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In the seven-plus years of his administration, Gov. Bobby has pretty much had his way with the legislature in passing his so-called reform programs. The lone exception is his aborted effort to abolish the state income tax a couple of years ago.

Everything else—education reform, state employee retirement reform, privatization of the Office of Risk Management, the Office of Group Benefits, the state’s charity hospital system, rejection of Medicaid expansion, cutting funding for higher education, the sell-off of state property, and of course, all those generous corporate tax exemptions, credits and incentives for—sailed through the legislature, to borrow a phrase from my formative years, like crap through a goose.

Only the courts were able to restore some degree of sanity to the education and retirement changes.

So how has all that change worked out for the state?

Well, according to Marsha Shuler, writing in today’s Baton Rouge Advocate, the OGB reserve fund, which was already largely depleted since the privatization of that agency, has now fallen below that financial advisers believe to be a “safe” level. Those reserve funds, which were more than $500 million before Gov. Bobby’s meddling, are now at a dismal $102.8 million and at a burn rate (paying out more than it’s taking in) of $14.9 million a month (spending $1.14 for every dollar in revenue), the fund is on a trajectory of hitting less than $30 million by June 30. http://theadvocate.com/news/11705445-123/group-benefits-reserves-continue-to

The privatization of the state’s charity hospital system has resulted in a $190 million state liability to Medicaid even after the privatization deal was approved in part by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. http://www.thenewsstar.com/story/news/local/2015/01/11/hospital-decision-good-jindal-less-others/21538739/

The ripple effect of the hospital privatization has also resulted in the decision by Baton Rouge General Mid-City to close its emergency room facilities next month because of operating losses generated by the closure of Earl K. Long Medical Center which served the poor community of Baton Rouge.

But never one to pass up an opportunity to put a positive spin on bad decisions, Gov. Bobby, while taking pot shots at the Obama administration for everything from Obamacare to his Mideast policies to the threat of an imminent Islamic coup in Europe, keeps telling us (on those rare occasions when he is in the state) how wonderful things are and how Louisiana continues to outpace the rest of the nation in economic growth and business climate. http://gov.louisiana.gov/index.cfm?md=newsroom&tmp=detail&articleID=4156

His head cheerleader, Rolfe McCollister is right behind him, lending the influence of his publication, the Baton Rouge Business Report, to augment Gov. Bobby’s rosy proclamations.

http://www.businessreport.com/business/columns/la-makes-biggest-leap-in-forbes-rankings

But one should keep uppermost in mind that McCollister was treasurer of Gov. Bobby’s re-election campaign and as Bobby’s appointee to the LSU Board of Stuporvisors, was instrumental in securing the Pete Maravich Assembly Center for that prayer rally attended by about 3,500 people in the spacious 18,000-seat arena.

But let’s look at the latest survey, one which Gov. Bobby undoubtedly will ignore as he traipses about Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in search of enough commitments to get him to even register in polls of likely Republican presidential contenders.

24/7 Wall St. is a corporation which runs a financial news and opinion company. The company publishes up to 30 articles per day which are published throughout the world.

Its latest survey, issued today (Feb. 27) puts Louisiana at the very bottom of its list of the Best and Worst States for Business. http://247wallst.com/special-report/2015/02/26/the-best-and-worst-states-for-business/?utm_source=247WallStDailyNewsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=FEB272015A&utm_campaign=DailyNewsletter

That’s right, Mississippi no longer owns the anchor spot in 24/7 Wall St.’s multitudinous surveys of things good and bad. This one belongs to Louisiana.

Here’s what the survey says about Louisiana:

  • No state fared worse on 24/7 Wall St.’s business climate Index than Louisiana. The state is not the worst place to run all businesses, however. The manufacturing sector accounted for more than 20% of Louisiana’s economic output in 2013, the fourth highest such contribution in the country. Despite the strong sector, Louisiana generally provides poor conditions for business.
  • Nearly one in five residents lived in poverty in 2013 — nearly the worst rate in the nation — contributing to both the low quality of the labor force as well as a low quality of life in the state. The working-age population was projected to decline by 3.2% from 2010 through 2020, one of the worst declines in the nation. While nearly 30% of Americans had at least a bachelor’s degree as of 2013, only 22.5% of Louisiana adults had at least such a degree, also nearly the lowest rate. Poor education contributed to poor scores in innovation. The state was one of only a handful of states where the average venture capital investment was less than $1 million.

There were several factors that went into the evaluation of the state’s lowly status as a place to do business:

  • The state’s gross domestic product growth of 1.3 percent was 17th lowest in the nation;
  • Average wages and salaries of $44,828 were 23rd lowest;
  • The percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees was 5th lowest at 22.5 percent;
  • The 395 patents issued to residents were 13th lowest;
  • The negative 3.2 percent projected working-age population growth was 13th lowest.

The survey also noted that Louisiana ranked:

  • 47th in infrastructure;
  • 48th in the quality of life (the lack of adequate health care for many could be a factor in that statistic);
  • 49th in labor and human capital

Mississippi? As far as Louisiana and Gov. Bobby are concerned, that state is up there in the stratosphere at only the 4th worst in the nation.

Rounding out the bottom five were West Virginia (49th), Kentucky (48th), and Alabama (46th).

The five best, in order, were Utah, Massachusetts, Wyoming, South Dakota and Delaware, according to the survey.

Iowa and New Hampshire ranked 12th and 14th, respectively, which may help explain why Gov. Bobby spends so much time in those places instead of the state that he was elected to govern.

Nah.

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As our friend and former State Budget Officer Stephen Winham recently said when Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s recently moved Louisiana’s credit outlook from stable to negative, the bond rating agencies are finally waking up to what the rest of us have seen coming for some time now.

Now Moody’s has gone on record as saying what Gov. Bobby refuses to acknowledge: Louisiana’s public universities are not equipped to absorb additional credit stress expected with an anticipated cuts of yet another $300 million.

State Treasurer John Kennedy agrees while Joseph Rallo, barely acclimated to his new office after being chosen last October as the state’s eighth commissioner of higher education, tried to remain optimistic in the face of the latest announcement by Moody’s that the state’s colleges and universities are now in danger of having their credit ratings reduced if the legislature does not finally grow a set and stand up to Gov. Bobby.

“Moody’s is putting us on notice that it will reduce the credit ratings…if the legislature continues to cut higher ed funding,” Kennedy said. “We’ve cut our college campuses by $700 million since 2008. We’ve made deeper cuts than any other state. Enough is enough.”

Rallo told LouisianaVoice that it is not a matter of not having the revenue available to fund higher education, but rather it is an issue of allocation of funding. He said Moody’s is holding off taking the step of actually downgrading high education’s credit rating until June in order to see what the legislature will do to resolve the funding problem.

The problem at this point is twofold: Gov. Bobby refuses to take steps to increase revenue and legislators lack sufficient backbone to face Bobby down for fear of losing precious projects in their districts by veto. The legislature always blinks first.

Therefore, if Bobby won’t take steps to increase funding (he’s a party to that no-tax pledge the tea partiers forced down the throats of legislators and congressmen who had no taste for facing up to real problems and finding real solutions when self-serving rhetoric and pandering could get them re-elected), then the only alternative is to cut and cut again and then cut some more.

What these tea partiers and their ilk, including Gov. Bobby, refuse to admit in their manic pursuit of free market economics, is that corporate welfare (read lucrative tax breaks) costs this country many times what individual welfare costs and corporate fraud costs the nation billions upon billions more than the roughly 1 percent in documented welfare fraud (see details of the 2008 Wall Street bailout for verification). Corporations and corporate executives pay far fewer taxes, percentage-wise, than do middle- and low-income taxpayers in this country. Those are the cold, indisputable hard facts. To claim otherwise is to throw up that same tired old argument that the middle- and low-income are a drag on the nation’s economy while the super-rich produce wealth and jobs, thank you very much.

But Gov. Bobby would much rather continue doling out tax breaks that cost the state billions of dollars with little or no return than to take the necessary steps to pull the state out of the financial quagmire in which it currently finds itself and thus allow college to be affordable to the middle class and for the working poor of this state to have access to health care.

And legislators are a party to the scheme and must share the blame. Let’s consider some projects in the districts of four key legislators from the 2014 legislative session:

  • Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Fannin: $13 million in projects, including the Jackson Parish Riding Arena and Livestock Pavilion ($195,000 last year, $1.4 million in Priority 2 and $1.6 million in Priority 5 funding;
  • Senate President John Alario: $121 million in projects for Jefferson Parish;
  • House Speaker Chuck Kleckley: $107 million in projects in Calcasieu Parish;
  • Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue: $60 million in projects in St. Tammany Parish.

And then there are these little projects we found in last year’s capital outlay bill:

  • City Parish Golf Complex improvements (Orleans)—$9.1 million;
  • Junior Golf Training Facilities (Caddo)—$445,000;
  • Golf Course Development (Calcasieu)—$1.6 million;
  • Zephyrs Baseball facilities repair (Jefferson)—$1.5 million;
  • Professional Sports facilities improvements (Jefferson, Orleans)—$18.4 million;
  • New Orleans Sports Arena improvements (Orleans)—$41.5 million;
  • Bayou Segnette Recreation Complex (Jefferson)—$5.5 million;
  • Improvements to New Orleans Superdome—$6 million;
  • Recreational complex (Iberia)—$100,000;
  • Baseball stadium improvements (East Baton Rouge)—$1.4 million (Baton Rouge has no baseball team);
  • Improvements to amusement area, tennis center improvements (Orleans)—$1.2 million;
  • Repairs to Strand Theatre (Caddo)—$950,000;
  • Various community centers (statewide)—$11 million;
  • Various hall of fame projects (statewide)—$15 million.

One can just follow the money to see why legislators become shrinking violets when Gov. Bobby is holding that veto pen. Sure, there will be all manner of posturing, bluster and harangue but in the end, they always end up going along with whatever the governor wants.

And the governor wants what the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) wants and ALEC wants to take the state out of state universities.

And Louisiana isn’t alone.

If you don’t believe that, just take a look at what is going on in Wisconsin, Illinois, Arizona and Kansas. http://neatoday.org/2015/02/19/cuts-to-higher-education-taking-public-public-universities/

  • Louisiana: Tuition costs have increased 90 percent since Gov. Bobby took office;
  • Arizona: Tuition has more than tripled while state funding has decreased by $3,500 per student;
  • Wisconsin: Like Louisiana, $2 billion tax cuts have resulted in $300 million in cuts to higher education that could eliminate the schools of nursing, law, business, pharmacy and veterinary medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison even as Gov. Scott Walker lobbies for $220 million in public donations to the Milwaukee Bucks to build a new team arena;
  • Illinois is losing $2.1 billion in tax revenues because of lawmakers’ refusal to extend taxes that are expiring even as colleges are facing a $400 million cut;
  • Kansas is projecting a loss of $5 billion in revenues because of reckless tax cuts and higher education, not surprisingly, is on the chopping block.

It’s not a coincidence, it’s a pattern. And what would one suppose these five states have in common besides this disturbing trend in higher education funding?

Republican governors who feel they owe their allegiance not to the voters of their states, oddly enough, but to ALEC and the Koch brothers who insist on defunding state colleges and universities in the hopes they will be forced to become private universities.

That, of course, will drive tuition up even further, necessitating much larger student loans and greater profits to lending institutions and Wall Street. It also will make a college education assessable only to the wealthy while relegating the rest of society to low paying jobs in the service sector in the absence of manufacturing jobs that have all been moved offshore.

Louisiana, says Moody’s latest assessment, has had the steepest declines in state funding in the nation from 2009 through 2014.

“As the state tries to close its widening budget gap, Louisiana public universities will face additional reductions in state appropriations,” the assessment said. “After five years of the deepest cuts to public higher education in the nation and significant expense reductions, these universities are ill-equipped to face additional credit stress.”

Moody’s said the timing and magnitude of budget cuts, the ability of universities to quickly align expenses with revenue, and the degree of financial cushion to absorb operating volatility “will factor into our assessment of ratings and outlooks for individual universities.

“Currently, Louisiana public university credit quality is lower than the median A1 nationally, reflecting historically weak state funding, anemic operating performance and limited liquidity,” the report said.

So while legislators wring their hands and gnash their teeth over the hard decisions they’re going to have to make this year, just remember no one held a gun to their heads and made them drop those golf courses and baseball parks into the Capital Outlay bill last year. And the year before that. And the year before that.

And remember that Gov. Bobby and ALEC do not (boldface that: Do Not) have the survival of our universities as public institutions as a priority item. If they are ultimately forced to become private colleges, that will be perfectly fine with them.

With all due respect to Dr. Rallo, we shouldn’t expect too much from this governor in the way of meaningful solutions to a problem that has persisted since he became governor more than seven years ago—long before the latest decline in oil prices which he conveniently uses as a scapegoat for Louisiana’s fiscal ills.

The late Wiley Hilburn, who headed up the journalism program at Louisiana Tech University, once told us that Bobby visited the Ruston campus when he was Commissioner of Higher Education under former Gov. Mike Foster, ostensibly to get an overview of university operations. Instead he spent his entire visit in Hilburn’s office playing computer games.

Perhaps that’s what Louisiana’s public colleges and universities are to Gov. Bobby—a game with students serving only as action figures for his personal enjoyment.

It certainly appears that that’s all this state is to him.

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The Baton Rouge Advocate had a superb story today (Sunday, Feb. 22) that revealed that Gov. Bobby was out of state 45 percent of the time during 2014 at a direct cost of $314,144 to taxpayers in travel, lodging, meals and rental vehicles for state police security details. You can add another $58,500 (45 percent of his $130,000 per year salary) in additional costs for which taxpayers got no return while he was chasing the pipe dream of becoming president. http://theadvocate.com/news/education/11626690-63/frequent-flier

What you are about to read, though, is not about that. We’ve written about his travels before and The Advocate’s story thoroughly documents the actual costs of his travel to the extent that it would be redundant for us to beat that drum here.

Instead, this story, while much shorter than my usual posts, is simply about a Smart Phone.

And it says volumes about just how casually this administration takes its responsibility for the looming $1.6 billion state budget deficit.

It also says a lot about how certain people are not above helping themselves as they prepare to head out the door even as the institutions they are sworn to protect are swallowed by the expanding financial crisis—non unlike the captain abandoning a sinking ship with passengers still on board. We can only hope they remember to turn off the lights as they leave.

It speaks to the disdain contempt these people have for moral codes and legal constraints which require that they put the welfare of the state first and their own interests last.

And it practically shouts the double standard, the hypocrisy, and the lack of character ingrained in the makeup of the very people entrusted with running the state in the most economical, most responsible and yes, the most principled, manner possible—and their willingness to take ethical shortcuts even as they create and then walk away from a huge fiscal mess for someone else to clean up.

All this fuss over a Smart Phone?

Yes, because the entire affair is symptomatic of a much greater illness—official callousness, obliviousness and indifference—character flaws this state can ill afford in its leaders.

All over a Smart Phone.

You see, Commissioner of Administration recently decided she wanted a new Smart Phone.

Not a state-owned Smart Phone, one that would remain for her successor when she leaves office, but a Smart Phone for her very own personal use, owned by her.

And she wanted the State of Louisiana (taxpayers) to pay for it, according to our source inside the Division of Administration.

And she wasn’t shy about asking the Office of Telecommunications Management (OTM) to purchase one for her.

But OTM said no.

Nichols persisted.

OTM continued to say no.

Nichols finally relented.

But it was the very act of trying to get the state to pony up the money for a Smart Phone for her personal use that rubs salt into the state’s festering fiscal wound and calls into serious question the very integrity of the entire administration of Gov. Bobby.

It Nichols’ apparent disregard for well-defined rules and regulations disallowing just such actions that leaves the authenticity of everything she says and does subject to scrutiny and justifiable skepticism.

She should never have made such a request…and she knows it.

Her attempt at compromising her office and that of OTM, however, was only an extension of an attitude that runs throughout the upper levels of state government.

From the purchase of the luxury Eddie Bauer and Harley-Davidson trucks by former Insurance Commissioner Robert Wooley, to long-term Enterprise auto rentals for State Department of Education employees, to legislators who use campaign funds for LSU, Saints and Pelican tickets and for expensive meals, to last year’s unconstitutional attempt to bolster State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson’s retirement by $55,000 a year, to Deputy Commissioner of Administration Ruth Johnson’s ordering of two desktop computers, a laptop and expensive furniture for her office, there is an attitude of entitlement that permeates the offices of those who impose a completely different set of standards on the rest of us.

And it’s an attitude that flows from the top down.

And the real tragedy is nobody will do a damned thing about it.

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“That clanking sound you heard,” says blogger C. B. Forgotston, “was Louisiana’s proverbial fiscal can hitting the end of the road.” And he has been around state government long enough to know the signs.

“Like a kid behaving badly, we’ve been placed on probation,” added State Treasurer John Kennedy.

Both men’s assessments were in response to the double whammy of two investor rating services’—Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s—action to move Louisiana’s credit outlook from stable to negative on Friday and to threaten the more severe action of a downgrade.

“This should be a wake-up call that we need to stop spending more than we take in,” Kennedy said.  “We’ve drained our trust funds, we’ve relied on nonrecurring money and we’ve had to cut the budget in the middle of the fiscal year for too many years now.  Many have been warning that this day would arrive, and it has.”

The dual action by the two ratings services impacts $2.7 billion in outstanding general obligation debt and $1.25 billion in related debt.

Moody’s warned that continued structural imbalances, steep growth in pension costs, deterioration in financial liquidity and failure to contain costs in the state’s Medicaid system will result in a credit rating downgrade, making it more costly for the state to borrow money.

S & P added a warning that “Should budget adjustments fail to focus on recurring solutions or if the structural gap grows with continued declines in revenue or material reductions in federal program funding to the state, we could lower the rating” even further.

Gov. Bobby immediately attempted to put a positive spin on the bad news (or as Forgotston described it, tried to pour perfume on the manure pile to change the smell but not the content) by saying that the agencies didn’t lower the ratings on the existing outstanding General Obligation bonds.

But what Gov. Bobby did not say, according to Forgotston, was that the rating on those bonds was not lowered because the Louisiana State Constitution gives those bonds first call, even before employee retirement benefits, on all the money in the state treasury. “In other words, if the state goes bankrupt, those bonds will be paid,” he said, adding that future state borrowing will also cost more.

It could also mean that in the event of default, retirees won’t be getting their pension checks, something that should get the gray panthers up in arms.

At this point, we feel it important to point out—just in case anyone still needs reminding—that Gov. Bobby has been traveling all over the country (well, mainly to Iowa and Washington, D.C.) spewing his rhetoric about how he has cut the number of state employees, how Louisiana’s economy is out-performing other states, how new industry is locating to Louisiana, and how little it costs to attend LSU.

Except it’s all part of his big lie—except, of course, the part about hauling state workers out to the curb.

But if he is so hell-bent on claiming and then taking credit for all these wonderful events and trends (of course he never mentions the state’s high poverty rate, poor health care availability, our second lowest median household income, the eighth lowest percentage of citizens with a bachelor’s degree or higher, or our fifth highest violent crime rate), then he must shoulder the blame for the bad news as well.

Any coach will tell you that’s the way the game is played; if you take credit for the wins, you have to take the blame for the losses.

And of course, he never, never does that. Everything out of his mouth is about all the great accomplishments of his administration, and always spouted off in such rapid-fire fashion as to give little chance for argument from dissenters. It’s his style to overwhelm with statistics quoted by rote in his boring staccato delivery.

Well, Bobby, your rhetoric—and for that matter, you as well—are wearing a little thin.

The doubt began creeping in here in Louisiana midway of your first term and has continued to build until now the national media have caught on. Only last week, three or four national stories revealed the pitiful shape you are leaving our state in for your unfortunate successor to attempt to clean up.

Unfortunately, whoever follows you will most likely be a one-term governor because no one can clean up your mess in a single term and the voters are likely to grow weary of whoever is unfortunate enough to follow you and turn him or her out of office after four years in a desperate attempt to find a quick solution that in reality may take decades. You have set this state back that far (Thank you, Gov. Mike Foster for inflicting this plague upon us).

And, Gov. Bobby, you can just mothball your national political ambitions. Being President is a far distant fantasy by now and any prospects of a cabinet position are just as surely disappearing like so much sand through your fingers. You can now only accept that you will go down as one of, if not the most vilified governor in the history of this state. You have succeeded, by comparison, in making Earl Long appear to have been in full control of his mental faculties back in 1959.

And lest anyone think we are giving the legislature a free pass on this situation, think again. With only a handful of exceptions, those of you in the House and Senate have been complicit in this charade of governance. You have aided and abetted this pitiful excuse of a chief executive who, while pandering repeatedly that he had the job he wanted, nevertheless plunged full speed ahead toward his fool’s errand of seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Why, his own family was talking openly of his becoming President—at his first inauguration way back in 2008!

Moody’s and S &P were each quite thorough in laying out the reasoning for their simultaneous actions on Friday.

Moody’s said its action reflects a $1.6 billion structural deficit, continued budget gaps, the state’s large Medicaid caseload, job growth below the national average and significant unfunded pension liabilities.  “The negative outlook reflects the state’s growing structural budget imbalance, projected at $1.6 billion for fiscal 2016, or about 18% of the $8.7 billion general fund even after significant budget cuts of recent years,” Moody’s said. “The state has options for reducing the imbalance, including scaling back various tax credit programs, but the overall scale of balancing measures needed may further deplete resources and reduce the state’s liquidity, which has been one of its strengths.”

S & P was no kinder, citing Gov. Bobby’s reliance on non-recurring revenue which it said only served to increase future budgetary pressures. “In our view, the state’s focus on structural solutions to its general fund budget challenges will be a key determinant of its future credit stability.

“We could consider revising the outlook back to stable if revenue trends stabilize and if Louisiana makes material progress in aligning its recurring revenues and expenditures on a timely basis with a focus on recurring solutions. Should budget adjustments fail to focus on recurring solutions or if the structural gap grows with continued declines in revenue or material reductions in federal program funding to the state, we could lower the rating,” S & P said.

Forgotston, in his own unique way, tells us what Moody’s and S & P were really telling us: “Bobby, you and the legislators have made a big ‘number-two’ mess in your fiscal pants and we have no faith in your ability to clean it up. Folks, don’t let the legislators try to fool you; this is very bad news for us taxpayers and the legislators are the reason for it.”

Yes, it’s easy to blame Gov. Bobby because he has in his seven years initiated every Ponzi scheme one could imagine from giving away something like $11 billion in tax incentives (according to one recent story), to giving away the state’s charity hospitals, to robbing the Office of Group Benefits reserve fund, to attempting to rob the state’s retirement system, to refusing federal grants for needed projects, to rejecting Medicaid expansion and thus depriving the state’s indigent population access to decent health care which in turn led directly to the announced closure of the emergency room of a major Baton Rouge hospital. The list goes on.

But, as Gov. Bobby is so fond of saying, at the end of the day, it was the legislature, through the “leadership” of Senate President John Alario, House Speaker Chuck Kleckley and Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin that allowed him to do it by refusing to grow a collective set and stand up to this vindictive little amateur dictator.

This is an election year and Louisiana voters—particularly state employees, former state employees who have lost their jobs because of Gov. Bobby, teachers, retirees and the state’s working poor would do well to remember what this governor has done to them and which legislators voted to support the administration’s carnage inflicted upon this state.

There are those few in the House and Senate who have spoken up and tried to be the voices of reason but those voices have been drowned out by Gov. Bobby’s spinmeisters.

So when you vote for governor next fall, you would do well to ignore the TV commercials bought by those who want only to continue down this same path of economic destruction and growing income disparity and consider who you believe really has the best interest of the state, and not the special interests, at heart. In other words, think for yourselves instead of letting some ad agency do your thinking for you.

If you don’t get your collective heads out of the sand and in the most emphatic manner you can muster, tell your neighbors, your friends, your family, the clerk at the store where you shop for food and clothing, the cashier at the restaurant where you eat what this governor and this legislature have done to you and to them, then come next fall, you have no one to blame but yourselves.

The time for joking about Gov. Bobby is over. We’re at the end game now.

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Even as Gov. Bobby is busy handing out pink slips to state employees (a new round of layoffs is anticipated momentarily), LouisianaVoice has learned of a couple of unusual hiring practices—one involving yet another retire-rehire, this time by the Department of Public Safety, and a possible case of nepotism that has since quietly been resolved in the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (LADHH) with the timely transfer of the mother of a LADHH administrator to another agency.

DHH Deputy Secretary Courtney Phillips has accepted the position of Secretary of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (NDHH) and will begin her duties there on April 1, according to a press release from LADHH Secretary Kathy Kliebert.

Courtney Phillips has been employed by LADHH since 2003 when she began as a management intern. She was appointed Deputy Secretary on May 10, 2013, at a salary of $145,000, according to information obtained by LouisianaVoice from LADHH.

Her mother, Sheila Phillips was initially hired by LADHH on June 19, 2012, as an Administrative Coordinator at a salary of $37,500.

“At no point in time did Courtney Phillips serve in a supervisory role over Sheila Phillips,” said LADHH spokesperson Olivia Watkins in an email Thursday to LouisianaVoice. “Regarding her time as deputy secretary, Courtney Phillips did not officially begin her tenure as deputy secretary until May 10, 2013. Sheila Phillips ended her employment with DHH on May 9, 2013, and is currently an employee with the Department of Environmental Quality.

Civil Service records reflect that Sheila Phillips actually resigned on May 8, 2013, two days before her daughter’s promotion, and began working on May 9, 2013, for the Department of Environmental Quality as an Administrative Assistant 4 and currently makes $40,560 per year.

And while Courtney Phillips did not begin as deputy secretary until two days after her mother left the agency, her curriculum vitae that she submitted to the State of Nebraska notes that she served as Chief of Staff at LADHH from September of 2011 until her promotion to deputy director—which was during the time when her mother was hired.

State statute, according to Watkins, specifically says that “no member of the immediate family of a member of a governing authority or the chief executive of a governmental entity shall be employed by the governmental entity.”

The statute defines “agency head” as chief executive or administrative officer of an agency or any member of a board or commission who exercises supervision over the agency, Watkins said.

“Based on consultation with Civil Service, agency head would not include the chief of staff position, precluding any violation of the state nepotism law during her tenure in that role. Furthermore, as chief of staff, Courtney Phillips did not have legal appointing authority or supervise any DHH program office, including the Office of Public Health where Sheila Phillips worked from 06/09/2012 through 05/09/2013.

“Given that definition and the facts of the employment of Courtney Phillips and Sheila Phillips, nepotism was not a concern,” Watkins said.

Her resumé, however, says her Chief of Staff duties involved the planning and direction of “all administrative, financial, and operational activities for the department’s Secretary, Deputy Secretary, and Undersecretary” and that she acted “as a point of contact between top management and employees, as well as developing, overseeing and maintaining the budget for the executive office. She also said in her resumé that she served as a “key member of the executive management team responsible for the central coordination of activities and ensuring timely flow of information to and from the executive office.”

Moreover, on various LADHH organizational charts obtained by LouisianaVoice, Courtney Phillips served directly under the position of agency undersecretary during the tenures of both Bruce Greenstein, who resigned in March of 2013, and Kliebert.

As a “key member of the executive management team,” she was also a member of and regularly voted on matters coming before the LADHH Statewide Governance Board and signed off on letters to top legislators dealing with LADHH policy.

Meanwhile, an Information Technology (IT) Director 4 who retired from his $140,500 a year job at the Division of Administration (DOA) on Oct. 31, 2014, began working on Dec. 8, just over a month later, for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP) as a technology consultant at $70 per hour, Civil Service records show. Jeya Selvaratnam

SELVARATNAM GOHSEP

Prior to his four-month stint with DOA, which began on June 23, 2014, and ran through Oct. 31 (he was retired for little more than a month, from Nov. 1 through Dec. 7), Jeya Selvaratnam worked first as an IT Deputy Director 2 for the Department of Public Safety’s (DPS) Office of Management and Finance from Sept. 25, 2006 through Aug. 27, 2008 at which time he was promoted to IT Director 4 for the same office. He remained at that post until June 22, 2014, when he moved over to DOA.

The Louisiana Board of Ethics prohibits former state employees from working for the same agency within two years of their retirements. The statute (R.S. 42:1111-1121) says, “During the two year period following the termination of public service as a public employee, these individuals may not assist another for compensation, in a transaction, or in an appearance in connection with a transaction involving the agency in which the former public employee participated while employed by the agency nor may the former public employee provide on a contractual basis to his former public employer, any service he provided while employed there.”

GOHSEP spokesperson Christina Dayries, however, said when retirees are rehired by state agencies, they are allowed to earn half of what they collect in state retirement. He was earning $140,500 per year and with more than 30 years of service, qualifies for at least 75 percent of his base salary in retirement. That computes to more than $105,000 in retirement, plus 50 percent of that amount as a re-hire up to $158,000—nearly $18,000 more than he made full time.

The project on which Selvaratnam now works as a part time capacity is the DPS FirstNet National Public Safety Broadband Network.

The project calls for the expenditure of up to $135 million of a State and Local Implementation Grant (SLIGP) provided by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to provide emergency responders with their first nationwide, high-speed broadband network dedicated to public safety, according to a Power Point presentation given on Jan. 21 and 22 of this year to provide an overview of the program created under the federal Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012.

The $135 million 80-20 federal-state grant is only for the planning of the project. Implementation of the nationwide network is expected to cost $7 billion with funding expected to come from spectrum auction. By law, the network is to be self-sustaining upon expending the $7 billion.

There are 10 regional teams set up to implement the program on a nationwide basis. Louisiana is a member of Team 6, along with New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

The program’s staffing chart shows Selvaratnam serving under the supervision of Program Manager Allison McLeary.

While at DPS, he represented the department as a member of the Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee (SIEC) SIEC which is responsible for the ability of emergency service agencies to communicate across disciplines and jurisdictions, particularly during times of emergency. SIEC membership is composed of all appropriate first responder and support organizations and has “full authority to design, construct, administer and maintain a statewide interoperable communications system…in support of full response to any emergency event,” according to GOHSEP’s web page. http://www.gohsep.la.gov/interop.aspx

As the DPS representative on the SIEC, he also served as chairman of the SIEC Broadband Subcommittee. Accordingly, he had duties and responsibilities for the SLIGP program during that time and is again providing those same services.

Louisiana State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson, for whom Selvaratnam worked at DPS, is the “State Point of Contact” for the FirstNet project, according to the Power Point presentation, with the Office of State Police listed as the SLIGP grant recipient and GOHSEP as the grant administrator.

A law meant to bring retirees back for short-term help was used by almost 200 current, full-time employees in the Department of Corrections. An oversight in the writing of the law even allowed “retired” employees to continue accruing money into their pension plans, according to a story on Governing, a web-based site on state and local government. http://www.governing.com/topics/public-workforce/Double-Dip-Dilemma.html

The issue of retire-rehire sparked considerable debate in 2010 when Higher Education Commissioner Sally Clausen resigned and rehired herself two days later, a move that netted her a $90,000 payout for unused sick leave and vacation time and entitled her to $146,400 in retirement pay. http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2010/06/higher_education_commissioner.html

 

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