Jindal’s campaign tested

Published 12:55 am Sunday, February 10, 2008

BATON ROUGE (AP) — After building much of his campaign for governor on the need to overhaul Louisiana’s shady reputation, Gov. Bobby Jindal tests his strength as governor with a special legislative session beginning Sunday, focused on changing the state’s ethics laws.

Jindal said beefing up Louisiana’s ethics code could upgrade the state’s image and attract new business development. The governor, who himself faces an ethics charge that he violated the state’s campaign finance laws, centered his campaign on the notion of an ethics overhaul and pledged it would be his first plan in office.

‘‘We’re about to send a signal from coast to coast: The Louisiana that people think they know is changing,’’ Jindal said.

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But he’s got to persuade lawmakers, who will meet for up to three weeks in the special session, to agree to those ideas, some of which have been rejected in past legislative sessions. Lawmakers predict many of the governor’s ideas will pass — though with tweaks to address some of their concerns.

‘‘This is a very complicated subject matter. So much of this is personal. Many legislators will be affected by what we end up passing. Some of them may end up resigning … so there’s an edge to it,’’ said House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown.

The session begins Sunday at 6 p.m.

Jindal’s pushing for elected officials to disclose how they earn their money, for bans on free tickets and golf games for lawmakers, for limits on what lobbyists can spend to wine and dine public officials, and for bans on legislators’ and their spouses’ ability to do business with state agencies.

He wants lobbyists to report more of their spending, to file those reports more regularly and to make those disclosures electronically so the public can access the information more easily. He also is asking lawmakers to bar their family members and family of statewide elected officials and cabinet secretaries from lobbying jobs.

In the days leading up to the start of the session, lawmakers complained they hadn’t gotten enough details on the proposals and said they thought many of the plans needed significant adjustments.

‘‘Team Jindal’s going to get beat up on the road to passage because they have just not done a good job ahead of time, and the rhetoric has been so large,’’ said demographer and political analyst Elliott Stonecipher of Shreveport, who is advocating for tougher ethics laws and enforcement efforts.

If the changes pass, some of them could cut into some elected officials’ income, alter the work their family members can do and change their lifestyles.

Some lawmakers have argued too much financial disclosure can give campaign opponents information to exploit against them, and other lawmakers have argued the proposals to ban them from competitively bid contracts with state agencies could discourage people from running for office.

‘‘My bottom line philosophy is nobody’s entitled to serve in an elected or appointed office. It’s a privilege to serve, and so, for people to say it’s an invasion of their privacy or (it) discourages candidates from running, I don’t agree with that,’’ Jindal said.

The governor’s agenda touches on 60 areas of ethics law changes and encompasses about three dozen bills. Lawmakers can only debate the items Jindal outlined in his formal agenda for the session, but many are offering differing ideas for how to accomplish some of those goals.

Tucker highlighted some of the sticking points for lawmakers:

—Inclusion of judges in financial disclosure requirements. Tucker said there are significant disagreements over whether the Legislature has the constitutional authority to impose such requirements on judges. But he also added that 62 percent of convictions of public officials in Louisiana over the last decade have involved judges.

—Banning lawmakers from competitively bid contracts with state agencies that involve simply selecting the lowest bid for the work. ‘‘You may be eliminating a savings to the taxpayer, eliminating your best bidder and eliminating people from serving in government,’’ Tucker said.

—Changes to campaign finance law involving third-party groups. He said lawyers disagree on which areas fall under federal constitutional oversight and what can be regulated by the state.

Another area that has generated disagreement is Jindal’s proposal to rework the way ethics violation charges are handled, to strip hearings and penalty assessments from the oversight of the Louisiana Board of Ethics.

Jindal initially didn’t include the one area that could affect him most directly in his plans for the session — a provision that would ban third party groups or campaigns from paying ethics fines levied against candidates.

The governor faces ethics charges that he violated the state’s campaign finance disclosure laws for failing to timely disclose spending by the state Republican Party on his behalf. The ethics board scheduled a July hearing on the charges. Jindal’s campaign acknowledged it failed to report $118,000 in direct mail spending by the GOP on time, and Jindal’s campaign treasurer said he will pay the maximum $2,500 fine personally to end the matter.

Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, said it seemed inconsistent with the notion of ethics reform to allow a third party to pay a fine for someone charged with wrongdoing. ‘‘Why is that not a payoff?’’ she asked.

After lawmakers and others complained that Jindal didn’t include ethics fine payments in the session, Jindal added the item. But his staff said the governor wouldn’t be proposing a bill. Lawmakers will have to offer their own, if they’re interested in making such changes.

‘‘We’re certainly happy to support whatever bills they send to my desk,’’ Jindal said about the campaign fine proposal. ‘‘We didn’t want to limit debate.’’

Disclosure was the centerpiece of Jindal’s ethics platform on the campaign trail, requiring lawmakers and other elected officials to detail how they make their money so the public can understand where they may have conflicts of interest.

Louisiana ranked 44th with the Center for Public Integrity, a government watchdog group, in how much financial information it requires lawmakers to disclose compared to other states. Louisiana legislators are required only to file annual reports explaining income they or their spouse receive from state and local government agencies and gambling interests.

Jindal is proposing lawmakers, statewide elected officials, local elected officials, judges, members of the ethics board, members of the state’s public education governing board and the governor’s cabinet secretaries to disclose their salaries, assets and liabilities in ranges. The requirements would be less restrictive for elected officials in tiny towns and municipalities.

The governor and candidates for governor already are required to report similar information.