No sooner than we post our story about Public Service Commissioner MIKE FRANCIS lobbying for a return of the free lunch for PSC members than we get an anonymous tip about another of those furtive bills sneaked through on the final day of last year’s legislative session—a-la the infamous 2014 Edmonson Amendment—which apparently renders Francis’ effort moot.
Put another way, the most expensive free lunch in Louisiana history is now the order of the day.
An amendment tacked onto an otherwise innocuous bill goes much further than even Francis intended, however.
While the bill itself was not initially identified by our source, it was passed unanimously by both the House and Senate and signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards, we’re told. More specific information will be forthcoming as we learn more about the amendment.
Details are still sketchy at this point but all elected state officials, as well as appointed members of boards and commissions, will receive gourmet lunches catered by two of Baton Rouge’s most expensive restaurants whenever they convene in Baton Rouge. The menu will range from prime steaks to prime rib to lobster—and more, much more.
That includes not only the 144 members of the legislature for every day the legislature is in session and when members attend committee meetings throughout the year, but the LSU Board of Supervisors, the University of Louisiana System Board, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), the PSC, the Insurance Rating Commission, and hundreds of other boards and commissions as well.
The amendment also increased the cap on the amount that can be spent on meals by 70 percent, from $50 to $85. That does not include the cost of drinks, which also will be provided gratis for elected and appointed officials.
The new law, while exempting those officials from the $50 cap, leaves the limits in place for state employees.
The cost of this newest perk is expected to easily exceed $1 million per year just for legislators. The countless members of boards and commissions who meet throughout the year in Baton Rouge who also will be eligible for the new perk will increase that cost even more, though there is no way to calculate how much that will be.
But there apparently will be no cost to taxpayers since lobbyists will be responsible for payment of the cost of the meals and drinks. Various special interests will pick up the tabs on a rotating basis with Oil and Gas interests buying one day, banks the next, then private prisons, etc., for legislators.
For the individual boards and commissions, those interests with the most to gain from legislation will be participating. Utility, pipeline, cable TV and trucking companies, for example, will split the costs for PSC members with insurance companies sharing the cost for the Insurance Commissioner and the Insurance Rating Commission, private prisons will be treating members of the Pardon and Parole Board, and charter and voucher schools will strap on the feedbag with BESE members.
Opposition, albeit nearly a year too late, was nevertheless easy to find. Attorney General Jeff Landry blamed Gov. John Bel Edwards for letting the amendment slip through. “I am dedicated to protecting the interests of the voters on matters such as this and the governor obviously is not. That’s why when I’m elected governor, I will work diligently to repeal this amendment. I’m putting legislators on notice right now: if you sponge off lobbyists and take advantage of senior citizens, children, conservative, patriotic, anti-Islamic Republican voters, I’m coming after you.”
His words were echoed by U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, who said, “I supported Donald Trump from day one and you oughta carry a handgun. I have also always said we don’t have a revenue problem in Louisiana, we have a spending problem. This proves it. Legislators make between $32,000 and $66,000 a year, including their $159 per diem for each day they’re in Baton Rouge. When I’m governor, they’ll buy their own damn lunch. And they can drink weed killer.”
Legislators contacted by LouisianaVoice were surprisingly candid in their support of the amendment.
“Look, we have to eat, too,” said Rep. Carl Spackler of Shongaloo. “We come down here every year and in the past we’ve had to scramble to find lobbyists who will buy us dinner. Lunch is usually out of the question because we’re tied down at the Capitol during the day and we have to settle for the lousy food in the cafeteria. And a lot of evenings, it’s raining out and we get soaked running from our cars to the restaurant. And don’t even talk to me about the Baton Rouge traffic. It’s hardly worth the free steak and Merlot Cabernet Franc.”
Sen. William J. Le Petomane of Mamou agreed. “We come here and listen to all the whining from state agencies about budget cuts. I only get to see my girlfriend when I’m here in Baton Rouge and my constituents really cut into my time with her. I got her a job with the state but she’s pretty high-maintenance, so these meals will free up per diem money that I can spend on little gifts to keep her happy. In that regard, the amendment will be added incentive for us to do our jobs when we’re in town.”
Lobbyist Al Cverzik, who represents the Louisiana Nutria Preservation League, said the easing of restrictions on meals and drinks will give lobbyists greater access to legislators. “We have to compete with all these ordinary citizens to get our message across. Well, we have a right to be heard, too. Having a sit-down with them over a porterhouse steak and a glass or two of whatever will help us immensely.”
The bill goes into effect today—just in time for the upcoming legislative session which kicks off on April 10, a week from this Monday.