To say the lieutenant governor has next to no relevant policy-making power and that performing the formal duties of the office delivers little political excitement overstates the position’s importance. In both of his runs, his previous in 2011 unsuccessful, Nungesser made clear he envisioned the post much more expansively than did statute and the Constitution.
That he would adopt such an attitude perhaps seems inevitable given his eight years at the helm of Plaquemines Parish. Elected in the wake of the hurricane disasters of 2005, one disaster after another plagued the parish through his eight years. He really rose to fame after the oil spill disaster of 2010, with a couple of bad storms mixed in, by his bombastic, shoot-from-the-hip style in pleading the parish’s case to statewide and national audiences for restorative assistance.
But at home, his tell-it-like-it-is persona became more grating to some in the parish as relations continually soured between him and the parish council – so much so that parish government filed suit against him both in and out of office over allegations of malfeasance in performing his duties and in use of parish materials. No wonder running culture, recreation, and tourism matters while waiting for the governor to become incapacitated, if ever, might seem dull, although dealing with impact of a budget shortfall that threatens to shrink his department by 30 percent can liven things up.
Actually, he largely has set aside the day-to-day running of the department. While the lieutenant governor may appoint a secretary of culture, recreation and tourism, for most of his tenure Nungesser’s predecessor, now Commissioner of Administration, Jay Dardenne did not, handling the job himself as a cost-saving move. But Nungesser appointed former Secretary of Wildlife and Fisheries Robert Barham into that job, giving Barham perhaps four more years in a job with some kind of an overseer (the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission actually exercises considerable policy-making power in these areas).
Even as Nungesser struggles with a money shortage he says may lead to state park closures, besides having an extra person on the payroll he also appears the opposite of parsimonious in another way. He and Barham back SB 277 by state Sen. Wesley Bishop that almost certainly if becoming law would increase costs for the agency in requiring members of security forces for museums to have Peace Officer Standards and Training.
Nungesser also has made some big publicity splashes. He proposed selling naming rights in state parks as a response to potential budget cuts. Also, he argued for changing the nature of Louisiana’s Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit in a way that could make it much less wasteful – even though technically the Department of Economic Development has authority over administration of that tax exception.
That jurisdictional issue came up regarding some apparent freelancing Nungesser says he found himself attached to unknowingly. He claims that Roger Villere, head of the state Republican Party, brokered a deal to reopen a vacant shipyard and to process oil from Iraq and asked for his signature on a letter endorsing the deal, which he insists he signed without reading. It apparently did not involve LED nor Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office. Some question remains about whether the deal realistically can come off.
Contrast this with an elected executive in a somewhat similar situation, Secretary of State Tom Schedler, who has a portfolio of smaller museums. He has tried and succeeded in detaching some of those facilities for operation by local governments and/or nonprofit organizations, saving the state money. Barham’s department has fewer but generally more high profile and accredited museums, but two smaller ones outside of New Orleans and Baton Rouge logically could merit the same course of action.
With him seemingly more comfortable with grand, perhaps pie-in-the-sky, gestures than the nuts-and-bolts managing of resources, this may indicate Nungesser’s future political plans. Elected on a fluke, Democrat Edwards has rated precarious reelection odds from the moment of his inauguration and a number of high profile Republicans know they have no worse than an even-money chance of defeating him in 2019. Not only does keeping his head down and concentrating on his work not suit Nungesser’s governing style, but also in keeping his profile high it can’t hurt if he seeks promotion to the Governor’s Mansion in three years’ time.