Louisiana Spotlight: Another budget crisis, more financial uncertainty likely again next year _lowres

Associated Press star reporter Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, La., Monday, April 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Governors change in Louisiana, but one thing remains constant: at some point during the tenure of an administration, a governor will butt heads with Louisiana’s outspoken treasurer, John Kennedy.

The latest dust-up has Kennedy sparring with the state’s new Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards. And it took less than a month of Edwards’ entrance into office.

Kennedy, a popular Republican in his fifth term as Louisiana’s top money manager, has been one of the most vocal critics of Edwards’ push to raise taxes to help rebalance the state budget.

The treasurer has made speeches, appeared on talk radio and issued statements critical of the tax hike proposals — and gave a GOP rebuttal of sorts to Edwards’ televised speech laying out his agenda and reasoning ahead of the ongoing special legislative session.

“My remarks are not personal to Gov. Edwards. We just have a different view of government. He thinks we’re one tax increase away from prosperity. I don’t. I believe in more freedom. He believes in more free stuff,” Kennedy said. “He has the right to his opinion, but I have the right to have mine.”

The Edwards administration says the spat is less about honest differences of opinion and more about Kennedy’s latest political goal, his campaign for the U.S. Senate.

The competition is expected to be fierce for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican David Vitter. At least a half dozen candidates have announced for the November election. It’s Kennedy’s third attempt to win a Senate seat.

“While I am putting forward plans to protect higher education, health care and (the state’s free college tuition program) TOPS, the treasurer is misleading the public to serve his own political agenda,” Edwards said in a recent statement.

With the dispute, Edwards is following the well-worn path of his predecessors.

During his 16 years as a statewide elected official, Kennedy was often a burr in the saddle for former Govs. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, and Bobby Jindal, a Republican. It has nothing to do with partisanship. Kennedy was a Democrat when he clashed with Blanco and had switched to the GOP by the time he was sparring with Jindal.

With the current governor, Kennedy repeated many claims that had him at odds with Jindal. The treasurer says cuts could address the state’s deep budget gaps. He says Louisiana has too many consulting contracts, too many protected funds, too many middle managers and too much Medicaid misspending.

For Edwards, he’s added that the governor’s tax proposals would wreck Louisiana’s economy.

Some Republican lawmakers have repeated many of Kennedy’s suggestions.

It seemed as though Edwards might be able to get Kennedy’s praise for his administration’s ongoing work to sift through Jindal’s consulting and legal contracts with an eye toward ending those deemed unnecessary. Instead, during a recent House Appropriations Committee hearing, Kennedy suggested the efforts didn’t go far enough.

Even if Kennedy’s recommendations could shrink wasteful spending, the changes couldn’t generate enough money or come fast enough to solve Louisiana’s immediate budget woes.

The state has a budget shortfall ranging from $850 million to $950 million that must be closed by June 30. The governor and lawmakers have agreed to a mix of short-term financing and cuts to close nearly half the hole so far. More slashing is up for debate, along with tax hikes.

Edwards has said tax increases are needed to stop damaging cuts to public health care services and colleges. Republicans in the House have voted to raise some taxes. They haven’t gone as far as Edwards would like, however.

The Edwards administration clearly sees Kennedy as a hindrance to persuading lawmakers.

Kennedy notes he’s been talking about state finances and proposing cuts during the tenures of several governors. He was one of the most regular critics of Jindal’s financial policies, trashing the repeated use of patchwork financing to fill budget holes and warning it would put Louisiana in the sort of budget troubles it faces now.

“I didn’t just start talking about our spending problem in the last 30 days,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time.”

Melinda Deslatte covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter, @melindadeslatte.