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Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks to the joint session of the Legislature after it opened for its two-month fiscal session Monday April 8, 2019, in Baton Rouge.

An acrimonious debate over car insurance rates and so-called tort reform — involving a controversial bill that a powerful business lobby dubbed its No. 1 priority — ended during the legislative session earlier this year without the passage of any measure.

Now, the issue is spilling into election season.

The Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority, a political organization headed by Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Sen. John N. Kennedy, has hit at least three lawmakers — including a Republican — with direct mail attacks that accuse them of preventing lower insurance rates.

The political barbs center around a bill pushed by the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry and sponsored by state Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, that would have given industry several long-sought priorities on changing the court system to better favor businesses. Talbot pointed to Louisiana's higher than usual number of lawsuits involving injuries in car wrecks and argued the measure would lower litigation costs for insurance companies, which would in turn lower rates.

Voters in the districts of state Sens. Ryan Gatti, R-Bossier City, and Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, as well as state Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, received mailers that blame the lawmakers for killing the legislation. The bill ultimately was defeated in Senate committee after its backers couldn’t prove the measure could lower car insurance rates. An actuarial report conducted by insurance experts for Talbot's task force found the major components of the bill would not definitively save costs.

The attacks have rankled their targets.

In interviews, Luneau, Johnson and Gatti blasted the mailers as false and misleading, and described them as punishment for opposing a measure that would have been a boon for insurance companies, but done little for consumers. All three, attorneys by trade, were eager to relitigate the bill as well as other proposals they say would have actually lowered car insurance rates that also failed to pass.

“They will not be happy until everyone in the Legislature becomes their puppet,” Gatti said. “And I refuse to do that.”

“They’re going to do hatchet jobs on people. I understand that,” Luneau said. “I’m a big boy. I’ve got thick skin. I can take it. The thing I don’t like about it is when they outright lie about you.”

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One of the mailers sent to voters in state Sen. Ryan Gatti's district. Gatti, a Republican, is one of the targets of the Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority. 

Kyle Ruckert, executive director of the Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority, said the organization is committed to supporting conservative candidates who "fight for common sense conservative reforms" and highlighting when elected officials defeat legislation that "would help Louisiana families and businesses." 

"LCCM's recent activity spotlighted lawmakers that were instrumental in killing critical legislation to lower car insurance rates for Louisianans' and the burden on their wallets," he said in an email. 

The organization is supporting Talbot and a host of other Republicans, and is opposing Gatti, Luneau and Democratic Sen. John Milkovich, a Shreveport-area lawyer, according to campaign finance documents.

The mailers come as the organization tries to shift the state Legislature rightward, part of a new focus of the organization under Landry’s leadership since 2016. Republicans in 2011 took firm control of the state House and Senate. Since the beginning of last year, the organization has raised more than $1 million, and in recent months it has shelled out money to elect its preferred Republican candidates, ahead of the Oct. 12 primary elections.

Founded by former U.S. Sen. David Vitter as the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority, the group recently brought Kennedy on board to help fundraise for the group's new goal of electing more conservative legislators.

Its activities in legislative races come as term limits force 47 of the Legislature’s 144 members out of office, including several moderate state senators who had been more closely aligned with Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat. The total number of open seats is even larger when including retirements and others not running for reelection.

For instance, state Sen. Eric LaFleur, a Ville Platte Democrat whose district broke heavily for Republican Donald Trump in 2016 by a 70%-27% margin, is term-limited. Now his seat is a major focus of the committee and the state’s Republican party. Kennedy recently traveled to the district to endorse Heather Cloud, the mayor of Turkey Creek, who is running to replace Lafleur. One of her opponents in the race is Johnson, who is termed out of his current House seat.

Johnson questioned why the committee’s mailers said he “stopped” or “killed” Talbot’s bill, when in fact it passed the House and died in the Senate. Johnson, while running for the state Senate now, was a House member during the debate.

“I was outspoken about the bill and I figured out their bill wasn’t going to reduce rates,” Johnson said. “I’m the one who may have started that conversation. They don’t come make a hit on you unless you’re winning a race.”

The conservative group is bankrolled by heavyweight GOP funders like Lane Grigsby and Boysie Bollinger, as well as corporate donors that include oil, real estate, insurance and pharmaceutical companies, according to campaign finance records. Gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone’s firm, ISC Constructors LLC, donated late last year after he launched his campaign.

Gatti, a Republican, spent an hour and a half at a Republican party gathering in Bossier City recently delivering a presentation — complete with a PowerPoint and clips of legislative testimony — that explained why he opposed Talbot's bill. He responded to the negative mailers and said he’s “100 percent OK” if he loses his election because of the vote, even though he later said he feels confident in his bid for reelection.

The Republican is also facing pressure from LABI, a main supporter of Talbot’s legislation. The organization’s political action committees recently released a long list of endorsements, the vast majority of them incumbent Republicans, for legislative races. Gatti’s name was not on the list.

LABI’s PAC helped organize a fundraiser for Gatti’s challenger, Robert Mills, in the Baton Rouge house built in 1919 for Standard Oil executives, which now serves as the headquarters of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association.

The legislation at issue would have extended the deadline for filing a lawsuit from one year to two; lowered the threshold of damages required for having a dispute decided by a jury instead of a judge from $50,000 to $5,000; limited recovery for injuries to what the party personally paid and kept the existence of the defendant’s auto insurance policy and the name of the insurer from reaching the jury.

Those measures have long been sought by business groups wanting to tilt the court system in their favor. 

Gatti became a conspicuous opponent of Talbot’s bill when, during a committee hearing, he dramatically waved the actuarial report, which was previously unpublicized despite being conducted for a task force that Talbot chaired.

Louisiana has some of the highest car insurance rates in the country. However, car insurance rates have actually dipped in Louisiana in recent months, despite no legislation being passed to address the issue.

Capitol News Bureau Editor Mark Ballard and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com