A confrontation reminiscent of the one nearly 50 years ago between the managing editor (yours truly) and the family news editor at the Ruston Daily Leader has arisen between Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Louisiana Public Service Commission (PSC) and if the late Wiley Hilburn were alive today, he might well find the latest one just as amusing.
Hilburn was on hand when I needed a camera to cover a breaking news story. The only problem was, the news camera was broken and the only one available was a cheap one Publisher Tom Kelly had purchased for use by family news editor Virginia Kavanaugh for her section. “Give me your camera,” I said as I hung up the telephone and stood from my chair across from her. “I have to get a picture of a wreck on I-20.”
“No,” said Mrs. Kavanaugh. “You can’t have it. It’s for my use.”
In complete exasperation and more than a little frustrated at this unexpected lesson in humility, I looked over at Hilburn who had just walked in with a news release from Louisiana Tech University. The look I got in return told me I was on my own. “But I’m the managing editor!” I finally blurted. It was the only thing that came to mind in response to her unexpected insubordination. As I write this, I swear I can still hear Hilburn laughing at the absurdity of the scene that unfolded before his eyes. He would repeat that story for my benefit for years to come, laughing just as hard as he did that morning at the very audacity of my naïve belief that in some parallel universe, my managing editor badge trumped her title as family news editor.
And I never got that camera.
Now the PSC has ripped a page from Mrs. Kavanaugh’s playbook and it’s just as funny.
Jindal, in a desperate attempt to scrape together a few pennies to cover what at last estimate was a deficit of about $141 million, is conducting a fire sale of what state assets still remain after he disposed of state buildings and parking garages in years past to patch similar budget holes.
The administration wants to sell some 700 state vehicles, including 13 assigned to the PSC but commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday (Dec. 17) to direct the PSC staff not to relinquish the vehicles because, the commission lacks funds with which to rent cars and to sell them would hinder its work.
Jindal planned to confiscate the vehicles to be sold with the others early next year in yet another cost-cutting move. The administration says the PSC vehicles aren’t used enough to justify their upkeep.
(The same might be said for some of the governor’s highly-paid appointees. And let’s not even discuss the cost of overtime, lodging, travel and meals for state police security details that accompany the governor on all of those trips to Iowa, New Hampshire and Washington.)
It should be noted that the $141 million shortfall was before the latest plunge in oil prices which Jindal conveniently blames for the fiscal mess in which the state finds itself—again. Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera is scheduled to give a presentation tomorrow (Thursday, Dec. 18) to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget and early indications are the governor’s office and Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols aren’t going to be very happy.
The $1.4 million anticipated from the sale of the vehicles represents a shade less than 1 percent of the $141 million deficit (which may be even more after the legislative auditor’s report) and is only a tiny fraction of the $25 billion state budget.
“Of the 13 state vehicles at the Public Service Commission, 11 of them are driven less than 15,000 miles a year,” said Jan Cassidy, Assistant Commissioner of Administration for Procurement. “The cost of maintaining underutilized vehicles is greater than the cost of reimbursing employees for travel when it’s necessary,” she said.
The $1.4 million anticipated from the sale of the vehicles would not be net since the state would be required to either pay employees for use of personal vehicles or pay for rental of cars through a contract the state has with Enterprise Car Rentals.
The administration put agencies on notice about the planned sale last week, giving them two weeks to turn over vehicles designated for auction.
“Reducing state expenses requires all state agencies to review their priorities and ensure they are spending taxpayer dollars appropriately,” Cassidy said.
One of those voting to defy the governor was Scott Angelle who once served in Jindal’s cabinet. A dispute between the PSC and the governor’s office has been simmering and the vehicle flap is only the latest issue as things have reached a boiling point.
The PSC has been critical of a recent practice by the administration and the legislature to take over funds paid to the PSC as fees by regulated companies. Members say the action amounts to an unconstitutional tax levy while the governor and legislator argue for the right to use the fees as part of the state budget. That outcome of that argument is now pending in court.
We can only assume that state police vehicles were exempt from the fire sale order. But with this administration, who knows?
Nor was there was any immediate word on whether or not the administration would attempt to seize the PSC vehicles, which would just be another log on that smoldering fire.
But somewhere within the walls of the Governor’s mansion (he’s rarely on the fourth floor of the State Capitol, we’re told), Bobby Jindal must be incredulous as he exclaims perhaps to wife Supriya or, to a curious butler, “But I’m the governor!”