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Dark money group works to sway another Lafayette tax election

Posted: 5:54 PM, Apr 27, 2018
Updated: 2018-07-26 14:52:45-04

The faces behind an unsuccessful effort to defeat Lafayette Parish’s tax rededication last fall are again involved in another dark-money effort against this weekend’s library tax renewal.

Campaign finance records show a group called "Citizens for a New Louisiana" spent $21,500 on ads in opposition to the 1.61-mill tax renewal on Saturday’s ballot.

Secretary of State filings show the organization registered this month as a nonprofit, with Steven Durio listed as the agent and Michael Lunsford, Chris Comeaux and Hannah Pickle listed as officers.

Comeaux, who identified himself as a for-hire political consultant for the group, said it’s a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization. According to the IRS, such groups can engage in politics if it’s not their primary activity .

"The group’s purpose is to educate citizens in Lafayette Parish, and maybe other cities moving forward, about tax elections. We feel like in March and April and off-elections they have very small turnouts, and they try to do renewals that are unnecessary," Comeaux said in a phone call on Friday.

Funders not disclosed

Comeaux said the organization is funded by business people and property owners in Lafayette Parish, although who those people are has not been disclosed.

The organization does not report any contributions in the campaign finance report it filed this week. They claim they funded the tax-opposition effort "from its general treasury funds" and that "no contribution was made to specifically fund the reported expenditures."

According to instructions listed just above this response, groups are required to report all contributions, in-kind contributions and/or transfer of funds exceeding $200 received during the 20 days before the election. The group organized on April 19.

A man who identified himself by phone as Craig Engle, a Washington-based attorney with the firm Arent Fox, said he represents Citizens for a New Louisiana. He said because of the group’s nonprofit status as a social welfare organization with purposes beyond political activity, it only has to report itself as its own funding source.

"What most (c)(4)s do is, during the year, educate people about issues, lobby members of the legislature on them and also occasionally take issues on positions and candidates," Engle said.

Taxes funded library system’s parish-wide expansion

The tax renewal is for one of three existing taxes that funds the maintenance and operation of the growing Lafayette Public Library system. As anti-tax sentiment has grown in the parish — as seen in the defeat of the courthouse and jail tax renewals last year (they succeeded in another election later in the year) — the library tax’s approval numbers have declined with each recent election:

  • 2008: voters renewed the library’s 1.61-mill tax on this Saturday’s ballot with 70 percent of the vote
  • 2012: voters renewed the library’s 2-mill property tax with 66 percent of the vote
  • 2016: voters renewed the library’s 2.91-mill tax with 58 percent of the vote

The Lafayette Public Library system has grown in recent years, largely since voters approved the newest, 2-mill tax in 2002 to expand a system that had not grown since the 1970s, according to news archives accessed through the library’s digital news database .

Along with new regional library branches built throughout the parish in recent years and the renovation of the main branch downtown, the library has also added digital services, workshops and community events to help serve its growing demand. Annual visits have increased from more than 860,000 in 2015 to more than 1 million last year.

With the establishment of new branches and services has come a growing staff for the system, which now has a budget for 160 positions.

Ads urge ‘no’ vote

On glossy mailers sent out to some voters this week, Citizens for a New Louisiana points to the system’s salary budget, which they say has more than doubled since 2007, as an issue.

The group reported that it paid $17,750 to for those glossy mailers in opposition to the renewal, as well as for TV and Facebook ads, according to the group’s campaign finance report. Comeaux is the registered agent and officer for Brave New Television, which received the payments for that work.

The group also spent $3,750 in opposition advertising on KPEL 96.5 FM

The organization claims on those mailers that the tax renewal is a tax hike, but the 1.61-mill tax has been on the books for decades. But because the Lafayette City-Parish Council sets how much of any approved tax is assessed, only 1.48 of those mills were collected in 2017.

The other two taxes also were collected this year for below the approved rate.

The organization also points to the library’s $40 million in reserve funds as a reason to vote against the tax.

Lafayette Public Library director Teresa Elberson said in a video response to the opposition efforts that the savings are for ongoing construction projects, including the new West Regional Library in Scott, for which the library cannot write a check until the 2018-19 fiscal year. Those projects are paid for through library savings, not bonds, and that money collects interest until the project payment is executed, Elberson said.

"The remaining portion is what allows our system to improve and expand without needing to ask for additional bond money or a new millage to expand or operate services. It’s good business sense to have fund balance," Elberson said. "We thank all the citizens of Lafayette Parish that can see through the misleading comments that are printed on slick, glossy mailouts."

Same faces lead dark anti-tax efforts in recent years

Lunsford and Comeaux also were behind Policies for Louisiana’s Future, another nonprofit organization funded by dark money that tried to sway voters against a November tax rededication to support drainage and the cultural economy. They’re also behind the Facebook group "Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes" and worked to defeat a failed school-tax election in 2017.

Lunsford lives in Breaux Bridge and is an elected member of the Republican Party’s committees in St. Martin Parish. He could be reached immediately on Friday afternoon.

When KATC reported on Policies for Louisiana’s future in November, Jason Hebert and Scott Hobbs of The Political Firm were listed as that group’s representatives, but they reached out at the time to say they were no longer involved. Today, Comeaux is the only registered officer for that group.