20110126-re-0101Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce probably did more harm to itself than to Sen. Mike Michot with its legislative scorecard. By Walter Pierce

A first-quarter political drought extending from City-Parish Council leadership elections to the commencement of redistricting was admirably filled by the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, which, stomping around Muscle Beach, kicked sand in the face of not only a longtime member but one of its most ardent supporters both in Lafayette and at the Capitol in Baton Rouge.

When the chamber gave state Sen. Mike Michot an F on the legislative scorecard it released Jan. 12, it may have done more to diminish its influence with the Legislature than it did to burnish its political cred.

The chamber is new to politics and apparently keenly unaware of realpolitik. Its political action committee, Empower PAC, rolled out of the garage last year, pistons misfiring. The PAC equivocated badly leading up to last October’s school board elections, endorsing competing candidates in two of the districts — I had always understood an endorsement to be a means of favoring one candidate over another — and it idled on the shoulder during the very public debate about the school board purchasing the abandoned Super Kmart site for a technical high school.

And then came the scorecard.

“What I’m hearing is that the chamber was just going to flex some muscle and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to be a real organization now and set up a PAC and come up with a scorecard,’” a grinning-and-bearing-it Michot told me last week. “And I really feel like the ultimate impact has been just the opposite — that it’s going to dilute the chamber’s effectiveness and marginalize its muscle at the Capitol.”

I wrote a story about the reaction to the scorecard for the current issue of The Independent’s sister pub ABiz, out in news racks today. I spoke with people involved in economic development in Lafayette and got essentially the same reaction: What was the chamber thinking?

Dr. Paula Carson, an assistant vice president in UL’s business school and chair of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, among other roles, took Michot’s F as a personal affront. She has worked closely with Michot as the Senate Finance Committee chairman acted on behalf of LEDA, LITE, UL and other entities.

“I can say that no matter what hat I wore, I was professionally and personally hurt for Sen. Michot to be publicly evaluated in a way that I don’t think fairly represented his contribution,” Carson told me.

But clearly the most put off by the scorecard was the man on its business end. Michot considers the F a “slap in the face” and told me he doesn’t plan to renew his chamber membership. And he wasn’t alone in his pique. We learned from sources across the business community in Lafayette that chamber President/CEO Rob Guidry was contacted via phone and email by several people who expressed reactions ranging from outrage to dismay to disappointment.

Unfortunately, I was unable to reach Guidry in time for the ABiz story. (The chamber’s lobbyist, Gifford Briggs, declined comment.) But I did speak to Guidry about the scorecard late last week. He was his usual sanguine self.

“When you get into a political arena like that, it’s the nature of the environment to get push back on some of those scores,” Guidry said.

Especially troubling to many was the fact that Michot’s grade was adversely affected by four votes he missed during the 2010 session — one third of the dozen votes by which the chamber graded members of Acadiana’s Senate delegation. But as Senate Finance chairman, Michot gets pulled away from the Senate floor frequently to deal with myriad matters related to the budget. Missing votes is not uncommon. According to the scorecard, a lawmaker received a Mulligan if his/her absence was “excused,” but the chamber, like an exacting schoolmarm, bestowed excused absences on none of the 21 representatives and senators subject to its report card.

Guidry admits the issue of absences will be revisited: “We are reviewing those criteria as we speak,” he told me.

Michot has been a member of the chamber for more than two decades — he owns a local home health company — and has chaired one of its committees, emceed its banquets and hosted its Leadership Lafayette classes at the Capitol. To say he has been a friend of the chamber is to understate the relationship. More like BFF, which makes many wonder — and speculate over drinks — whether there’s something more to his poor showing on the scorecard.

A prime candidate is the fracas during the 2010 session over the budget flex bills, which would have given the state wider discretion in cutting the budget to save health care and higher ed from shouldering the brunt of cuts. The legislation died in the House, but a Michot-sponsored flex bill sailed through the Senate on a 30-9 vote. Only one chamber of commerce in the state opposed the package. Care to venture a guess?

Fast forward to August of last year, post-session, and the Lake Charles-based Chamber of Southwest Louisiana’s annual Legis-Gator awards banquet. According to a reliable count, 53 state lawmakers including several from Lafayette attended. Michot, not coincidentally, received the group’s “Legis-Gator of the Year” award, cited for exhibiting “innovative leadership through the serious financial challenges affecting the state in 2010.”

At a similar chamber-hosted event a month later at the Crowne Plaza in Lafayette, not a single member of the local legislative delegation showed up. That, as one Lafayette political operative put it, is “the canary in the coal mine.”

The point of a PAC is to achieve a legislative goal — that’s the political action in political action committee — and the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce is certainly right to pursue an agenda it believes is beneficial to its membership. But practicing political retribution, especially against a powerful, term-limited state senator who has one last legislative session to help — or to be indifferent to — the chamber, is counterproductive.

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