Hanna: Interest in politics on the wane

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Perhaps you may recall an election year in which so many lawmakers were re-elected without opposition. Maybe you remember a past election in which the general public exhibited far more interest in the governor’s race than what we’ve seen thus far this year, some six weeks before the Oct. 24 primary election.

I, for one, cannot.SAM HANNA

When qualifying came to a close last week, 69 of the 144 seats in the state House and Senate were filled without opposition. In our neck of the woods here in northeastern Louisiana, five House members didn’t draw an opponent while two senators didn’t field one either.

Rep. Terry Brown of Colfax will face one opponent, John Stephens of Jena, while Rep. Marcus Hunter of Monroe drew two, Heath Albritton of West Monroe and Billye Burns of Monroe. Rep. Steve Pylant, in Franklin Parish, will face Cleve Womack of Jonesville.

Rep. Jim Fannin of Jonesboro, who was barred from seeking re-election because of term limits, qualified for the race to name Sen. Bob Kostelka’s successor. Kostelka, of Monroe, was term-limited, too.

Fannin, who chaired the House Appropriations Committee since 2008, will face Stewart Cathey Jr. Cathey is from Ouachita Parish.

In Fannin’s House district, Jack McFarland of Winnfield and Phillip Lawrence of Quitman are the candidates.

Probably the hottest legislative race in the region is in Senate District 33 where the incumbent, Mike Walsworth, will face former Congressman Vance McAllister. Not long removed from the U.S. House of Representatives thanks to an extramarital encounter and whatever else with a member of his staff, which was caught on videotape, McAllister apparently believes his fourth-place showing in last fall’s congressional race can be parlayed into unseating a state senator who has done a pretty decent job representing a very economically challenged district. We’ll see.

As a whole, though, the northeastern Louisiana legislative delegation will remain somewhat intact once the smoke clears following the November general election.

Why, you might ask, did so many members of the Legislature get a free pass on another term in office?

Your guess is as good as mine, but there’s something to be said about how expensive it has become to run for political office on any level, much less a legislative or a congressional race. You had better have the connections to raise a pile of money in a hurry or you had better be wealthy enough to write a check to finance your own campaign. In Louisiana, there simply aren’t too many people who can do the latter.

There’s also the state of the state to bear in mind.

Two weeks ago in a meeting with a few newspaper publishers, state Treasurer John Kennedy said the state budget is some $335 million out of balance in the current fiscal year. He believes any cuts to bring the budget back in line won’t occur until after the general election in November or possibly not until a new governor and a new Legislature take office after the first of the year. By that time, according to Kennedy, the deficit will have doubled. He also noted that lawmakers who take office in January will face a deficit in the hundreds of millions of dollars for 2016-2017 fiscal year.

Let’s also bear in mind that when lawmakers crafted the budget for the 2015-2016 fiscal year — the current fiscal year — state revenues were based on oil hovering at around $61 per barrel. As of 1:30 p.m. Tuesday of this week, oil was trading at slightly more than $44 per barrel. For every dollar that oil trades below the budget benchmark of $61 per barrel, the state can count on not seeing some $12 million in severance taxes.

The more alarming facet of our continued dependence on the oil and gas industry to help pay the bills in Louisiana would concern the future of oil prices. Some analysts say oil could drop to as low as $20 per barrel. Others dismiss such a doom-and-gloom scenario on the futures market, but the volatility of the industry — particularly under the Obama administration — should scare the hell out of all of us.

After all, do any of us want to relive the mid 1980s when the entire state economy collapsed along with the oil and gas industry?

It’s highly doubtful very many political types took the time to consider what the future might hold for Louisiana over the next four to eight years when they were contemplating running for a legislative seat, but suffice it to say, who can blame anyone for begging off a foray into politics?

I don’t.

Sam Hanna is a state political writer.