John Carpenter. Photo shot 02/27/2004

John Carpenter, the legislative fiscal officer, in this file photo from February 2004.

In a decision that has not yet been made public, Republican leaders of the Louisiana Legislature are forcing out a well-respected legislative staffer whose office recently produced an independent cost estimate that angered powerful lawmakers.

Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder met Friday with John Carpenter, the legislative fiscal officer, and told him his tenure would end when the special legislative session wraps up at the end of the month, Carpenter confirmed.

The move raises the question of whether the Legislative Fiscal Office – which plays a key role in determining a bill’s fate by estimating how much it will cost – will remain impartial and nonpartisan at a time when the Legislature has become increasingly partisan.

“The analysis of the budget has to be straight,” said Johnny Rombach, who held the job from 1988 to 2005. “You can’t play games with it.”

Cortez, of Lafayette, and Schexnayder, of Gonzales, asked Carpenter to retire before they established a plan to find a successor. They did not respond to requests for an interview Tuesday.

“John has done an outstanding job of protecting the interests of the state,” said Jerome "Zee" Zeringue, R-Houma, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “He will be missed. We wish him the best.”

Carpenter, 73, has been the legislative fiscal officer for eight years. In a brief interview, he said he had been planning to remain in the post for perhaps another year to assure a smooth transition to whoever succeeds him.

Carpenter said the two legislative leaders gave him no indication of why they want him gone so soon other than to say that “they wanted to move in a new direction.”

Lawmakers in office when Edwin Edwards was governor created the Legislative Fiscal Office in 1973 to provide them with cost estimates that are independent of those produced by the governor’s office.

Carpenter and his 17-member staff are little known to the public but play an outsized role behind the scenes by producing “fiscal notes” for each bill. The fiscal notes can shape the debate over a bill and even doom a measure whose predicted cost is too expensive for lawmakers to stomach.

To replace Carpenter, state law requires the House Appropriations Committee, the Senate Finance Committee, plus the full House and the full Senate all to approve his successor while the Legislature is in session. The new fiscal officer must have a college degree, “with training in fiscal matters or ... at least ten years experience in fiscal affairs of the state.”

“The intent would be to get someone who has the expertise and ability to perform the function in a fair and objective manner,” Zeringue said.

Lawmakers appear unwilling to wait to choose Carpenter’s successor later in the year, when they are expected to meet in another special session.

The ouster of Carpenter comes three weeks after state senators blasted a fiscal note that said a bill they favored could have prohibitive costs.

The public rebuke of Carpenter’s office occurred on May 19 when a fiscal note produced by staffer Rebecca Robinson reported that a bill to kill lawsuits filed by coastal parishes against oil and gas companies could result in “a significant increase in expenditures” if the state were to take over the suits. That’s because, Robinson found, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources estimated it would cost the state at least $4.3 million to take over each of the 43 cases, or up to possibly $185 million for all of them.

Attorneys at the Talbot Carmouche Marcello law firm are handling the lawsuits for the parishes and are footing the bill, an arrangement that state law would not allow.

Senate Bill 359 was the major priority of oil and gas companies during the regular session. It also had the strong backing of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the most powerful business lobbying group.

Under Senate Bill 359, nullifying the parish lawsuits could have meant having the Department of Natural Resources and Attorney General Jeff Landry take them over. That led Robinson to ask the department how much it would cost to do so.

The Attorney General’s Office punted, saying SB359 would generate no additional cost because “it does not change the authority” of his office, said Deputy Attorney General Bill Stiles. His comments did not address how much it would cost his office to pursue the lawsuits.

Senators blasted Robinson’s analysis, which Carpenter had approved.

State Sen. Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville, misrepresented Robinson’s analysis by saying she had based it on a newspaper story.

“I have never seen anything like it,” Hensgens told the committee members.

Robinson then explained that she had first seen a cost estimate in a news story but had then verified the figure with the Department of Natural Resources. The DNR is part of the executive branch, and is thus under the umbrella of Gov. John Bel Edwards, who did not support the legislation.

State Sen. Mike Fesi, R-Houma, called Robinson’s account “fictitious.”

The Finance Committee approved SB359 on a 7-1 vote, but the bill died because it could not win enough support from the full Senate.

“I did think they were rude to her,” said state Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, who cast the lone “no” vote. She said her colleagues thought the fiscal note was a deliberate attempt to derail the bill.

The episode before the committee was only the latest instance where Carpenter’s office has upset lawmakers with a cost or budget estimate that rankled them.

Greg Albrecht, a staffer in the office who serves as the Legislature’s chief economist, produces budget estimates for each meeting of the state Revenue Estimating Conference. The four-member board meets regularly to determine how much money is available for the state to spend.

For years, the Revenue Estimating Conference chose an estimate by either Albrecht or the chief economist for the governor’s office, Manfred Dix. But then-House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, and then-House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, broke with tradition in 2018 and 2019 and refused to accept either estimate. This prevented state officials from drawing up a budget with the latest revenue estimates.

Barras and Henry questioned the economists’ analysis. The economists readily acknowledged that theirs was not an exact science.

Steve Winham, who served as the state budget director from 1988 to 2000, under three governors, said Barras and Henry were reintroducing politics into a part of the budget process that is supposed to be nonpartisan.

That and the recent episode before the Senate Finance Committee have left Winham worried that the Legislative Fiscal Office’s traditional role is ending.

“My concern is that they will hire somebody who will bend entirely to their will,” he said.

Acadiana Business Today: The mystery entity who bought Magnolia LNG in Lake Charles has stepped forward; Asian-Hispanic fusion restaurant to open Lafayette location

Email Tyler Bridges at tbridges@theadvocate.com.