Louisiana lawmakers convene in the House of Representatives. (Photo by Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)
When Louisiana lawmakers gather in Baton Rouge this week for a special legislative session to draw up new political maps, several will also be raising money for their political campaigns.
Legislators are generally prohibited from holding fundraisers or accepting campaign donations during regular sessions, but that ban doesn’t apply during special sessions.
Fifty-seven of the state’s 143 lawmakers have scheduled fundraisers for the 20-day special session focused on political redistricting that starts Tuesday. The events are taking place in Baton Rouge every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday that lawmakers are supposed to meet, according to a review of campaign finance records.
State law requires legislators throwing those fundraisers to file notice within two days of a special session being scheduled. The deadline for fundraisers held during the redistricting session was Jan. 13. Outside of special sessions, lawmakers aren’t required to tell the state when they are holding fundraisers.
More than one lawmaker will share fundraising events this special session. For example, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry is throwing a Feb. 9 fundraiser for Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, at its headquarters in downtown Baton Rouge.
The regular-session ban on campaign fundraising is in place so that elected officials can avoid the appearance of accepting money at the same time they are being asked to make major policy decisions that affect constituents and industry.
Industries heavily regulated by the state, and those over which legislators have the most control, are hosting most of the fundraisers scheduled for the redistricting session.
FAIR PAC, set up by video poker operators, is throwing fundraisers for 19 of the 57 lawmakers. CRES PAC, a political arm of the Crescent River Pilots Association, is holding fundraisers for 16 lawmakers. The two groups are responsible for more than 60% of the campaign events during the special session.
How much money is raised at these fundraisers – and what individuals and businesses donate – won’t be made public until next year. Legislators’ campaign finance reports for 2022 aren’t due until the end of the year and won’t be publicly available until early 2023.
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Video poker operators are throwing more fundraisers than any other industry during the special session. Alton Ashy, who runs FAIR PAC, said it is mostly a coincidence.
In late December, Ashy moved into a new office space in downtown Baton Rouge with a breathtaking view of the Mississippi River. FAIR PAC is holding several fundraisers in February, primarily so lawmakers can take advantage of the new venue, he said.
Truck stop casino owners are probably the best known video poker operators, though the electronic gambling machines are also found in bars, restaurants and hotels. The state regulates them separately from the larger, traditional casinos and racetracks.
In fact, there isn’t much overlap in ownership between mainstream casinos and the video poker outlets. National gambling conglomerates own the larger casinos. Video poker business owners must be Louisiana residents. For years, they have been a reliable source of campaign support for state lawmakers.
State lawmakers have an unusual amount of control over the video poker industry. Among other things, they determine how much gas truck stop casinos must sell to keep their gambling licenses and how many hours a day the casino’s restaurants have to serve food. The tax rate on video poker is higher than it is on other types of gambling.
The video poker industry has been chipping away at some of these regulations in recent years, convincing lawmakers to ease restrictions on an incremental basis. But the public has largely overlooked those changes due to the seismic shifts taking place elsewhere in the gambling industry.
In the past few years, legislators have voted to move riverboat casinos on land, allow sports betting and permit cellphone fantasy sports wagers. LSU and the New Orleans Saints have struck deals with large gambling corporations to promote gambling content. In general, since Gov. John Bel Edwards took office in 2016, gambling interests are meeting far less resistance than they had in the past.
Three weeks after the special session on redistricting concludes, the Legislature will convene for its regular session, when gambling legislation will be considered. Ashy said the video poker industry isn’t making a push for major changes, but it will be monitoring legislation related to sports betting and horse racing to see how it might affect its business.
Ashy is also connected to river boat pilots, the only other industry throwing over a dozen campaign events during the upcoming special session. He is a lobbyist for the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association (NOBRA), which is a sister organization of the Crescent River Pilots Association.
Pilots working on the Mississippi River are primarily represented by either the Crescent River Pilots or NOBRA, depending on where they work. They earn high six-figure salaries steering ships from the river’s mouth to Baton Rouge.
After a difficult 2021 session, the Crescent Pilots, through CRES PAC, are throwing fundraisers for 11 Democrats and five Republicans during the redistricting session. NOBRA is also sponsoring a fundraiser Wednesday for freshman Sen. Jeremy Stine, R-Lake Charles, who took office just a few weeks ago.
The CRES PAC events are taking place at Longview, a 4,500 square-foot house down the street from the governor’s mansion that powerhouse father-and-son lobbyists Randy and Ryan Haynie own. The Haynies lobby on behalf of the Crescent Pilots and several corporate clients such as JP Morgan Chase, Caesars Entertainment, Altria, the Saints, Pelicans and NFL.
Crescent Pilots and NOBRA have been politically active for years, giving to dozens of lawmakers annually. Their members are also politically connected.
Former Senate President John Alario of Jefferson Parish has a son who is a river pilot. Former Sens. Francis and David Heitmeier, who represented the New Orleans area, have several relatives who are river pilots.
“River pilots have traditionally donated through political PACs to several elected officials and their campaign events so we can educate, teach and inform them of the numerous positive and fast changing developments in the maritime industry,” Michael Bopp, president of the Crescent River Pilots Association, said in a written statement earlier this month.
Turnover in the Legislature – Alario is out of office for the first time in 40 years – has ushered in a new era of scrutiny for the pilots. Freshman lawmakers from both parties have been more willing to ask questions about the pilots’ high pay and who qualifies for these jobs.
The Louisiana House last year voted for legislation from Rep. Thomas Pressly, R-Shreveport, that would have tightened up the pilots’ regulations. The bill was watered down as it made its way through the process and ended up dying in the Senate, but river pilots aren’t used to such legislation even being filed by lawmakers, let alone advancing out of a chamber.
State boards technically control the river pilots, everything from their pay to who gets hired. But some of the same boards can only be made up of pilots, meaning the state allows the industry essentially to self-regulate.
That arrangement frustrates the oil, gas and chemical industries that depend on the pilots to move their goods up and down the river. Those businesses end up paying the pilots salary increases, which pilot-controlled boards approve, through fees assessed by the state.
“The state of Louisiana set up a monopoly and then allowed the players in the monopoly to regulate themselves,” Pressly said last year of the river pilot industry.
Pilots are also overwhelmingly white and male – and have a reputation for handing out the lucrative jobs to family members. Their insularity has particularly rankled Black lawmakers, some of whom joined Republicans in backing Pressly’s bill to impose more pilot regulation.
“You have almost 200 pilots with three women and three African Americans. I got issues with that,” Rep. Candance Newell, D-New Orleans, said last year.
Following the debate over Pressly’s bill, the Crescent Pilots and NOBRA turned their attention and campaign contributions to the Legislative Black Caucus.
The pilots launched a diversity initiative called “Open Waters” at Southern University in Baton Rouge earlier this month. Ted James, the former Legislative Black Caucus chairman who the Biden administration recently named to a regional Small Business Administration post, spoke at the event. Several Black lawmakers were in the audience.
NOBRA’s political action committee, NORPAC, has donated $31,500 to the Black Caucus and its members since May, when the House vote on Pressly’s legislation took place. The donations outpaced NORPAC’s giving to GOP lawmakers ($23,000) during that time period, even though Republicans control both chambers in the Legislature.
The PAC also gave $15,000 to A Stronger Louisiana, a nonprofit group that supports Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, in November, according to campaign finance records.
The Crescent Pilots’ political action committee appears to be courting Black Caucus members as well. Ten of the 16 lawmakers with CRES PAC fundraisers scheduled during the special session are Black Democrats, according to disclosure reports.
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Other special session fundraisers
Members of the House Republican leadership – Schexnayder, House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee, House Appropriations Chairman Jerome Zeringue and House Ways and Means Chairman Stuart Bishop – are having a joint fundraiser thrown by the DesOrmeaux Group at the Old Governor’s Mansion Feb. 15.
Zeringue said the fundraiser was originally supposed to take place at Washington Mardi Gras but was rescheduled when he and others decided not to attend.
The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association is throwing campaign events for six conservative Republican legislators within the first week of the special session as well. The Haynies are holding four additional fundraisers at Longview, on top of their 16 CRES PAC events. Cornerstone Government Affairs – which lobbies for hospitals, universities, Entergy and the city of New Orleans – is holding a fundraiser for two New Orleans Democrats, Reps. Aimee Freeman and Delisha Boyd, Feb. 8.
A handful of lawmakers are also holding fundraisers with no sponsoring organization, according to their disclosure reports.
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