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If you like political posturing, puffery, bombast, and breast-beating, then the reaction to that LETTER being sent out to 37,000 nursing home patients in Louisiana is tailor-made for political junkies like you.

The letter, sent out by the Louisiana Department of Health, got the desired reaction. CBS Evening News featured the story prominently in its Wednesday newscast, complete with a brief interview with Jim Tucker of Terrytown, operator of about a dozen nursing homes.

It’s interesting that Tucker was sought out for camera face time. He was Bobby Jindal’s Speaker of the House who abetted Jindal for eight years in gutting the state budget of services for the elderly and mentally ill. And now the roll him out in front of the cameras to cry wolf.

The Edwards administration tried to assure us, through Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne and LDH Secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee, that this is not Chicken Little, that the sky really will fall if budget cuts are not restored by July 1, the date that the state is projected to fall over the metaphorical fiscal cliff when $650 million in tax revenue falls off the books.

Typically, the reaction by Republicans in the legislature, the same ones who have steadfastly refused to face fiscal reality since the beginning of the Jindal accident in 2008, was to scream foul to anyone who would listen—and there were plenty who did.

Dr. Gee, of course, did her part, even tearing up as she explained to the TV cameras that hearts “are breaking over the need to do this. We can’t provide services with no money to pay for them.”

Dardenne added his bit, saying, “This letter is scary, but it’s not a tactic. This is the reality that we are facing.”

But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry (R-Metairie) gave the best performance. With a lock of hair hanging down over his forehead a-la the late Bobby Kennedy, he bleated, “This is premature at best, reckless at worst,” adding that the letter was designed “to scare the elderly of this state, and that is an embarrassment.” No, Cameron, you’re an embarrassment.

Ditto for Rep. Lance Harris (R-Alexandria), chairman of the House Republican Delegation, who called the letter an “unnecessary political scare tactic done to intimidate and frighten the most vulnerable people into believing they will be kicked out onto the streets if the governor doesn’t get everything he wants in the form of revenue.”

And Cameron Henry should understand that the legislature as a body is no less an embarrassment to those of us who have been forced to observe its collective ineptitude on a daily basis for 10 years now. To quote my grandfather, they couldn’t find a fart in a paper bag.

Lost in all the rhetoric is the hard fact that the administration might not have found it necessary to send out the letter—regardless whether it’s a scare tactic or reality—had the legislature made any effort to face up to its responsibility to the 4.5 million citizens of this state.

But here’s the real reality—and just remember where you read it:

Not a single nursing home patient is going to be evicted. Not one.

Want to know why?

Money.

And I don’t mean money to be appropriated by the legislature to properly fund state government, nursing homes included.

I’m talking about campaign money.

Lots of it. Tons of it.

Since 2014, individual nursing homes, nursing home owners, and nursing home political action committees have contributed more than $750,000 to Louisiana politicians, primarily legislators. Here is just a partial list of NURSING HOME CONTRIBUTIONS

And that’s just over the past four years.

More than $50,000 was contributed the campaign of Edwards.

Henry, the one who called out the administration for its “scare tactics,” received more than $10,000 since 2014.

Senate President John Alario also received more than $12,000 over the same time span.

Louisiana Public Service Commission member Foster Campbell said on the Jim Engster show on Louisiana Public Radio earlier this week that since he first ran for the legislature more than 40 years ago, the cost of seeking political office has become cost prohibitive. Foster said when he first ran for the State Senate in 1975, he borrowed $7,500 to finance his campaign. “Now, it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars” and the average person who wants to serve cannot afford to do so, he said.

I’ve always wondered why corporations and the wealthy who seem so concerned about “good government” don’t use their money to help others rather than lavish it on politicians. The money they throw at politicians and lobbyists could be put to such more productive use—but they don’t try because they don’t really care about good government. And every now and then, I can’t help wondering why that is.

But I don’t wonder about it long. The answer is obvious: power and influence.

And that’s a sorry commentary on our political system, from the local level all the way to the very top of the political pyramid.

And it’s for that reason that not a single nursing home resident will be evicted. By some miracle, repeated every year, it seems, extra money will be “found” to do what is politically expedient.

Because the money has already been spread around by those who buy influence and legislators.

Remember where you read it.

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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

 

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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?

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By Stephen Winham

Guest Columnist

In the unfunny joke that was the latest “special” [not] legislative session there were no real surprises.  After much bickering over a small gobble-de-gook of incomplete solutions and ideas with no goal beyond getting 70 House votes for just about anything, the session finally ended with a whimper that anybody should have been able to predict after 15 days of inaction.  We are all left to ask why this debacle ever took place at all.

In the weeks leading up to the session Gov. Edwards threatened to not call it if an agreement on what to do about the “fiscal cliff” was not imminent.  Showing a distinct lack of decisive leadership, he not only went back on this threat, but failed, himself, to present a concrete proposal with a combination of cuts and taxes that would yield a recurring balance.  He never even really tried and seemed to say he was tired of doing so.

The governor presented a list of “cuts” he said he had already made, too many of which were not really cuts and a few of which were apparently duplicated.  Even the unambiguous cuts on the list begged the question of what has really changed as their result?  What pain has been inflicted and on whom? At the very least, what services have been diminished?

What evidence did the governor present that his appointees will be held accountable for making government as efficient as possible in the future, so people can have faith the revenues raised or retained will be spent wisely?  Ask anybody on the street if they believe state government is improving in that regard and the answer will most often be a resounding “No.”  This is particularly true of people who read newspapers and political blogs, listen to talk radio, and watch local television news where negative reports about state government are routine.

It is just plain common sense that people want answers to these questions. If the governor has made meaningful cuts he should be able to provide proof.  In other words, it should be possible to demonstrate the effects (not just dollar amounts) in such a way that people can judge whether the cuts should have been made and whether additional significant cuts should be made and, most importantly, specifically where?

For the coming year, the governor presented a list of cuts, but defended none of them as cuts he believed should be made.  On the revenue side, he presented a package that didn’t even fund these cuts and which he only halfheartedly supported.  About the only hope reflected in the governor’s proposal was that the mediocrity that keeps us on the bottom of practically every list of good things could continue.

The state senate waited the whole session for the house to give them something meaningful to do – Revenue bills had to originate in the house by law.  The Senate returned one bill providing tax relief to flood victims and the House concurred.

Despite having plenty of time because of a temporary two-year bridge, solid research of all pertinent issues, and promises to come forth with a plan to simply balance the budget, the house did nothing of the kind.  Instead of presenting a balanced plan of cuts and revenues, or even cuts alone, the house argued over pieces of the puzzle on the sheer basis of whether enough people would vote for them – what deals could be cut.  And cutting deals to get votes does not necessarily work to the advantage of the state or its citizens.

There was never a serious attempt to construct an enduring solution with more than a trace of desperately needed fiscal reform.  If there was a goal, it was to continue what we have had for over a decade – a questionable and temporary balance that makes as few voters and special interests angry as possible.  Thrown in were a handful of feel-good measures including ostensible Medicaid reform, a new spending cap proposal, and a promise of enhanced government transparency – none of which should require legislation.  Accomplishing their goals should be part of responsible governing.  Nobody was made happy -except those who think we should go over the cliff and see what happens.

One measure was anointed the pre-requisite and centerpiece for everything else and every day of deliberation the argument was put forth, “If we can’t renew ¼ of the expiring sales tax, we can’t move forward.”  What was so magical about that quarter of a penny?  Was it important to continue to punish the poor at least a little for being poor as a starting point, or what?  As its author, Rep. Dwight himself pointed out, the prospects for passage of his bill never really improved as the session went on.  Worse, it only took care of about a third of the gap and there was no clear plan for filling the rest of it from anywhere.  In a word, the bill was worthless.

Representatives Barry Ivey and Kenny Havard stood out as sincerely interested in doing something to help the state and its people move forward.  They both repeatedly called out their colleagues for hypocrisy and empty rhetoric. It is unfortunate Ivey did not get his February 28 motion to adjourn sine die on the floor and passed.  At least it would have saved the taxpayers the $60,000+ per day costs of the remaining days.  Sharon Hewitt and a growing number of others at least had sense enough to see the wisdom in that. Always rational, Rep. Julie Stokes attempted to move members in a progressive direction despite her Republican pedigree.  Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger offered progressive income tax measures to lukewarm support.  A few others voiced frustration but did little to steer what they clearly viewed as a doomed session toward success.

Republican Caucus Chair Lance Harris, himself a true expert at it, said he was tired of the blame game. Rob Shadoin agreed and restated the obvious when he said the session accomplished nothing except failing the people.  Speaking of blame, many people were happy to place it on the Black Caucus and their fellow Democrats.  If they were to blame for anything, it was for trying to get at a least a minuscule amount of progressive fiscal reform wedged in somewhere.

And speaking of partisan politics, the T Rex in the House was the desire on the part of Republicans to make the governor look as bad as possible.  Helping with that were the special interests, including that beacon of conservative light, Americans for Prosperity, founded and funded by the Koch brothers and claiming a membership of over 3 million right-minded people. How many of our elected officials pay homage to its agenda?  Its representative at the session wanted the session to go the distance in furtherance of the Louisiana Checkbook, a [non]panacea for the masses that will probably never be satisfactorily implemented regardless of legislation.  How many other budget reform laws languish in the books apparently ignored by our policy makers?  And, even when stumbled across, there is always the easy out of no money to implement them.  Forget about the will to do so.

The special session served one critical function to anybody who paid any attention to what went on.  It showed the utter lack of effective leadership in our state’s government.  It revealed who among our elected officials has the best interests of our state and its people at heart, i. e., who literally supports our form of government – and who doesn’t.

We can’t immediately recall the people who continue to ignore those of us without deep pockets, but we can replace them at election time – assuming people willing to truly represent us offer themselves for election – a daunting proposition at best.  Many current officeholders, with the validation of history, believe they don’t have to represent the bulk of us to be re-elected.  All they must do is get enough money from special interests to generate a flood of propaganda and false promises to fool enough people into voting for them.

Let’s prove them wrong.

(Editor’s note: Stephen Winham is the retired Director of the Louisiana Executive Budget Office, having served in that capacity from 1988 to 2000.)

 

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Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Louisiana Legislature could probably learn a thing or two about building budgetary surpluses from the St. Landry Parish Fire Protection District No. 2—except at least one St. Landry Parish citizens thinks the surplus may be the result of smoke and mirrors and a little voodoo tax millage assessment.

On the other hand, the State Ethics Board appears to be taking its cue from the Attorney General’s office in stonewalling tactics.

The district had a bank balance of more than three times its annual budget at the end of 2016, according to a state AUDIT of the its books. The audit showed nearly $8.4 million in the bank as of Dec. 31, 2016, after expenses of $2.6 million.

And a formal complaint made to the Louisiana State Board of Ethics last May against the district and its secretary-treasurer has produced only a letter of acknowledgement but no results after nine months.

Despite annual revenues of nearly $3.7 million for both 2015 and 2016, the district’s board seemingly felt it could not afford to hire a qualified employee to apply generally accepted accounting principles in recording the districts financial transactions or preparing its financial statements, the audit indicated.

“A material weakness is a deficiency, or combination of deficiencies, in internal control such that there is a reasonable possibility that a material misstatement of the entity’s financial statements will not be prevented, or detected and corrected on a timely basis,” the audit said. “we identified certain deficiencies in internal control that we consider to be material weaknesses.”

Nor did the board seem to feel it was in a position to hire additional firefighters in order to cut back on more expensive overtime pay. Board members paid themselves nearly $16,600 in 2016 and paid out $1.2 million in salaries. An additional $329,677 was paid in overtime (listed as “extra shifts and call out time”).

Auditors recommended that the board examine the following options and implement policies and procedures in order to reduce excessive payroll expenditures:

  • Establish set annual/monthly salaries for management-level positions in order to eliminate overtime paid;
  • Hire additional firefighters in order to decrease overtime pay;
  • Better utilize volunteer firefighters in an effort to minimize costs.

While Edwards and the legislature might be scratching their heads if they knew of the district’s fiscal wizardry, a closer look at a curious tax millage might clear things up.

It seems that district voters may have once approved a 17.5 mill property tax but the district somehow managed to collect two identical millages of 17.5 mills each until January 2018, when one of the assessments expired.

St. Landry Parish resident and local taxpayer Charles Jagneaux, who filed the complaint with the state ethics board, which has been basically toothless since it was gutted by Bobby Jindal in one of his first acts as governor in 2008, has a theory about that dual tax millage.

“My understanding is that the second millage was passed by calling it a renewal when in fact, it was a second identical millage,” he said. “The board attempted to put the expiring millage on the ballot (for a renewal) this year but the parish council would not let them since there was a multi-million-dollar surplus.”

The ethics complaint was filed against Johnny Ardoin, secretary-treasurer of the district’s board. Ardoin, it turns out, is also a member of the Port Barre TOWN COUNCIL, which would appear to be a case of dual office-holding, illegal under Louisiana law.

As a point of clarification from a reader who is in a position to know, dual office holding falls under (drum roll, please…) the attorney general’s office, not the ethics board so the ethics board would not address that matter,

A second, more serious ethics violation, however, seems to arise from Ardoin’s membership on the fire district board.

The Port Barre Town Council appoints two members of the fire district’s board of commissioners.

That would seem to constitute a built-in conflict of interest for Ardoin. Given his position as a member of the town council, he is in the unique position to appoint himself to the fire district’s board of commissioners.

That ethics complaint, like most complaints to the state ethics board these days, is in all likelihood, a dead-end street, particularly as it regards dual office-holding. But even in cases when ethics fines are assessed, which is seldom, they often are ignored and never collected, thanks again to Bobby Jindal and his ethics reform agenda.

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