Candidates running to be Louisiana’s next top money manager discussed the role of the treasurer, social issues and investing, state debt and much more in an online forum Wednesday.
The webinar was hosted by the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group. All three candidates in the Oct. 14 election took part.
They’re vying to replace current state Treasurer John Schroder, who is running for governor. In addition to managing the state’s investments, the treasurer presides over the Louisiana Bond Commission, which has oversight of large-scale state and local government borrowing.
Who are the candidates?
John Fleming, a Republican who represented Louisiana in Congress for eight years, boasted he is the “most conservative” in the race. While in Washington, D.C., Fleming helped found the House Freedom Caucus, whose members included former Florida representative and current Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Fleming, a physician and Navy veteran, also held three positions in the Trump administration — administrative-level roles with the health and commerce departments and as deputy chief of staff in the White House.
Dustin Granger, a Democrat endorsed by the state party and Gov. John Bel Edwards, has been a financial adviser and investment manager for almost 20 years. He said that, like many Louisianans, he is frustrated “to see so much poverty, see a lot of our small towns being hollowed out, friends and family leaving out of the state.”
Granger owns a small personal finance business and lives in Lake Charles. He says trickle-down economics has been bad for the state.
Scott McKnight, a Republican state representative from Baton Rouge, has worked in the financial services industry for almost 25 years. He is vice president and director of business development at Cadence Insurance.
He describes himself as a fiscal conservative and said “our next state treasurer has to be willing to speak out against reckless spending and reckless proposals that put our financial future in jeopardy.”
To invest or not invest?
The candidates discussed whether they would allow the state to invest in or do business with companies that have liberal environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) policies. Their approach to business considers factors such as sustainability, ethical business practices and the treatment of employees, consumers and communities.
Some conservatives have railed against ESG standards. For example, Schroder divested nearly $800 million in state investments from BlackRock over what he called the firm’s “anti-fossil fuel policies.”
Those vying to replace Schroder fell along the support spectrum.
McKnight said investments in companies with ESG principles are “not the best return on the dollars … and it goes directly against what our economy is built on, which is the oil and gas business right now.”
“To invest their taxpayer dollars against the industry which supports them would be counter to our economy … and the values of our state,” he said.
Fleming called himself an “all-of-the above energy person.”
“When it comes to the treasurer’s investment of the taxpayer dollars, it should be done purely objectively what gives the best return on investment while being safe,” he said.
With the current state of clean energy technology, Fleming said he feels ESG investments are generally poor performers.
Granger called any ban on ESG “very concerning” and “misguided,” and he disputed the idea such investments don’t perform well.
“The treasurer is a fiduciary for the state. We’re not supposed to act like a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry,” he said. “And when you eliminate a certain whole part of investing, a whole industry of investing like clean energy, (it) doesn’t make any sense because it doesn’t allow us to diversify our investments. I mean, that’s Investing 101.”
Granger said he has experience helping people manage their debt and investments. As treasurer, he would do the same, acting as an adviser to the governor and legislature, as laid out in the state constitution.
He also said he’s heard from smaller communities that it can be hard to access the bond commission, which he would try to change.
“A lot of them don’t have the staffs to be able to do it and don’t really know what’s out there and what they can do,” Granger said. “I think we need to be more proactive in making sure communities around the state that don’t really have much access get that access, to help raise money to build their communities and quality of life to attract people.”
Fleming said the legislature, like Congress, faces a lot of outside pressures. Therefore, having someone more removed, such as the treasurer, advise lawmakers and the governor can be helpful.
McKnight thinks while the Legislature builds the budget, the treasurer should have a role. He thinks his background as a lawmaker makes him ideal for the role.
“Building on my relationships that I’ve had for the past few years as a legislator would be an advantage for me to be able to help advise the legislature and the next governor on those levels and … how the plan should look,” he said.
Targeting firearm naysayers
The state bond commission has at times refused to do bond deals with banks that restrict their business with certain firearm manufacturers. Some Louisiana financial advisers have warned this could cost taxpayers.
Fleming said “our role certainly in government is to protect our constitution and protect people from those who violate the constitution,” arguing this is a Second Amendment issue.
“It is not a crime to sell and trade firearms,” he said, “unless you do it illegally, which of course the vast, vast majority of people don’t.”
Granger said not working with banks for this reason is “just crazy to me.”
“It’s crazy to me that they would even think about banning the banks for this because we’re not a lobbyist for the (National Rifle Association),” he said. “It’s not our responsibility to be a lobbyist for the NRA. They got plenty of money, they can take care of themselves. We are a fiduciary for the people.”
McKnight landed on middle ground, saying banks should “expect to have consequences” but also that “it could cost the state dollars.”
He said he would use a competitive bid for bond deals to get the best deal and take the potential political questions off the table.
Why do these men think they’re the best fit for the job?
McKnight said he’s not just running for the position because he’s bored and needs something to do. He thinks his legislative and professional background make him “uniquely qualified.” He said he’ll invest tax dollars wisely and not invest them in “something that is in contrast to our principles or harms our people.”
“Louisiana is facing a new generation of problems, and it’s gonna take a new generation of leaders to solve them,” he said.
Fleming listed his endorsements, including the State Republican Party, five parish Republican executive committees, two Louisiana congressmen and an Ohio congressman.
“I believe that we can have a new Louisiana, one that catches up to Texas and Tennessee and Florida,” he said. “And we can once again bring our young people back where they can have jobs and create businesses once again in Louisiana.”
Granger said the state is at an inflection point and that the philosophy of his opponents is “just not working.”
“I would say even the divisive politics that plagues our state is a result of trickle-down economics because those things are not popular,” he said. “So they need the divisive politics to keep working people fighting each other. All of that needs to be done away with.”