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Archive for February, 2012

“Tell me who would be better qualified to do what I am doing. I have 24 years of experience working with the legislature. I don’t see this is as ‘Good Old Boy.’ I feel that I am just more qualified than most people would be to do this job.”

–Former State Rep. Noble Ellington of Winnsboro, justifying his appointment to a $150,000 per year position as second in command at the Louisiana Department of Insurance despite his having virtually no background in the insurance industry (other than serving on the House Insurance Committee).

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In the course of covering state government it is sometimes easy to overlook the good that elected officials do.

After having criticized the administration for hiring former legislators, some at six-figure salaries in the wake of the state’s financial plight, we got to reflecting that we may not have been entirely kind to ex-lawmakers fortunate enough to find themselves in the good graces of Gov. Bobby Jindal.

After all, why would state employees who are facing massive layoffs begrudge these former lawmakers the opportunity to fatten their retirement and benefit packages by going on the public dole as political appointees even as the governor shamelessly boasts of reducing the number of state employees?

And so far, we haven’t even mentioned the Jindal appointment of former St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis (term limited and lost his race for lieutenant governor) as the new Director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP) at $165,000 per year or his appointment of former St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro (who lost his re-election bid: did his constituents know something Jindal does not?) as the new Director of Hazard Mitigation and Recovery (whatever that may entail) at a tidy salary of $150,000 per year.

So, in the interest of fairness, we thought it a good idea to cite important legislation sponsored by these public servants while still in office.

Let’s start with former Rep. Noble Ellington of Winnsboro, who doubled his last year in office as national president of the American Legislative Exchange Council, that super-secret organization that spoon-feeds proposed legislation to lawmakers in all 50 states.

When his 24-year legislative career ended in January, he was quickly awarded a $150,000-a-year job as the second in command to Commissioner of Insurance and Jindal ally Jim Donelon. (We say ally because the governor generously contributed to Donelon’s re-election campaign last year.)

Here is a sample of legislation introduced by Ellington during his final three years in office:

(Note: HB stands for House Bill; SB for Senate Bill, HR for House Resolution and SR for Senate Resolution. HCR means House Concurrent Resolution and SCR Senate Concurrent Resolution. Resolutions, it should be noted, have no power of law.)

• HB—Creates the Louisiana Entrepreneurial Assistance and Development (LEAD) program for $37.5 million in venture capital tax credits;

• HR—Asks the federal government to refrain from regulating Internet Broadband services. (This was rendered moot when Jindal failed to apply for a federal grant to place broadband internet in rural areas of the state.);

• HCR—Commends a Louisiana Political Hall of Fame inductee;

• HR—Recognizes June 1, 2011, as 4-H Day at the capitol;

• HR—Commends House chaplain for his commitment;

• HB—Creates the Caldwell Parish Tourist Commission;

• HB—Allows a local sewerage district to increase per diem for the district’s board of supervisors;

• HB—Does the same for a local water district;

• HB—Phases in sales and use tax exemptions for certain manufacturers;

• HR—Commends a constituent on her 100th birthday;

• HR—Commends local constituent upon his selection as chairman of the National Propane Gas Association (Hank Hill, perhaps?);

• HB—Provides for the Economic Development Award program;

• HCR—requests the Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) to designate a bridge in Harrisburg as the Veterans Memorial Bridge;

• HB—adds parishes with populations of between 10,000 and 11,000 (That seems awfully specific.) to requirement that tax assessors must pay premium costs of certain insurance coverage for employees.

Former State Rep. Jane Smith of Bossier City (defeated in her run for a Senate seat after being term-limited in the House, she landed on her feet with a $107,500-per-year position as deputy secretary in the Department of Revenue (to go with her $64,000 annual teaching retirement annual income) despite no prior experience or qualifications for the position:

• HB—Extends deadline for applying for tax credits under Louisiana Quality Jobs Program;

• HB—Authorizes the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) to exempt the Recovery School District (RSD) from certain laws and regulations;

• HCR—Commends the Bossier High School basketball team for winning state championship;

• HR—Commends constituent for outstanding accomplishments;

• HCR—Asks Congress to maintain incentives for mid-level oil and gas exploration and production;

• HB—Provides tax credits for clean-burning motor vehicles;

• HB—Exempts gasoline sold on military installations from state gasoline tax;

• HB—Provides special homestead exemption assessment level for veterans who are disabled and 75 years of age or older;

• HCR—Commends constituent for outstanding accomplishments;

• HCR—Recognizes Louisiana Society of Professional Surveyors Day at Capitol;

• HR—Commends constituent on 90th birthday;

Former State Sen. Troy Hebert of Jeanerette, who was term-limited, resigned in November of 2010 to accept Jindal’s appointment as Commissioner of the Louisiana Alcohol and Tobacco Control Board at $107,00 per year. His legislative work seemed to concentrate on a running feud he had with a local district attorney:

• SB—Provided that the district attorney for the 16th Judicial District Court (JDC) could not pay for continuing legal education (CLE) courses for his assistants;

• SB—Would have created new judicial districts out of the 16th JDC;

• SB—Provided that if a “certain district attorney” left office voluntarily before the end of his term, his first assistant would be ineligible to run in the ensuing election;

• SB—Requested Legislative Auditor to conduct audit of 16th JDC;

• SB—Provides relative to distribution of revenues in the 16th JDC;

• SB—Constitutional Amendment to change term limits for “certain elected officials” and the percentage of vote required for eligibility to serve successive terms of office;

• SB—Allows the possession of firearms on certain public lands;

Former State Rep. Kay Katz of Monroe, term-limited and unable to run again, was appointed by Jindal to a $56,000-per-year job as a member of the Louisiana Tax Commission. At least her legislative resumé bore some relevance to taxes:

• HB—Exempts retirement income for those 65 or older from state individual income tax;

• HB—Increases individual income tax exemption on retirement income;

• HR—Directs the Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) to study privatization of certain psychiatric forensic facilities;

• HCR—Asks Congress to halt EPA regulation of carbon dioxide emissions;

• HCR—Asks Congress to postpone EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions;

• HR—Commends Louisiana Dental Association for achievements and designates Dentists’ Day at the Louisiana Legislature;

• HR—Commends dental hygienists for outstanding contributions to oral health and recognizes Dental Hygiene Day;

• HCR—Commends Neville High School football team for winning state championship;

• HCR—Commends Rudy Macklin on retirement of his basketball jersey number by LSU;

• HR—Recognizes Capitol Day for the Cure;

• HR—Commends the Louisiana Psychological Association and designates Louisiana Psychological Association Day at the Louisiana Legislature;

• HR—Commends Louisiana Occupational Therapy Association for achievements and designates Louisiana Occupational Therapy Association Dat at the Legislature;

• HR—Commends constituent for her election as president of Quota International.

Former Sen. Nick Gautreaux of Meaux resigned from the Senate in December 2010 to accept Jindal’s appointment as Commissioner of the Office of Motor Vehicles. (We were unable to learn his salary.) Already considered by some as arrogant, he sent an email to his employees that said that individuals “who continue to defy change will suffer the wrath of my management team.” At least that seems to fit the Jindal M.O. Some of his finer legislative efforts:

• SB—Calls for constitutional amendment to provide that no local tax may be passed unless one-third of registered voters cast ballots;

• SB—Phases out the tax on incomes of individuals, estates and trusts (filed in multiple years);

• SB—Calls for constitutional amendment to allow non-recurring revenues to be used to give tax refunds to anyone required to file a Louisiana individual income tax return (filed in multiple years);

• SB—Grants transferable tax credit up to $450,000 per system for construction or installation of certain energy systems;

• Former Rep. Henry “Tank” Powell of Ponchatoula, who has been out of office for four years now, was recently appointed by Jindal to the State Pardon Board at $36,000 per year. Some of his legislative pearls:

• HB—Provides for the powers of the Ponchatoula chief of police;

• HB—Provides for appointments to the Crab Task Force;

• HCR—Recognizes American Legion Auxiliary Poppy Month;

• HCR—Commends the Patient Relations Section of the LSU Health Care Services Division;

• HB—Increases crab gear license fees and dedicates the increase to the enhancement of the crab industry;

• HB—Allows the Hammond city marshal to use fees to defray office expenses;

• HB—Creates the Louisiana Aquatic Chelonian Research and Promotion Board.

Former State Rep. M.J. “Mert” Smiley, who is the tax assessor-elect for Ascension Parish, but who won’t take office until January of 2013, was also appointed to a $36,000-per-year position on the pardon board by Jindal. More than anything else, Smiley is noted for asking in a legislative committee meeting if a state agency could order employees not to leave for other jobs. Among his legislative passions:

• HB would allow a municipality to retain its classification as a village even if population changes of less than 200 would otherwise classify it as a town;

• HB—Allows minors at least 16 years of age to donate blood with parental consent;

• HB—Merges the Fertilizer Commission and the Louisiana Feed Commission;

• HCR—Commends constituent for outstanding accomplishments;

• HCR—Commends retiring parish school superintendent;

• HCR—Commends a church pastor in Smiley’s home district;

• HB—Transfers the state motorcycle safety, awareness and operator training program from the Department of Education to Public Safety and Corrections;

• HR—Commends the Gonzales Boat Club on its 50th anniversary;

• HR—Commends local constituent on her 95th birthday.

There you have it. Never let it be said that we are hesitant to show what these appointees have contributed to the continued well-being of the citizens of Louisiana.

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The Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA) is the latest state agency to be scheduled for privatization by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, LouisianaVoice has learned.

LOSFA, the administrative arm of the Louisiana Student Financial Assistance Commission and the Louisiana Tuition Trust Authority, has been instructed by the governor’s office to outsource the office’s loan program.

The agency comes under the organization umbrella of the Board of Regents. Jindal, in presenting his executive budget to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, targeted 2,837 jobs in higher education for elimination. Many of those are vacant positions that will not be filled.

In all, Jindal is proposing to eliminate 6,371 authorized positions, again meaning that an unspecified number may be vacant positions.

LOSFA will lose between 50 and 60 positions in the outsourcing action, according to Gus Wales, director of public information for the office. The affected employees are scheduled to be laid off by June 30.

Like the privatization of the Office of Group Benefits, the latest outsourcing move makes little sense in that the office’s loan program is funded from self-generated revenues, not the State General Fund.

What’s more, after June 30, students with questions about their loan repayment will probably have to talk to someone in another state instead of in Baton Rouge as before meaning Jindal will have taken jobs from Louisiana residents and given them to citizens outside Louisiana.

Many of the employees scheduled to lose their jobs have as much as 20 years of service but three unclassified staff members, reportedly making in excess of $100,000 each, will be retained, according to information provided to LouisianaVoice.

Unclassified personnel in the office include Executive Director Melanie Amrhein, Deputy Executive Director Sujuan Boutté, Assistant Executive Director of Marketing and Outreach David Roberts, Assistant Executive Director for Fiscal and Administrative Affairs Jack Hart and General Counsel George Eldredge.

The administration reportedly was approached by Great Lakes Higher Education Corp., a student loan servicing company in Madison, Wisconsin. The company was said to have told the governor’s office that the state could cut a significant number of employee positions by giving them the portfolio.

The agency has forwarded an invitation to bid (ITB) to State Purchasing for public release, sources said.

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“Every year in the state of Alabama, people make tough decisions about what they can and cannot afford.”

–Former Alabama Medicaid Director Carol Steckel, explaining her decision to cut a Medicaid program that paid for prosthetics for poor residents in Alabama because they were optional, not mandatory. She was appointed in November 2010 to lead health care reform efforts in Louisiana and is spearheading efforts to terminate 69 information technology employees in DHH by contracting their services out.

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The Department of Health and Hospitals apparently is moving forward with its plan to contract out its information technology (IT) services to the University of New Orleans, the State Civil Service’s objections notwithstanding.

That’s the word received by LouisianaVoice from one of the IT employees who is one of the 69 employees scheduled to lose their jobs in the move touted to the Civil Service Board on Feb. 1 by Carol Steckel, chief of DHH’s Center for Health Care Innovation and Technology.

More about her background later.

An email received on Monday from the IT employee announced, “I have already been Teagued,” a reference to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s firing of Social Services grant reviewer Melody Teague in October of 2009 a day after her legal testimony against Jindal’s proposed streamlining of state government and that of her husband, Tommy Teague, 18 months later.

Tommy Teague was the director of the Office of Group Benefits who took the agency from a multi-million dollar deficit to a $500 million surplus. But his hesitancy in jumping on board Jindal’s privatization “sold train” cost him his job last April.

“My last day is March 2,” the employee, whose identity is being protected by LouisianaVoice, said in his email. “We have been scrutinized so much since this has happened back in December.”

He was referring to the conference call in December during which the IT employees were told their jobs would be gone in January. The Civil Service Board, however, shot down Steckel’s proposal, saying she had done a poor job of showing there would be a true savings by laying off employees.

The State Civil Service Board must approve any proposed contract before it can be implemented. To get that approval, agencies must show that the contract work is a task that cannot be performed by state civil service personnel and that any layoffs are not the result of political decisions.

That regulation stems from a 2003 State Supreme Court decision that said the City of New Orleans could not contract out services which could be performed by existing employees and that the city could not lay employees off for political reasons.

Following that conference call, the IT employees returned to their work stations only to learn that they had already been locked out of their state computers, leaving them with nothing to do until the date of their terminations. They regained access to their computers a few weeks later, however.

“There is no security anywhere in DHH,” the employee said.

That is fairly evident across the board in agency after agency by now. The Civil Service Board, which voted unanimously on Feb. 1 to reject the contract proposal, is scheduled to meet March 7 at which time the IT contract is expected to be presented again.

Another IT employee also emailed LouisianaVoice earlier to say, “I am one of the 69 DHH Information Technology staff that is affected by the UNO contract.

“Basically, we have been misinformed on future employment by DHH executives on three occasions. At each meeting, we felt as though we were being threatened with furlough without pay, having to pay 100 percent of COBRA to maintain our insurance, (and) being threatened (with) not receiving our 300 hours of saved annual leave.”

Steckel first said the proposed contract would save an estimated $2.1 million over the next three years but later revised that upward to $7 million. But member after member challenged her numbers with one saying he had “zero confidence” in the figures she provided.

While her proposal to contract the IT services would chop the legs out from under the 69 employees, that apparently is nothing new for her. In fact, it appears to be her style.

Before coming to DHH in November of 2010, she served as Alabama’s Medicaid Commissioner from 1988-1992 and again from December of 2003 until her departure for Louisiana.

It was in that capacity in Alabama that in 2008 she implied that poor residents of Alabama apparently did not need artificial limbs.

In January of that year, she submitted the state’s Medicaid budget that cut programs that pay for prosthetics and orthotics (an orthopedic apparatus used to provide support and alignment to prevent or correct deformities) because, she said, the programs were optional, not mandatory.

Saying she wanted to present a budget that was realistic in the face of state budgetary problems, she said, “Every day in the state of Alabama, people make tough decisions about what they can and cannot afford. State government must do the same.”

Rep. Barbara Boyd of Anniston sounded a chord that has come to have a familiar ring in Louisiana when she said Alabama is at a disadvantage because it does not appropriate the kind of money that would attract more than the bare bones federal matching funds.

“With the high rate of diabetes in this state (Alabama), cutting a program that pays for prosthesis could be devastating to amputees,” she said.

One Alabama observer described the move as a trifecta: “penny wise, pound foolish and heartless to boot.”

Well, folks, that’s the nature of compassionate conservatism. Or passionate, anyway.

And Louisiana, it would appear, has franchise rights.

In case you’ve ever wondered why Jindal keeps going out of state for these people who parrot his philosophy with such consistency, there’s a reason: they don’t have to live with us. They’ll be gone as soon as he leaves office.

But we’ll be stuck with the cleanup.

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