Follow politics long enough, and you can get inured to the all the little things that might have once given you pause, but that you come to understand as business as usual. Sometimes it takes some truly shameless behavior to really get your attention.
That’s how I remember the 2006 legislative debate over whether to ask voters statewide to reform New Orleans’ wasteful and easily corruptible system of employing seven difference tax assessors instead of just one. The battle wasn’t so much to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot — it was a priority of then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco and had widespread support among lawmakers statewide — but to overcome the vocal obstructionism from two lawmakers in particular.
Both Democrats represented New Orleans in the House. One, Jeff Arnold, just happened to be the son of one of the sitting assessors, and the second, Alex Heaton, was the brother of another. Coincidence? Yeah, right.
Both wound up recusing themselves from the final vote, but not before causing a major ruckus — big enough to prompt an inquiry by the state Ethics Board on the grounds that Louisiana's ethics code barred politicians from weighing on matters in which immediate family members have a "substantial economic interest."
But I’d forgotten the most infuriating part of all until last week, when I read Advocate reporter Rebekah Allen’s investigation into lawmakers who routinely engage in what any lay person would consider clear conflicts of interest. Arnold and Heaton were vindicated in court.
In fact, Allen’s reporting shows the system is set up to allow for such behavior, and that it is common.
Some of that is due to the basic makeup of the Legislature. Although it doesn’t feel that way lately, lawmakers work part-time, and most have outside personal financial interests.
State Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, owns convenience stores that sell gas, and this year he authored legislation cracking down on larger scale operators that undercut businesses such as his on price. One of his bills made it to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ desk, but the governor vetoed it, citing the likelihood of higher prices for consumers. Harris, it so happened, also authored a bill to crack down on perceived conflicts of interest for department heads, which suggests he doesn’t see the irony or else just doesn’t care.
He’s far from alone. Legislators in the nursing home business have long been involved in legislation affecting the industry. Same for people who work in oil and gas, and timber. Lawyers take part in debates that affect their clients.
Allen also dug up numerous instances in which lawmakers have gotten involved in legislation that could affect family members.
State Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, backed a successful bill this year to benefit truck-stop casinos, including one owned by his brother. Both said that they didn’t discuss the bill. And state Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco, pushed legislation beneficial to riverboat casinos not long before his wife was hired to lobby for the industry. He said he didn’t learn of the situation until later.
As these examples show, these offenses vary by degree. Nobody arrives in Baton Rouge without pre-existing ties, and some examples are clearly less egregious than others.
Also, sometimes lawmakers take it upon themselves to acknowledge conflict and step aside. It’s pretty much up to them to decide whether that’s called for, which is another problematic aspect to this whole story.
When Arnold and Heaton were fighting her on the assessor merger bill, Blanco actually expressed sympathy for their situation.
"I can't hold or harbor ill will against a legislator who's (fighting) on a family issue," she said at the time.
The rest of us can, though. And when their votes call their allegiances into question, we should.