By pushing out a long-serving legislative budget officer, the new Republican leadership of the House and Senate have set a challenge for themselves.
That is coming up with a credible candidate who can preserve the Legislative Fiscal Office as an honest and nonpartisan source of budget data for the Legislature.
The fiscal office was one of the long-standing reforms enacted over decades to avoid political shenanigans with budget numbers. With Louisiana’s substantial dependence on volatile sources of revenue like oil and gas or sales taxes, the numbers have to be as right as they can be.
''The analysis of the budget has to be straight,'' said Johnny Rombach, fiscal officer from 1988 to 2005. ''You can't play games with it.''
True. But you can also send a powerful political signal by asking LFO head John Carpenter to retire before establishing a plan to find a successor. At 73, Carpenter is more than eligible for retirement, but because the fiscal office has recently offended some in the powerful oil and gas industry, the timing appears suspect.
We’re worried about a quick and partisan push for a more compliant successor.
Legislation to kill parish lawsuits against oil companies over coastal damages did not pass, almost alone among the major priorities of the business-dominated Legislature. Lobbyists have been almost all-powerful in the short session where public input is sharply curtailed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Some of the blame was attached to the fiscal office by Republican senators. The fiscal office estimated higher costs to the state — not at all unreasonable, in our view, and approved by Carpenter — if the coastal lawsuits bill passed; that fiscal note resulted in a dual referral, in which the bill being fast-tracked by the leadership had to go to a second Senate committee on the budget.
At the end of the day, that really didn’t matter: The bill died because local governments, including that of Republican-dominated Jefferson Parish, did not want their lawsuits curtailed by industry fiat at the State Capitol. But blaming the LFO was the hostile reaction of GOP senators. Now, this.
We commend one of the Republican architects of the budget, Jerome “Zee” Zeringue of Houma, chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He praised Carpenter’s “outstanding job of protecting the interests of the state.”
Added Gov. John Bel Edwards: "He's been a good and faithful public servant for a long time."
Our concern is whether the interests of the state, rather than that of powerful lobbying groups, will be foremost in the selection of a successor.
Carpenter’s name is almost unknown to the general public. But competence and independence of his office is vital to taxpayers and the state’s financial stability.
It cannot be a party gift fast-tracked through a special session. That will call into question the basic good-government credibility of the House and Senate leadership.