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Archive for the ‘Budget’ Category

You’d think Gov. John Bel Edwards would be a little better at reading the tea leaves.

After all, it was Louisiana’s teachers who first pushed him over the top to win the governor’s election over David Vitter in 2015.

And the teachers again provided needed support when he was challenged by businessman Eddie Rispone who had the backing of would-be kingmaker Lane Grigsby.

So, how did Edwards reward teachers for their support?

A raise of $1,000 per year in 2019. That’s $83 per month before taxes—and that was nearly four years into his first term before he got around to doing that much.

Yes, I know a lot of workers in Louisiana didn’t get raises of $83 per month but before jumping in with that argument, consider what teachers are expected to do (other than teach in a classroom) and how their salaries stack up with other states.

Last April, the NEA released FIGURES that showed Louisiana’s teachers (before that $1,000-per-year boost) still ranked 13th lowest in the nation.

And those same figures showed that the national average teacher salary, adjusted for inflation, had actually decreased 4.5 percent over the previous decade. Teachers were paid 21.4 percent less than similarly-education and experienced professionals, the NEA study revealed.

The national average teacher salary increased from $59,539 for the 2016-17 school year to $60,477 for 2017-18,

The average pay for teachers in Louisiana was $50,256.

So, what did Edwards to this year to try and bring teacher into alignment with other states when he submitted his proposed budget for next year?

Crickets chirping. Nothing. Nada. Nil. Zip.

And his wife was a teacher before he was elected governor. His daughter is a school counselor.

As might be expected, teachers took umbrage at the governor’s slight—as well they should have.

An acquaintance offered a defense of sorts for the governor’s omission. “The Republican legislature wouldn’t approve another teacher pay raise anyway, so he just didn’t brother.”

My response to that is, “So what? Put it in the budget and put the onus on the legislators. Let them explain why Louisiana cannot support its teachers. There are, by the way, part-time legislators who pull down more than starting teachers in this state.

Gov. Edwards did finally reverse himself, but only after teachers bristled publicly. But you’d never know he truly felt their wrath when he offered up a $500 per year raise. That’s $42 per month, a little more than a dollar a day. You can’t even go to McDonald’s with that.

If Edwards is considering a run at John Kennedy’s Senate seat, he’d do well to remember the teachers.

And don’t give me that worn-out B.S. about teachers only working nine months a year. That’s pure bunk. No sooner than the school year is over than teachers must turn their attention to the coming year by preparing lesson plans, cleaning out classrooms, re-stocking supplies and attending meetings.

Teachers endure problems we can only imagine in our jobs. As a news reporter, I would get irate calls from subjects of my stories but try sitting across the desk from an arrogant parent who won’t accept the explanation that their kid, who never received discipline or help with his homework at home, is disruptive, a problem student and deserved that poor grade or suspension.

Teachers must watch for signs their students are abused at home. Ever had to do that in your job? Ever had to look at a bruised child and asked him or her to tell you what happened? It’s a pretty depressing responsibility and can leave teachers sickened with nightmares.

Sometimes teachers are called on to stop a bullet to save a child—and they do it, Alex Jones’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

Test papers are taken home by teachers who, while the rest of the family is watching American Idol, must plod through 25 or 30 test papers for grading. They sacrifice time with their own families so they can devote time to their jobs.

Teachers dip into their own pocketbooks to purchase materials for their classrooms. And believe me, that isn’t cheap. I knew a teacher in Lincoln Parish who bought shoes for a child who had none.

They are saddled with tons of paperwork other than test grading and they are burdened with bureaucratic requirements in preparation for standardized testing and if the kids don’t do well, it’s the teacher who bears the brunt of evaluations by politicians who decide who is and who isn’t a good teacher—without ever meeting the teacher or sitting in her classroom.

Teachers must step in to stop fights and God help her if she’s a little too physical with the kids. Might as well go ahead and retain legal counsel.

And sometimes a teacher spots potential in a kid no one else has seen. They take the student under their wing, nurture his/her talents, and develop a kid everyone thought had no future into a productive citizen. On that point, I speak from experience. Thank you, Mrs. Garrett, Miss Lewis, Miss Hinton, Mr. Peoples and Mr. Ryland. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Teachers deserve better, Gov. Edwards. As a friend suggested, “Go big or go home.”

You gave state police enormous pay raises. You gave your cabinet members substantial increases.

Teachers, cafeteria workers and other school employees deserve nothing less than the same consideration you’ve given state troopers and cabinet members.

You’re beginning to look a lot like Bobby Jindal.

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Pre-trial intervention (PTI) programs, in theory at least, are designed to give those charged with a first offense—such as driving while intoxicated (DWI), for example—to keep the conviction off their record by participating in a program of community service or a series of classroom sessions, usually extended over a period of several weeks.

The purpose of the programs, again in theory, is that not every person charged with an offense should be subjected to criminal prosecution and that there are those who can be prevented from becoming repeat offenders through proper intervention.

The problem with Louisiana’s PTI programs is that there is no uniform application or oversight, allowing local district attorneys complete autonomy in how the programs are administered.

Instead of serving their intended purpose, many local PTI programs have morphed into cash cows and as such, lend themselves to widespread abuses at the expense of other programs such as indigent defender boards and local law enforcement.

In May 2018, former Baton Rouge Advocate (now Associated Press) reporter Jim Mustian wrote an excellent story that illustrated that very point. His entire story may be seen HERE.

Mustian showed that from 2012 to 2017, two parishes in particular had taken advantage of the program to create a lucrative source of income for prosecutors while a third did even better during the years from 2012 to 2017.

Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier saw income for his office increase threefold, from $556,000 in 2012 to $1.65 million in 2016. Jefferson Parish did even better with its income from PTI programs increasing four times, from $335,000 to $1.37 million during the same period.

But Rapides Parish DA Phillip Terrell has turned the practice into an art form, boosting his PTI revenue by a factor of seven, from $302,000 in 2012 to a mind-blowing $2.2 million in 2017.

Still, that influx of new dollars didn’t keep Terrell from requesting more than $2.5 million in parish funds for his office in 2018 despite a looming budgetary shortfall of $427,000 for the parish.

That was enough to attract the attention of online publication Politico, which normally devotes its attention to stories of national and international significance than to the budgetary problems of a parish situated in the middle of Louisiana. Politico’s story can been read in its entirety HERE.

Rapides Parish Treasurer Bruce Kelly wondered why the DA’s office was suddenly asking for more funds than at any time in his 30 years in the parish treasurer’s office knowing, as he did, that the DA had a new fleet of vehicles with leather seats.

He soon learned why.

Pre-trial diversion, otherwise known as pre-trial intervention, or PTI.

The DA’s income from court fines had dropped by nearly half, from $900,000 to $500,000 over the past three years. That corresponded with a similar drop in traffic tickets issued—from 12,000 per year to 7,000.

At the same time, however, Terrell’s office had significantly increased its PTI program, allowing offenders to pay money to the DA in exchange for charges being dropped and their cases dismissed, thus keeping their tickets or arrests off their records as though they never happened.

Offenders were charged dismissal fees ranging from $250 for traffic tickets, $500 for misdemeanors and as high as $1,500 for felonies.

And Terrell’s office, Kelly learned, was keeping that money for itself—money that should have gone into the parish’s general fund to be shared with indigent defender offices and the sheriff’s office.

Believing Terrell was depriving the parish of fine money to which it was entitled, Kelly and the parish leadership filed suit against Terrell’s office in an effort to get the court to force the DA to share its PTI revenue.

Terrell responded that he could make as much as he wanted through PTI because…well, because the law didn’t say otherwise.

And he was right in the assertion that there were no statewide standards to the implementation and operation of PTI programs and thus, no restrictions as to his ability to exploit the program.

To make his case, he brought in a hired gun in the person of Hugo Holland, a prosecutor who normally works only as a prosecutor in criminal cases and who appears to be on the payroll of several parish district attorneys simultaneously, from Caddo Parish in north Louisiana to Calcasieu Parish in the state’s southwestern extreme.

The battle between Terrell and Rapides Parish Police Jury took on true Trumpian overtones when Holland threatened the police jury members with investigations into their own use of funds if they did not agree to drop their fight with his client. When that tactic failed, Terrell filed a countersuit arguing that he did not owe any money to the parish and calling the police jury’s lawsuit “politically-driven.”

It’s easy to see why Terrell is so possessive of his sudden stream of income—and why similar battle lines could be drawn between prosecutors and parish governing bodies as more and more DAs are made aware of the untapped revenue windfalls currently available to them.

It’s also pretty easy to predict an intense lobbying campaign by the Louisiana District Attorneys Association (LDAA) to protect PTI programs from regulation should some state lawmaker have the temerity to introduce legislation to rein in such a lucrative enterprise.

I’m willing to bet even money that Arkansas would have a better chance of beating LSU today than any such bill would have of making it out of committee.

 

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Conrad Appel has a short memory.

Appel, the Republican state senator from Metairie, is the same one who made a killing investing in the stock of Discovery Education just before the Senate Education Committee which he chaired at the time adopted the company’s Science TECHBOOK as a digital core instructional resource for elementary and middle school science instruction.

The states of Indiana and Oregon also adopted the program about the same time and the company’s stock went from $40.96 a share at the time of his purchase on Nov. 30, 2010, to $90.21 a share on Jan. 2, 2014, a period of just over three years. More than 7.5 million shares of Discovery Communications stock were traded on the day of Appel’s purchase. The next highest volume was 3.1 million shares on Aug. 1, 2011. Daily trading volume generally ran between 1.1 million and 1.9 million shares in the three-plus-year-period from December 2010 to March 2014.

Okay, that’s old news that LouisianaVoice has reported before, so what’s the big deal?

Nothing much, except that now Appel, apparently in attempt to emulate Bobby Jindal, is penning op-ed columns for The Hayride, a conservative blog. This not a criticism of The Hayride. They believe in what they write just as I believe in what I post, which certainly is a right I would never deny them. And LouisianaVoice also has guest columnists, so, understand that this not a slam on The Hayride.

But in his COLUMN, Appel opens by saying he has been engaged in the past week in “rather heated debate” over undocumented immigration. Funny, we thought he was trying to find a solution to Louisiana’s budgetary problems.

Nevertheless, Appel goes on to say that Louisiana’s weak economy is incapable of absorbing an influx of undocumented immigrants. He does give a nod to the indisputable fact that without that influx of Hispanic workers following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans would never have recovered in the time it did.

He notes that the workers “flocked in” to form the labor force that rebuilt the region because, he says, jobs were plentiful. But here is a curious cop-out by Appel in his column: “A side question is why the natives didn’t return to assume those jobs but that is a subject for someone else.”

No, Senator, it certainly is NOT a question for “someone else.” As an elected state senator, it is precisely your duty to address that issue head-on, not weasel out of it with some half-baked excuse.

But in case you need a reminder, here’s a major reason, and you can file this away for future use:

The largely African-American male population that fled New Orleans in the wake of Katrina did not return to claim those jobs because they were unqualified to do the work. The Hispanics who “flocked in” were, in fact, skilled laborers, trained in carpentry, roofing, bricklaying, and concrete finishing. They were already trained in contrast to New Orleans blacks who historically have been written off by the power structure—white and black power structure, it should be noted—that considered them of no value other than on election day.

Of course, Appel represents lily-white Metairie in Jefferson Parish, so he would find it difficult to emphasize with the plight of people of color. But here’s an example that stands out as symbolic of the way in which the power structure I alluded to earlier games the system to its own advantage and to the disadvantage of what it considers the bottom feeders.

Following Katrina, FEMA issued 81,241 blue roof tarps (10-feet-by-10-feet). An Austin, Texas, contractor said he charged $300 to cover a 2000-square-foot roof. That equates to 20 tarps, or a buck-fifty per tarp.

FEMA contracted with the Shaw Group of Baton Rouge to place the tarps for $175 per 10-by-10 tarp, or $3500 for that same 2,000-square-foot house–more than 11 times what the Austin contractor charged.

But it gets better. Shaw apparently had no employees qualified to place the tarps, so it subcontracted with a company called A-1 Construction at a cost of $75 per tarp. That’s a profit of $100 per tarp for Shaw, whose employees never touched a tarp.

But wait. A-1 subbed its work out to Westcon Construction at $30 a square (tarp) for a profit of $45 per square—again, without ever touching a tarp.

Westcon then hired the actual workers who placed the tarps at a cost of $2 a square, or a profit of $28 per tarp for Westcon.

If Shaw had contracted to place all 81,000 tarps, the company would have pocketed more than $8.1 million without ever lifting a finger. A-1 cashed in for more than $3.6 million and never broke a sweat while Westcon made a more modest $2.27 million after paying its workers. Of course, those figures don’t take into consideration taxes and insurance paid by the companies. But still….combined profits of nearly $14 million?

By contrast the workers who actually placed the tarps received $162,000 to be divided between however many workers were hired to do the work.

Can you say profiteering?

Anyone care to bet against the chances that those workers who actually placed the tarps were Hispanic? After all, 45 percent of the recovery workforce was comprised of Latinos, about half of whom were undocumented. Of that 45 percent, 43 percent were from Mexico, 32 percent from Honduras, 9 percent from Nicaragua, and 8 percent from El Salvador.

And here’s the real kicker, just in case Appel ever cares to do a little research on the subject. Many of those ended up as victims of WAGE THEFT at the hands of unscrupulous contractors who vanished without paying the workers.

So, yes, Sen. Appel, there is a problem but to say the economy of this state can’t afford an influx of undocumented immigrants is just a tad hypocritical, given the fact that the Legislature that was so complicit in abetting Bobby Jindal as he tanked the state’s treasury couldn’t seem to get its act together until it had carried the state to the very edge of the metaphorical fiscal cliff. Until you as a body can act responsibly in addressing our teetering state economy, you shouldn’t cast stones—in anyone’s direction.

Especially when many of the undocumented workers who did “flock in” were never paid for the work they did in restoring New Orleans.

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This should be the mother of all embarrassments for the legislature…but it won’t be.

I received a couple of emails over the past few weeks that, though sent independently of each other, combine to illustrate in crystallized form the ineptitude of the Louisiana Legislature.

Whether this ineptitude is by design or is simply the unfortunate consequences of an uninformed citizenry’s having elected a bunch of dunderheads remains a matter of conjecture.

But regardless, ineptness is ineptness and everyone loses. Barney Fife perhaps said it best in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show when, speaking to Andy, he said of a character played by Don Rickles, “He’s not ept, he’s not ept, he’s just not ept.”

But I digress.

The emails.

In the first one, I was blind-copied on a message sent to 15 senators, all members of the Senate Finance Committee:

  • Eric LaFleur (D-Ville Platte), chairman;
  • Brett Allain (R-Franklin);
  • Conrad Appel (R-Metairie);
  • Regina Barrow (D-Baton Rouge);
  • Wesley Bishop (D-New Orleans);
  • Jack Donahue (R-Mandeville);
  • Jim Fannin (R-Jonesboro);
  • Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell);
  • Ronnie Johns (R-Lake Charles);
  • Greg Tarver (D-Shreveport);
  • Bodi White (R-Central);
  • Norby Chabert (R-Houma);
  • Blade Morrish (R-Jennings);
  • Francis Thompson (D-Delhi);
  • Mike Walsworth (R-West Monroe)

(Chabert, Morrish, Thompson and Walsworth are all interim members.)

The email dealt with the writer’s concerns over the Louisiana Department of Education’s Minimum Foundation Program, the formula employed for funding public education in Louisiana (not that they would be likely to read anything that didn’t have a campaign check attached),

I have withheld the identity of the author of the email because he/she obviously is an LDOE insider with sensitive knowledge of the situation. Here is that email:

To: lafleure@legis.la.gov, allainb@legis.la.gov, appelc@legis.la.gov, barrowr@legis.la.gov, bishopw@legis.la.gov, donahuej@legis.la.gov, fanninj@legis.la.gov, hewitts@legis.la.gov, johnsr@legis.la.gov, tarverg@legis.la.gov, whitem@legis.la.gov, chabertn@legis.la.gov, morrishd@legis.la.gov, thompsof@legis.la.gov, walsworthm@legis.la.gov
Date: April 28, 2018 at 4:16 PM
Subject: MFP Program at Department of Education

Greetings,

On Monday morning, the Senate Finance Committee will approve SCR48 by Sen. Morrish.  This resolution deals with the MFP (Minimum Foundation Program) formula for the 2018-2019 fiscal year. As the Department of Education and representatives of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will argue that these funds are necessary to help Louisiana’s struggling schools, one must question the MFP in the current fiscal year. 

The department has been in complete chaos these past few weeks when it discovered a serious flaw in the MFP formula. Every child in the state was shortchanged in State General Fund dollars since the fiscal year began in July 2017. Interestingly, some districts got more MFP dollars than (they) should have. The department currently has a $17 million State General Fund surplus because of the flawed formula. Now, instead of quickly correcting the formula and distributing the funds to the school districts, they (Deputy Superintendent Elizabeth Scioneaux and MFP Director Katherine Granier) are attempting to “spin” the mistake and make no mention about it because they are afraid of an audit of the MFP program. Basically, the department will lie and cover up the mistake, the local school districts will lose out on the funding that they are entitled, and the excess State General Fund will be used for onetime expenses in fiscal year 2018-2019.

Who is monitoring the Department of Education? Anyone? Are they not accountable? 

I would be interested in what they have to say about the $17 million surplus. I am quite certain that the local school boards would be surprised to know this, too. They are unsure how the formula is derived and they just depend on the Education department to get it right.

I would hazard a guess that this individual never received a response from a single member of the Senate Finance Committee. LouisianaVoice also would be interested in knowing if anyone at LDOE is accountable or if anyone in the Legislature is paying the least bit of attention.

That curiosity is piqued not only by the email above but by one received on Sunday. Again, I am keep the identity of the second writer confidential as well. Here is that email:

To anyone who thinks that the legislature is doing ANY real work:

Consider the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP). This $3.7 BILLION appropriation is the second largest item in the state budget (the largest is Medicaid). These dollars go to local school districts to fund operations. It’s kind of a big deal and surely elected members have some questions or at least want to know a little about this gigantic item, right? WRONG!  The MFP for FY19 exists as SCR 48. This resolution sailed through the Senate with only a couple of perfunctory questions. Not to be outdone, when it arrived at the House Education Committee, it got worse. Chairman Nancy Landry (one of the worst of the Tea-Partiers) called up the resolution before anyone from LDOE even arrived at the meeting, said it wasn’t necessary for the Department to be there, moved favorable, and just like that, $3.7 BILLION moved on. Not a single question, not a single comment, no public testimony (no one was present), no Department testimony. And THAT is YOUR legislature at work. Meanwhile, the House Floor spent HOURS on an asinine bill by Rep. Amedee (possibly the least intelligent member of the body) to mandate a certain amount of time per day as “recess” for grades K-8. One would think this is purely the purview of BESE and the local school boards, but No. Incidentally, Amedee is one of those Tea-Partiers who abhor any sort of government regulation EXCEPT WHEN IT IS SOMETHING THEY WANT. Then, it’s okay! To its credit, the House voted her bill down. But the fact that hours were spent on such stupidity, and not one minute was spent on the MFP, tells you everything you need to know about YOUR legislature. These are the jackasses that WE elected!! So, who should really shoulder the blame? The elected jackasses or “We, the People” who put them there? 

In addition to the contents of those two emails, consider this:

The Louisiana Department of Education has 37 unclassified employees (appointive) who draw $100,000 or more per year in salary, including Elizabeth Scioneaux, who is paid $133,000 per year whose job it apparently is, according to the first writer, to spend multi-million-dollar mistakes in order to conceal them from legislative or state auditor oversight.

LDOE also has nine people identified by the somewhat ambiguous job title of “Fellow” knocking down between $88,000 and $110,000 per year. Those are mixed in with the “consultants,” “directors,” “advisers,” “specialists,” “assistants,” “researchers,” “managers,” “liaison officers,” and something called “paraeducators.”

In all, LDOE has a whopping 170 UNCLASSIFIED EMPLOYEES, topped of course, by State Superintendent John White’s $275,000 per year. This information was obtained as part of a public records request submitted by LouisianaVoice.

We even found our old friend David “Lefty” Lefkowith, who pulls down $100,000 per year as a “director,” whatever that is. Our first encounter with Lefty was back in 2012 when we discovered he was commuting to and from his California home to perform his duties with LDOE. A little closer examination revealed he was part of a CARTEL that included then-candidate for Florida governor Jeb Bush, the now-defunct Enron Corp., and a spin-off company named Azurix in a failed effort to privatize and store potable water to later sell to the highest bidder through a process called aquifer storage and recovery (ASR). At least LDOE did drop Lefty’s 2012 salary of $145,000 per year to its current level. But then, we’re told that he no longer commutes, either; he works from home in California. Nice.

Others include:

  • Laura Hawkins—Recovery School District administrator (RSD): $110,000;
  • Elizabeth Marcell—RSD administrator: $115,000;
  • Dana Peterson—RSD administrator: $148,500;
  • Jules Burk—superintendent: $120,000;
  • Meredith Jordan—education coordinator: $112,200;
  • Ralph Thibodeaux—superintendent: $115,000;
  • Allen Walls—education coordinator: $112,200;
  • Ronald Bordelon—RSD administrator: $150,000;
  • Andrea Cambria—RSD administrator: $100,000;
  • Tiffany Delcour—assistant superintendent: $120,000;
  • Gabriela Fighetti—assistant superintendent: $135,000;
  • Lona Hankins—director: $140,000;
  • Jessica Baghian, assistant superintendent: $129,800;
  • Erin Bendily—assistant superintendent: $140,000;
  • Kenneth Bradford—assistant superintendent: $129,800;
  • Jennifer Conway—assistant superintendent: $129,800;
  • Bridget Devlin—chief operating officer: $110,000;
  • Hannah Dietsch—assistant superintendent: $130,000;
  • Lisa French—manager: $104,500;
  • Joan Hunt—executive counsel: $129,800;
  • Rebecca Kockler—assistant superintendent: $129,800;
  • Rebecca Lamury—director: $100,000;
  • Diana Molpus—educational director: $103,000;
  • Kunjan Narechania—assistant superintendent: $159,500;
  • Catherine Pozniak—assistant superintendent: $140,000;
  • Jan Sibley—fellow: $100,000;
  • Jill Slack—director: $126,500;
  • Melissa Stilley—liaison officer: $135,000;
  • Dana Talley—liaison officer: $130,000;
  • Francis Touchet—liaison officer: $130,000;
  • Alicia Witkowski—fellow: $110,000;
  • Jamie Woing—fellow: $110,000;
  • Jacob Johnson—executive director: $100,600;
  • Shan Davis—director: $135,200.

And there was Vicky Thomas, listed as a “confidential assistant,” making a cool $91,800 per year.

Yet, with all those high-powered appointees with the important-sounding titles, a $17 million error in the crucial MFP was apparently allowed to slip through the cracks and no one in the legislature across the street could think of a single question to ask—because they were too busy considering recess, concealed carry in schools, granting payday loan companies interest rates of 167 percent, renaming highways, and…well, you know: important matters.

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I want to share something with you.

I have leveled criticism at Louisiana’s legislators and at both the former and current governor. Much, if not all that criticism I believed to be legitimate and well-earned. I was unmercifully hard on Bobby Jindal for the simple reason that not only did I believe him to be inept, but heartless as well when it came to consideration of the needs of the sick and elderly, of students and teachers, of minorities and the poor. In the end, I’m convinced I was not hard enough on him.

But today, I read two documents that have prompted me to take a little different approach, especially as it regards one certain legislator, a man I have never met, a man with whom I have never spoken but a man, nevertheless, who gives me hope, after today’s readings, that there may yet be those who have some sense of priority and compassion.

The man is State Sen. J.P. MORRELL and I fervently hope that my praise isn’t misguided or ill-conceived. Sometimes we are too eager to find a hero or at least someone to look up to. I hope this isn’t one of those times.

First, some background.

Earlier on Sunday, I came across a heart-rending online story of the struggles of an Oregon woman who, already waging a heroic fight against cancer, had the added burden, along with her husband, of having to battle the bureaucratic idiocy of the nation’s largest medical insurer, UnitedHealthcare.

The story was infuriating. Here, on one hand, was a woman, a mother of a four-year-old daughter, being told that only a liver transplant could save her life. On the other hand, there were the brain-dead bean-counters at UnitedHealthcare, all the way up to the company’s CEO, denying her one chance at life.

Morrell, it turns out, read the same story and also saw it on CNN. But instead of recapping, here’s what Morrell wrote, courtesy of Kreweoftruth, a New Orleans Internet blog:

This morning, Mother’s Day, I watched, then read, the heart wrenching tale of Erika Zak on CNN.

Erika is a 38-year-old mother and wife, who defeated stage 4 metastatic colon cancer but is dying.  Her liver, damaged by microwave ablation surgery, is failing and she is dying. So, she began the second fight of her life… with her insurance company.

Sitting with my wife and kids, enjoying breakfast today on Mother’s Day, this story deeply affected me. To be powerless in the face of callous CEOs making decisions regarding whether you live or die, it’s terrifying. 

Inevitably, I saw the obvious parallels between her plight and tens of thousands of Louisianans at the mercy of the Louisiana State Legislature and our budget crisis. As we contemplate passing ‘fake’ budgets as part of a ‘process’, we are playing games and, consequently, playing with people’s lives.

A $650+ million shortfall is less than two months away. As we squabble, 35,000+ nursing home recipients are being told that they are about to be evicted. With no clear and reasonable revenue agreement in place, we alternate between closing hospitals with medical schools, burdening families with crippling college debt, or cutting services to the Department of Children and Family Services.

As the Chairman of the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, my role is to try to shepherd revenue raising measures through this process to avert this disaster. It’s an awesome, and terrifying, responsibility that weighs on me every single day.

Some of the issues being debated this session are tremendously important, such as criminal justice reform or public safety. Other bills are innocuous and warrant little to no debate, like renaming highways or changing the membership of security districts. However, there are some bills that are neither important nor insignificant.

House Bill 553, regarding the renewal of the Harrah’s gaming license is one such bill. The amount of time, energy and effort that has been expended by the proponents and opponents of this bill is staggering. The Senate has been barraged by the effort of over a dozen registered lobbyists each one of whom is trying to explain why this bill is a ‘good deal’ for the City of New Orleans and State of Louisiana. On the other hand, the opposition has its own horde of unregistered lobbyists to advocate for competing business interests. Both sides have expended an immense amount of time trying to shape opinions, news and narratives to get their own way.  

As someone inside this chaotic budget crisis, this Harrah’s deal is truly unworthy of our attention. Whether you believe the current deal is a good one or whether there is time to negotiate a better one, either position is immaterial.

With the looming crisis facing our state, and our city, the noise surrounding this deal is an unwarranted distraction. I do not want myself or my colleagues to be distracted. The citizens of Louisiana deserve much better than that. And, I’m going to use my position to insist they get it. Consideration of an early renewal of this license right now, is like trying to get a lower lease payment on your car while you home is under foreclosure. We need to get our home in order. 

Negotiations of this kind are about maximizing leverage and should never be negotiated until each party is on equal footing. The State of Louisiana is broke and can’t pay its bills, a circumstance that makes any extra money seem attractive. That’s not a good place to start a negotiation. 

Tomorrow, in Senate Judiciary B Committee, I will cast my vote to defer this bill for this legislative session. A future legislature will have ample time to reconsider this issue when the budget crisis has passed. 

I am putting my position on the record, before committee, because the legislature is trying to adjourn by Friday, May 18th. The purpose of the early adjournment is to spare taxpayers the additional cost of a special session. Bills of this nature, with tremendous forces on both sides vying for supremacy, will destroy a possibility of this happening. 

-JP Morrell

Louisiana State Senator, District 3

Morrell seems to be one responsible legislator, at least in this case, who can cut through the B.S. and get to the core of the issue facing the state.

And he understands and is disgusted by the fact that legislators can spend so much time on issues that do not address the fiscal problems facing the state and its citizens:

  • Issues like Payday loan companies’ attempt to raise interest rates to 167 percent (Morrell was absent for that vote, which passed the Senate by a 20-17 margin but which later failed to make it out of committee on the House side).
  • Issues like allowing anyone—anyone—with a concealed carry permit to enter public schools in Louisiana fully armed.
  • Issues like commending a former state legislator for his support of a ridiculous bill that was struck down by the Supreme Court. Really?
  • Issues like, as Morrell points out, renaming highways or changing memberships of security districts.

And Morrell is not shy in noting that in the furor over the Harrah’s gaming license, the legislature has been overrun by parasites with briefcases, aka lobbyists for both sides. Some of them, he said aren’t even registered lobbyists as required by law. All so Harrah’s can get an early renewal of its license. Early—while the attention to the looming fiscal cliff has been a little late in claiming the serious attention of people like Cameron Henry and Lance Harris and House Speaker Taylor Barras.

A decade of kicking the can down the road and it’s starting to show a few dents.

Morrell, at least, gets it.

One word.

Priorities.

Now, if he could just get the message across to his colleagues…

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