U.S. Sen. John Kennedy

U.S. Sen. John N. Kennedy questions HUD Secretary nominee Ben Carson during a confirmation hearing on Thursday, Jan. 12. (Screengrab via C-SPAN)

Who wants to be state treasurer?

Most people in Louisiana might think that being treasurer of a state in a long budgetary nightmare is not exactly a happy prospect.

Of course, that assumes that the state treasurer’s duties have something to do with state spending. That is not really the case.

As the manager of one of the smallest state departments, the treasurer actually has very little to do with the spending of the state’s money. Rather, he or she — Mary Evelyn Parker and Mary Landrieu were previously treasurers — oversees the state’s bank accounts, not its spending or management policies.

Why would anyone not know that? In part, it is because of politically inspired mission creep. As treasurers, ambitious officeholders have limited duties but aspirations to be governor or U.S. senator; Landrieu made it to the latter, not the former.

New U.S. Sen. John N. Kennedy, elected in December, holds the office he sought three times while being treasurer.

That means that Louisiana voters face a special election in the fall to replace Kennedy. A lot of people might run, as it is a statewide elected office and Kennedy, after all, used it as a stepping stone to greater things.

Will the fall race focus on the job, or on Trump-style sloganeering? The betting is probably on the latter.

A treasurer’s financial responsibility over management of the state’s accounts is not the sort of thing to drive voters to the polls. Even the bank accounts have dwindled, as Gov. John Bel Edwards noted the other day, with $3 billion less under management because the previous state administration raided trust funds and used other one-time money to pay for recurring expenses.

The treasurer’s principal power is as chairman of the State Bond Commission, which oversees borrowing of state and local governments. The treasurer is only one vote, with most of the decisions controlled by the governor’s appointees or his friends among legislative leaders. It is the treasurer who manages the agenda, though, and that represents some real power.

The treasurer also has seats on retirement boards and other bodies where there are significant issues at stake. However, those tend not to be politically popular issues — in fact, the reverse. However sensible changes in pension funds’ practices may be, if they can be portrayed as cutting benefits, the politics can be poisonous.

So, how does one run for treasurer? Perhaps the candidates will adopt Kennedy’s practice of criticizing the state’s budgetary situation, without having the burden of any real responsibility for fixing it.

This made Kennedy unpopular with governors in hard times, Bobby Jindal and Edwards. Sometimes those criticisms were trenchant but often enough simply the generation of quotes for the newspapers, with Kennedy a kind of Nagger-in-Chief. Kennedy hasn’t stopped either, issuing recent missives of criticism of state policy even though he has been elevated (at last) to the U.S. Capitol.

But nagging raised his profile, and if there is one thing that politicians can be counted upon in a campaign, it is to fight the last war.

Rhetorical mission-creep is not limited to treasurers. Attorneys general have campaigned mostly on crime-fighting even though the office has sharply limited criminal jurisdiction. It is district attorneys who shoulder most of the burden for prosecuting state law. But the civil law issues stipulated in the Louisiana Constitution as the principal duty of the AG’s office don’t make for gripping campaign commercials.

We shall hear toward the end of the year a campaign waged upon the state’s financial situation, but will the rhetoric match the reality of the treasurer’s role? Not likely.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.