Attack on Czar Odom Fails

La. ag panel defers bill to limit his power

BATON ROUGE, La. -- An effort to rein in Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom's power over gasoline prices quickly turned into a testimonial Thursday as lawmakers praised the longest-serving statewide elected official, said The Advocate.

Members of the state House Committee on Agriculture bristled at State Representative Shirley Bowler's (D) attempt to abate what she called Odom's sweeping power.

The committee ultimately decided to defer House Bill 232. Bowler's bill would amend the state constitution to no longer allow [image-nocss] the commissioner to exercise all functions of the state relating to agriculture.

That language gives Odom too much latitude, Bower said. As examples, she alleged he spends state money for purposes not approved by the Legislature, uses unskilled employees on construction projects and is attempting to regulate gasoline prices. Odom has broader powers than the governor, she said, comparing him to a czar.

Bowler said the Constitutional Convention of 1973 made a mistake in giving the agriculture commissioner more powers than the insurance commissioner and other officials.

State Rep. Francis Thompson (D) countered that there have been more problems in the insurance arena than in agriculture. Three former insurance commissioners served time in prison, according to ther report.

Odom also has had legal problems, the newspaper said. Criminal charges against him stemming from his state office recently were dropped.

As reported in CSP Daily News, he rankled many by trying to use a 1940s law against unfair competition to force gas stations to sell fuel at a 6% markup.

Odom had little to say to the committee other than to point out that agriculture is a $20 billion industry in Louisiana, the report said.

Bowler passed out pages of the state constitution dealing with officials' powers and duties and imparted two lessons from civics class: Government should be of laws instead of men, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Odom handed out a cookbook with his wife's recipe for Brunswick stew, The Advocate said.

It's an appropriate time for Louisiana to reign in this vague and sweeping power that the agriculture commissioner has, Bowler said.

State Rep. Jim Fannin (D) told Bowler that people in the agriculture business rely on Odom to regulate their industry.

Bowler argued that the extent of Odom's constitutional powers creates a government of men instead of law.

Rep. Jack Smith, D-Stephensville, slapped Odom on the back and joked that they should have taped the accolade-filled meeting to use at Odom's funeral. Smith asked Odom if he had an S on his chest before moving to defer the bill, said the report.

After the meeting, Bowler said she was not surprised by the outcome.

I didn't believe I would get a lot of support in this committee, she told the paper. She said she might try to push the bill again next year.