Rep. Bishop’s party line in the marsh

by Mike Stagg

Joined by all Rs in the Acadiana House delegation, Bishop claims in an Oct. 4 letter to Gov. John Bel Edwards that the agreement Edwards has with attorneys in the coastal damages cases against oil and gas companies violates the spirit and letter of the law.

District 43 state Rep. Stuart Bishop is the lead author of an Oct. 4 letter to Gov. John Bel Edwards in the increasingly partisan fight over Edwards’ pursuit of legal action against oil and gas companies for their contribution to coastal wetlands loss.

At issue in the letter is Edwards’ push to hire outside attorneys to represent his office through the Department of Natural Resources in lawsuits already filed by parishes in the state’s Coastal Zone Management Area. Several parishes in the zone have already filed suits against oil and gas companies over wetlands loss in their respective jurisdictions. Edwards has urged parishes that have not filed suit to do so, and has promised that the state will file suit if they do not.

Edwards is trying to force oil and gas companies into negotiations with the state as a means of securing funding for coastal restoration and protection projects, the price tag of which has been placed as high as $91 billion for the 2012 coastal master plan that is now being revised.

Edwards and Attorney General Jeff Landry have already skirmished over the issue of the outside attorneys and how they will be paid. Bishop, who as he notes in his letter, is chairman of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee.

Bishop authored HB 799 in 2014 (which then-Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law) that set restrictions on how outside attorneys can be paid when they perform plaintiff’s work for the state. Bishop said the law bans contingency fees unless the Legislature approves those arrangements. It also caps hourly rates.

Edwards is familiar with Bishop’s bill. He tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill in 2014, seeking to create parity in payment between plaintiff lawyers and defense counsel, then voted against final passage of the bill in the House and again voted against the bill when it returned from the Louisiana Senate with amendments.

Bishop — and the 38 other House Republicans who signed onto the letter — claims the agreement Edwards has with attorneys he wants to bring into the coastal damages cases “violates the spirit and letter of the reforms set forth in HB 799,” which became Act 796 upon Jindal’s signing of it into law.

The letter was posted on LOGA’s website on the day it was released. Haynie & Associates included the letter in its oil, gas and environment email shortly thereafter. Haynie & Associates has contributed to Bishop’s campaigns and has performed lobbying work for one of the firms Edwards wants to hire, Jones, Swanson, Huddell & Garrison. Jones, Swanson was the lead firm on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East’s lawsuit over coastal damages that unleashed a political war by the oil and gas industry and its allies in attempts to kill the suit through legislation.

Reports are that the industry is pursuing a similar legislative strategy to snuff out the governor’s efforts to bring suits across the 20-parish Coastal Zone, which stretches from Cameron Parish to St. Tammany Parish.

Bishop, who was elected without opposition in 2011 and re-elected without opposition in 2015, is an executive with Baldwin Redi-Mix Concrete, his family’s business. He succeeded Page Cortez in District 43, which is bounded on the north by the south bank of the Vermilion River and extends southward to include parts of Youngsville and Broussard.

Read Rep. Stuart Bishop's letter to Gov. JBE here.

While never having experienced a contested election, Bishop is a prolific fundraiser. According to state campaign finance reports, he raised $111,725 for his 2011 campaign, while spending $57,897. In the 2015 campaign cycle, the incumbent representative raised $144,040 in direct contributions and spent $59,326. His annual report filed at the beginning of this year showed Bishop had $179,024 on hand in his campaign account.

He was mentioned as a possible candidate for speaker prior to the start of the 2016 term, but did not enter the race that was ultimately won by Rep. Taylor Barras of New Iberia.

The partisanship on the issue is not shared by all House Republicans. In fact, four Republicans on Bishop’s Natural Resources and Environment Committee did not add their names to the letter, indicating that Bishop’s leadership there is tenuous, though his appointment (backed by Speaker Barras) is secure.

Bishop did not immediately return The IND’s phone call seeking comment for this story.

There are 19 regular members of the committee (the speaker and speaker pro temp are ex-officio members), 12 of whom are Republicans (there are six Democrats and one independent member). The four Republican committee holdouts were: Charles Chaney of Rayville in northeast Louisiana, Paul Connick of Marrero in Jefferson Parish (one of the parishes that has already filed suit against oil and gas companies), Franklin Foil of Baton Rouge and John E. Gunn of Jennings.

Acadiana House Republicans were all in on the letter, including Jean-Paul Coussan and Nancy Landry of Lafayette, Julie Emerson (Carencro), Phillip DeVillier (Eunice), Bob Hensgens (Abbeville), Mike Huval (Breaux Bridge) and Blake Miguez (Erath).