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Archive for October, 2010

Political ads normally don’t generate much excitement among voters because for the most part, they are disingenuous at best and packed with blatant lies and half-truths at worst.

But there was a series of ads in Kentucky that can be found by connecting to the links below. In the first two ads, Republican challenger Mitch McConnell attempts to “find” the missing incumbent Democrat U.S. Sen. Walter Huddleston whom McConnell paints as AWOL on several key votes. Huddleston, it seems, is too busy making speeches to tend to the more mundane matters of Senate votes.

A team of bloodhounds is employed in futile attempts to locate the missing Huddleston in such places as Los Angeles hotels and on the beaches of Puerto Rico, places where Huddleston allegedly received generous speaking fees. That was in 1984 and McConnell defeated Huddleston.

Now fast forward to 2008 and Democrat Bruce Lunsford reprises the bloodhound ads and uses them against McConnell in an unsuccessful bid to unseat the four-term Republican.

Here are the links:

Perhaps this same tactic could be employed to find our own AWOL governor.

LSU student body President J. Ryan Hudson, he of the timely letter to the missing Gov. Jindal, could lead a team of bloodhounds out of the front gates of the university as he calls out, “Piyush, Piyush, where are you? Please come home.”

As a determined Hudson trudges through swamps and across Louisiana’s prairies, he encounters military veterans with recently-awarded medals given them by Jindal, but no Jindal. “He came through here, pinned this medal on me, said something really fast, and disappeared,” the veterans say, shaking their heads and adding, “That boy sure talks fast. Couldn’t understand half of what he said.”

Hudson labors on, going from church to church in north Louisiana only to find over and over that, “Yes, the governor was here. He popped in during our services, passed out some checks, and left.”

The bloodhounds pick up the governor’s scent at helicopter pads located near the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge, but now he’s off to Florida, New Hampshire, New York, Missouri, Georgia, California, Ohio, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Iowa where he delivers staccato endorsements of fellow Republicans while condemning the federal stimulation money that he accepted anyway and then heads off to another fundraiser in yet another state.

Hudson, realizing the dogs are exhausted and in grave peril of suffering the same fate as the bloodhound in the classic movie “Cool Hand Luke,” finally gives up in the realization that Jindal may have the job he wants, but without a Hurricane Gustav or a major oil spill, he becomes bored rather quickly and must seek other venues to get valuable face time with the television cameras.

Reluctantly, he takes the bloodhounds home and returns to LSU to witness, along with the combined student bodies, administrators, and professors at all of Louisiana’s universities, the dismantling of Louisiana higher education in the interest of transparency. Meanwhile, Piyush can be heard from somewhere far away, as if through the fog of a bad dream, telling us to stop whining.

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Here is a copy of an email sent out to all employees of the Department of Health and Hospitals last Friday by DHH Secretary Bruce Greenstein:

October 22, 2010

Dear Colleagues:

Every time I write or meet with you, I hope that our discussions are focused on positive ways for us to do our jobs better and more effectively serve our state’s people. Today, we will do that, but we will also be tempered with our budget reality, the challenging economic times faced by our state and nation, and the real impact they will have on the DHH team. Indeed, since I came to Louisiana last month, I have seen the great devotion and passion each of you brings to your work and the value you add to our collective efforts.

Today, Governor Jindal issued an executive order announcing the state’s $106.7 million shortfall from the 2010 fiscal year and directed each of the state’s departments to take a hard look at our operations and find ways to work better, smarter and more efficiently. Our Governor has long been committed to providing the core health care services and programs that our residents need, while providing maximum value for taxpayers. But, today, like so many families in our state, DHH has to live within our means. We are faced with a $20.8 million reduction as part of this shortfall, and we examined our administrative operations as well as programmatic. Further, we have recognized a $50 million funding deficit in Medicaid caused by unfunded increases in utilization.

Facing our challenges head-on, I asked every office to fully review their budget and programs, remembering that our top priority is to protect and improve the public’s health. Starting with administrative staff, including my office, we focused our plan on consolidating functions and streamlining how we work, while considering every source of funding to offer the same services provided today at less cost.

Today, our plan to address this combined $70 million void in our budget includes Medicaid reductions, program consolidations and savings, facility closures or privatization and staff reductions. In Medicaid, a combination of reducing provider reimbursement rates, closing eligibility processing offices, eliminating the CommunityCare program, standardizing limits on emergency room visits for adults, and restructuring certain financing methods are part of our strategy to preserve access and focus funding on programs that truly improve the long-term health of enrollees.

In the Office of the Secretary, we reviewed our core functions and streamlined work flow to reduce our total positions. OAAS and OBH are making better use of federal funding sources, reducing administrative positions and consolidating regional management. OCDD will transition clients from Bayou Supports and Services Center to private providers and other state centers, as well as transition operations of four Leesville group homes to private providers. OPH will achieve savings by consolidating functions and management positions in regional and central offices, and most significantly, redistributing and reconfiguring staffing and services offered by several parish health units across the state.

These reductions, consolidations and reconfigurations of programs and services will lead to a reduction in staff. To alleviate the burden of this transition, a task force led by the assistant secretaries for each program office is working with DHH’s Human Resources Division and the Louisiana Department of Civil Service to ensure impacted employees are provided, whenever possible, opportunities to fill needed vacancies in other offices or departments. In addition, the transition task-force is exploring initiatives to encourage private providers to hire displaced state employees. Further, each office is working closely with every impacted staff member, family, provider and legislator to ensure we are communicating effectively and timely.

I wish the news today was better.

Our state continues to face tremendous financial challenges and will certainly face our greatest challenge yet next year. The responsibility we have to our residents cannot allow us to think and act the same. We must think differently and innovatively.

Soon, we will send you a news release that will fully explain our budget reductions and the impact on our state. If I or a member of my staff can answer questions or provide additional information, please contact us.

Sincerely,
Bruce

Below is the October 22 “General Notice of Impending Layoff” to DHH employees from Undersecretary Jerry Phillips:

In accordance with the requirements of Civil Service Rule 17.12 (s), general notice is hereby given of impending layoffs to be effective no later that January 30, 2011, in the Department of Health and Hospitals. Positions occupied by employees affected by the proposed layoffs are located statewide in all Offices of the Department.

Once the layoff plans have been approved by the Director of Civil Service, they will be made generally available to all employees. Each employee who is directly affected by any layoff will receive two individual notices prior to the effective date of the layoff.

Responsibilities of Employees Affected in a Layoff (Civil Service Rule 17.19):

The responsibility of employees affect in a layoff are listed below. This rule applies to active employees and includes employees who are on leave for any reason, on detail to special duty and on temporary interdepartmental assignment.

a) The employee shall read or otherwise make himself aware of agency-distributed information concerning the layoff.

b) The employee shall supply all informaton required by the agency to determine adjusted state service date in the format and by the deadline set by the agency. Failure to do so will result in the employee’s adjusted service date being set at the date of their most recent hire.

c) If the employee is absent from work, he shall provide to the personnel specified by his agency, correct and current information as required by the agency on how he may be reached at all times.

d) The employee shall respond to a relocation offer in a manner determined by the agency. Failure to do so shall be considered a declinaton of the offer.

e) For purposes of meeting the job qualifications of the relocation offer, an employee must have a grade from Civil Service only in the instance of an employee moving from a sub-professional level job to a professional level job. The employee must have the gradfe before the effective date of the layoff to be eligible for that position. The grade need not be active, it may be expired; however, it must be a grade for the test currently in use and must be verifiable.

f) Once an employee accepts or declines a relocation offer, the decision is final.

More information will be provided by LouisianaVoice as details emerge.

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J. Ryan Hudson made the most of his 15 minutes.

Just in case you haven’t been paying attention lately, J. Ryan Hudson is the LSU Student Body president who wrote the now-famous op-ed letter to the Keene (New Hampshire) Sentinel in which he opined that Gov. Bobby Jindal “is spending more time in your state than the one he was elected to represent.”

As class sizes at LSU have grown, higher education has undergone $280 million in budget cuts over the past two years and is facing another $290 million in cutbacks, prompting Hudson to write that Jindal should pay more attention to state budget shortfalls than spending time campaigning for Republican candidates in other states.

“On behalf of the students whose hopes for a brighter future will soon be crushed, I beg you to return to Louisiana and fix your state’s serious problems,” Hudson said. “You’ve neglected your constituents long enough.

“You’ll have a much better chance of becoming president if you save, instead of destroy, Louisiana’s universities,” he said, implying that Jindal may have a not-so-secret agenda aimed at seeking higher office.

To be sure, Hudson’s letter was brash, maybe a little rude, and certainly timely.

And, sadly, all too accurate.

Jindal, rather than anchoring himself to the Capitol’s fourth floor office, chooses to globetrot on behalf of Republican candidates most in Louisiana have never heard of while refusing to endorse Republican candidates in Louisiana. One can understand his reluctance to speak out in favor of David Vitter in his Senate race against Charlie Melancon given Vitter’s political baggage, but Secretary of State Jay Dardenne can’t wrangle an endorsement from Jindal even though Dardenne’s TV spots stress his wish to work with Jindal in promoting the governor’s programs.

Even more difficult to comprehend is Jindal’s reluctance to tackle state finances head-on. After all, hasn’t he been telling us over and over that he has the job he wants? If that’s true, then he should stay home and do that job.

Oh, sure, he pays lip service to reducing, or streamlining, state government. But as the state budget turns an ever-darkening shade of red, he stands adamant in his refusal to address a tax increase in the wake of dwindling state revenues.

Tax increases are never pleasant, especially with statewide elections only a year away, but neither is the prospect of a state becoming insolvent. That’s a very real prospect.

And Jindal, along with an out-of-control legislature, must shoulder the blame. The state had money, but the legislature, drunk with one-time revenue, went spend-crazy this year and Jindal wouldn’t—or couldn’t—summon the courage to rein in the insanity with his line item veto power.

Time magazine describes half the states as having joined the federal government “in the fiscal sick ward” as high unemployment and the recession combined with drastically reduced income to deliver a weakened economy that appears at times to be spiraling out of control.

Barely into its new fiscal year, Louisiana is already facing a $100 million deficit, thanks to depressed oil prices and reduced tax revenues, the magazine said. To deal with the crisis, the state has frozen hiring, deferred maintenance on state buildings and canceled $500,000 in new equipment. Legislators, meanwhile, are talking tax increases. “We’ve run out of windfall from Washington,” the state budget director lamented. “We’ve run out of exotic tax measures. Our economy has run out of gas, and in Louisiana, when you run out of gas, you run out of money.”

Sound familiar? The by now all too familiar theme should resonate with anyone who follows Louisiana politics.

But that story actually ran in Time on Nov. 8, 1982—almost exactly 28 ominously prophetic years ago when Ralph Perlman was budget director and Dave Treen was governor. Louisiana has held seven elections and has chosen five new governors since then. The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.

Today, nearly three decades after that story, Louisiana is wrestling with a $108 million budget deficit less than four months into the 2011 fiscal year than began on July 1. Even worse, the administration is anticipating a staggering projected shortfall of up to $2 billion next year.

It’s not as if the administration and legislators were not forewarned: Greg Albrecht, the chief economist for the Legislative Fiscal Office, said in May that he didn’t expect state income tax revenue to meet earlier forecasts.

Now, Gov. Bobby Jindal finds himself trying to find a way to cut state budgets yet another 35 percent—when he’s in the state, which is becoming more and more infrequent. Some legislators said they see the present fiscal malaise as a chance to downsize government in lieu of falling back on the usual accounting tricks to balance the budget.

Sen. John Alario, D-Westwego, called the situation “a grand opportunity for us to scale back government.” Alario, the legislator primarily responsible for the often-criticized state’s $22 million purchase of the financially troubled Players Tournament Club golf facility in Marrero, said downsizing “could never be done if you didn’t have to be faced with this situation.”

Jindal, in lieu of raising taxes, seems intent on slashing higher education and health care. Meanwhile, he keeps popping up in Florida, New Hampshire, New York, Missouri, Georgia, California, Ohio, and Minnesota to campaign for GOP candidates.

Legislators say the anticipated budgets will close hospitals for the poor and cripple higher education while college presidents call the proposed cuts “catastrophic.” Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco says a 35 percent cut would effectively shut down government services and that education would undergo a “meltdown to mediocrity.”

Jindal says spending cuts are preferable to higher taxes and that additional privatization may be in store as a means to save the state money.

He missed his chance to cut spending at the end of the last regular legislative session when he could have exercised his line item veto power to bring the Capital Outlay bill more into line. He had the opportunity to veto more than $450 million in Priority One spending but chose to veto only $9.4 million—all in Priority Two, or second year spending. Among the Priority One appropriations in the Capital Outlay Bill that were allowed to stand were:

• $800,000 for land acquisition for the proposed Allen Parish Reservoir;
• $1.4 million for the proposed Bayou Dechene Reservoir in Caldwell Parish;
• $2.6 million for the Washington Parish Reservoir Commission Feasibility study;
• $17.2 million for Bayou Segnette Festival Park land acquisition and sports complex improvements;
• $28 million for modifications to the Performing Arts Center in Jefferson Parish;
• $2 million for construction of a playground Basketball Gym in Orleans Parish;
• $1.8 million for construction of the Little Theatre of Shreveport;
• $2.6 million for a new Westbank YMCA in Algiers;
• $2 million for the New Orleans Music Hall of Fame;
• $6 million for construction of a new courthouse in Baton Rouge;
• $2.8 million for the Dryades YMCA in New Orleans;
• $5.4 million for the Red River Waterway Commission;
• $7.7 million for the renovation of the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette;
• $2.5 million for improvements to the Coteau Water System in St. Martin and Iberia parishes;
• $2.4 million for the Union Parish Law Enforcement District;
• $1.8 million for construction for the Robinson Film Center in Caddo Parish;
• $12 million for construction of a convention center complex in Shreveport;
• $3.8 million for a new tennis center in Orleans Parish;
• $4.7 million for construction of the Louisiana Artist Guild Arts Incubator in New Orleans;
• $26.5 million for expansion and construction of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans;

Millions more were spent on construction projects that included recreational facilities, councils on aging, courthouses, sheriffs’ offices, jails, drainage projects, work on parish and municipal road and street construction projects, community centers, and water systems.

As if that were not enough, when legislators found extra money lying around, as they always seem to do during each legislative session, the House quickly pushed HB 76 through, appropriating an additional $33 million in local pork projects. Some of those expenditures:

• $150,000 for the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame in Winnfield;
• $500,000 for the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities;
• $500,000 to “organizations which assist small towns and rural areas with their water and wastewater systems;”
• $250,000 for construction of an animal shelter in St. Charles Parish;
• $1 million to the Lafayette Parish Consolidated Government for infrastructure construction;

Of that $33 million, Jindal vetoed only 32 projects totaling less than $2.5 million.

That’s a sign of a weak governor—one who lacks the singular courage to scale back reckless spending by legislators when the very future of the state depends on it, demands it. As a result, higher education and health care will continue to suffer while golf courses, community centers, baseball parks, sheriffs’ offices, ground water reservoirs, and other local projects will flourish while legislators take the credit and bask in the gratitude of constituents back home.

The name of that 1982 Time magazine article that chronicled economic hard times for state governments?

“Living Beyond Their Means.”

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BATON ROUGE (CNS)— The previous Louisiana Constitution, passed in 1921, was subjected to a whopping 802 proposed amendments in its 53-year history. Voters approved 536 of those, the most of any state constitution in the U.S.

The 1921 document was originally less than 50,000 words but by 1973, when then-Gov. Edwin Edwards saw the need for a new constitution it had grown to more than 250,000 words, making it the nation’s lengthiest as well. In 1970, disgruntled voters defeated all 53 proposed amendments.

The 1973 Constitutional Convention convened in Baton Rouge, producing a document of only 35,000 words in length. It was approved by voters in 1974 and since then 155 of 223 proposed amendments have been approved. The best year was 2006 when 21 of 21 proposed amendments passed. The nadir was 1992 when voters approved only two of 12.

Unless the proposed amendments are tied to a major election, voter turnout is traditionally low, ranging as low as 18 percent (1993). That’s because voters rarely understand—or really care about the amendments.

On Nov. 2, Louisiana voters will again be asked to decide on 10 proposed constitutional amendments (two were approved earlier this month). While most again apply only to a select clientele and are difficult to understand, there are a couple that warrant special attention. (For a detailed explanation of each amendment, log onto the Public Affairs Research Council’s web page at: http://www.la-par.org/Publications/PDF/ConstAmend_Nov2010.pdf.)

Amendment One is probably the one that will generate the most interest statewide with Amendment Two a close second from the perspective of individual parishes.

A vote for Amendment One would require than any increase in the salaries of statewide elected officials, public service commissioners, or legislators not take effect until the beginning of the next term after the increase is approved.

State civil service employees were infuriated earlier this year when it was learned that legislators had received a 9.7 percent increase while at the same time denying 4 percent merit increases for classified employees.

In 2008, legislators passed a 123 percent increase for themselves but the public outcry was such that House Speaker Jim Tucker made an 11th-hour appeal that Gov. Bobby Jindal veto the increase. Jindal, who had initially said he would not veto the bill, nevertheless complied with Tucker’s request and legislators hoped that the incident would be forgotten.

But if that anger carries over, the amendment is almost certain to pass, meaning office holders would not benefit from any approved pay increase unless they are re-elected sense the increase would not take effect until the beginning of the next term of office.

Earlier this month, voters may have unwittingly approved an amendment that changed employees of the State Department of Homeland Security from classified to unclassified, meaning they would not be restricted by the freeze on classified employee salaries and could receive virtually unlimited increases.

The legislature is responsible for determining the salaries for statewide elected officials, members of the Public Service Commission, and members of the Legislature. Proponents of the amendment say there would be less incentive for legislators to pass pay raises for themselves if they could not benefit personally unless they were re-elected.

Opponents say that such a restriction should be statutory—that is, passed by the Legislature in the form of a new law—rather than by amending the Constitution.

The obvious response to that argument would be to ask who in his wildest fantasy actually thinks the Legislature would ever pass such a law? Given the recent history of the Legislature, that answer would appear somewhat obvious.

Amendment Two would increase state severance tax revenue for parishes of origin and also dedicate a portion of severance tax collected on state lands to the Atchafalaya Basin Conservation Fund.

Local governments are prohibited from levying any severance taxes and the sharing of state severance tax revenue goes all the way back to that 1921 Constitution and is intended to compensate parishes for wear and tear on local roads and bridges by oil and gas drilling equipment and other related traffic.

The present Constitution requires the state to pay parishes or origin 20 percent of the state severance tax on all natural resources except sulfur, lignite, or timber. The amount each parish can receive, however, is capped at $850,000, adjusted annually for inflation. The cap for 2009 calendar year was $907,534.

Opponents of the proposed amendment question the wisdom of the state’s giving up more revenue to benefit parishes. They argue that mineral resources are considered assets of the state as a whole and an increased dedication would prevent the state from using revenue where most needed.

Proponents counter that increasing the cap above the inflation rate is justified because parishes should receive a larger share of minerals taken from them.

Other amendments, if passed:

Number 3: would give parishes the option call elections to double the homestead exemption for veterans with service-connected 100 percent disabilities (this benefit would extend to certain surviving spouses);

Number 4: would limit property tax millage increases that non-elected taxing bodies following a mandatory millage decrease due to reassessment;

Number 5: would allow homeowners displaced by disaster to apply for a second five-year extension on special assessment levels and homestead exemptions if they are unable to reoccupy their homes due to pending appeals on damage claims;

Number 6: would require majority legislative approval for changes to benefits provisions of any public retirement system subject to legislative authority, and would require two-thirds legislative approval when any changes have an actuarial cost;

Number 7: would change bidding rules for tax sale auctions and would allow tax collectors to charge additional penalties for nonpayment of property taxes;

Number 8: would remove the requirement that public authorities first offer expropriated property for re-sale to its prior owner before the property can be sold to a third party provided the property was taken to remove a public health or safety threat and was held for 30 years or less;

Number 9: would require that certain workers’ compensation cases be re-argued before a panel of five or more appellate judges prior to the reversal or modification of an administrative agency’s decision (present law requires a majority vote of a panel of only three judges).

Number 10: would allow criminal defendants to waive rights to a jury trial in non-capital cases only if the waiver is made at least 45 days prior to the beginning of trial and would provide that any such waiver would be irrevocable.

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When the State of Louisiana purchased the assets of financially troubled Tournament Players Club (TPC) golf club in Marrero in Jefferson Parish on September 10, 2009, it’s no wonder the Division of Administration did not inform the State Land Office for a full year.

State Land Office (SLO) Administrator Charles St. Romain said his office is responsible for the identification, administration and management of state public lands and waterbottoms, but that he was unaware that the state had purchased the TPC facilities until September of this year.

The Act of Sale, dated September 10, 2009, was signed by then-Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis. The purchase price was $9,150,000. Davis resigned in August of this year.

Marrero Land and Improvement Association, headed by real estate developer Buckner Barkley, a financial backer of the Louisiana Republican Party and Gov. Bobby Jindal, donated about 250 acres of land in 2001—during the administration of then-Gov. Murphy Foster. The state in turn spent about $12.8 million to pay for the cost of building the course which hosts the Zurich Classic PGA Tournament each year.

The state then leased the property to TPC and Foster agreed to a deal whereby the state guaranteed a minimum number of rounds of golf at the facility each year. The rounds were to be purchased through hotel concierges in New Orleans but the hotel industry was not informed of the deal initially and the state found itself shelling out $5.1 million in the club’s very first year.

The club continued to lose money and in 2009, the state purchased the facility. The Division of Administration in November of 2008, more than nine months before the execution of the sales agreement, entered into an agreement with the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District (LSED) to administer the club. LSED also manages the Louisiana Superdome.

LSED in turn executed a “golf facility management agreement” with TPC Louisiana under which TPC would manage the club for 30 years for a minimum of $100,000 per year, plus an incentive management fee of 2.5 percent of gross revenues and 10 percent of net revenues not to exceed $150,000 per year with annual increases not to exceed 3 percent per annum. That agreement was dated September 10, 2009, the same date as the sales agreement between TPC and the state.

No explanation was given as to why the state bailed out a failing facility for nearly $9.2 million and immediately turned the operation of that facility back over to the company that had been running it at a financial loss.

Even more puzzling is why the state saw the need to invest in a golf course in the first place. Or in the case of the Louisiana Legislature, four golf courses. The state is also financing the construction of courses in Lake Charles and Alexandria and it assumed operation of Black Bear Golf Course at Poverty Point in 2006. Since 1997, the state has spent in excess of $141 million on golf courses—all at a time when the state budget is hemorrhaging red ink and designer golf courses are on the decline in popularity and shutting down all over the country.

The Louisiana Municipal Police Employee Retirement System (MPERS) in October 2009 lost its $24 million investment in the Hal Sutton designed Boot Ranch Development golf club in Fredericksburg, Texas. That would be bad enough if that were the only such loss by MPERS, but it’s not. The retirement system has also dropped $12.1 million on Olde Oaks Golf Club in Haughton (and still losing $500,000 a year) and $3.1 million on The Club at Stonebridge, also in Bossier Parish. MPERS also lost an additional $15.7 million on its purchase of and improvements to the development of Olde Oaks properties, bringing its total losses just on golf courses to more than $39 million.

Golf courses that have recently closed in Louisiana include:

• The Bluffs Country Club in St. Francisville, designed by Arnold Palmer and which opened in 1988, closed in March of 2009;
• Sherwood Forest Country Club, Fairwood Country Club, and Shenandoah Country Club in Baton Rouge;
• Santa Maria Golf Course in Baton Rouge, designed by Robert Trent Jones (closed for a year before being re-opened by East Baton Rouge Parish);
• Carter Plantation Golf Club in Springfield in Livingston Parish, designed by David Toms, while not closed, has not performed up to expectations and is currently mired in litigation;
• Belle Terre Golf and Country Club in LaPlace in St. John the Baptist Parish (closed in August of this year).

In Georgia, the Fairways of Canton has closed, leaving that city on the hook for annual payments of $300,000. Other golf courses that have closed in Georgia include courses in Jones Creek, Tucker, and Roswell. In all, at least 15 golf courses in Georgia currently are on the market.

A quick internet check revealed clubs for sale all over the country, including three in Louisiana (Florien, Ethel, and Monroe). Others on the market in neighboring states include four each in Mississippi and Alabama, three in Arkansas, and a dozen in Texas.

It remains to be seen what, if anything, the state will realize on its investments in the four golf courses but should any or all of them fail, it’s pretty certain some hard questions will need to be asked—and answered.

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