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Archive for the ‘DOA’ Category

 By Stephen Winham, Guest Columnist

“… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses”

Juvenal [circa 100 AD], Satire 10.77–81

“Bread and circuses” (or bread and games; from Latin: panem et circenses) is metonymic for a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the generation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion; distraction; or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace, as an offered “palliative“… The phrase also implies the erosion or ignorance of civic duty amongst the concerns of the commoner.

—Wikipedia

 

Have these words of a Roman poet, written 1900 years ago, ever been more relevant to our country and state?  And, this is hardly satire.  In Louisiana’s government, we still get the circuses (the just-ended special legislative session, for example), but they are not nearly so much fun as they were in the past. They also no longer provide the level of distraction our elected officials expect.  Our leaders still provide the bread, too, though too many are left with the heels – and we are not always sure even they are distributed equitably.

Just as our country is clearly divided, our state is becoming increasingly partisan. Confronted with precisely the same problems, the two sides view them as if they exist in alternate realities.  The factions do not seek to find common ground.  They might compromise, but that is hardly the same thing.

In the most recent session of the legislature a purported compromise on how to best patch the state’s budget for the remainder of this year resulted from an agreement by the administration to accept the effect of a very questionable House Concurrent Resolution that will, if we believe the proponents, be a great “reform” and will magically free up almost a hundred million dollars in state general fund for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2017 – money, mind you, that was always there for the taking, just never captured.  Sound just a little suspicious?

How does this magic work and how does it differ from past gimmicks, you might well ask?  Well, unlike some of those, it really does free up general fund, but it also cuts other constitutional and statutorily dedicated funding, notably including the Transportation Trust Fund.  The Transportation Trust Fund has already been criticized for not being used more on roads and bridges desperately in need of repair – and now we are going to take another $15-$18 million of it to pay part of our General Obligation (not highway) Debt service?  And, lest we forget, TTF funds match Federal Highway funds so the potential impact is greater than the amount diverted. Is this your concept of “reform?”  It certainly is not mine.

The Bond Security and Redemption Fund ensures our general obligation debt service will always get paid first. It is the subject of HCR1 of the special session.  Money constantly (and somewhat theoretically) flows through it on the way to the general fund from which we have typically paid general debt service. I consider the fund a practical fiction because it would only have actual effect if somebody ever pressed the “stop” button and froze it to draw the necessary amount for debt service. However, its existence enhances our bond ratings. There is a legitimate concern that messing with it in any way can jeopardize our ratings, not because it places the payment of debt service in danger, but simply because we have started messing with it at all. The fact we have recently had to borrow short-term to meet current obligations is further evidence we should leave the BSRF alone. To the extent confidence in our fiscal status is eroded, and our ratings decline, we must pay more to service our debt.

House Speaker Barras, the author of the concurrent resolution that directs this miracle reform is a banker.  He certainly knows all these things.  Let’s put the best face possible on the resolution and assume he wanted its passage to ensure the special session did not close with absolutely no action toward addressing our long-range problems – which would have been the case in its absence.  This proposal had been made before and rejected by the administration for the reasons above and others – reasons I consider valid.

Could using the resolution as a bargaining chip have been a power play more than anything else?  Barras was not JBE’s pick for Speaker of the House.  The Republicans in the house are flexing their muscles in a faint attempt to emulate the partisanship of their national counterparts. Did they rally around the speaker to get in JBE’s face with this one?  Could this distraction have also been the center ring performance in this special session – a small act in a small session with bigger acts like those in past sessions to come when the Greatest Show on Earth returns to Baton Rouge in April?

Let’s face it.  Nobody has done anything that comes close to solving our overall budget problem.  Our roads and other infrastructure are crumbling, our state services are becoming increasingly mediocre and, in the case of some life-and-death situations, dangerously ineffective.  Worse, most everybody seems to be ignoring the fact that we face a $1.2 billion (gee, why does that number sound so familiar?) gap in Fiscal Year 2018-2019 when the temporary sales taxes used to bandage the budget the last time we hit the wall expire.

The latest of literally dozens of past blue ribbon groups tasked with providing options for fixing the state’s fiscal problems, the Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy, issued its final report, to little fanfare, on January 27, 2017.  Some of the best minds in our state participated in this study and it provides solid recommendations based on current information.  Our leaders need only choose among them.  I commend its reading to you.  Why has this report not become part of the circus yet – Is it too dull to have entertainment value?  Do our leaders believe we cannot be convinced by (or even understand) facts?  Do they believe illusion, misdirection and confusion are always better and that we are easily fooled?

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne was a key participant in the task force.  When the Fiscal Year 2017-2018 executive budget was presented, the governor and Commissioner Dardenne declined to say what they might ultimately suggest as the solution to our problem.  They also said, as they have in the past, this is not the budget they want to see implemented.  Well, if it isn’t, what is?

If the cuts presented in the governor’s proposed budget, most notably to TOPS, are not realistic – not something we can all live with – what cuts are?  We don’t know because, despite protestations to the contrary, we have not seen a truly honest budget in many years – one that says, “Okay, Louisiana, you don’t want to pay more taxes, here are the things we are going to permanently cut and we are going to stand behind them to the end.”  This is very different from: “Well, shucks, here’s some things that will balance the budget, but we don’t want to do them and neither do you, so what have you got to offer as an alternative?”

Representative John Schroder has taken the position the governor should present a realistic plan he is willing to stand behind to provide the legislature with a realistic starting point.  The governor seems to be saying no such plan exists.  So, if the governor doesn’t have a plan and neither does the legislature, where does that leave us?

Our governor has greater control over the budget than is the case in some other states.  Representative Schroder has a point, but the simple fact is the legislature, not the governor, holds the power of appropriation and many, including me, consider it to be its greatest power. The governor can recommend things all day long, but he cannot enact appropriations or taxes.

Speaking of taxes, why are so many of our citizens convinced they already pay too much in taxes for what they get from the government?  Look no further than LouisianaVoice, The ADVOCATE, nola.com, almost any television or radio station and what do you read, see, and hear?

Every day we are bombarded with tales of waste, corruption, theft, etc. in our state departments.  Are you going to tell me nothing can be done about this?  Am I to believe lightening would strike JBE and our other elected officials dead if they dared expect the people they appoint to run these programs as effectively and efficiently as possible and to demand accountability for their failures?  I’m not talking about the simple act of firing those who are doing a poor job.  That doesn’t accomplish anything if the replacement continues the practices of the predecessor. I am talking about expecting officials to have integrity and to know enough about the operations of their departments to stop these things from happening in the first place.

I honestly and truly believe people are willing to pay for things from which they see benefits and that they believe are providing maximum value – the marketplace proves this.  Every effort must be made to instill confidence in our government’s ability to manage our resources in the best way possible.  Sure, its goals are different – government exists to provide services, not make a profit, but that is no excuse for not performing to the highest standards possible.

I don’t know about you, but I am finding the circus less than entertaining and I can provide my own bread for the most part.  Others have given up on the circus, but need help from its owners.  It is past time those owners accept their responsibilities – and it is up to us to lean on them to do so every chance we get – beginning right now and continuing in earnest during the next legislative session.  Our leaders need to all look at what is happening to the real Ringling Brothers Circus and realize it could happen to them – and, much worse, to us.

 

 

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Could it be that Gov. John Bel Edwards has finally seen and heard enough about the shenanigans of Louisiana State Police (LSP) Superintendent Mike Edmonson?

Has he been embarrassed one too many times by the state’s top cop who was foisted on him by the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association and the Louisiana Association of Chiefs of Police?

If the tone of this NOLA.com STORY by Julia O’Donoghue Wednesday (Feb. 22) is any indication, Edmonson’s days at LSP may indeed be numbered.

Edwards earlier this week ordered auditors from the Division of Administration (DOA) to conduct an investigation into a trip taken by a gaggle of LSP personnel and hangers-on to witness Edmonson receive an award from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) at its conference in San Diego.

Of particular interest to Edwards was the expenditure of thousands of dollars in salaries, overtime, fuel, lodging and meals for four State Troopers who drove an unmarked State Police vehicle assigned to Edmonson’s second-in-command to the event. That trek included a side trip to and overnight stays in Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. Three of the four combined to claim 105 hours of overtime on the trip to and from San Diego, figures that appear far out of line with the distances traveled.

For example, each of the four claimed 12 hours to travel from the Grand Canyon resort city of Tusayan, Arizona, to Las Vegas, a distance of only 270 miles, a torrid pace of 22.5 mph. They also claimed 12 hours to drive from Las Vegas to San Diego, a trip of only 290 miles. For that leg of the journey, they put the petal to the metal, averaging a scorching 24 mph.

Can you say payroll fraud?

Maj. Derrell Williams did not claim overtime hours because those of the rank of captain or above are prohibited from claiming overtime. He did, however, claim compensatory leave time for the same hours.

While investigators’ focus will apparently be on the overtime charged by the four and the reasons for their side trip, there are several other aspects of the entire San Diego affair that should be considered:

  • Why was the original award nomination of Maj. Carl Saizan, a former State Trooper of the Year, pulled in favor of Edmonson?
  • Why was it necessary for so many State Police personnel to accompany Edmonson on this trip?
  • Why was Michelle Hyatt, the wife of Lt. Rodney Hyatt and a civilian non-LSP employee, allowed to accompany her husband in the State Police Ford Expedition on that cross-country trip? (The Expedition, by the way, is permanently assigned to Edmonson’s second-in-command, Deputy Superintendent Lt. Col. Charles Dupuy.
  • Why was part-time student worker Brandon Blackburn paid 53.5 hours for attending the conference? And why was Brandon Blackburn, the son of the late Frank Blackburn, formerly the LSP legal counsel, allowed to travel to the conference on his father’s ticket?
  • Finally, since each of the 15 LSP personnel who accompanied Edmonson on the trip, were on the clock and were paid for attending the conference, how many of those personnel actually attended conference sessions for which they charged the state?

LouisianaVoice made inquiry of IACP for attendance lists for the various sessions but we received the expected response: “We do not provide attendance records or make any information about our attendees publicly available.”

Of course, the DOA investigation is barely underway so it’ll be some time yet before any determination is made regarding Edmonson’s future.

One LouisianaVoice reader made an interesting observation when he said in an email to us this morning that the LSP superintendent’s position “is a job needing turnover every so often to avoid a J. Edgar Hoover situation.”

But should the governor decide that Edmonson has embarrassed his administration one too many times and that he must go, it’s crucial that he make the correct choice in selecting a successor—and not listen to the sheriffs and chiefs of police. He—and this is critical—must be his own man in making that decision.

If he simply drops down the chain of command a notch and names Dupuy, Lt. Col. Jason Starnes, or Maj. Beckett Breaux, nothing will have changed and LouisianaVoice will be guaranteed an uninterrupted flow of stories from Independence Boulevard.

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Bobby Jindal, the Rhode Scholar who rode into town on the crest of a billion-dollar surplus nine years ago this month, rode out 12 months ago leaving the state wallowing in red ink and now it is learned that he inflicted even more fiscal carnage on his way out the door.

And knowing the way in which he and his final Commissioner of Administration, Kristy Nichols, juggled the books, it’s not at all unreasonable to think that Jindal’s final example of fiscal irresponsibility may well have been an intentional act of political chicanery carried out to buy him time so that his successor would be left with the mess to clean up. (Of course, Kristy didn’t become commissioner until Paul Rainwater left in 2012, but that does not change the fact that a lot of dollars were moved around—swept—before and after she was promoted.)

Hey! It’s not that far-fetched. He did it with the Office of Group Benefits. He did it with higher education. He did it with the LSU Hospital System. Boy, did he do it with the hospital system—with a contract containing 50 blank pages, yet!

By the time Jindal left office, virtually the only state agency left with a shred of credibility and integrity was the office of the Legislative Auditor—and that’s largely because the office has complete autonomy and is independent from outside political pressure, particularly from the governor’s office.

And now, coincidentally, it is that same Legislative Auditor who has issued a damning AUDIT REPORT that reveals a major SNAFU (if that’s truly what it was) in which the Jindal administration “misclassified” a $34.6 million default payment made by Northrop Grumman Ship Systems made in 2011.

The payment was made to Louisiana Economic Development after the shipyard failed to meet required hiring quotas but instead of using the money to pay off equipment the state had financed for Northrop Grumman, the audit says the Division of Administration “swept” the money when it was balancing the budget. As a result, the state has already paid some $2 million in interest and administrative costs on the equipment, and is potentially on the hook for some $6.2 million more.

Bobby and Kristy loved the process of “sweeping” agencies of excess funds lying around in order to try and plug gaping holes in the state budget that dogged Jindal every single year he was governor. “Sweeping” for funds is something like picking up crumbs off the floor in an attempt to gather enough to make a bundt cake.

“Since the debt could not be immediately defeased (a provision that voids a bond or loan) because of the limited prepayment options, the funds should have been segregated into a sinking account for defeasement of the debt, not a statutorily dedicated fund account that could be swept by legislative action,” the audit report says.

But the Louisiana Office of Economic Development (LED), then headed by $300,000-a-year Director Stephen Moret, failed to do that and, presto! The funds got swept by the Jindal Housecleaning Service and as a result, the state “will continue to incur additional interest and administrative costs until the debt (on the equipment) is defeased,” the audit reads. “If not defeased before the Oct. 2022 … the state will incur more than $6.2 million in additional interest and administrative costs.”

LED entered into a Cooperative Endeavor Agreement with Northrop Grumman in the early 2000s. The company had acquired Avondale Shipyard in Jefferson Parish and Northrop Grumman, under the terms of the deal, agreed to maintain employment levels of some 3,500 jobs a year with an economic impact of $1 billion. In return, the state agreed, among other things, to issue bonds to finance more than $34 million worth of cranes and equipment that would modernize the shipyard.

But dreams and schemes are made of fragile things. Northrop Grumman fell short of its job requirements and LED notified the company in early 2011 that it wasn’t living up to its employment obligations. Northrop Grumman agreed to settle with the state for $34.6 million, which represented the acquisition cost of the equipment. It wired the money to LED in March 2011, the report says.

But the state didn’t use the money to pay off the debt on the equipment, nor did it set the funds aside in an escrow account to pay it off in the future. Instead, it “swept” the money into the Louisiana Medical Assistance Trust Fund, was enacted during the 2011 session to help supplement the state’s Medicaid program.

But don’t worry, folks. It’s just another example of the superb financial management of the state’s resources about which Jindal would boast—in Iowa, certainly not Louisiana—during his comical quest for the Republican presidential nomination in 2015, his final year I office.

And now the state finds itself hanging out to dry while trying to come up with that long gone $34.6 million, plus about $2 million in interest and administrative costs.

In a written response to the audit’s findings, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne pointed out that Jindal’s actions, while ill-advised, were nonetheless legal. “The (Jindal) administration’s decision to use the funds for other purposes was not prohibited by the terms of the (agreement) with Northrop Grumman,” he says, noting that the Legislature approved of the financial maneuver.

Perhaps, but we all know the definitions of the legal thing and the right thing are sometimes poles apart. In this case, those responsible knew what that $34.6 million was for and they chose to do what was legal but not what was right.

The question now is does the Office of Risk Management carry excess coverage that would allow the State to make a claim for recovery of the money on the basis of stupidity? Should Jindal, Nichols, and Moret be asked to dig deep into their pockets to come up with the money?

Nah. It’ll never happen.

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Two seemingly unrelated news stories appeared in my laptop emails on Monday, one noteworthy for nothing more than its abject absurdity and the other even more so for the ominous threat it poses to the ability to hold elected officials accountable.

And while LouisianaVoice rarely delves into national politics because, well, truth be told, it’s admittedly way beyond my pay grade (and I was always taught to “write what you know”), both these stories have potential trickle down repercussions if any legislator is dumb enough to take his (or her) cue from the Man with the Golden Hair.

In the first story, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway issued a dire warning, heavy with legal overtones, to “be careful” BE CAREFUL what we say about her boss. Her remarks, of course, were directed to retiring Senate Minority Leader, Nevada Democrat Harry Reid.

Reid last week said the election of Trump “has emboldened the forces of hate and bigotry in America” And that, in the minds of Conway—and presumably Trump—borders on libel (and, of course, “crooked Hillary” is simply campaign rhetoric).

It’s no secret that Trump, on the one hand, champions tort reform whereby corporations can be better protected from lawsuits over such trivial oversights as exploding batteries, toxic dumping, sexual harassment, etc. On the other hand, however, Trump has made it equally well know that he favors more liberal libel laws which would make it easier for public officials to sue.

Well, Trumper, you can’t have it both ways. The landmark case Sullivan v. New York Times makes it quite clear there must be a “reckless disregard for the truth” for a public official to recover damages.

Were that not the case, there might well have never been a Watergate scandal, the White House plumbers, Bebe Rebozo Iran-Contra revelations, Sen. John Edwards, the all-too-cozy relationship between Wall Street and The Clintons, Bushes, and even Obama or any number of other investigative pieces about public corruption. And to quote an old Baton Rouge State-Times editor responding to a reader who was irate over the treatment the paper was according Richard Nixon: “Exactly what is it about Watergate you would rather not have known?”

And out in Arizona, we have a bill pending BILL PENDING before the state legislature that appears to be right out of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) playbook and if it is, you can look for clones of this bill to pop up across the landscape, including, in all likelihood, Louisiana.

State Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills (wouldn’t you just know it would be a Republican who wants to put the kibosh on the public’s right to know?) has introduced a bill that would make it more difficult to obtain public records if public officials feel the requests are “unduly burdensome or harassing.”

That’s pretty open-ended and a decided advantage to any public servant who feels my request might be “unduly burdensome.” Wouldn’t Kristy Nichols have loved that? No, wait. It wouldn’t have mattered with her; she simply ignored my requests until she was damned good and ready to comply—if she even decided to comply. Okay, Mike Edmonson. He’d feast on a law like that.

Lest you think such a bill would never pass, consider this: this is Kavanagh’s second attempt at passing the bill and last it passed the Senate by a 22-7 vote, but lost in the House by a 40-19 vote.

LouisianaVoice will be watching closely to see if any similar such legislation is introduced in the 2017 session. If it is, then we will know without a doubt that this is an ALEC-sponsored bill.

ALEC, you may recall, meets at retreats, mini-conventions and conferences to draft “model bills” for members to introduce in their respective legislatures back home.

More recently, it has launched a sister organization, American City Council Exchange (ACCE) that has the same goals as ALEC, only on a municipal as opposed to state level. One of ACCE’s objectives, outlined in an Indianapolis conference last July, is to have its members become familiar with public records laws and to “be on the lookout for frivolous or abusive requests.”

Sen. Kavanagh couldn’t have said it better himself.

But what he conveniently overlooks is this: In any company, be it a mom and pop hardware or one of those mega box stores, management has the unchallenged right to know what its employees are doing when representing the company, be it processing orders, reducing errors, or one-on-one contact with the customer.

The President, Congress, 50 governors, Kavanagh, his fellow legislators and other elected officials throughout the land are chosen by the people. They in turn hire subordinates to carry out the day-to-day functions of government. So Kavanagh and every other elected or appointed public official in this country works for…the people.

And we, the people, have a right to examine the work they’re doing on our behalf.

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Tommy Teague has been un-teagued.

Put another way, he’s back.

Tommy Teague, who was rewarded by Bobby Jindal for taking the Office of Group Benefits (OGB) from an underfunded program to one with half-a-billion dollars in reserve funds in five years. Bobby Jindal rewarded him for his performance by firing him. But he has been BROUGHT BACK to lead the agency that provides health coverage for about 230,000 state employees, retirees and dependents.

Because Jindal had also fired Teague’s wife, the late Melody Teague, only a few months earlier, the term “teagued” was soon applied to any employee or legislator who was fired or demoted by Jindal for disagreeing with or voting against any of the administration’s proposals, most of which proved detrimental or outright disastrous for the state.

Melody Teague got her job back but only after being forced to go through the Civil Service appeal process. Now, Tommy Teague has his old job back, albeit nearly seven years later.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne announced that Teague will assume his new duties as OGB chief executive officer (CEO) on Monday, Dec. 12.

“Tommy Teague brings years of valuable experience to the helm of Group Benefits,” Dardenne said. “He has a proven record of success in the agency, and I am pleased he has agreed to return to this post.”

Teague previously served as the agency’s CEO from 2006 to 2011. He was in good standing with what passed as the Jindal administration until April 15, 2011. But when he failed to display sufficient enthusiasm for Jindal’s privatization proposal for the agency, then-Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater unceremoniously showed him the door.

OGM subsequently went through a succession of CEOs until Susan West took over and put her own stamp on the agency. That stamp included decreasing/increasing premiums, decreasing benefits and firing employees. Jindal, meanwhile, in what seemed to be an inexplicable move at the time, went against consultants’ recommendations and reduced premiums.

But there turned out to be a method to his madness. Because the state is on the hook for 75 percent of the premiums of employees, by reducing premiums, the obligations of the state were also reduced accordingly. Jindal then took the difference in what the state previously paid and the lower rate and used that money to help plug his annual budget deficits.

But by doing that, the reserve fund began to be diminished dramatically as income from premiums failed to keep up with payments of benefits. In no time, the reserve fund was gutted by about 80 percent until less than $100 million remained before Kristy Nichols, Rainwater’s successor, and West began tampering with the system by increasing premiums and cutting benefits.

A spokesman for Dardenne’s office said on Wednesday that West was leaving the agency, but he said he did not know what her plans were.

“I am anxious to return to work and look forward to serving the state again,” Teague said. “I am confident my previous experience will benefit the office.”

In addition to his prior stint as Group Benefits CEO, Teague served as executive vice president and chief operating officer of Louisiana Health Cooperative and executive director of the Pennsylvania Employees Benefit Trust Fund.

TGTB (Thank God Tommy’s Back).

 

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