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Unlike the Jindal administration, we are not transparent when it comes to identifying either our sources or those who support us financially.

Oh, we do report all income to the IRS, but because we are not a non-profit, we are not required to reveal our funding sources—and we won’t, for obvious reasons.

Many of our contributors are state employees and the last thing they need is for a vindictive Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-Iowa, R-New Hampshire, R-Florida, R-Anywhere by Louisiana) to learn their names. Can you say teagued?

Our fund raiser continues and we still need assistance to help us offset the cost of pursuing stories the other media continue to ignore. Just as the identities sources for news tips and leads are protected as priority one, so too do we protect the names of donors.

If you are not seeing the “Donate” button, it may be because you are receiving our posts via email subscription. To contribute by credit card, please click on this link to go to our actual web page and look for the yellow Donate button: http://louisianavoice.com/

If you prefer not to conduct an internet transaction, you may mail a check to:

Capital News Service/LouisianaVoice

P.O. Box 922

Denham Springs, Louisiana 70727-0922

 

CORRECTION:

We were in error when we reported on Saturday that Rep. Jim Fannin (D/R-Jonesboro), chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget (JLCB) refused a request by Rep. James Armes (D-Leesville) that Rep. Kenny Havard (R-Jackson) be allowed to serve as his proxy at last Friday’s JLCB meeting in Baton Rouge.

LouisianaVoice was unable to contact any of the principals involved over the weekend but we spoke with Armes on Monday and he informed us that it was not Fannin, but House Speaker Chuck Kleckley (R-Lake Charles) who declined, or simply failed to act on, Armes’ request.

More accurately, it appears now that Kleckley may have indicated he would consent to Armes’ request but either had a change of heart or simply did not follow up. “When I spoke with the speaker, he told me he would take care of it,” Armes said today. “I was unavailable and unable to attend, so I called him (Kleckley) and asked that Rep. Havard be allowed to serve as my proxy. Normally when a member cannot attend, we will try to get someone from the Baton Rouge area to attend and Rep. Havard is only a few miles outside Baton Rouge.

While it may not have been Fannin who dropped the ball on approving a proxy for Armes, it was Fannin who informed committee members after they had convened that the issue of the $178.5 million budget surplus claimed by the administration would not be taken up pending a report by the Legislative Auditor’s office. That report is expected sometime in December. Meanwhile, the state is in budgetary limbo over whether there is a surplus as claimed by Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols or a $141 million deficit as claimed by State Treasurer John Kennedy.

The administration’s sudden “discovery” of $360 million (accumulated since 2002), which it says brought the state out of a $141 million hole to a surplus of $178.5 million has drawn fire from two former commissioners of administration, Raymond Laborde of Marksville and his niece, Stephanie Laborde of Baton Rouge. Raymond Laborde was commissioner during former Gov. Edwin Edwards’ third term of office and Stephanie Laborde (at the time Stephanie Alexander) served during Edwards’ fourth and final term. Both, along with Kennedy, indicated it was highly improbable that that much money could have remained hidden for so long a time.

One source has put the amount closer to $500 million but added that the money has already been spent. If so, that would put the deficit closer to $300 million than the $141 million initially claimed by Kennedy.

State Treasurer John Kennedy isn’t the only one who disputes the veracity—or the political motives—of administration claims of a $178.5 million budget surplus for the fiscal year that ended on June 30.

There are a couple of Kristy Nichols’ predecessors, former commissioners of administration and a former state budget officer who have been there, done that and got the T-shirts, who are genuinely perplexed and skeptical of the whimsical claims.

Bobby Jindal (R-Iowa, R-New Hampshire, R-Anywhere but Louisiana), aka Booby Jindini, through Commissioner of Administration Nichols, is claiming the implausible “discovery” of some $360 million, dating back to 2002 that pulls the state from the jaws of a $141 million deficit in favor of the surplus explained thus far only as Immaculate Discovery.

LouisianaVoice, meanwhile, has learned that the true “discovered” money is more like $500 and that it actually goes back as far as 1998, near the end of Gov. Mike “the Jindal Creator” Foster’s second term. But, says Kennedy, the money has already been spent, which would make the real deficit more like $200 million, instead of the mere $141 hole claimed by Kennedy.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details and the details have not been readily forthcoming from the administration. And members of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget (JLCB) sat mutely Friday morning as committee Chairman Rep. Jim Fannin (D/R-Jonesboro) proclaimed that the committee would not be discussing the matter until it received a report from the Legislative Auditor’s office, probably sometime in December.

What?!!!!!!!” legislators should have sputtered, shouted and otherwise protested.

Sorry, guys, you should have stood as one and protested that the time to discuss this little matter is now and the place is right here. Right here, right now. We want, no, demand an explanation, an accounting of where this money suddenly came from and how it is that the administration did not know of its existence for the past seven years.

And while we’re at it, why is it that Fannin sudden decided to exercise his power to disallow a request by Rep. James Armes (D-Leesville) that a non-member of the JLCB, Rep. Kenny Havard (R-Jackson), be allowed to sit in on the committee as his proxy. Legislative observers cannot recall a time when such a request was denied. Was Fannin afraid Havard might ask some embarrassing questions about the budgetary procedure?

Or was it that Havard was not among the members who had been called in a few at a time in advance of Friday’s meeting to be reminded by the administration that capital outlay projects in their respective districts could suddenly face a lack of funding for their implementation?

Regardless, it is quite obvious from our perspective that the fix is in.

Instead, committee members sat mutely as one as Fannin, desperate to hang onto his chairmanship and reportedly considering a run at the State Senate seat currently held by Sen. Bob Kostelka (R-Monroe), allowed that rather than demanding details and explanations from the administration, there was no urgency to the issue that could not wait until December.

Retired state budget officer Stephen Winham said that in his 21 years in that office, nothing of this magnitude ever occurred.

“The hidden piles of money is a myth,” he said. “There may have been hidden pockets of money before modern accounting and information technology, but it is impossible to hide money in the state treasury today.

“This has to be the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen happen with regard to the state’s financial condition and its reputation,” he said. “How can $500 million simply have been hiding in the state treasury? Do Ms. Nichols and others have any idea how her contention totally undermines the integrity of our financial system? It makes a mockery of our accounting system and our annual Comprehensive Financial Reports for the past 16 years, if not longer, and of our state itself. People already routinely suspected the numbers they were given. Now there is no reason to believe anything.

“I cannot overstate how horrible this is.”

Raymond Laborde and Stephanie Laborde agree.

Raymond Laborde (Stephanie Laborde’s uncle) served as commissioner of administration from 1992 to 1996 under former Gov. Edwin Edwards. Before that, he served five terms in the Louisiana House, serving as Speaker Pro Tem from 1982-1984 and also served as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

He was re-elected without opposition to a sixth term in 1991 but immediately resigned to become Commissioner of Administration during Edwards’ fourth and final term as governor. In 2003, Raymond Laborde was inducted into the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield.

“I haven’t seen any details yet and neither, apparently has John Kennedy,” he said.

“We had surpluses each year during my tenure, but they were legitimate surpluses. If the money was there, it should have been seen. If Kennedy’s approach is correct, there is a heck of a difference between what the administration says and what he says.”

Reminded that Kennedy has said any money found from prior years has already been spent, Raymond Laborde said, “It should have been spent.”

Stephanie Laborde served as commissioner of administration during Edwards’ third term (1984-1988) when she was Stephanie Alexander.

Her observations were supportive of Winham’s and were equally critical of the administration.

“If the surplus is real, where were those dollars when the budget was being developed 15 months or so ago?” she asked, perhaps not so rhetorically.

“That is not to say when there was not extra money,” she said. “There were times when there were more taxes collected than anticipated or when the price of oil was higher than expected but for this much in surplus funds to be lying around for years? That just didn’t happen.”

She also said the sources of such revenue would have been considered one-time money and not recurring revenue. “There is a difference of philosophy, a difference of opinion with the character of funds found in the past.

“But it still comes down to where was this money during the budget writing process, where was it, in fact, for all these years?

“If it was there, it speaks to the administration’s competence, its ability—or inability—to give us an accurate budget.

“If the money was not there as is being claimed, it speaks to something else entirely,” she said.

Unlike the Jindal administration, we don’t claim to have a mysteriously appearing surplus in our budget here at LouisianaVoice.

In fact, our financial resources are stretched quite thin in our efforts to keep our readers current on events in Baton Rouge that affect their lives every day.

Like many of our readers, I am a retired state employee who is on a fixed income. I established LouisianaVoice as a means of keeping the citizens informed of what really goes on with your state government and the ones you elect to represent you.

Our fund raiser continues and we still need the assistance of our regular readers to help us offset the cost of pursuing stories the other media continue to ignore.

Many of you have responded but we still have a considerable ways to go in order to keep up with our mounting expenses that include gasoline burned traveling this state to meet with confidential sources, to pay for copies of records and for legal costs when they are incurred as we are sometimes forced to call on the courts to help us enforce compliance with the state’s public records laws.

We have had one contribution made in the memory of the late John Hays of Ruston, one of the premier investigative reporters in the history of Louisiana journalism. Another was made in honor of my late journalism professor at Louisiana Tech, Wiley Hilburn. To say I was moved by those gestures would be an understatement.

If you are not seeing the “Donate” button, it may be because you are receiving our posts via email subscription. To contribute by credit card, please click on this link to go to our actual web page and look for the yellow Donate button: http://louisianavoice.com/

If you prefer not to conduct an internet transaction, you may mail a check to:

Capital News Service/LouisianaVoice

P.O. Box 922

Denham Springs, Louisiana 70727-0922

 

Call it what you will—strong-armed politics, intimidation, extortion, blackmail or bribery—the result is the same: the fix appears to be in on the administration’s claim of a $178.5 million budget surplus developed by a “new and improved” accounting procedure.

Except the numbers don’t seem to add up to a surplus, but rather the possibility of an even greater deficit that first indicated by State Treasurer John Kennedy.

LouisianaVoice has learned that the $320 million in mystery money suddenly discovered by the administration and trumpeted by Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols may actually be $500 million or more. But even that may be suspect in the way it affects whether or not there is an actual surplus or in reality, a deficit.

As an indication that the administration was taking care of business, LouisianaVoice also learned that members of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget (JLCB) had been called in by the governor’s office in groups of two and three over the past several days for “come to Jesus” meetings in order to dissipate opposition to the administration before it can develop.

In those meetings, committee members supposedly were not-so-subtly reminded of pending capital outlay projects in their respective districts that could sudden be placed in peril should the wrong questions get asked in committee.

But hey, folks, if you think the Jindal administration is the gold standard of ethics and wouldn’t really do that, you are so very wrong. Nothing that has taken place over the past six-plus years that would invalidate a comparison to Huey and Earl Long.

The circling of the wagons even went so far as JLCB Chairman Jim Fannin’s (R-Jonesboro) refusal of an otherwise routine request by one committee member to allow a fellow House member represent him as a proxy at today’s (Friday, Oct. 17) meeting in order to ensure there would be no surprises at the meeting.

Committee chairmen must approve a request from any committee member to have a non-member of that committee sit in as his or her proxy.

Even the meeting itself appeared to be a sham. When the committee convened at 9 a.m. Friday, Fannin announced he would not take up the issue over the budget surplus/deficit until the legislative auditor could provide a report on the financial picture.

It is extremely rare for a committee chairman to deny a request for a proxy, but when Rep. James Armes (D-Leesville) asked that Rep. Kenny Havard (R-Jackson) be allowed to sit as his proxy, Fannin refused. Efforts by LouisianaVoice to reach Havard for a comment were unsuccessful.

But if you watched any of the proceedings of the House Appropriations Committee on Sept. 25 which met to hear testimony about the proposed changes to the state’s group benefits plan, it’s easy to understand Fannin’s actions.

Fannin also chairs the Appropriations Committee and during that Sept. 25 meeting, Havard asked some pretty tough questions of Nichols and OGB CEO Susan West.

Havard probably represents more state employees as constituents in East and West Feliciana parishes than any other representative outside Baton Rouge because of the presence of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and the Louisiana War Veterans Home and East Louisiana State Hospital in Jackson. So naturally, he would be concerned about the hardship the OGB changes are going to impose on state employees and retirees.

Accordingly, it was only natural that Fannin would not want any surprises during the committee hearing which turned out to be no hearing at all so Armes’ otherwise routine proxy request was rejected out of hand.

Fannin, who several months ago, switched from Democrat to Republican and is firmly ensconced in the Jindal camp (though it’s difficult to understand why anyone would throw his lot in with this governor whose popularity in Louisiana rivals only that of President Obama—other than his apparent desperation to hang onto his chairmanship), so it’s understandable, in a quirky sort of way, that he would do the administration’s bidding.

In fact, LouisianaVoice has also learned that Fannin has a report from the administration that contains a year-by-year breakdown as to where the mystery dollars came from to make up the surprise surplus.

That report is not public and Fannin is supposedly the only legislator who is privy to its existence and its contents.

The numbers, we are told, go all the way back to 1998, during the latter part of the Mike Foster administration, instead of to 2002 as originally reported, and the money consists of self-generated funds the Foster, Blanco and Jindal administrations never recognized for appropriations.

So, when Jindal faced a real deficit at the end of the fiscal year just ended on June 30, he scraped the bottom of the barrel, figurative and literally, to come up with the funds and voila! The amount was more in the neighborhood of $500 million instead of the $360 first reported.

The problem is, however, the $500 million may have already been spent and if so, it would create an actual deficit of some $360 million instead of the $141 million initially claimed by Kennedy. And it certainly would not create a surplus.

And taking the scenario to its logical conclusion in this Alice in Wonderland world of Louisiana politics, State Treasurer John Kennedy, the one person who should be the one kept abreast of all budgetary developments, the one person responsible for accounting for every dollar spent, is being kept in the dark along with other legislators who would like to have some answers.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, instead of sitting at her desk and sniping at Kennedy for questioning her numbers, could just as easily pick up the phone and call Kennedy to invite him over, or even offer to walk across Third Street, take the elevator up to the third floor of the State Capitol, and sit down with the Treasurer and explain how the administration arrived at its numbers.

A truly transparent, ethical and accountable administration owes the citizens of this state that much at a minimum.

But don’t hold your breath.

Of all the incumbents running in Louisiana’s Senate and five House elections, no less than $6.5 million in political action committee (PAC) money has been poured into the various campaigns.

Incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu led the pack with $2.6 million in PAC money with Rep. Steve Scalise, 1st District, a distant second at $1.7 million), followed by Charles Boustany, 3rd District ($984,000), Landrieu challenger Congressman Bill Cassidy, 6th District ($724,550), Cedric Richmond, 2nd District ($723,000), John Fleming, 4th District ($258,000) and Vance McAllister, 5th District ($123,000).

Others with PAC contributions include

  • S. Senate candidate Rob Maness ($35,000);
  • 5th District congressional candidates Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayor ($6,000), Zach Dasher ($5,000) and Ralph Abraham and Harris Brown ($1,000 each);
  • 6th District congressional candidates Dan Claitor ($15,601), Paul Dietzel II ($15,325), Edwin Edwards ($8,700), Trey Thomas ($3,500), Cassie Felder ($2,500) and Lenar Whitney ($500).

In Congressional Districts 1, 2, 3, and 4, no candidates other than the incumbents already covered in previous stories reported any PAC contributions.

Among all incumbents, 5th District Congressman Vance McAllister, facing re-election only a year after winning a special election to succeed retired Rodney Alexander, had the fewest PAC contributions.

Still, the $123,000 he received is ample evidence of how quickly an incumbent can attract PAC money—even an incumbent with a single year under his belt.

Here are some of McAllister’s PAC contributions:

ALTRIA GROUP PAC: $1,000

  • Altria Group, Inc. (previously named Philip Morris Companies Inc.) The name change alternative offers the possibility of masking the negatives associated with the tobacco business,” thus enabling the company to improve its image and raise its profile without sacrificing tobacco profits,
  • According to the Center for Public Integrity, Altria spent around $101 million on lobbying the U.S. government between 1998 and 2004, making it the second most active organization in the nation.
  • Altria also funded The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition which lobbied against the scientific consensus on climate change.
  • Daniel Smith, representing Altria, sits on the Private Enterprise Board of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

AT&T PAC: $2,500

  • AT&T is the second-largest donor to United States political campaigns, and the top American corporate donor, having contributed more than US$47.7 million since 1990, 56% and 44% of which went to Republican and Democratic recipients, respectively. Also, during the period of 1998 to 2010, the company expended US$130 million on lobbying in the United States. A key political issue for AT&T has been the question of which businesses win the right to profit by providing broadband internet access in the United States.
  • Bobby Jindal rejected an $80 million federal grant for the expansion of broadband internet service in rural Louisiana even as AT&T was contributing $250,000 to the Foundation run by Jindal’s wife Supriya after Gov. Jindal signed SB- 807 into law (Act 433) in 2008 over the objections of the Louisiana Municipal and the State Police Jury associations. The bill, the Consumer Choice for Television Act removed from local and parish governments their authority and responsibility to negotiate cable franchise agreements with companies that relied largely on locally-owned public infrastructure such as utility poles. The bill also allows AT&T to sell cable television service without the necessity of obtaining local franchises.
  • Bill Leahy, representing AT&T, sits on the Private Enterprise Board of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

EVERY REPUBLICAN IS CRUCIAL PAC: $10,000

  • Every Republican is Crucial (ERIC) has contributed nearly $9.2 million to Republican candidates, including $50,000 to fellow Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise.
  • ERIC is the PAC of defeated Virginia House member Eric Cantor whose campaign was underwritten in turn by a gaggle of Wall Street bankers, including Goldman Sachs, Blackstone Group, and Citigroup.

CMR POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEE: $3,500

  • CMR is the political action committee launched by Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington) who is apparently as AWOL from her eastern Washington district as Gov. Bobby Jindal is from Louisiana. In challenging Jindal for racking up frequent flyer miles, she has visited North Carolina, Indiana, Las Vegas, Florida, Colorado, New Hampshire, Ohio, and California on behalf of Republican candidates.

EXXON MOBIL CORP. PAC: $5,000

  • ExxonMobil has drawn criticism from scientists, science organizations and the environmental lobby for funding organizations critical of the Kyoto Protocol and seeking to undermine public opinion about the scientific conclusion that global warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Mother Jones Magazine said the company channeled more than $8 million to 40 different organizations that have employed disinformation campaigns including “skeptical propaganda masquerading as journalism” to influence opinion of the public and of political leaders about global warming and that the company was a member of one of the first such groups, the Global Climate Coalition, founded in 1989. ExxonMobil’s support for these organizations has drawn criticism from the Royal Society, the academy of sciences of the United Kingdom. The Union of Concerned Scientists released a report in 2007 accusing ExxonMobil of spending $16 million, between 1998 and 2005, towards 43 advocacy organizations which dispute the impact of global warming. The report argued that ExxonMobil used disinformation tactics similar to those used by the tobacco industry in its denials of the link between lung cancer and smoking, saying that the company used “many of the same organizations and personnel to cloud the scientific understanding of climate change and delay action on the issue.” These charges are consistent with a purported 1998 internal ExxonMobil strategy memo, posted by the environmental group Environmental Defense, which said:

“Victory will be achieved when

  • Average citizens [and the media] ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the conventional wisdom;
  • Industry senior leadership understands uncertainties in climate science, making them stronger ambassadors to those who shape climate policy;
  • In 2003, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that J. Bryan Williams, a former senior executive of Mobil Oil Corp., had been sentenced to three years and ten months in prison on charges of evading income taxes on more than $7 million in unreported income, including a $2 million kickback he received in connection with Mobil’s oil business in Kazakhstan. Documents filed with the court said Williams’ unreported income included millions of dollars in kickbacks from governments, persons, and other entities with whom Williams conducted business while employed by Mobil. In addition to his sentence, Williams must pay a fine of $25,000 and more than $3.5 million in restitution to the IRS, in addition to penalties and interest.
  • Those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extant science appear out of touch with reality.”

HONEYWELL INTERNATIONAL PAC: $1,000

  • In December 2011, the non-partisan liberal organization Public Campaign criticized Honeywell International for spending $18.3 million on lobbying while paying no taxes during 2008–2010, instead getting $34 million in tax rebates, despite making a profit of $4.9 billion, laying off 968 workers since 2008, and increasing executive pay by 15% to $54.2 million in 2010 for its top 5 executives.
  • Honeywell has been criticized in the past for its manufacture of deadly and maiming weapons. The Honeywell Project, for example, targeted Honeywell executives in an attempt to halt the production of cluster bombs.
  • The EPA said that no corporation has been linked to a greater number of Superfund toxic waste sites than has Honeywell. Honeywell ranks 44th in a list of US corporations most responsible for air pollution, releasing more than 9.4 million pounds of toxins per year into the air. In 2001, Honeywell agreed to pay $150,000 in civil penalties and to perform $772,000 worth of reparations for environmental violations involving:
  • failure to prevent or repair leaks of hazardous organic pollutants into the air
  • failure to repair or report refrigeration equipment containing chlorofluorocarbons.
  • inadequate reporting of benzene, ammonia, nitrogen oxide, dichlorodifluoromethane, sulfuric acid, sulfur dioxide and caprolactam emissions.
  • In 2003, a federal judge in New Jersey ordered the company to perform an estimated $400 million environmental remediation of chromium waste, citing “a substantial risk of imminent damage to public health and safety and imminent and severe damage to the environment.” In the same year, Honeywell paid $3.6 million to avoid a federal trial regarding its responsibility for trichloroethylene contamination in Illinois. In 2004, the State of New York announced that it would require Honeywell to complete an estimated $448 million cleanup of more than 165,000 pounds of mercury and other toxic waste dumped into Onondaga Lake in Syracuse. In 2005, the state of New Jersey sued Honeywell, Occidental Petroleum and PPG to compel cleanup of more than 100 sites contaminated with chromium, a metal linked to lung cancer, ulcers and dermatitis. In 2008, the state of Arizona made a settlement with Honeywell to pay a $5 million fine and contribute $1 million to a local air-quality cleanup project, after allegations of breaking water-quality and hazardous-waste laws on hundreds of occasions between the years of 1974 and 2004.

PROSPERITY ACTION, INC. PAC: $5,000

  • Founded by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), Prosperity Action leadership PAC has contributed $182,500 to incumbent congressional candidates and challengers seeking election in 2014. Ryan was Mitt Romney’s running mate in the 2012 presidential election.
  • Among Ryan’s most consistent—and generous—supporters were David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, the major benefactor of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

REYNOLDS AMERICAN PAC: $1,000

(It seems curious that a physician would accept campaign money from a tobacco company.)

  • In 1994, then CEO James Johnston testified under oath before Congress, saying that he didn’t believe that nicotine is addictive.
  • In 2002, the company was fined $15m for handing out free cigarettes at events attended by children, and was fined $20m for breaking the 1998 Master Agreement, which restricted targeting youth in its tobacco advertisements.
  • In May 2006 former R.J. Reynolds vice-president of sales Stan Smith pleaded guilty to charges of defrauding the Canadian government of $1.2 billion through a cigarette smuggling operation. Smith confessed to overseeing the 1990s operation while employed by RJR. Canadian-brand cigarettes were smuggled out of and back into Canada, or smuggled from Puerto Rico, and sold on the black market to avoid taxes. The judge referred to it as biggest fraud case in Canadian history.

COMMITTEE FOR THE PRESERVATION OF CAPITALISM: $5,000

  • Committee membership includes Bill Gates, four members of the Walton (Walmart) family, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, a member of his lobbying firm, George W. Bush’s former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric which has managed to avoid paying any corporate income tax for the past half-dozen years despite record-breaking profits and extensive operations that have been outsourced to other countries which provide cheap labor.

Editor’s note: State Rep. John Bel Edwards (D-Amite) sparred verbally with Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols and Office of Group Benefits (OGB) CEO Susan West at the Sept. 25 hearing by the House Appropriations Committee on proposed coverage plans for OGB members. Edwards, the minority leader of the House and Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, is an announced candidate for governor in 2015.  He wrote the following piece in an effort to display his frustration over his inability to obtain definitive answers or public documents and records from the administration—and to explain how the administration, as a matter of routine, conceals information from legislators.

By State Rep. John Bel Edwards

At a committee meeting convened last month to address the fiscal “emergency,” at the Office of Group Benefits, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols testified that the premium reductions in 2013 and 2014 that drained OGB’s $500 million fund balance were fiscally sound.

At that hearing, I repeatedly asked if OGB’s actuary – Buck Consultants – had recommended those premium reductions and if they recommended reducing the fund balance. Nichols and an OGB CEO Susan West repeatedly refused to answer. I, along with other legislators at the hearing, asked for copies of Buck Consultants’ recommendations.

Weeks later and I’m still waiting for those reports.

What I do have is an email from Buck Consultants to the OGB CEO that clearly states: “We did not recommend a decrease of 7% effective August 1, 2012, or an additional decrease of 1.77% effective August 1, 2013. Further, we were not asked to provide any recommended rate adjustments for any fiscal years beyond what we provided for Fiscal Year 2012/2013.”

Of course the actuary did not recommend cutting premiums by almost 9 % while health care costs are rising by 6% a year. The consultants knew that would be irresponsible and cause claims payments to greatly exceed premium revenue and drain OGB’s fund balance.

Clearly, the OGB premium reductions that ran the fund balance into the ditch were not actuarially driven. Those premium reductions were driven by the Jindal administration’s desire to spend OGB’s fund balance elsewhere in the budget. When OGB reduced premiums, 75% of the savings went to the state and the Jindal administration was able to spend that money wherever they wanted.

Now that the fund balance is drained and still hemorrhaging at the rate of $16 million a month, the Jindal administration called this self-inflicted wound an “emergency” and proposed raising costs to OGB members – those working and those retired – by $189 million. These higher out-of-pocket expenses will not be shared by the state.

Our state workers, school teachers, support workers, and university staff and faculty and retirees cannot afford this. They do not deserve this. About 25,000 of our retired OGB members are not eligible for Medicare, and many active OGB members bring home as little as $700 per month.

I asked the Attorney General’s Office for an opinion about the legality of Jindal’s effort to unilaterally impose new plans with the exorbitant out of pocket cost increases on workers and retirees. The attorney general’s opinion shows Jindal failed to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act.

This entire debacle has thankfully been slowed down to ensure public notice, public input and legislative oversight as legally required. It is critically important that the administration act in good faith and genuinely consider the testimony and the plight of affected OGB members as well as its own culpability in needlessly causing the “emergency.”

The Jindal administration must honestly answer subsequent inquiries from the public and from legislators and seek ways to lessen the impact to OGB members. The administration must ditch the ill-conceived plan changes and start from scratch with a willingness to increase premiums reasonably and share in the costs of restoring the soundness of OGB.

The recently discovered $178.5M surplus provides the means to both shore up the fund balance and reduce the cost increases on OGB members. The illegal cost increase forced on OGB members in August must be refunded without forcing members to formally request or sue for the refund.

The legislature must finally assert itself as an independent and equal branch of government to provide exactly the kind of check and balance on the Jindal administration provided by the Louisiana Constitution and demanded by the people of Louisiana. We now have this opportunity as there will be legislative oversight hearings on both the emergency and ordinary rules. We must rise to the occasion.

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