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Archive for the ‘Budget’ Category

It was only last Nov. 20 that a joint meeting of the House Committee on Appropriations and the Senate Committee on Finance was told that the Office of Group Benefits (OGB) was in improved financial condition.

By April 21 of this year, however, serious discussion had begun about a premium increase for state employees and retirees even as state workers have been told they will not get merit pay raises for the sixth straight year.

OGB Executive Director testified before the joint committee last November that the agency’s fund balance, nearly depleted by the reckless fiscal policies of Bobby Jindal, had recovered to $122 million at the end of the 2015 fiscal year (June 30, 2015) and was projected to be $146 million by the end of the current fiscal year. http://house.louisiana.gov/H_Video/VideoArchivePlayer.aspx?v=house/2015/Nov/1120_15_AP_SenFinance

Neither amount, of course, is anywhere close to the $500 million fund balance accrued by former OGB Executive Director Tommy Teague before he was teagued in April 2011. (for those who may have forgotten, the term coined by a reader for those who dared disagree with Jindal who were quickly fired or demoted).

It is, however, a significant increase from the low balance that came perilously close to double digits in 2014.

Jim Fannin (R-Jonesboro), at the time a member of the House and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee though he had already been elected to the Senate, asked West what the OGB “burn rate” (the amount paid out monthly in benefits in excess of premiums) was.

“It was $16.3 million,” West replied. “It’s now $7 million. Changes that were made have had a positive impact on the fund balance.”

She said OGB has held no public hearings “because there are no planned benefit changes for 2016.”

But wait. Her testimony does not quite jibe with the April presentation of OGB consulting actuary Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. in that OGB ESTIMATING CONFERENCE

At that estimating conference, Gallagher said a 7 percent rate increase would increase the fund balance to $156.9 million by the end of fiscal year 2017 (June 30, 2017), which it said was “within the target range” of $130 million to $240 million.

Gallagher recommended that the new rate increase go into effect in January 2017 “for ease of communication and administration due to annual enrollment timing.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards, then a state representative, openly opposed the 2014 OGB rate increase plan proposed by West and then Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols.

https://louisianavoice.com/2014/08/25/louisianavoice-learns-of-jindal-plan-to-force-state-retirees-out-of-ogb-by-raising-members-premiums-cutting-benefits/

Edwards even went so far as to request an attorney general’s opinion on the method by which Nichols and West were attempting to implement the new premium increase and when the Jindal administration learned in advance that the AG’s opinion would be detrimental to its premium increase plan, Nichols quickly shifted gears in saying that the state would go through the required rule-making process spelled out in the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

That move only served to further invoke Edwards’ ire because, he said, the changes had already been implemented without the required public hearing. https://louisianavoice.com/2014/09/23/smackdown-attorney-general-opinion-on-ogb-proposals-hands-jindal-administration-another-stinging-legal-setback/

Now Edwards finds himself in the ticklish position of having to either uphold his original position of opposing a rate increase, which originally brought him to the attention of state employees as their White Knight, or backing his OGB Executive Director.

As our late friend C.B. Forgotston was so fond of saying: You can’t make this stuff up.

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Editor’s note: The following is a guest column written by James Finney, Ph.D., of Baton Rouge. This was first posted on his blog, Methodical, Musical Mathematician’s Musings, and we felt it was an important essay that addressed issues with the state’s flawed school voucher program. Rather than simply publishing a link to his post, Dr. Finney was gracious enough to allow us to re-post it in its entirety on LouisianaVoice. Dr. Finney is a math teacher with an interest in transparent and effective government.  He grew up in South Dakota but has lived in Baton Rouge for more than 20 years.

His observations should not be interpreted as a criticism of the Catholic Church but rather an objective look at how the state’s voucher program has been mismanaged and vouchers paid in disproportionate amounts to church-affiliated schools by the Louisiana Department of Education.

 

By James Finney, Ph.D.

Did the headline get your attention?  If so, that’s good. When I saw the details of voucher funding for 2014-15, I was startled at how much of the nearly $40 million in spending went to Catholic schools.

The total amount sent to the 131 voucher schools participating in the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence program in 2014-15 was $39,486,798.20. This figure is reported in a spreadsheet I received from the Department of Education in response to a public record request.  Of that, approximately two-thirds ($26,819,434.44) went to the 76 participating schools that are affiliated with the New Orleans Archdiocese and the Dioceses of Shreveport, Alexandria, Baton Rouge, Houma-Thibodaux, Lafayette, and Lake Charles.

A defender of the voucher program might suggest that most of the private schools in the state are Catholic, so it makes sense that most of the vouchers would be used in Catholic schools. The evidence says otherwise. There are 412 nonpublic schools listed in the state’s 2015-16 School Directory (which I received incidental to another public record request). Of those, 190 are identified by the state as being Catholic. So the Catholic schools are fewer than half the nonpublic schools, but they account for two-thirds of the vouchers. There is no easy way to compare total enrollment (Catholic vs. non-Catholic private schools) since the state does not appear to collect or report private-school enrollment data.

As mentioned earlier, 76 of the 131 voucher schools are Catholic. Of the remaining 55, nearly half (25) have a school name containing the word “Christian” and nine have a name containing “Lutheran”, “Living Word”, “Bishop”, “Baptist”, “Adventist” or “Bible”. And there’s Jewish Community Day School.  So that leaves roughly 20 of the voucher schools that might be secular.  So much for the separation of Church and State.

It’s interesting to rank the voucher schools by total amount paid in 2014-15:  The top six schools account for more than $10 million, and the next 14 for more than another $10 million:

  • St. Mary’s Academy (Girls) (C), Orleans (417): $2,606,160
  • Hosanna Christian Academy (AG), EBR (390): $2,265,944
  • Resurrection of Our Lord School (C), Orleans (466): $2,103,286
  • Our Lady of Prompt Succor (C), Jefferson (208): $1,045,417
  • St. Louis King of France School (C), EBR (182): $1,021,094
  • 506087 Leo the Great School (C), Orleans (191): $1,016,667

Five of the most expensive voucher schools, and 17 of the top 20, are Catholic.  The non-Catholic schools among the top 20 are Hosanna Christian Academy (No. 2 above), Evangel Christian Academy in Caddo Parish (No. 16) and Riverside Academy in St. John the Baptist Parish (No. 20).

One of the voucher schools appears to be a public school: Park Vista Elementary School in Opelousas (St. Landry Parish). It would be interesting to know the story on that school’s participation in the program, and where the students are coming from. The state sent the Parish an average of somewhere around $7,760 each for 19 students, contributing $150,000 to the local system’s bottom line.  Compare that to the $5,570 that the state sent to St. Landry Parish Schools in Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) funding for each student who actually lived in St. Landry Parish.

Two of the schools that received vouchers are not even on the state’s list of nonpublic schools:  Walford School of New Orleans received $17,717, and McKinney-Byrd Academy in Shreveport received $3,566. If they aren’t on the state’s list of nonpublic schools, why did they receive voucher payments? In 2015-16, the SIHAF K12 Learning Academy joined the ranks of voucher schools not on the list of nonpublic schools, and in 2016-17, Weatherford Academy in Westwego will be allowed to offer up to six vouchers and Children’s College in Slidell will be allowed to offer one or two vouchers. Go figure.

State Superintendent of Education John White would like us to believe that at an average of around $5,500 each the vouchers saves the state a lot of money. There’s a flaw in that argument. The average per child state share of the MFP in 2014-15 was only $5,185.  So there might be a savings to local school districts, if those local districts had to educate fewer students with the same amount of local tax revenue. Unfortunately, there’s a huge loophole in the voucher program that allows students who have never (and probably would never) have been enrolled in a public school to get their private educations funded by the state. Maybe that’s why I can’t get a meaningful response to my request to the Department of Education in which I seek the records of how many voucher students had actually “escaped” public schools.

As an example of the fallacy of the vouchers-as-a-bargain-for-the-state argument, consider East Baton Rouge Parish Schools. In 2014-15, the state share of MFP was $4,165 per student. Of the 20 voucher schools within the district’s boundaries, the only school with an average voucher amount below $4165 was St. Francis Xavier School at $4,103.  At least five voucher schools charged the state over $8,000 per student. For two schools, Most Blessed Sacrament and Country Day School of Baton Rouge, both the average tuition per student and the number of students each quarter were (illegally?) redacted from the records supplied by the state, so there’s no way to know how much each school charged the taxpayers per student.

The highest tuition rate ($9,000) was charged by Prevailing Faith Christian Academy in Ouachita Parish for its 31 voucher students. It appears that the schools get to set the rate the state pays for an education over which the state exercises no oversight, as long as there are at least a few families willing to pay that amount out of their own pockets. With no effective state oversight, there is no way to tell just how good (or more likely how bad) a bargain the state is getting by funding private education.

Meanwhile only 91 schools are accepting applications for new voucher students in 2016-17. Perhaps many of the private schools have realized that mixing public money and private education is a bad idea all around.

F 17 of February 20 (voucher school status for 2016-17, and Q1 enrollment for 2015-16)

11 of February 20 – 2014-15 SEE Enrollment and Funding (2014-15 voucher spending)

2014-15-circular-no-1156a—final-budget-letter—march-2015  (Look at “Table 3 Levels 1&2” tab, in columns AP and AT.)

 

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The timeliness of Tuesday’s observation about holding our public officials accountable has come into play less than 24 hours after the post went up.

Today’s (March30) Baton Rouge Advocate revealed that only two of Bobby Jindal’s nine public-private partnership hospital contracts will be funded in the next fiscal year, a move that is certain to adversely affect low-income residents seeking medical care. http://theadvocate.com/news/15333761-70/seven-out-nine-public-hospitals-unfunded-in-next-years-budget-including-baton-rouge-and-lafayette

As severe as the projected cuts are ($58.4 million to Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center in Baton Rouge and $51.2 million to Lafayette General Health Center alone), Gov. John Bel Edwards appointee Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee has been AWOL at hearings before the House Appropriations Committee and the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

The latest crisis is, of course, directly attributable to the short-sightedness of Bobby Jindal and his obsession with privatizing everything in state government that moved—even to the extent of having his lap dog LSU Board of Supervisors approve a contract turning over medical facilities in Shreveport and Monroe to private concerns which contained 50 blank pages.

As things now stand, it appears the only hospitals to be spared the knife (if you will pardon a terrible pun) are the LSU Medical Centers in New Orleans and Shreveport and they survived only because they house LSU medical schools.

The fiscal year 2017 budget calls for a 10 percent funding cut for DHH. That comes to $283 million right off the top but the number escalates to $750 million when the loss of federal matching funds are factored into the equation.

Besides OLOL in Baton Rouge and Lafayette General, other public-private hospitals impacted by the cuts include those in Alexandria, Monroe, Houma, Bogalusa and Lake Charles.

LSU Health Sciences Center Chancellor Dr. Larry Hollier testified that he was worried about the prospect of seeing the public-private arrangements go belly up. OLOL, he said, has 150 residents in training and Lafayette has 82. In all, LSU has about 800 residents scattered about the state.

State Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) noted that residents of north Baton Rouge, a predominantly black area, have lost both inner community hospitals when Earl K. Long was closed and later torn down and when Baton Rouge General-Mid City closed down its emergency room a year ago Thursday (March 31).

So with all this bad news swirling about, where was the DHH secretary?

Sure, DHH Undersecretary Jeff Reynolds testified but was unable to give clear cut answers to legislators’ questions about how funds saved from Medicaid expansion might be used to offset the DHH shortfall.

But Gee was still MIA. Reynolds said she was absent because of personal issues but that lame excuse was quickly shot down by DHH spokesperson Bob Johannessen told LSU’s Manship School News Service that Gee was spending spring break with her family.

Johannessen’s candor could get him in hot water. The boss never likes it when a subordinate reveals something that puts him or her in a bad light. And face it, this is a pretty bad light. He did recover some lost ground, however, when he added that legislators who were critical of her absence were “grandstanding.”

Well, yeah. That’s what politicians do. So why make it so easy for them?

Rep. Bob Hensgens (R-Abbeville) said he doesn’t recall seeing Gee at any Appropriations Committee or Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget meetings.

Rep. John Schroder (R-Covington) was even more critical. “It’s getting a little troublesome that the secretary doesn’t come,” he said. “The taxpayers want to hear from the boss when we start talking about these kinds of dollars.” http://www.thenewsstar.com/story/news/local/2016/03/29/millions-dollars-cut-state-hospitals/82402336/

Spring break? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? (the new polite way of saying WTF?)

Edwards appointed Gee, a professor of health policy and management in obstetrics and gynecology at LSU, to head DHH in early January. http://new.dhh.louisiana.gov/index.cfm/page/7/n/55

We just had a DHH secretary (Kathy Kliebert) whose brother-in-law got into hot water with the Louisiana Board of Ethics (does anyone have any idea how difficult that is to do after Jindal revamped the ethics board in 2008?) because he failed to disclose his employment by state Medicaid contractor Magellan Health Services. http://www.theneworleansadvocate.com/news/11707352-123/brother-in-law-of-state-health-secretary

We just got rid of a governor who for eight years steadfastly refused to be held accountable for his action (or inaction, as the case may be).

Her appointment was described as “among the most important appointments Edwards will make in his new administration” by NOLA.com back in January.

At the time of the announcement of her appointment, she said, “I pledge to you I will use all of the skills I’ve used as a physician, a patient, a parent, and a policymaker to do everything I can to improve the lives and health of people in this great state.”

http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/01/john_bel_edwards_dhh_secretary.html

Dr. Gee, those noble words might mean a little more to the taxpayers of this state if you would take your position more seriously and appear at important committee hearings. A public face on an agency in crisis mode is more than important: it’s critical.

It’s all about accountability.

We’ve already had one agency head (Kristy Nichols) to duck out on a committee hearing to attend a boy band concert in New Orleans. We don’t need an encore of that performance. https://louisianavoice.com/2014/10/06/kristy-kreme-knows-one-direction-ducks-out-on-legislative-committee-for-boy-band-concert-at-n-o-smoothie-king-arena/

Going on spring break at a time when the low-income residents of this state are staring at having to overcome even greater hurdles to obtain decent health care sends the wrong message—a message that we’ve become all too familiar with over the past eight years.

And that message is arrogance.

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Regular readers of this site know our disdain for the undue influence of lobbyists and special interests over lawmakers to the exclusion of the very voters who elected those same lawmakers to represent them and their best interests.

Our opposition to political decisions made with priority given to campaign contributions over what is best for the state is well-known—and uncompromising. Money should have no place—repeat, no place—in political decisions.

Unfortunately, we know that is not the case. Politicians for the most part, are basically prostitutes for campaign funds and those who choose to remain chaste usually find themselves at a serious disadvantage come election time.

To that end, you can probably look for State Rep. Jay Morris (R-Monroe) to attract strong opposition when he comes up for re-election in 2019. And that opposition, whoever it might be, is likely to have a campaign well-lubricated by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), the Louisiana Chemical Association, and the oil and gas industry.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, we have gone on record on numerous occasions as saying the voters are merely pawns to be moved about at will by big business in general and the banks, pharmaceutical companies, Wall Street and oil companies in particular. It is their money that inundates us with mind-numbing political ads that invade our living rooms every election year telling us why Candidate A is superior to Candidate B because B voted this way or that way and besides, good old Candidate A has always had the welfare of voters uppermost in mind.

The presence of that influence was never more clearly illustrated than in Tyler Bridges’ insightful story in Friday’s Baton Rouge Advocate. http://theadvocate.com/news/15225624-78/la-legislative-staffers-sort-out-changes-added-at-the-last-minute

In the very first paragraph of his story, Bridges wrote that a secret deal between Senate President John Alario (R-Westwego), House Speaker Taylor Barras (R-New Iberia) and lobbyists for LABI and the Louisiana Chemical Association.

We won’t bother to re-hash the details of that meeting and the agreement finally reached just before the closing minutes of the recent special session. You can read the details in the link to the Bridges story that we provided above.

But suffice it to say had it not been for Morris digging his heels in and threatening to kill his own bill when he learned of a manufacturing tax break that had been added to his bill, HB 61 that aimed at eliminating exemptions and exclusions on numerous sales tax breaks. Though a Republican, Morris feels that big business isn’t paying its fair share of taxes.

“I was not aware of the deal,” Bridges quoted Morris as saying. “I was not invited.”

Neither, apparently, were any spokespersons for consumers, organized labor, teachers, or the citizens of Louisiana.

Oh, but you can bet LABI President Steve Waguespack was invited to a meeting in Alario’s office earlier in the day, as was Louisiana Chemical Association chief lobbyist Greg Bowser.

Given that, we would like to ask Sen. Alario and Rep Barras why no one representing the people were invited to that little conclave. And don’t try to tell us that the Senate President and House Speaker were representing the people. You were not. You were representing the vested interests of the chemical industry and big business. Period.

Sen. Alario, Rep. Barras: the people of Louisiana are far more deserving of a place at the table in some furtive backroom meeting than LABI and the chemical association.

Either all factions are invited in or no one is. The playing field should be level.

By not excluding lobbyists or by not inviting those on whose shoulders are placed the greatest burden, the ones who placed you in office, you have not just failed at your job; you have failed miserably.

Our late friend C.B. Forgotston would have said of the meeting which produced that secret deal: “You can’t make this stuff up.”

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You just have to love Louisiana politics.

It’s kind of like having someone pee down your back while telling you it’s raining.

Or maybe trying to run a marathon with a rock in your shoe.

And to no one’s real surprise, it doesn’t seem to matter much which political party is in power.

Take Thomas Harris, the newly-appointed Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), for example.

On Feb. 19, not quite two weeks ago, Secretary Harris testified before the House Appropriations Committee about the agency’s fiscal year 2017 budget. In his testimony, Harris, who spent about a dozen years at the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) before his Jan. 26 appointment by Gov. John Bel Edwards, lamented the fact that his agency was so strapped for funding that up to 66 employees face layoffs come July 1.

While it may difficult for some to feel much compassion for DNR, given the historically cozy relationship between the oil and gas industry and the agency’s top brass. It was DNR and DEQ, after all, which conveniently looked the other way all these years as our coastal marshlands were raped by the industry that curtailed the so-called legacy lawsuits filed against oil companies that neglected to clean up after themselves. http://theadvocate.com/home/9183574-125/house-oks-legacy-lawsuit-legislation

http://legacy.wwltv.com/story/news/2014/12/10/tainted-legacy-legislatures-fixes-create-obstacles-to-oil-and-gas-cleanup/17671639/

Harris gave his testimony during the afternoon session of the Appropriations Committee that met during the recent special legislative session called to address major budget shortfalls.

To save you some time, open the link HERE and move to the 41-minute mark. That’s where Harris begins his address to committee members, most of whom were talking among themselves (as is the norm) and not really paying attention.

So just why are we making such a big deal of this? It’s no big secret, after all, that budgetary cuts are hitting just about every agency and employees are going to have to be laid off. It’s a fact of life for anyone working for the state these days.

Unless you happen to be named David Boulet or Ashlee McNeely

Harris hired Boulet as Assistant Secretary of DNR, effective March 10 (last Thursday), less than three weeks after his calamitous testimony about projected layoffs.

But get this: Ashlee McNeely, wife of our old friend Chance McNeely (we’ll get to him presently), worked in Bobby Jindal’s office from Feb. 3, 2014, until last Oct. 22 as a legislative analyst at $78,000. On Oct. 23, she was promoted to Director of Legislative Services at the same salary (someone please tell us why Jindal needed a director of legislative services when he had less than three months to go in his term—and with no legislative session on the immediate horizon). Of course, come Jan. 11, the date of John Bel Edwards’ inauguration, she was quietly terminated along with the rest of Jindal’s staff.

But wait. Harris decided he needed a “Confidential Assistant.” And just what is a “confidential assistant,” anyway? Well, we’re told that the term is loosely translated to “legislative liaison.” No matter. Harris did the only logical thing: he brought Ashlee McNeely on board on Feb. 10, just nine days before his cataclysmic budgetary predictions. What’s more, he bumped her salary up by eight thou a year, to $86,000.

But back to our friend Boulet: His salary is a cool $107,600—to fill a position that has been vacant for more than five years. So what was the urgency of filling a long-vacated slot that obviously is little more than window dressing for an agency unable to fill mission-critical classified positions?

Had Harris chosen instead to allocate the combined $193,000 the two are getting, he could have hired four classified employees at $46,750 each. Not the greatest salary, but certainly not bad if you’re out of work and trying to feed a family. And still higher than the state’s family median income

So, what, exactly are the qualifications of Boulet? Well, for openers, he’s the son-in-law of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and that’s of no small consequence. In fact, that was probably enough.

In fact, it’s not the first time he has landed a cushy position that took on the appearances of having all the right connections. We take you back to 2001, when Blanco was Lieutenant Governor and Boulet was hired as the $120,000-a-year Director of Oil & Gas Cluster Development for the Louisiana Office of Economic Development, a move that did not sit well with the scribes at the Thibodaux Comet: http://www.dailycomet.com/article/20011108/NEWS/111080313?tc=ar

And then there’s our old friend Chance McNeely, another holdover from the Jindal disaster. McNeely, all of 27, has seen his star rise in meteoric fashion after obtaining a degree in agricultural business and working four years as a legislative assistant for the U.S House of Representatives. From there, he found his way into Jindal’s inner circle as an analyst at $68,000. He remained there less than a year (March 6, 2014, to Jan. 12, 2015) before moving over to DEQ where the special position of Assistant Secretary, Office of Environmental Compliance (in circumvention of Jindal’s hiring freeze in place at the time and despite having no qualifications for the position)—complete with a $37,000 raise to $102,000. https://louisianavoice.com/2015/01/13/if-you-think-chance-mcneelys-appointment-to-head-deq-compliance-was-an-insult-just-get-a-handle-on-his-salary/

He held onto that job recisely a year, exiting the same day as his wife got her pink slip, on Jan. 11 of this year. Unlike Ashlee, who remained unemployed for just over three months, Chance was out of work for exactly eight days before being named Assistant to the Secretary at the Department of Transportation and Development, albeit at a slight drop in salary, to $99,000.

But by combining his and his wife’s salaries, the $177,000 isn’t too shabby for a state with a median income of $42,406 per household, according to 2014 data. And how many 27-year-olds do you know who pull down $99,000 per year? http://www.advisorperspectives.com/dshort/updates/Household-Incomes-by-State.php

So, Secretary Harris, as you struggle with balancing the high pay of your political appointees with cutbacks of the ones who do the real work, please know that we understand fully that we live in Louisiana where, no matter the rhetoric, things never change.

You will head an agency that will protect big oil from those of us with ruined pastureland and briny water. DNR will continue to shield big oil from those who would do whatever necessary to preserve our wetlands. And as those oil companies continue to fight back with whatever legal chicanery they can craft—including the buying of legislators.

And the merry-go-round of appointments to those with the right political connections will continue unabated—no matter what self-righteous rhetoric of freedom and justice for all is spewed by the pompous ass clowns we continue to elect.

Now ask me how I really feel.

 

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