Earlier this year, back in February, when the newly-elected governor and the state legislature were grappling with what looked to be a nearly $1 billion immediate budget shortfall and a shortfall of an additional $2 billion the next year, Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy went on a one-man crusade to prove to everyone, once and for all, that Louisiana “doesn’t have a revenue problem; it has a spending problem.”
Of course, that was not true. The state’s budget had already been cut to the marrow, and the governor, the majority of legislators, and policy experts all agreed and understood that it would be simply impossible to make up for the enormous shortfalls without generating additional revenue, as quickly as possible.
Kennedy, however, laying the groundwork for his campaign for the U.S. Senate, sought to position himself as both reflexively anti-tax and as the smartest guy in the room, the only man who understood how to solve the problem.
After Gov. John Bel Edwards delivered his first-ever televised statewide address, outlining the budget crisis, Kennedy asked for and received the chance to deliver a “Republican response.” In it, he referenced a 400-point plan to reduce government waste and inefficiencies. His plan, as it turns out, was nothing more than a hodgepodge of recommendations listed in a series of outmoded and now irrelevant reports, dating back to the administration of Gov. Mike Foster. It was not a serious proposal or solution, as anyone who has actually reviewed those reports can attest. It was merely showmanship.
But Treasurer Kennedy was not finished. A week later, in a radio interview with WWL’s Garland Robinette, he boasted that he’d discovered another solution, a report from the legislative auditor identifying nearly $1.8 billion in “waste and inefficiencies.” He said he sent the report to the governor.
It was an astonishing claim. Louisiana was figuring out how to solve a projected shortfall that was rapidly approaching $3 billion, and John Kennedy boasted that he had found the map to the treasure chest.
So, I asked the governor’s office for a copy of the report Kennedy sent them, and I quickly discovered that $1.1 billion of the $1.75 billion in “waste and inefficiencies” that Kennedy had denounced was the result of a temporary exemption on hydraulic fracturing (or fracking). To the auditor, this was the equivalent of uncollected revenue.
Treasurer Kennedy never bothered to explain to citizens the details of that report or any of the 400 points of his plan. He quickly pivoted to lambasting a statutorily mandated public art program and decrying the statistically irrelevant fraud of the federal food stamp program, neither of which would make even a noticeable dint in the state’s budget. Today, on his Facebook, he’s in the habit of criticizing federal spending on scientific research and foreign aid (his latest target was Morocco).
One of his Republican opponents, Congressman Charles Boustany, has decided to take Kennedy to task over his implied endorsement of removing the exemption for fracking (something, by the way, that I actually support without hesitation). But Boustany, like Kennedy, is a Republican, and he understands that for his base, tax cuts are sacrosanct, even if they are cuts subsidizing a massively profitable enterprise that pillages our shared natural resources and recklessly imperils our ecosystem and environment.
Boustany is right on one thing, though: In offering up the legislative auditor’s report as a panacea for the state’s budget woes, Treasurer Kennedy was implicitly endorsing and recommending its findings, the most significant of which involved the exemption on fracking.
“The treasurer said he has never supported doing away with the horizontal drilling tax break and just because he forwarded the report doesn’t mean he endorsed every item contained in its pages,” The Baton Rouge Business Report recently reported. “Kennedy said anybody who has followed his political talking points for years knows he has repeatedly urged lawmakers and the governor to cut spending, not to raise taxes. ‘When you’re leading (in polls), people make up stuff about you. It’s unfortunate, but it’s happened,’ Kennedy said.”
Again, the report that Kennedy endorsed on the radio and sent to Gov. Edwards identified the tax exemption on fracking as the single largest example of waste and inefficiency in state government. All told, it represents more than 60% of the money identified by the legislative auditor.
Boustany likely knows that Kennedy doesn’t actually believe in eliminating this exemption. For me, that’s not the issue, and I hope neither man is successful in their bid to become our next Senator. I’m voting for a Democrat.
For me, this is just yet another example of John Kennedy’s slippery soapbox.
He was crossing his fingers and hoping that no one would notice what he was actually recommending to the governor or to Garland Robinette’s radio audience. John Kennedy never had a plan or a solution; he had a report with a big number at the bottom of it and the opportunity to grandstand. He was counting that no one would be the wiser, that he could continue his road tour of using old reports, misleading audit findings, and his special brand of folksy outrage about spending money on artwork or on foreign aid for countries most of us can’t find on a map.
Meanwhile, Treasurer Kennedy, who once predicted that Medicaid expansion in Louisiana would cost the state $1.5 billon, is now faced with the fact that it has, instead, has already enrolled more than 250,000 new patients (with the aim of 375,00) and is projected to save Louisiana, thus far, over $184 million in its first year. Now, Kennedy is forced back into his old routine: eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse. It’s unclear what the Treasurer actually means, but it’s always been a reliable talking point, even when it’s nothing more than empty rhetoric.
He’s the State Treasurer. Isn’t he supposed to be our numbers guy?