Some voters in East Baton Rouge last week received flyers in the mail urging them to reject the three propositions that make up a 1-cent sales tax earmarked for the parish school district.
It’s not clear how many people received the flyers, though they did end up in mailboxes in southeast Baton Rouge.
Displaying charts showing spending increasing, enrollment decreasing and academic performance in East Baton Rouge public schools lagging behind much of the rest of the state, one mailer concludes, “Instead of throwing cash at our schools, we need to correct the system.” Another mailer, in a similar vein, concludes “Vote Early. Vote Now. Vote No” to all three propositions, which are on the April 28 ballot.
The flyers were sent out just as early voting began last Saturday; early voting ends this Saturday.
The little-known group behind the mailers, Keep Louisiana Working Inc., also has set up a special website for the election: http://bestlouisiana.org/.
The group’s opposition to all three propositions of the tax, which is expected to generate $935 million over 10 years for the school system, stands out.
So far, other opponents of renewing the 1-cent sales tax have urged voters to reject individual propositions, not all three, so that those parts can be improved and returned to voters in the future.
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For instance, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber recently endorsed Propositions 1 and 3. Proposition 1 would pay for a number of new schools and school improvements, while Proposition 3 helps underwrite teacher salaries. The business lobby, however, urged rejection of Proposition 2, which supports truancy and alternative education, saying that proposition needs to be reworked.
In a statement, Taylor Gast, a spokeswoman with the parish school system, said renewing all three propositions is critical to the future of the parish.
“We have appreciated the support of our community over the past 20 years, and we are confident that the people of Baton Rouge fully understand the importance of a strong public school system,” Gast said.
Keep Louisiana Working is a conservative political group formed in 2013. For tax purposes, it’s organized as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporation, which means it can and does refuse to disclose its donors. The group also doesn’t talk much about what elections or political issues it weighs into or or why. It made its biggest splash in 2014 when it supported Bill Cassidy, a Republican, in his successful bid to unseat then-U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat.
Its Louisiana corporate charter was revoked in August 2017, when the group failed to file annual reports for three years in a row. But the charter was reinstated in March. Its corporate directors hail from Monroe and Alexandria, but its executive director, Emily Cornell, is based in Baton Rouge.
Cornell, who worked for the Republican National Committee for four years, recently returned to Keep Louisiana Working after years away. During that time away, among other things, she worked as a senior vice president for political affairs at Cambridge Analytica. The British political consulting firm has come under fire for its use of personal data to target voters in support of the Brexit campaign as well as for the 2016 Donald Trump presidential campaign.
Cornell would not discuss how much Keep Louisiana Working is spending in opposing the 1-cent sales tax renewal, the scope of its campaign, or who is funding the campaign. She said the group jumps into an array of Louisiana public issues of importance and this one is no different.
“Keep Louisiana Working is opposed to treating this issue as a routine tax renewal,” Cornell said. “There should be nothing routine about levying a $935 million tax.”
Keep Louisiana Working recently hired Lionel Rainey, a conservative political consultant, to do work on its behalf. Rainey is best known for the years he spent as spokesman for the St. George incorporation effort.
For the third time in two years, St. Tammany voters shot down a pair of tax renewals to operate the parish jail and courthouse Saturday.
Keep Louisiana Working reported paying $12,000 to Rainey’s firm, LR3 Consulting, for live and automated phone calls, Facebook advertising and social media management. According to its campaign finance report, the group paid Rainey on March 23 for his work on an unspecified election held the next day. Cornell said Rainey worked for the organization in connection with tax propositions on the March 24 ballot in St. Tammany Parish.
Rainey told The Advocate he played no role in the recent mailers from Keep Louisiana Working that attacked the proposed sales tax renewal.
Drew Murell, a spokesman for St. George, said St. George also played no part in the Keep Louisiana Working mailers.
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“St. George has nothing to do with anything outside of our effort to collect signatures to put St. George on the ballot,” Murell said. “We cannot speak to what other people or groups are doing.”
Murell added that St George “is not taking a position or getting involved in any way on the school tax renewal.”
Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.