Appropriations vice chair removed

A shake-up on the Louisiana House Appropriations Committee resulted in the ouster Friday of two members who criticized Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposals.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, removed the committee’s vice chairman, state Rep. Cameron Henry, and member state Rep. Joe Harrison after repeated opposition to the governor’s proposals.

As the committee that oversees the state budget, the panel is one of the most influential in the Legislature. Seats, especially leadership roles, are coveted.

The removals came a day after a disappointing meeting for the Jindal administration. The governor’s proposal to outsource the management of state employee health plans at the Office of Group Benefits met resistance during a meeting at the State Capitol. Among the critics of the proposal, which was withdrawn before an official vote, were Henry and Harrison.

Henry, R-New Orleans, and Harrison, R-Napoleonville, accused Kleckley on Friday of carrying out the governor’s orders by removing them.

Henry said the governor and Kleckley act as one person. Harrison said Kleckley claimed to have saved Harrison many times with the Jindal administration.

“I don’t hold out much hope unless we have some men who are going to stand up for the right things and until the bullies stop taking our lunch money,” Harrison said.

Harrison suggested that the governor’s political consultant, Timmy Teepell, also played a role in the decision. He said Teepell still is involved in the daily runnings of the governor’s office despite his resignation as Jindal’s chief of staff to work in the private sector.

Kleckley did not respond to a request for comment. His office issued a press release in which Kleckley said the changes stem from “a better understanding of the best use of the legislator’s individual talents.”

The governor, who left Friday for a four-day trip to campaign for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, declined a request for an interview.

In a statement released by his press office, the governor backed Kleckley.

“Speaker Chuck Kleckley is a fair-minded and proven leader. We support the Speaker and the decisions he makes regarding the organization of House committees,” Jindal said in the prepared statement.

By email, Teepell denied any part in the upheaval.

He said he did work behind the scenes on the governor’s behalf on the proposed outsourcing of state employee health plans. Teepell said he met with the governor’s staff and phoned legislators.

“My flight to (Washington, D.C.) on Tuesday got cancelled due to (superstorm) Sandy, so I decided to make myself useful around here ... (This) deal will save the taxpayers a lot of money,” he said.

State Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette, will take Henry’s place on appropriations. She now is vice chairwoman. State Reps. Bryan Adams, R-Gretna, and Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, now will serve on the appropriations committee.

Earlier this year, state Reps. Harold Ritchie and Jim Morris lost committee positions after opposing the governor.

Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, lost his job as vice chairman of the Louisiana House Committee on Insurance after voting against an education tax rebate backed by Jindal. Morris, R-Oil City, was removed as vice chairman of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee after voting against the governor on the budget and legacy lawsuit legislation.

Henry said Friday that he was given little reason for his removal.

During the recent legislative session, Henry sparred with the Jindal administration on the structure of the current year’s $25 billion state budget. Henry helped lead a faction in the House that pushed for deeper cuts rather than relying on one-time, or nonrecurring, dollars to patch together a spending plan that funds hospitals, colleges and other state services. Ultimately, the governor got the budget he wanted.

The governor made sizeable health care cuts after the session ended. The cuts were prompted by unexpected reductions in federal funding. Legislators voiced concerns that the cuts would cripple LSU’s public hospital system. Henry and Harrison joined dozens of other House members in a doomed push for a special session to review the governor’s decisions.

“I’ve been at odds with the administration and speaker since session over fiscal responsibility,” Henry said. “I continue to be at odds with them over the LSU system. I seem to ask too many questions that they’re uncomfortable with answering.”

Harrison’s removal comes with a twist.

Initially, Harrison won a committee seat that Kleckley does not control. He said Kleckley asked him to step aside in favor of Champagne taking the elected seat. In exchange, Harrison said, Kleckley appointed him to the committee and assured him that he would be free to speak his mind.

He said the removals are a symptom of a bigger problem within the Jindal administration. Trust is eroding, Harrison said.

“They lack integrity,” Harrison said. “I just feel our government is not moving in the direction of the wellbeing of the state fiscally. They’ve created an environment of mistrust over the last five years.”