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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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He probably won’t make the formal announcement of his candidacy for governor until September or October, but make no mistake about it, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy is in full campaign mode. If there had been in lingering doubts before, that much was made evident Wednesday by his inappropriate yet totally predictable CALL for Robert Mueller to end his investigation of the man on whose coattails Kennedy ran for—and won—his senate seat.

This was more than Kennedy’s typical down-home, cornball, Will Rogers country feed store philosophy that he is so proud to bestow and which TV reporters are so eager to foist upon their viewers. This was pure, old-fashion political sycophancy at its very worst.

Someone recently said the most dangerous place in Washington was to stand between Kennedy and a TV camera but his toadyism is both shabby and shameful in its transparent attempt to please Donald Trump and to cash in on Trump’s inexplicable popularity with Louisiana voters.

Inexplicable because everything—and I mean everything—the man stands for goes against the interests of the most vocal of his supporters. All you have to do to verify that claim is to compare his record with his actions. Instead, his supporters choose to listen to his rants and to read his sophomoric tweets which stand in stark contrast to his official actions behind the scene:

  • Safe drinking water? Who needs it?
  • Consumer protection? Why?
  • The former head of the Bank of Cyprus, a leading conduit for Russian money laundering is now Secretary of Commerce so you do the math.
  • Medical care? Hmph.
  • Employee benefits like pensions and overtime pay? Nah.
  • Net neutrality? Don’t need it, don’t want it, can’t use it (besides, that was an Obama policy so, out it goes).
  • Tax reform? You bet—for the wealthy.
  • Protection of endangered wildlife? Hell, there must be a hundred species of animals out there. That’s way too many.
  • Banking regulations to avoid another recession like we had in 2008? Just signed off on the rollback of Dodd-Frank, thank you very much.
  • The head of EPA is less concerned about protecting the environment than in enriching himself with European vacation trips on your dime and installing $45,000 soundproof phone booths in his office and blaming his staff whenever he gets caught wasting taxpayer funds.

Nixon was a crook, Lyndon Johnson lied us into an unwinnable war that cost 58,000 American lives, Bill Clinton had a basketful of scandals, and George W. Bush lied to us about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, but I daresay Trump is far and above the biggest crook—and the most ill-prepared to be president—who ever occupied the Oval Office. There will be those who will deny that to the death, but it doesn’t change the facts.

And before you call me a wild-eyed liberal or something worse, keep this in mind: I was a Republican longer than a lot of you have been alive. I was a Republican when we could caucus in a telephone booth. But I didn’t leave the party, it left me. It took me a long time, but I finally saw what the Republican Party stood for and it wasn’t for any of the things that I learned from the Bible—things like charity, understanding, kindness, compassion, taking care of the sick, and feeding the hungry. You know, Christian virtues the evangelicals claim to espouse but who instead turn around and condone, encourage even, the most unchristian behavior imaginable. We call that hypocrisy where I come from.

At various times, Trump has:

  • Told us not to the trust the FBI;
  • Told us not to trust the Justice Department;
  • Told us not to trust the free press, and
  • Told us not to trust the courts.

These are the only institutions that can hold him accountable and he is trying to undermine every single one of them. If that doesn’t worry you, it damn well should.

So, in order to appease Trump and his followers in Louisiana, and apparently in order to solidify his support for a gubernatorial run in 2019, Kennedy slobbers all over himself in calling for Mueller to end his investigation “because it distracts in time, energy and taxpayer money.”

And Trump’s governance by tweets is not a distraction? His constant reversals of positions are not a waste of time, energy and taxpayer money?

Trump reminds me of an editorial cartoon I spotted this week:

  • He doesn’t believe the intelligence agencies;
  • He doesn’t support the rule of law;
  • He doesn’t support the special counsel;
  • He doesn’t support the mission of federal regulators;
  • He doesn’t support the right to demonstrate peaceably;
  • He has no concern about the integrity of fair elections;
  • He doesn’t care about the “huddled masses.”

Hell no. He’s a true patriot.

And Kennedy is sucking up to him in grand fashion.

Kennedy, you cited a laundry list of things that need to be done. I seem to remember that when you ran for the senate, there were things you were going to work for. But now it seems you are beginning to “distract in time, energy and taxpayer money” by running for governor when you should be doing your job—kind of like the way you criticized Bobby Jindal for running for president when he should have been tending to his job as governor. You sounded so sensible when you criticized Bobby for not doing his job and yet…

But just for the sake of argument, let’s compare the distraction that you claim the Mueller investigation of one year—one year, John—has become with past INVESTIGATIONS investigations and the presidents. We’ll start with the granddaddy of ‘em all:

  • Watergate (Nixon): 4 years, the resignation of a president and more than 20 indictments/pleas;
  • Michael Deaver perjury charges (Reagan): A shade over three years and one indictment;
  • Iran-Contra (Reagan): six and one-half years and 14 indictments/pleas;
  • Lyn Nofziger improper lobbying (Reagan): About 16 months, two indictments/pleas;
  • Samuel Pierce influence peddling (H.W. Bush): Almost nine years (and he was only in office for four): 18 indictments/pleas;
  • Whitewater/Paula Jones/Monica Lewinski (Clinton): Seven years, 15 indictments/pleas, impeachment of a president (acquitted);
  • Mike Espy gifts (Clinton): Seven years, 13 indictments/pleas;
  • Henry Cisneros perjury charges (Clinton): Nine years, 8 indictments/pleas;
  • Alexis Herman influence-peddling (Clinton): Two years, one indictment/plea;
  • Valerie Plame leaks (George W. Bush): Three years, one indictment/plea;
  • Russia (Trump): One year, John, just ONE YEAR, and more indictments/pleas already than you can count.

In case you weren’t counting, John, that’s four separate investigations costing $80 million during Clinton’s administration. I’m not saying they weren’t warranted because they were. But I don’t recall anyone ever saying those investigations should’ve been shut down.

So, John, why don’t you read up on Will Rogers, do a few more hominy and grits folksy quotes and leave the real work to those charged with doing the job?

Or maybe come up with another ad about drinking weed killer for your gubernatorial campaign.

 

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In the 2013-2014 school year, Louisiana ranked 34th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia with average teacher earnings of $49,067 per year.

Since then, Louisiana is the only state in either the top 10 or bottom 10 to experience a wage decrease. As a result, the state has tumbled 10 places to 44th (that’s 8th WORST) for teacher salaries.

But since 2013, you’ll be happy to know that 20 unclassified employees in the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE), including the husband of a state senator and State Democratic Chair, who were already making in excess of $100,000 received raises averaging 27.2 percent, according to figures obtained by LouisianaVoice from the Louisiana Office of Civil Service.

Altogether, the 20 unclassified (that’s political appointees, for those who might not know) employees combined for raises totaling $534,600, an average increase of $26,730 each from 2013 to 2018.

Three others who were not employed in 2013 were on the payroll in 2015 had combined pay increases of $49,500, or 18.3 percent.

In all, the 23 individuals had their pay increased from a low of 10 percent for Manager Lisa French and Assistant Superintendent Kunjan Narechania to 61.5 percent for Liaison Officer Dana Talley and a staggering 85.7 percent for Director Shan Davis.

Even Dana Peterson, a Recovery School District (RSD) Administrator and the husband of State Democratic Party Chairperson Sen. Karen Carter Peterson of New Orleans, is along for the ride, having seen his salary increased from $125,000 per year in 2013 to $148,500 in 2018, a bump of 18.8 percent.

The RSD is scheduled to revert back to the control of the Orleans Parish School Board by July but LDOE still lists 94 UNCLASSIFIED EMPLOYEES unclassified employees assigned to various positions with the RSD.

There were seven employees (Davis, Jules Burk, Tiffany Delcour, Jessica Baghian, Bridget Devlin, Rebecca Kockler, and Dana Talley) who received increases of 36.6 percent or more from 2013 to 2018 while three more received raises of 29.4 percent (Laura Hawkins), 29.5 percent (Jan Sibley), and 29.8 percent (Jennifer Conway).

Two employees, Director Jill Slack and Executive Counsel Joan Hunt, might be somewhat offended at all that money flying around since they received raises of only 2 percent and 3.8 percent during that same five-year period. Their raises, however, were more in line with what state employees receive in the way of pay raises—when they get them. Raises for state classified (civil service) employees have been static for nearly a decade now.

For a look at the spreadsheet for LDOE unclassified employees’ pay raises, go HERE. (The salaries for 2013 and 2015 are given as bi-weekly salaries. To get the annual pay, multiply those numbers by 26 (the number of times state employees are paid each year).

 

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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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