Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Budget’ Category

Taking their cue from Alabama Sheriff TODD ENTREKIN, several members of Louisiana’s House of Representatives have co-sponsored a bill that would cut food expenditures for prisoners and college and university students while increasing the percentage of prisoner work-release pay that the state receives in an effort to boost revenue as the state rushes headlong toward the June 30 fiscal cliff.

HB-4118, co-authored by a dozen Republican legislators who received the highest ratings from the conservative Americans for Prosperity (AFP), would slash funding for inmate meals three days per week in an effort to help make up budgetary shortfalls.

The bill has been endorsed by AFP, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, and Attorney General Jeff Landry as an effective cost-saving measure that would, at the same time, continue to allow generous tax breaks for business and industry to remain untouched. Also remaining intact would be tax incentives for movie and television production in the state.

In Alabama, existing legislation allows sheriffs to collect a salary supplement as a percentage of savings achieved.

Entrekin, Sheriff of Etowah County in Alabama, recently came under heavy criticism when it was learned that he cut back on his jail’s food budget by eliminating meat for prisoners for all but a couple of days per month but then used the money saved to purchase a beach house for $740,000. HB 4118, while similar to the Alabama law, would have built-in safeguards against any surplus being diverted for personal use.

“Sheriff Entrekin, who runs only a single county jail in Alabama, was able to save approximately $250,000 per year for three years. Granted, he abused the intent of the law by using his surplus funds for personal gain,” said State Reps. Cameron Henry (R-Metairie) and Lance Harris (R-Alexandria) in a joint statement announcing their introduction of the bill. “If surplus funds are properly allocated back to the state instead of to individuals as was the case in Alabama, that misuse of funds can be avoided. With 50,000 prison inmates and more than 200,000 college students in Louisiana, imagine how much we would be able to save by employing the same paradigm.”

HB 4118 would cut servings of meat, milk and juice by three days a week for 50 weeks per year—Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for state-run prisons and all colleges and universities and Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays for parish jails and privately-run prisons. State appropriations for those institutions would be cut accordingly.

“We wouldn’t want to make such cuts for prisons on Sundays or during the weeks of Thanksgiving or Christmas because that would just not be the Christian thing to do,” the statement by Henry and Harris said. “Colleges and universities are out during those weeks anyway, so they would not be affected during those times.”

They said the potential savings to the state, calculated at a minimum of $3 per meal at which meat, milk and juice are eliminated, would be an estimated $22.5 million per year at prisons and $75 million at institutions of higher learning, or a total of $97.5 million per year.

Public schools would be exempted from the more restrictive diets for now, they said.

Operators of prisons and jails typically receive about 60 percent of the earnings of each prisoner who participates in a work-release program. That amount would be increased to 75 percent if HB 4118 becomes law. Additionally, a processing fee of one dollar would be added to the sale of each soft drink and snack to the prices presently charged by prison commissaries, according to provisions of the bill. Currently, prisoners are charged $3 for soft drinks and $5 for snacks.

“These people are in jail for committing crimes,” the two lawmakers’ joint statement said. “They get free housing, food, clothing and they’re learning a trade. There really isn’t any need for them to earn money on top of those benefits.

“This bill will allow the state to protect the valuable incentives for businesses and industry which provide jobs for Louisiana’s honest, hard-working citizens,” they said. “The bill protects the same jobs that will be available to the college students when they graduate. We’re asking students to sacrifice a little now for greater rewards in the future.”

Though the bill’s language doesn’t specifically say so, the same cuts could also be applied at hospitals now operated as part of the public-private partnerships implemented by the Jindal administration, which would produce additional savings although no estimates were provided for the medical facilities.

If approved, the new law would go into effect one year from today.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

In case you’ve ever taken the time to wonder why our legislature has been unable—or unwilling—to effective address the looming fiscal crisis for the state, here’s a quick lesson in civics that may help you understand the real priorities of our elected officials and the forces that motivate them.

Members of Congress are advised to spend four hours per day FUNDRAISING, or on “call time.” That’s time to be spent on the telephone raising campaign contributions—if they want to be re-elected.

They are also told they should spend one to two hours on “constituent visits,” which often translates to meeting with lobbyists and campaign contributors. That leaves two hours for committee meetings and floor attendance, one hour for something called “strategic outreach,” or breakfasts, meet and greets, press interviews (read: Sen. John Kennedy), and one hour “recharge time.”

It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that we’re paying big salaries for these guys to actually work only about two hours per day for only part of the year.

Another way of putting it is we’re paying big bucks for them to spend twice as much time raising campaign contributions as actually doing the work of the people who, in theory at least, elected them.

That’s in theory only, of course. The truth is special interests such as banks, hedge funds, big oil, big pharma, the military-industrial complex, the NRA, and other major corporate interests—especially since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision—turn the gears of democracy while letting the American middle class delude itself into thinking we actually affect the outcome of elections.

Now, take that image and move it down to the state level and you have a microcosm of Congress.

The numbers are smaller, of course, given the smaller House and Senate districts from which candidates run but the model is the same.

And that is precisely the reason nothing gets done in regard to resolving the financial plight of the state.

Corporate tax breaks, tax exemptions, and tax credits have eroded the state budget until the onus now falls on the individual taxpayers while companies like Walmart enjoy Enterprise Zone tax credits for locating stores in upscale communities across the state.

Petro-chemical plans along the Mississippi River and in the southwestern part of the state enjoy millions of dollars in tax breaks for construction projects that produce few, if any, new permanent jobs.

And who is front and center in protecting the interests of these corporations?

That would be the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), first created with the intent of breaking the stranglehold of organized labor back in the 1970s and now focused on maintaining lucrative tax incentives for its membership.

LABI has four primary political action committees: East PAC, West PAC, North PAC, and South PAC.

LouisianaVoice has pulled the contributions of LABI, its four PACs.

For lagniappe, we’ve also thrown in contributions from pharmaceutical and oil and gas interests. The latter list offers a clear-cut explanation of why efforts to hold oil and gas companies accountable for damage to Louisiana’s coastal marshland have died early deaths.

You will notice in reviewing the reports that LABI, while making individual contributions, pours most of its money into its four PACs, which then make the direct contributions to the candidates.

Enjoy.

LABI CONTRIBUTIONS

EAST PAC CONTRIBUTIONS

WEST PAC CONTRIBUTIONS

NORTH PAC CONTRIBUTIONS

SOUTH PAC CONTRIBUTIONS

PHARMA CONTRIBUTIONS

OIL AND GAS CONTRIBUTIONS

 

Read Full Post »

If there was any lingering doubt as to the political stroke of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, one need only watch House Bill 218 do its imitation of Sherman’s March to the Sea.

The bill, authored by State. Rep. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe) and which gives Louisiana’s sheriffs a 7 percent pay raise, has already sailed through the House with a convincing VOTE of 79-9 with the remaining 16 managing to skip out on the vote.

It now moves on to the Senate Judiciary B Committee where it will be rubber stamped before going to the Senate floor where it is virtually assured of a similarly overwhelming majority approval as it enjoyed in the House.

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that neither the sheriffs’ current salaries nor the proposed increase will come from state funds. All sheriffs’ salaries come from their individual budgets but any raises must be approved by the legislature.

But that doesn’t change the fact that sheriffs are among the highest paid public officials in the state. There is not a single sheriff among the 64 parishes who does not make significantly more than the governor of the gret stet of Looziana.

LouisianaVoice painstakingly perused the latest audit reports for every sheriff in the state and found some interesting numbers that might make even the most ardent law and order advocate blanch a little.

Base salaries for sheriffs range from $105,279 for Assumption Parish Sheriff Leland Falcon to $179,227 for East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux but benefits can—and do—kick the bottom line up significantly.

Several small rural parishes are especially generous to their sheriffs when it comes to chipping in extras.

Take John Ballance of Bienville Parish, for example. Ballance, by the way, is a retired State Trooper drawing a pretty hefty pension from the state. His base salary is $144,904 but he gets an additional $82,607 in benefits that bump his overall pay to $227,511. Among his perks are a $14,504 expense allowance, $10,957 in insurance premiums, $41,207 in retirement contributions and—get this: $13,295 in membership dues for the sheriffs’ association. He has the third highest total in benefits in the state. Bonnie and Clyde, who met their demise in Bienville Parish back in 1934, should have made out so well.

Dusty Gates, the sheriff of Union Parish, pulls down $144,938 in base pay but gets an additional $83,652 in benefits (highest in the state), including $13,766 in sheriffs’ association membership dues (it ain’t cheap being a member of the most powerful lobbyist organization in the state).

Gerald Turlich of Plaquemines Parish comes in second in benefits with $83,530 tacked onto his $159,540 base pay—and he doesn’t even get any membership dues. His perks include $36,825 in insurance and $41,038 in retirement.

Nineteen individual sheriffs currently make $225,000 per year or more after benefits are included—and that’s before the proposed increase.

The top ten overall compensation packages, in order, are:

  • Turlich (Plaquemines): $243,070;
  • Tony Mancuso (Calcasieu): $237,080;
  • Ron Johnson (Cameron): $233,556;
  • Mike Stone (Lincoln); $232,785;
  • Craig Webre (Lafourche): $231,413;
  • Julian Whittington (Bossier): $231,100;
  • Andrew Brown (Jackson): $230,739;
  • Rodney Arbuckle (DeSoto): $230,566 (Arbuckle resigned on March 16);
  • Willy Martin (St. James): $229,951;
  • Ricky Moses (Beauregard): $229,098.

Conversely, only seven sheriffs earned less than $190,000 per year after benefits were included. They included:

  • Falcon (Assumption): $153,637;
  • Sam Craft (Vernon): $171,615;
  • Randy Smith (St. Tammany): $177,367;
  • Eddie Soileau (Evangeline): $180,766;
  • James Pohlmann (St. Bernard): $184,057;
  • Ronald Theriot (St. Martin): $188,003;
  • Toney Edwards (Catahoula): $188,751.

Base salaries are determined by the legislature, according to St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz.

Twenty-four sheriffs have base salaries of $159,540. A 7 percent increase will add $11,167, boosting their base pay to $170,707 before the addition of benefits

Gautreaux’s East Baton Rouge Parish base pay of $179,277 will jump by $12,549, giving him a new base pay of $191826.

Here is a list of all the SHERIFFS’ SALARIES, including base pay and total compensation.

Read Full Post »

A handful of distinguished retired journalists (and me) meets once a month at a Baton Rouge Piccadilly Cafeteria (I told you we were retired) to solve the ills of the state, nation, and the world. Occasionally, we even delve into local Baton Rouge politics.

One of those, Ed Pratt, with whom I had the pleasure of working at the old Baton Rouge State-Times back in the ‘70s, is an occasional attendant but because he is still gainfully employed (unlike the rest of the over-the-hill-gang), he doesn’t join us each month.

But several months ago, at a lunch he did show up. The subject that day was the future of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) and the legislature’s failure to adequately address the looming fiscal cliff that will see about a billion dollars fall off the books with the expiration of a temporary sales tax.

On March 9, Pratt, who still does a regular op-ed column for the Baton Rouge Advocate, WROTE a piece that accurately illustrated the direct connection between the continued funding of TOPS and the return on investment of apartment developers and restaurant owners, investments that exist in the immediate orbit of the state’s institutions of higher learning.

And while Pratt’s analysis singled out the spurt in apartment, condo, and restaurant development, primarily in the immediate proximity of LSU, other colleges and universities have also witnessed similar private investment, particularly in student housing.

Those investments could be in peril if the legislature continues to shirk its responsibility in setting the state on firm fiscal footing.

Take my alma mater, Louisiana Tech, for example, and Grambling State University, just five miles from Tech. There has been an explosion of housing construction around those two campuses. And because Tech has embarked on an ambitious program of student recruitment to bump its enrollment to something like 20,000 or so over the next few years, construction workers have been particularly busy in Ruston. (The enrollment at Tech when I was there was something like 4,000. But they had rotary dial pay phones, Cokes in 61/2-ounce glass bottles, manual typewriters, carbon paper, and 8 p.m. weeknight curfews for female students back then, too.)

But the way they’ve gone about with their student housing construction at Tech is quite creative and is being emulated by every other campus in the state, according to Ruston political consultant Dr. Gary Stokley, a retired Tech professor.

The Tech Alumni Foundation approaches alumni and other supporters with an “investment opportunity” that, as long as TOPS is maintained, is virtually risk-free. (And no, it’s not a Ponzi or pyramid scheme.)

Tech, despite having torn down some of its dormitories, is growing and with an increase in enrollment, students need housing. And, of course, students would prefer a home environment with private baths and kitchens as opposed to dormitories with a community bath and no kitchen.

By working with the school’s foundation, which actually negotiates the construction contracts, investors enjoy a generous tax write-off, plus they will own a percentage of the apartments or condos. The school takes care of filling the housing units and collecting the rent and is also responsible for the maintenance of the buildings. The dollars generated by student rent pays off the debt. The advantage to the school is that it is relieved of the burden of having to go through the State Bond Commission to obtain funding for the construction. The alumnus or supporter who ponies up the money does nothing but sit back and reap the rewards of his investment.

If you have the funds to sink into the project, it’s a win-win proposition.

“Tech is one of the first schools to come up with this method of financing construction of student housing,” said Stokley. “Other schools have since replicated that method.

“Tech and Grambling have a tremendous impact on the economy of Ruston and Lincoln Parish as do others schools on their communities,” he said.

“A four-year student at Tech has an economic value of a million dollars on Ruston,” he said, “so the retention of students is critical. If TOPS craters, enrollment will drop and these apartments will sit empty.

“It’s a domino effect. If TOPS is cut or eliminated, it affects not only students’ families, but the ripple effect impacts colleges and the community as well.” Stokley said it was not unrealistic to envision some universities actually shutting down or converting from public to private schools with even higher tuitions—which could further reduce enrollment.

There are already all those extra fees that students voted to impose on themselves—before tuition began rising so sharply seven or eight years ago. “At Tech, we have the $62 million Davison Center that students voted to pay a portion of by assessing themselves fees totaling $8 million,” Stokley said. “That’s an added fee tacked onto already rising tuition. If TOPS is cut, that’s money that will have to be made up by students’ parents or by students taking out student loans. If that happens, the money for private apartments and condos just won’t be in the budget.”

Combined with the threat to TOPS, banks are lobbying Congress to cap the amounts of government student loans which could place additional financial hardships on students.

With federal student loans, the interest rate is fixed and often lower than private loans which can have variable interest rates of more than 18 percent. Plus, with federal loans, students are not required to begin repayment until they graduate, leave school or change their enrollment status to less than half time. Private loans require payments while still enrolled.

For other advantages of federal over private loans, click HERE.

If you are a parent with a kid enrolled in a Louisiana public university who is on TOPS, you may wish to turn your attention from March Madness long enough to give your House and Senate members a call to suggest that they take time away from campaign fund raising long enough to do the job they were elected to do.

Better yet, here are the links to the HOUSE and SENATE. Scroll down and click on the name of your members to get their email addresses to contact them that way.

Read Full Post »

Why would DeSoto Parish Sheriff Rodney Arbuckle abruptly resign less than midway through his fifth consecutive term in office?

Arbuckle, who stepped down, effective today (Friday, March 16), attributed his decision, which he said has been a year in the making, to HEALTH PROBLEMS being encountered by one of his grandchildren.

But could there have other overriding factors that prompted his decision? Possibly. There are several prior and ongoing questions involving the DeSoto Parish Sheriff’s Office which, taken together or separately, could have nudged him out the door prematurely.

The first, going back about four years to an investigative audit REPORT by the Legislative Auditor’s Office in Baton Rouge revealed a major issue involving a former deputy sheriff whose private company ran half-a-million dollars’ worth of private background checks through Arbuckle’s office.

The company, Lagniappe and Castillo Research and Investigations, ran 41,574 background checks through the sheriff’s office during the 11-month period between April 1, 2012, and February 28, 2013, the audit report said. That’s 41,574 background checks in a parish that has a population of only 27,000.

Lagniappe and Castillo charged its customers $12 for each background report but paid the sheriff’s office only $3 per report. That represents a profit of more than $372,000 on income of more than $498,000—and sheriff’s office employees actually ran the checks. Robert Jackson Davidson, who retired as chief investigator for the sheriff’s office in May 2013, is listed as 50 percent owner of the company by the Louisiana Secretary of State’s corporate filings.

And then there is the more recent problem of LACE. That’s an anacronym for Local Agency Compensation Enforcement whereby the district attorney’s office pays the salaries of law enforcement officers to beef up traffic patrol for the parish. LACE has been hit with similar problems in State Police Troops B and D when it was learned that troopers were reporting hours worked on LACE detail that were not actually worked.

In the case for DeSoto Parish, it was sheriff’s deputies who fudged the numbers on their timesheets and three of Arbuckle’s deputies have already left under a cloud.

A new investigative audit by the Legislative Auditor’s Office has been ongoing for some time now and that report is also expected to be highly critical of the LACE program and possibly other areas of operation.

Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera told LouisianaVoice on Thursday that he did not know just when that report would be released. The auditor’s office traditionally sends the head of the agency being audited a management letter in advance of the public release of the report in order to give management a chance to respond in writing. That response is usually included in the release of the audit report. There was no word from Purpera’s office as to whether or not that management letter had been sent to Arbuckle.

A check by LouisianaVoice of about 600 LACE tickets handed out by sheriff’s deputies revealed that not a single LACE ticket was issued to a resident of DeSoto Parish. Every single recipient checked was from other parishes or even from out of state.

Of course, I-49 cuts through DeSoto Parish which would explain at least a high number of out-of-parish motorists’ receiving tickets—but 100 percent would seem somewhat improbable.

Reports by local critics of Arbuckle cite him for purchasing vehicles for the sheriff’s office without going through the public bid process. But sheriffs offices are on a state vendor list that exempts many such purchases from public bid. But on those not exempt, critics claim there is mischief afoot in the way Arbuckle goes about his purchases.

Then there is Arbuckle’s annual budget which reflects revenues of $12.3 million, which is nearly double the $4.9 million of next-door neighbor Sabine Parish, which has a population of 24,200—only a little fewer than DeSoto.

But it’s the office expenditures that are the real eye-openers. Arbuckle’s office had expenditures of nearly $14.1 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2017. That is $3.3 million more than the $10.8 million spent by the sheriff’s office in Natchitoches Parish, which has a population of 40,000—and a university. It also is more near three times the $5 million spent by the Sabine Parish Sheriff for the same year.

So, just what did Arbuckle spend all that money on? For starters, the bulk of that $15.2 million, $11.2 million to be exact, went for salaries. It would appear that Arbuckle hired deputies almost indiscriminately. Arbuckle himself was the second-highest-paid sheriff in the state (only the Beauregard Parish sheriff made more).

His department’s salary figures compare with salary expenditures of $3.7 million for Sabine and $7.9 million for Natchitoches.

Even more telling is a comparison of the year-end fund balances for the three sheriffs’ offices. Sabine Parish ended the fiscal year with a fund balance of $7.5 million and Natchitoches Parish had a fund balance of $8.2 million. Arbuckle’s DeSoto Parish Sheriff’s Office, however, finished the fiscal year with a whopping fund balance of $52.2 million.

Arbuckle apparently need not concern himself with the state law that a sheriff is responsible for any operating deficit at the end of his term of office.

DeSoto’s embarrassment of riches was due in large part to the Haynesville Shale and a couple of major facilities—eight energy companies, International Paper, and SWEPCO—in the parish which accounted for $256.5 in assessments and $3.5 million in property taxes (4.73 percent of total assessed valuation). Both figures would appear to be extremely low.

Arbuckle also is a principal in no fewer than six corporate entities, three of which are for-profit companies. One is a fence construction company and a second is a real estate development firm. The third, and possibly the most significant, is an outfit called Dirt Road Rentals, which rents or leases equipment to oil and gas field companies.

The company was chartered in July 2013, just about the time the Haynesville Shale boom kicked off. With so much activity taking place with the Haynesville Shale, it would seem to be a golden opportunity for a sheriff who, if he chose to do so, could lean on the oil and gas field companies to lease equipment from him lest their trucks get pulled over for traffic offenses.

Which could explain the need for all those extra deputies.

But a sheriff would never stoop to such tactics.

Would he?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »