Maybe Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards made a mistake in his youth. Instead of attending West Point for an Army commission, he should have studied at the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
After all, it’s the Navy you join to see the world, and Edwards certainly has done his share of that in the past three months. Last October he visited Cuba, and he just returned from a week in Italy. His Havana trip focused on trade relations, ostensibly by request of the Legislature, while the more recent jaunt gathered information on human trafficking, an issue underscored by recent legislation addressing that issue.
Accompanied by his wife and almost two dozen state employees, this entourage billed taxpayers over $5,000 for each of the travelers for five days in the Caribbean’s socialist paradise. Several officials from various port authorities and others from outside government also tagged along. There, Edwards and Republican Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain signed agreements unlikely to come into effect any time soon, if ever, because the Republican majorities in Congress show no signs of normalizing trade with Cuba, nor does GOP President Donald Trump.
Edwards and religious organizations paid for his and his wife’s excursion to Rome that featured a detour to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis. His posse also included State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson and his wife, paid for by private donors to the Metanoia House for trafficking victims, and also Metanoia House board member state Sen. Ronnie Johns and Senate President John Alario. Some of Republican Johns’ and all of the GOP’s Alario’s expenses will come from campaign funds, but none from public dollars.
In both cases, Edwards towed along a state police protective detail, as required by state law. It cost the state around $35,000 for the five days in Cuba. The taxpayer cost of Edwards' European trip isn't yet clear. But a 10-day trade mission to Europe by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2015 cost the state $73,000 for the security detail. Before leaving for Italy, Edwards said he would call a special session to deal with a $304 million state budget deficit.
Edwards used to be more tightfisted regarding gubernatorial travel. As a representative, he voted for a budget amendment, later stripped by the Senate, that would have made Jindal’s office pay its own funds for the security detail’s out-of-state travel in fiscal year 2015. Then he became governor.
In these tough budgetary times, the governor needs to use better judgment. Gallivanting out of the country to sign essentially worthless agreements and to rap about anti-trafficking strategies when abundant teleconferencing software remains available isn’t cost-effective, especially when the state really needs to pinch pennies. Most anything obtained from these junkets could have been gained just as easily and far more cheaply without crossing the state’s borders.
And this questionable travel also points out the inadequacies of state law that allow using campaign funds for various perks that are essentially in-kind income for elected officials. Alario in particular has proved masterful at contorting statutes on this account, living it up on fine dining, plush accommodations, luxury vehicles, and pricey tickets to sporting and other events to such an extent that federal authorities two years ago began looking into hundreds of thousands of dollars he has spent this way.
Most states place far more restrictions on campaign fund use and thus donor influence over elected officials. Louisiana should change its laws accordingly and be less indulgent of wanderlust by Edwards and others on the state dime. That would discourage marginally productive getaways that are billed, dubiously, as important official business.