Archive for February, 2013

“The website we inherited was a mess. We cleaned it up.”

—State Education Superintendent John White, in explaining that the Department of Education’s website was changed as a result of complaints “from parents and teachers.”

“…the Department is not in possession of any public records responsive to your request.”

—Department of Education response to request from LouisianaVoice for copies of complaints “from parents and teachers” about the former DOE website design.

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It appears that LouisianaVoice may have caught Louisiana Superintendent John White in, well, a little White lie about changes to the Department of Education (DOE) website.

Apparently it’s not enough that our story last week on the emails linking DOE to the Gates Foundation, Rupert Murdoch and Fox News Network apparently triggered White’s dormant Tourette’s symptoms, but now we learn he wasn’t altogether truthful about his reasons for overhauling the department’s web page.

In a Feb. 5 story by Baton Rouge Advocate reporter Will Sentell about a rash of complaints about difficulties experienced in trying to navigate the new web page, White said the decision to revamp the web page was a response to complaints from parents and teachers.

Taking that as our cue, we submitted a public records request on Feb. 7, asking for the opportunity to “review the ‘complaints from parents and teachers’ as related to the decision to overhaul the Department of Education’s web page.”

Being of a naturally suspicious nature, our reasons for skepticism were twofold:

• One, given the spate of complaints about the new page, we felt the website was redesigned as a deliberate effort to conceal DOE data from the public because those data did not support public claims by White and his boss, Gov. Bobby Jindal;

• Two, we just flat out did not believe White’s claim of “complaints from parents and teachers” about the old website.

On Feb. 19, we received a printout of complaints as a result of our request—12 days after our request and nine days late under the three-day deadline provided by state law.

What’s more, it was the wrong list. It was a printout of a half-dozen complaints—about the new website. And they weren’t complimentary. Here is a sampling:

• I am very concerned about the usability of the new website. As a network support person, I have sent many links to teachers to access resources on the DOE website, or encouraged them to use the old search box which would nearly always direct you to the appropriate link. Now if I type in any term into the search box, whether it’s GLEs or Transitional Writing Prompts, it yields zero results. I am very worried that teachers are no longer going to have access to materials they rely on every day for planning aligned lessons. Is it possible to wait to make the changeover until after testing?

• This website is very frustrating to use. I am unable to locate information that I need to do my job. How do you access handbooks and policies? How do you access LAA 1 training materials? How do you access transition information regarding special needs students who are in high school? We can no longer talk to a human being by phone or email. We are no longer provided trainings and inservices to keep up with the changes that are in place. If we no longer have a website that is user friendly, what are we expected to do?

• Your newly designed website sucks…and not in a good way. For example, if I typed in “Bulletin 1508,” I get something about gifted students, “Excerpt from bulletin 1508 about Gifted and Talented.” Please correct this and make this professional, not juvenile. I could hardly find anything easily. I finally found Bulletin 1508 in your BESE category. And correct this misspelling: “Opt In: would you like to ‘recieve’ our ED CONNECT newsletter?” For crying out loud, USE YOUR SPELLCHECKER!

• Many of your links lead to 404 errors. Come on, man! “Charter Schools” links to error page. Get rid of this juvenile site; you represent the State of Louisiana!

• I’m having a lot of trouble trying to locate the web site where I can get an application for Jefferson Parish voucher program. Please help!!!!

Make no mistake, we were tickled to receive these complaints, but they were not what we requested.

We responded that same day, Feb. 19, with a reminder that DOE had sent us the incorrect response:

• Mr. White, my request was for copies of complaints about the former DOE web page. You stated publicly that the new format was chosen because of “many complaints” you received about the old web page design. It is those complaints about the former web page that I am seeking. Please provide those as well by the close of business on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013.

The following day, Feb. 20, we received an acknowledgement from DOE that the wrong information had indeed been sent:

• You are correct that the responses that were sent were not responsive to your request…Please allow (DOE) to respond to your request by Friday, Feb. 22, 2013.

Well, Friday, Feb. 22 came and went. No response. Then Monday, Feb. 25 and still no response. We sent a gentle reminder and copied our legal counsel, J. Arthur Smith.

Finally, on Thursday, Feb. 28, we received the following message:

• Through this letter, please be informed that the Department is not in possession of any public records responsive to your request.

Whoa. Wait, What? No records responsive to our request?

But, but…how could that be? It was White himself who said, “We cleaned up the mess” when the website was redesigned pursuant to all those “complaints from parents and teachers.”

Dude. You may need to be recharged.

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For five long years now we have patiently (or impatiently in some cases) awaited the arrival of all that transparency touted by Gov. Bobby Jindal upon his part time occupancy of the governor’s office.

Now it seems that heretofore elusive aspect of the Jindal administration has finally arrived.

No, it wasn’t Superintendent of Education John White telling News Corp. Senior Vice President Peter Gorman (aka “Dude”) that he is White’s “recharger.”

Nor is the LSU Board of Supervisors which has refused to release the names of applicants for LSU president on the grounds that the applications are conveniently (convenient for the board and the administration, that is) submitted to a Dallas consulting firm which, being a private entity, is not subject to the public records law.

It wouldn’t be the Louisiana Office of Economic Development either. LED a couple of years back refused to surrender records to the Legislative Auditor’s office so that the state auditors could perform the function with which they are charged—auditing the state’s books.

And, needless to say, it is not Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, who found a way to punt on our request for assistance in prevailing upon the Department of Education to comply with the Louisiana public records law (the law, the AG’s office informed us, says it can intervene on behalf of the public meetings law but there is no provision for it to assist with public records).

That’s a classic case of legal hair splitting, but hey, the attorney general’s office is the official legal counsel for state agencies (a veritable horde of state-contracted legal counsels notwithstanding), so who are we to argue? We’re just the low-lifes who work, pay taxes and vote in this state. Never mind some 80 or so (we finally quit counting when we reached that number) legal opinions by the AG issued to various state agencies which opine that public records must be surrendered.

But we digress (as we often do).

No, it’s none of those. The shocker here is that the transparency that has suddenly and without warning opened up before our very eyes originates in none other than the governor’s office.

Yep, chalk one up for Bobby, our part time, absentee governor who would rather run for president than run the state.

Don’t believe us? Still harboring some doubts as to the veracity of our claim?
Well, we have the proof.

Jindal is proposing scrapping the state personal and corporate income tax and replacing it with…well, something. He hasn’t the vaguest idea what (he said earlier this month that he’s still working on details of his plan).

In general terms, Jindal is talking about an increase in the state sales tax and a dollar increase in the cigarette tax (remember when he refused to sign the renewal of the 4-cent cigarette tax because, he said, he was opposed to “new” taxes?).

Never mind that a sales tax would hit the low- and middle-income taxpayers the very hardest https://louisianavoice.com/2013/01/16/par-lsu-economist-richardson-cast-doubts-on-%CF%80-yush-plan-to-replace-louisiana-income-tax-with-state-sales-tax-increase/, abolishment of state income taxes has become the mantra of Republican governors nationwide because it would represent the ultimate tax break (read: political reward) for corporate campaign donors.

But rather than rely on the lack of merits in a weak proposal, Jindal has enlisted his minions to launch a letter-writing campaign in support of his as yet incomplete tax plan.

That’s correct: the plan isn’t even completed, much less polished and officially presented to the legislature and the public, but the letter-writing campaign has already started. Never mind that the plan has as yet progressed no further than a two-page outline pretentiously entitled “A Framework for Comprehensive Tax Reform.” It apparently suffices for the purposes of initiating a well-orchestrated PR campaign from the governor’s office or perhaps from Timmy Teepell’s OnMessage (Oops, we forgot; they are one and the same).

It officially began on Feb. 20 with the publication in newspapers statewide of a letter by LED Secretary and presumed future LSU President/Chancellor/High Potentate Stephen Moret.

Boiled down to its essentials, Moret’s 12-paragraph letter claims that Jindal’s undefined, unreleased, still-in-the-works, everything-still-on-the-table plan would somehow magically bump Louisiana from No. 32 to No. 4 in something called the State Business Tax Climate.

Fine for business climate, yes, but Moret conveniently neglects how that plan, still being formulated somewhere out there in the fog-enshrouded concepts of the policy wonks, would affect the working stiffs. An addition 2 or 3 percent on the sales tax for the purchase of say, a package of toilet paper won’t be such a burden. But tack that same 2 or 3 percent onto the cost of a new refrigerator, central air and heating unit or a new automobile and suddenly, in the words of the late Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen, you’re talking about real money.

But no matter; Moret obviously had his marching orders: write a glowing letter about how the Jindal Plan (not to be confused with the Stelly Plan that he repealed, at a cost to the state of about $300 million a year) would be great for business—and everyone knows, as President Calvin Coolidge said way back in 1925, “The chief business of the American people is business.” (The stock market crash, of course, was only four years away when he said that, which subsequently put a lot of American people out of business.)

Exactly a week after Moret’s letter, on Feb. 27, the Baton Rouge Advocate (and probably a few other papers across the state) published a second letter endorsing the still mythical tax plan. This one was written by someone named Matthew Glans, who identifies himself as senior policy analyst for The Heartland Institute in Chicago (described by The Economist last May as “The world’s most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change,” according to the institute’s own web page) and which also describes itself as an advocate of free market policies.

Probably its greatest claim to fame, however, came in the 1990s, when it worked with Philip Morris in attempts to debunk the science linking secondhand smoke to health issues and to lobby against government public-health reforms.

(The Heartland Institute bears an eerie resemblance to the fictional “myFACTS” currently being lampooned by Garry Trudeau in the comic strip Doonesbury.)

Glans calls Jindal’s plan “a strong step towards improving the state’s economic competitiveness and returning tax dollars to Louisiana citizens and businesses.”

At the same time he cautions against a system “that allows the government to choose winners and losers.”

“A tax system filled with tax increases on targeted items such as tobacco or subsidies for certain businesses (read: tobacco, in states like North Carolina), however, is not sound policy,” he says, adding, “A system that lowers rates across the board, like much of Jindal’s proposal, would spur economic growth.”

Strange how Glans, sitting in Chicago, could know so much about the part time, absentee governor’s tax plan when Jindal himself confesses that his “plan” is still evolving and stranger still that he would single out tobacco (and tobacco subsidies) as a potential victim of increased sales taxes.

Curious, too, that he is so knowledgeable when legislators remain in the dark.

But, hey, we wanted transparency from our governor.

And this “independent” letter-writing campaign is about as transparent as it gets.

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State officials apparently sees no problem when it comes to rushing through legislation that affects tens of thousands of Louisiana public school students or locking Louisiana into long-term tax relief for industries with little or no tangible benefits to the state but less than three months after its passage, a program approved by the Louisiana Public Service Commission (PSC) to give consumers an avenue to reduce energy costs may be scrapped.

The PSC is scheduled to vote on Wednesday to repeal the statewide energy-efficiency program to develop ways to cut down on power consumption to help save money for hundreds of thousands of homeowners and businesses.

Utilities would be required to file annual reports with the PSC that provide energy savings estimates and annual load reductions. The first phase, Quick Start, is scheduled to last a little less than four years from which point utilities will develop longer-term plans.

The problem? The program is expected to cost utilities between $25 million and $30 million. And guess who pours money into the campaigns of PSC members?

So now, while the ink is still wet on the regulation approved last Dec. 12, new PSC Chairman Eric Skrmetta (R-Metairie), himself the recipient of $45,000 in campaign contributions from energy-related firms and political action committees, has deemed that the ugly break for low- and middle-income consumers is a bad, bad thing and should be repealed henceforth.

It’s okay to hand out $5 billion a year in corporate tax breaks, exemptions, waivers and rebates but apparently taboo to take any action beneficial to consumers.

Remember what they say about money and B.S. and talking and walking.

Forty-six states currently offer Energy Efficiency programs to help consumers save energy costs (a program beneficial to everyone except the utility companies).

Heavy industrial users, which make up about half of Entergy’s Louisiana power consumption, are ineligible to participate if they use more than five megawatts of electricity, or about five times the average household consumption.

The initiative passed by 4-1 vote in December with Skrmetta voting in favor despite his stated opposition.

Contact numbers for PSC members are:

Eric Skrmetta (Metairie): 504-846-6930
Scott Angelle (Baton Rouge): 225-342-6900
Lambert Boissiere (New Orleans): 504-680-9529
Clyde Holloway (Forest Hill): 318-748-4715
Foster Campbell (Elm Grove): 318-676-7464

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The burning paradox that is Gov. Bobby Jindal comes down to this: for someone who so obviously loves and embraces the private sector, it’s curious that he has never earned his livelihood in it.

Yes, we know that he “worked” for four whole months for McKinsey & Co. in 1994 but that could hardly be considered as the private sector since the firm primarily serves as a training ground for future bureaucrats and elected public servants.

To paraphrase a 1981 line from actor Burt Reynolds at his Friars Club roast, he’d probably like to thank the little people for putting him into office—but he’d never associate with them.

Of course, should he ever decide to re-enter the private sector and if Jim Parsons should decide to leave the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, Jindal could step right into the role of Dr. Sheldon Cooper and never miss a beat.

Sheldon Cooper, in case you are not a regular viewer (you can catch the show on CBS at 7 p.m. Thursdays or reruns on Tuesdays at 7 p.m. on TBS), is the glue that holds the popular show together. He is academically brilliant (as most would concede Jindal to be) but completely unable to relate to mere mortals (as all would have to agree is a persona that fits Jindal like a glove).

Sheldon is a fount of book knowledge, possessed of an eidetic memory and able to spout figures, dates and statistics with the comparative ease of reciting one’s ABCs but is unable—or unwilling—to perform the simple task of driving a car.

Jindal is a fount of book knowledge, possessed of an eidetic memory and able to spout figures, dates and statistics with the comparative ease….well you get the picture.

Sheldon is completely and totally devoid of human emotion, is unfeeling and unable to communicate in a normal conversation because he has no empathy for his fellow human being. Even in casual conversation, it is impossible for him to avoid insulting the intelligence of those around him, be they peers or subordinates.

Jindal is similarly lacking in those same qualities and likewise cannot speak without offending—be it civil service employees, department heads or fellow Republicans whom he now publicly refers to as being stupid.

Sheldon, when playing board games or video games with his friends, is prone to make up his own rules as he goes along—much to the consternation of Leonard, Raj and Howard, his three friends on the show.

Jindal also is not above tweaking the rules to his advantage as in his exempting the governor’s office from the state’s public records laws—much to the consternation of the media.

But most striking of all the similarities between the two: Sheldon is stubborn and steadfastly refuses to admit to the prospect that he could ever be wrong—about anything.

Jindal, too, is mulishly stubborn and just as steadfastly refuses to entertain the thought that he might be wrong about anything—a trait that goes at least as far back as middle school, according to a former teacher who described him as unwilling to accept correction even then.

But back to Jindal’s undying devotion to the private sector:

His is a strange relationship indeed.

Visit the home a professor, and you’re likely to find shelves upon shelves of books. Visit a hunter and you will find hunting rifles and mounted deer, elk and moose heads. Same with fishermen and the mounted bass that adorn their den walls.

Visit an aficionado of the private sector like, say, the governor of Louisiana and you’re likely to find…photos of smiling campaign contributors.

But you would never find him putting in a typical 8 to 5 day in a cubicle or toiling away in the workaday world like the rest of us. That is so far beneath him as to be comical to even consider.

No, he would never stoop to such a low level. That is for people who can be manipulated, used and even fired at will—by people like him.

Instead, Jindal chooses to reciprocate the private sector’s political campaign contribution largesse by selling off the state, piece by piece, agency by agency to his corporate benefactors while at the same time, selling out hard-working, dedicated state workers without so much as a second thought or a thank you.

The private sector is Jindal’s benefactor, not his employer. Accordingly, he must pander to the corporate suits like Rupert Murdoch, K12, Dell Computers, Marathon Oil, Wireless Generation, Altria, Hospital Corp. of America, Magellan Health Services, Meridian, CNSI, Information Management Consultants, Innovative Emergency Management, Anheuser-Busch, Corrections Corp. of America, AT&T, Koch Industries, the entire membership of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and most of his appointees to prestigious boards and commissions.

No, Bobby Jindal would never earn—has never earned—his living from the private sector.

But make no mistake about it: he owes his political existence to corporate America and the private sector.

And he believes with equal conviction that he owes nothing to state employees or the public sector.

Yes, he could step right in and fill Jim Parsons’ role as Sheldon and the difference would be negligible—except for the obvious cultural imbalance that would create.

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