commissioner of administration to exercise any of the commissioner’s lawful authority.
E. Each work of art acquired, restored, or conserved as provided in this Section shall be selected or determined by the assistant secretary of the office of cultural development of the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism who shall request the advice of and consult with the contracting agency, the state agency who will occupy or operate the building, the Louisiana State Arts Council, and the project architect. When selecting such works of art, preference shall be given to works of art of Louisiana artists.
F. The commissioner of administration may adopt rules to implement the provisions of this Section.
Acts 1999, No. 1280, §1; Acts 2003, No. 972, §1, eff. July 1, 2003; Acts 2006, No. 91, §1, eff. May 25, 2006.
This is as clear as day.
There is another problem with John Kennedy’s line of argument, and considering he serves as the State Treasurer, it strikes me as much more worrisome and problematic than simply not knowing the language of a particular statute.
The Chihuly sculpture, he writes, is “a totally inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars when we’re supposed to be broke.” On the surface, it sounds reasonable, but it also reveals a fundamental distortion of what, where, and how the state of Louisiana currently finds itself in financial straits. I refuse to believe that the Chairman of the Board Commission and the State Treasurer does not understand the massively important distinctions between the state’s operating budget (the general fund) and its capital budget. The construction of the University Medical Center was a capital project, paid for both by one-time non-recurring funds and by private investment. By law, Louisiana is prohibited using non-recurring capital outlay funds to plug up operational deficits, though Bobby Jindal did his damndest to find creative ways to exploit and manipulate that prohibition.
The total budget for the construction of the University Medical Center was $1.1 billion. The state spent $1.1 million on art, or one tenth of one percent of the project’s total budget, 0.044%, or to put it in a different perspective, less than one half of one tenth of one percent—of state’s general fund expenditures, which couldn’t have paid for it anyway.
John Kennedy would have his followers and supporters believe that a statue built by the world’s most renowned glass sculptor is a symbol of waste and an example of how Louisiana found itself in its current predicament. Perhaps he should be looking at the man in the mirror.
Treasurer Kennedy fashions himself as a no-nonsense straight-talker on the budget catastrophe currently plaguing the Great State of Louisiana. He likes to call himself an equal opportunity “asshole,” to borrow his own characterization. He relished fighting Gov. Bobby Jindal in the media, all while doing most of his bidding as Chairman of the Bond Commission.
It was, without question, a politically savvy thing for him, lambasting the least popular governor in the history of Louisiana while tacitly going along with Gov. Jindal’s outrageous efforts to utilize the bond premiums and bond defeasances he oversaw as State Treasurer in a cynical attempt to plug the state’s general budget deficit year after year. As Chairman, he sat idly by as his fellow members loaded up billions and billions in capital commitments that resulted in a mega-billion dollar, ten-year backlog.
But less than two weeks after placing his hand on the Bible and committing himself to another four years as the State Treasurer, John Kennedy decided he would, once again, run for U.S. Senate. Because he is a Republican nowadays, he has pivoted his public criticism away from former Gov. Jindal and onto the newly-elected Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards. Perhaps he believes that will sell better to the base from which he has continued to seek validation.
According to the polls presumably commissioned by his ethically dubious SuperPAC, he is currently positioned as the frontrunner for the U.S. Senate. Louisiana voters seem to admire his folksy demeanor, and to his credit, he has done a fairly good job convincing a fair number of people that he is the anti-politician.
But if the Academy of Motion Pictures and the Sciences recognized acting performances by a politician, John Kennedy of Louisiana would assuredly receive a nomination. His political beliefs are not based in concrete public policy; they are and have always been designed to promote his own personal ambition. When he ran for Senate against Mary Landrieu in 2008, her campaign launched a simple but effective counterattack: “John Kennedy for Whatever.”
No, Treasurer Kennedy is not an anti-politician; he is the worst possible kind of actual politician: The actor, the chameleon, the self-interested and self-aggrandizing flame thrower who is perpetually seeking a higher office and more power, regardless of what he needs to say or do to achieve his ultimate ambition.
If that sounds rough, it should. Treasurer Kennedy shoulders much of the responsibility for Louisiana’s imperiled financial conditions. This is a man who, for more than four terms at the helm of the state’s bond commission, blamed the newly-elected governor for causing a downgrade of the state’s bond rating merely because Gov. Edwards reminded the public that a catastrophic budget shortfall could result in our colleges and universities declaring financial exigency, a fact universally agreed by every single higher education executive in the state, and that such a situation would not only imperil TOPS scholarships for nearly 45,000 students, it could potentially result in the suspension of college athletic programs, including the beloved LSU football. If universities cannot meet their payroll, then they cannot conduct classes, and if students cannot attend classes, then there are no more student athletes. They are ineligible to participate in NCAA sports. The governor didn’t merely invent this hypothetical to “scare” lawmakers; the leaders of our state’s colleges and universities have been saying this repeatedly, urgently, and to anyone and everyone who cared more about college than college football to please, for the love of God, listen.
But according to Treasurer Kennedy, Louisiana’s bond credit rating wasn’t downgraded because his bond commission continually and recklessly overextended its obligations, issuing more bonds than it had the resources to pay back. No, Treasurer Kennedy wanted the people of Louisiana to believe the rating agencies were spooked by the potential demise of a college football team. It was cowardly and absurd and cynically designed to appeal to folks who believe the only government service worth a damn in this state is a slickly-produced show of young men beating up each on a football field every weekend.
Previously, Kennedy claimed to have identified 400 ways to reduce the budget deficit by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse, relying entirely on studies that had been collecting dust on bookshelves for as many as two decades.
Immediately thereafter, he pointed to another, more recent study, suggesting he had identified $1.5 billion that could be used immediately to save the crisis, conveniently leaving out the fact that $1.1 billion of that money was spent on exemptions for the oil and gas industry, exemptions that he, as a Republican, would never publicly oppose.
Treasurer Kennedy is good at bluster. He’s become talented at telling Republican voters what they want to hear but not what they need to hear. “We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem,” he repeats like a mantra. Those who have to live in what Karl Rove once infamously called “the reality-based community” understand that Treasurer Kennedy’s ignorant remarks may be marginally bolstering his own campaign prospects but are ultimately fomenting partisan division at a time in which Louisiana needs unity more than ever.
Food stamp fraud is rampant and an existential problem, Kennedy has claimed often. In truth, fraud accounts for less than 1% of the spending, almost none of which has anything to do with the Louisiana budget. Much like another Louisiana Republican candidate for U.S. Senate 25 years ago, Treasurer Kennedy relishes in lecturing people about the rampant abuses of the welfare state and ways in which America incentives government dependency. People are going to the emergency room for acne treatment, he cries, all while opposing Medicaid expansion and revealing his fundamental ignorance and misunderstanding of the true reasons for the country’s exorbitant health care costs.
And now, we all know he also misunderstands the value of public art. Please forgive me for digressing:
In my opinion, “Percent for Art” is a great, value-added program. It empowers and showcases Louisiana’s vibrant artistic community in facilities all across the state, facilities that are visited by thousands, if not tens of thousands, of its citizens and its tourists every day. The architects, the engineers, the mechanics, the plumbers, the electricians, the techies and the construction companies, by state statute, make 99% of the capital budget for any given project over $2,000,000. The remaining 1%, which they wisely account for in the initial appropriation request, goes for original art. And art, particularly good, original art, is likely the only thing purchased for these projects that actually appreciates in value.
It is also capable of turning an ordinary drab public building into a spectacular destination and an inspiring place to work and conduct business. A couple of years ago, while visiting the LITE building in Lafayette, I was amazed by the elaborate, enormous and beautiful lattice-work piece that draped across their front entrance. It not only welcomed visitors; it imbued the place with a sense of verve, importance, and gravitas.
Remember too, these buildings, these spaces, belong to the people of Louisiana. In almost every small town and mid-sized city, our public buildings represent our single-largest investments in the built environment. When they are designed well, when they demonstrate our shared beliefs in culture and aesthetics, when they serve to lift up the best aspects of our communities, they not only become places of pride, they also signal to visitors, businesses, and prospective investors a commitment to excellence and a climate conducive to innovation and potential.
A few days ago, someone asked a friend of mine, a local elected official in Baton Rouge, what the government could do to help locate a grocery store and a coffee shop in an area of town that has long been overlooked by private developers. I’ve had several similar conversations with people in my hometown, and the answer, although disappointing to some, is fairly simple: The government should not and cannot open businesses, but at its best, it can create the infrastructure that encourages businesses to open up shop: Improving and beautifying streets, building parks, improving drainage, and occasionally even offering targeted tax incentives. A key to that, as well, and one that seems to be lost in many parts of Louisiana is the cultivation and installation of public art.
Louisiana’s “Percent for Art Program” isn’t as robust, sophisticated, or ambitious as the program in Dallas or other communities. We merely focus on public buildings. Dallas considers almost all of its public infrastructure projects: sidewalks, streets, utility repairs, and even storm drainage work. Dallas, perhaps because it benefits from a large number of active philanthropists, also actively encourages private-public partnerships. This, however, does not mean we should not try.
I recognize some of you may share Treasurer Kennedy’s outrage over the price of artwork. You may not be moved by the fact that The Advocate reported the center has “world-class glass artwork” and recommends people visit the new hospital not for an appointment but for the opportunity to see two amazing pieces. You also may not care that Dale Chihuly, one of the artists, is considered the best-living glass artist on the planet or that tens of thousands of people pay to see his exhibits all across the country. You may not be impressed by the stunning and creative ways in which Ray King incorporates a stained glass map of New Orleans into his gigantic installation.
Or you may simply believe, as Treasurer Kennedy apparently does, that although Louisiana taxpayers just opened up a $1.1 billion, state-of-the-art, world-class medical facility, it’s simply nothing more than a “charity hospital,” and, as such, is not deserving of world-class art.
If you’ve never learned to value art, if you have never been able to grasp the ways in which it can transform a liminal and impersonal and even scary place into something welcoming, self-affirming, and therapeutic, then I suppose it would be easy to dismiss investments such as these as wasteful.
I obviously disagree. My only real criticism- and it is a minor one- is that the law encourages decision-makers to prefer Louisiana artists. Neither of these two artists are from Louisiana or even the American South. But ultimately, I don’t think it’s helpful to be too parochial about this, because the actual hospital “features one of the most comprehensive collections of Louisiana artists anywhere.”
And even if you disagree with me about all of this– about the power of public art, about the ways in which it pays dividends in return, not necessarily to our bottom line, at least immediately, but to our quality of life, about how it enhances and enriches our built environment and improves our shared civic spaces, then I hope, at the very least, you’ll agree with this:
While Treasurer Kennedy floats misleading stories to conservative bloggers and his followers on social media, implying that one of his critics in the governor’s administration misused taxpayer dollars, and holding up the installation of two “world-class” pieces of artwork in a $1.1 billion facility as an example of government running amuck, consider the fact that he has allegedly spent more than a million taxpayer dollars extra leasing an office building from a campaign donor than he would have spent had he merely located in state offices. That’s not a capital expense; that’s part of the general budget. That’s the problem.
Treasurer Kennedy may be good at folksy bluster, but he is not good at his job. And he would be disastrous as a United States Senator.