He brought a cup of steaming coffee near his lips while nodding his head and listening to the question, but then pushed it away carefully and eyed the Styrofoam container as if it contained arsenic. His hearty laughter nearly toppled the tan-colored coffee, but state Sen. Dan Moorish, a Republican from Jennings who prefers to go by the nickname "Blade," didn't spill a drop. The setting was a rare 8:30 a.m. meeting of the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, but Moorish was chuckling and joking as if it were happy hour. "Yeah, you know, I've been getting feedback on that everywhere I go. Not bad, huh? They told me they would say my name every time they said his," Moorish brags. "I really didn't have anything to lose."
Without putting up a dime of his own money, Moorish is enjoying the advantages of a $200,000 statewide radio buy thinly veiled campaign commercials trumpeting the benefits of his Senate Bill 106. The proposal would force lawmakers to reveal every detail about their "earmarks." Some call it pork, but earmarks are basically government money that's set aside in budget bills to support nonprofit organizations, municipalities, pet projects and a bevy of other items and interests. Moorish's idea has legs, because earmarks are traditionally included in the state budget without any information as to how the taxpayers' money will be spent or who will benefit.
The Louisiana chapter of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a D.C.-based nonprofit that preaches fiscal restraint, paid for the ads that feature Moorish and his bill. Ironically, while the group is backing Morrish's full-disclosure law, it doesn't exactly play by the same rules. That's because AFP is a 501(c)(4) organization, which doesn't have to disclose where it gets its money.
In addition to Moorish, AFP added another name to its script: that of GOP state Treasurer John Kennedy, who is opposing incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, in the fall elections. In the radio spot, Kennedy is cheered for endorsing S.B. 106 and is held up as a champion of conservatism. What the spot doesn't tell listeners is that Kennedy, notwithstanding his long record as a self-proclaimed fiscal hawk, has next to nothing to do with the earmark legislation.
Moorish says he drafted the bill himself more than three years ago and has brought it up every session despite successive defeats. Kennedy came into the picture because Moorish says the state treasurer is charged with gathering the appropriate information for earmarks, and Kennedy has voiced support for Moorish's bill in the past. But it's not as if the treasurer is a co-author or is working committee rooms to lock up votes. "I haven't even heard from [Kennedy] this entire session," Moorish says.
AFP state director Jason Hebert says he asked Moorish for feedback on the radio spot before it aired but claims he had no such contact with the Kennedy campaign. Lucky for him. Under federal campaign laws, entities such as AFP cannot coordinate "independent expenditures" with candidates or their campaigns. Hebert nonetheless is a familiar face around camp Kennedy. Just last year, the treasurer's re-election campaign paid The Political Firm, which is co-owned by Hebert, more than $174,000 for various services, and Hebert has served as a Kennedy spokesperson on a number of occasions dating back to November 2007.
Moreover, Kennedy's U.S. Senate campaign has paid Hebert's firm $11,500 this year, with a $3,000 retainer doled out most recently on March 11. Was it coincidence, then, that Kennedy issued a press release through the Treasurer's Office two weeks later, offering words of support for the Moorish legislation? AFP's "independent" ads, meanwhile, began running in late May. In the weeks before the ads aired, Hebert says, his firm severed all ties with camp Kennedy.
Earmarks are a multi-layered issue that can cut both ways on the campaign trail. For instance, state Sen. Donald Cravins Jr., a Democrat from Opelousas, is preparing to run in the 7th Congressional District in Acadiana and plans to attack the incumbent for his opposition to earmarks.
Incumbent U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, a Republican, toes the line against pork-barrel projects, but Cravins argues that earmarks can have a positive impact, especially for a district still struggling to rebuild in the wake of 2005's Hurricane Rita. "How can Congressman Boustany not believe in earmarks for a district that has been devastated by a hurricane?" Cravins asks. "We need the money, and that's a lack of leadership."
Meanwhile, at the state level, GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal has taken to beating up on earmarks, promising to veto the expensive riders if lawmakers are unable to justify their requests. For Jindal, however, it's once again a case of "do as I say, not as I do.' As a congressman from Kenner last year, Jindal secured 26 earmarks totaling more than $100 million, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a national advocacy group. That's more than any other member of Louisiana's House delegation.
Considering Jindal missed as many (or more) votes in Congress as he made while running for governor last year, his 26 earmarks represent a notable milestone. U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee for president who is reportedly eyeing Jindal as a potential vice-presidential running mate, has also taken a well-publicized stance against budgetary pork.
No doubt, we haven't heard the last about earmarks this year. Kennedy, for one, is sure to make earmarks a central campaign theme. Not only does it allow the one-time liberal Democrat (he ran for U.S. Senate against David Vitter in 2004 as the most left-leaning Dem) to cloak himself as a fiscal conservative, but it also gives him a club with which to pummel Landrieu. Good-government groups, party activists and The Washington Post have already softened up Landrieu for the expected Kennedy/GOP volleys, attacking the senior senator for securing a $2 million earmark for the Voyager reading program after she received $30,000 in campaign contributions at a fundraiser held by the company's founder and chairman.
Kennedy isn't in the clear himself on the earmark issue, however. As treasurer, Kennedy serves as chairman of the state Bond Commission, which has approved hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years for groups that otherwise appear as earmarks in Louisiana's budget bills. Between 2004 and 2007, the Bond Commission approved $225,000 for the Louisiana Yambilee Building, $2.6 million for the Shreveport Little Theatre, $77.9 million for the Audubon Institute and $12.9 million for the Acadiana Arts Council.
In the end, earmarks will generate lots of spin from both camps, and history has taught us that spin can often be as effective as cold, hard truths especially when the subject is taxpayer money.