By Robert Mann
Rarely in the history of Louisiana politics have so many spent so much to acquire so little power. I’m talking about this year’s lieutenant governor’s race, which has drawn several big names willing to spend big money to capture an office that has little authority and even less influence.
Former Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, who lost a bitter race to incumbent Jay Dardenne in 2011, is running again. He has so far raised $2.2 million, including $900,000 in personal funds. Jefferson Parish President John Young is running, too, and has raised $1.8 million.
At least two other candidates have announced: Opelousas state Sen. Elbert Guillory and Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden. Holden, the only Democrat in the race, hasn’t released his campaign finance report, so we don’t know what he will spend. Guillory has spent about $37,000, which is almost $3,500 more than he has raised.
This won’t be the state’s first expensive lieutenant governor’s race. Last time, in 2011, Nungesser outspent Dardenne $2.75 million to $1.45 million. Dardenne, who is now running for governor, overcame Nungesser’s huge financial advantage to hold onto his office.
Which raises the question: Exactly what did Dardenne hold on to?
The state Constitution is straightforward about the lieutenant governor’s limited powers: “The lieutenant governor shall serve ex officio as a member of each committee, board, and commission on which the governor serves. He shall exercise the powers delegated to him by the governor and shall have other powers and perform other duties in the executive branch authorized by this constitution or provided by law.”
The one real bit of potential power originates from this wording in the Constitution: “When the governor is absent from the state, the lieutenant governor shall act as governor.”
Given that Gov. Bobby Jindal has spent much of his time outside Louisiana in the past seven years (at least 165 days in 2014 alone), Dardenne should be among the most consequential people in Louisiana politics. In fact, if we followed the Constitution, Dardenne could rightfully claim the title “co-governor.”
That would, of course, require someone to inform Dardenne when Jindal is away so that he could fulfill his constitutional duties. That rarely happens, as Dardenne reported several years ago.
Instead of waiting for official notification of Jindal’s chronic absences, Dardenne should just start showing up for work on the fourth floor every day. God knows Louisiana could use a full-time chief executive.
Among his additional duties, Louisiana’s lieutenant governor oversees the state’s Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism (CRT). To Dardenne’s credit, he has not appointed a department secretary. He runs CRT himself. He has done so with considerable passion, integrity and talent.
But the fact remains that Louisiana essentially elects its tourism director and people like Dardenne, Nungesser and Young are willing to spend millions to get that job. That’s probably because the office is viewed as a stepping-stone to the governor’s office.
But it isn’t.
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