The first thing Jerry Luke LeBlanc does after shaking hands and offering a weak smile is grab a bottle of pills for his fiscal migraine. There are dark circles under his eyes and he's moving a little slow. "I'm having an Excedrin moment," he jests, shaking the bottle and exiting his office momentarily.
In 2004 LeBlanc vacated his seat in the House of Representatives, where he chaired the House Appropriations Committee, to become Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco's commissioner of administration. In doing so, he moved from one of the most powerful seats in the Legislature to the most powerful position in state government, second only to the governor. As the state's new chief financial officer, LeBlanc was looking forward to overseeing a $17 billion state budget. More important, he would get to dole out millions in capital-outlay projects -- the much-desired pork that lawmakers bring back home ... if they earn the governor's favor.
In the early days, LeBlanc looked like a perfect fit for the job. Having chaired the House budget-writing committee, he had great connections and tons of respect among lawmakers. During the governor's race, the Lafayette native was among Blanco's most trusted and dependable advisers, and she rewarded him by making him one of the most powerful men in the state.
None of that matters now. Today, LeBlanc, 49, looks and sounds tired. Everyone he sees is on edge. A special legislative session opened last Sunday with news of massive budget cuts and layoffs. Once a master of the universe, LeBlanc now sits in the belly of the political beast, and the beast is eating its own.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and its aftermath have devastated the state's economy, destroying homes, businesses, entire communities -- and vital sources of state revenue as well. Only weeks after the storms crossed Louisiana's southwestern coast, the state's fiscal posture nearly collapsed. At a time when local needs are greater than ever, the state's resources have never been more depleted.
"The issues are so large and so profound, and peoples' lives are hanging in the balance," LeBlanc says, rubbing his head and shifting in his leather chair. "You have to keep it in perspective. I mean, no doubt you do some praying about it, and you just try to make the best decisions that you can make. Knowing that you can't wave a magic wand and solve all problems at one time, well, that's kind of the most frustrating part about it."
Depending on whom you ask, the state faces a budget shortfall of up to $1.5 billion over the next year. That means essential government services will have to be cut and people will be forced out of jobs. So far, every decision made by the administration to remedy the problem has been embroiled in controversy.
When LeBlanc pushed a $45 million agenda through the Bond Commission for capital projects, critics across Louisiana -- and across the nation -- decried the move as wasteful and pork-ridden. When Blanco floated the idea of borrowing money to help cover a revenue shortfall, fiscal conservatives branded the strategy foolish.
Louisiana politics has turned bitter for LeBlanc, but he long ago developed a strong political stomach. He was practically raised on the floor of the House of Representatives, where his father, J. Luke LeBlanc, represented Lafayette during the mid-1960s and again from 1976 to 1984.
"Experiences in life lay the foundation for you to make decisions in the future," LeBlanc says, "and I was just fortunate enough that I had a vast exposure to great people who were forced to make a lot of hard decisions. I did my best to watch and learn."
Former state Sen. Edgar "Sonny" Mouton, a Lafayette Democrat and a legendary political figure in Acadiana, remembers a time when LeBlanc was nothing more than a "little man" in a suit his father had bought for him. Mouton and the elder J. Luke LeBlanc served in the Legislature together during the '60s, fighting for common interests and forging a close friendship.
"Jerry was just a young boy then," Mouton recalls. "He learned everything at his father's knees and in our campaigns. He would come with us on the campaign trail and would sit in the back of the car and listen to us talk about politics and government and about (former Gov. John) McKeithen."
Mouton refers to LeBlanc during that time as a "full-time apprentice to his father," attending legislative meetings, learning the process, reading bills and always asking questions. He was the son of a barber-turned-politician, and he had a bright future ahead of him, Mouton says.
In 1988, LeBlanc won his father's old seat in the House. "When I was first elected, my father was a great counsel," he says. "One of the key things that he told me was, 'You got elected on your own, but I am here if you need me. Don't beat yourself up when you have to make decisions. Decide and move on. Don't try and second-guess yourself.' And you know, I think that before his passing in '96, he never played armchair quarterback. He respected the decisions I made and the reasons I made them."
One example is taxes. LeBlanc's father was sometimes called "No Tax Luke" for his opposition to taxes. By contrast, LeBlanc has supported, among other measures, the so-called temporary taxes that helped the state limp from year to year. Voting for taxes as a Cajun lawmaker required a measure of boldness, to say the least. It was good practice for his current job.
LeBlanc was unable to seek advice from his father in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but he remembers how his father reacted during Hurricane Hilda, a 1964 storm that killed 37 people in Louisiana and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. "The house we were living in was just rattling," LeBlanc recalls. "That was a storm where a lot of folks in Erath perished because a water tower fell on their city hall. At the time, my father was on the police jury and he ended up dealing with some of the same things we are dealing with, as far as response and flooding and those types of things."
In many ways, LeBlanc is the man behind the curtain. When lawmakers want money for their districts, they'll likely stop by for a chat with him before seeing the governor. She's the boss, but he knows the ins and outs of the state budget better than anyone. He can dangle carrots in front of legislators, agencies and boards. He's also the architect behind the executive budget.
Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit group that monitors the activities of state government, says the current system of checks and balances appears clear when it comes to the budget and state spending -- the governor sets priorities and the Legislature has the final say. But when it gets down to political reality, there's no second-guessing who has the real power.
"Yet surprisingly, the title of commissioner of administration, and the individual that holds the office, is not a household name," Erwin says. "But it is absolutely one of the most powerful positions in state government. To a large degree, the governor sets the stage for all fiscal matters, but you better believe she turns to her commissioner of administration to make it all happen."
This makes LeBlanc the first line of defense for executive decisions -- good and bad.
Prior to the session -- and in the wake of the hurricanes -- the Blanco Administration shifted $45 million in state construction projects, many in hurricane-devastated areas, to fund projects elsewhere. Editorials slammed the decision as irresponsible, calling it pork and highlighting such items as a horse arena in north Louisiana. LeBlanc says he can understand both sides of the argument, even though he feels his side of the story was never accurately told.
He calls the decision "sound cash management."
"We chose to move some other key issues forward," he says. "You have south central, central Louisiana and north Louisiana that are still functioning. We still have an entire state to run. Many of the projects that were on the drawing board in the hurricane-affected areas are now eligible for (Federal Emergency Management Agency) reimbursements, so it would be really goofy fiscal policy to move forward on those" with state money when FEMA will pay for them anyway."
LeBlanc also says there was too much made over the north Louisiana horse facility, better known as the Equine Center in Morehouse Parish. International Paper had recently announced layoffs in the area, and the center -- along with another unnamed project -- will play a major role in getting people employed, he says.
"When you start peaking behind some of the issues that certain people have raised, you find that there's a different story," he adds. "You find that there's a reason, besides what everyone calls just pure politics. That decision was in direct correlation to what happened with International Paper."
While chairing the Appropriations Committee, LeBlanc noticed that money wasn't always tied to specific programs. It just floated around in a manner that made for curious political games.
In response, he spearheaded a move to make the budget more direct and tied funding to "performance indicators," which are goals agencies have to meet. The method drew national attention and praise for LeBlanc and may have paved the way for his current position. He was recently named one of Governing magazine's "Public Officials of the Year" for his work.
State Rep. Warren Triche, a Lafourche Parish Democrat, watched the entire process unfold. He was LeBlanc's roommate and seatmate for several years when they served together in the Legislature -- LeBlanc as chairman of Appropriations and Triche as vice chair.
"It has had varying degrees of success with certain people," Triche says. "Thankfully, a lot of people have tried to implement it, but there are others who want to ignore it as much as possible and just get their money and have no accountability."
That system alone is a sign that the Division of Administration could change for the better under LeBlanc, Triche says.
LeBlanc has tried to bring that approach to his new gig, but still must answer critics when his suggestions are too bold for them. For instance, the administration is considering borrowing money to cover some of the state's anticipated revenue shortfall. Critics question why the administration would increase the debt even more.
"We're faced with only so many options," LeBlanc says. "When businesses have cash flow problems, they look to a line of credit. This is also our perspective. You have to be bold. We know we have a deficit, but we know that sometime in the future it's going to have a recovery. In the meantime, you have to bridge your deficit between this point and a point where your revenues return."
As the rebuilding of Louisiana progresses, LeBlanc knows that politics will likely get nastier. He shrugs it off as part of the territory -- territory he learned to navigate years ago while watching his father and Mouton.
When Blanco was first elected, LeBlanc had his pick of plum assignments -- commissioner of administration or speaker of the House. Despite the current headaches, he laughs and says he made the right choice.
"You know, things just have a funny way of working out. I really think that this position is where I need to be. For some reason or another, it's where I'm supposed to be."
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Dallas Morning News, Associated Press and other publications. You can reach him through his website at www.jeremyalford.com.
- Terri Fensel
- Once a master of the universe, Jerry Luke LeBlanc now sits in the belly of the political beast, and the beast is eating its own.