Sunday, May 23, 2010

Jindal's Oil and Sand Woes

Bobby Jindal has problems with oil and sand these days. Each is where he would prefer they not be.

The oil on the Louisiana coast is on our few sandy beaches and spreading into our seafood-rich marshes, threatening long-term damage to both.

The sand in Jindal's heretofore well-oiled legislative machine threatens to exacerbate his problems with three years of state budgets as well as deny him the claim to fame that he needs to continue his national political quest — privatizing state services, particularly health services.

The impact of the still uncapped and unfettered BP Gulf Gusher continues to ominously build. More fisheries have been closed, this time in so-called "inside waters" — areas not out in the open Gulf, but adjacent to it. The order, issued late Saturday by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, according to The Advocate, includes closures of most of Barataria Bay, all of Caminada Bay north of Grand Isle, and most, if not all, of Terrebonne and Timbalier bays. The closure order effectively shut down all fishing in the Grand Isle, Grand Terre, Four Bayous Pass, Red’s Pass, Lakes Pelto and Barre and all points in the Cocodrie area.

BP this week conceded that the gusher at the bottom of the Gulf is bigger than they earlier indicated. For weeks, the company maintained that 5,000 barrels per day were blowing into the Gulf from their drilling site. After finally connecting a tube into the leaking pipe on the Gulf floor, BP said the pipe was drawing up 5,000 barrels per day of oil but that oil was still leaking. That confirmed earlier suspicions based on the limited amount of video of the spill that a lot more oil was escaping than BP had admitted to.

BP also had to admit late in the week that their suction tube was not getting anywhere near 5,000 barrels of oil to the surface, that it was less than half that amount. Today, the news got even worse. BP now has zero credibility on the size of the gusher or the degree of success they are having in trying to deal with it. Imagine what the real numbers are. BP had real reasons for underestimating the size of the spill.

Jindal: Drill, Baby, Drill Dredge, Baby, Dredge

Bobby Jindal, like most good Republicans, has never paid much attention to environmental issues. He's paid some lip service to coastal protection but there is no environmental initiative of any significance with his name attached to it.

There is now, however, a plan initially developed by Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser to build sand berms in the coastal waters that Jindal has been touting as the best hope to keep BP's oil off the coast and out of our coastal marshes.

The plan is changing even as it is under review by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers. As it has become a matter of public discussion, serious doubts have been raised about the plan by people who have much deeper knowledge about Louisiana's coast than do the newly converted Republican environmentalists Jindal and Nungesser.

Interestingly, the national media has discovered that there are numerous coastal experts who have done extensive research on Louisiana's coast who happen to be employed on projects operating on the campuses of Louisiana's public colleges and universities. There is no public indication that Jindal or members of his administration have been in touch with any of these people.

What the so-called Smartest Guy in the Room knows about the coast was taught to him by Billy Nungesser. Ponder that for a minute.

Jindal has ordered the Louisiana National Guard to begin some dredging near Elmer's Island. He said it was to prove the concept behind the Nungesser plan. But, unless the Coast Guard gives its approval to the work, it is possible that BP will not cover the cost of that work. It has been a while since Jindal has spent time in Baton Rouge, but surely he must recall that the state is in a budget crisis?

Jindal has continued flying and boating around the coast, trailing photographers and reporters with him along the way. A fawning conservative blogger tagged Jindal's approach as "governor-as-action-hero," forgetting for the moment the difference between talking and doing.

What Jindal has not been able to muster is results. For a man whose campaign coffers are littered with the names and dollars linked to energy companies, Jindal has not proven particularly effective at opening the doors he used to get campaign donations to get additional help to the region to deal with the gusher, its impact, or its aftermath.

What we do know is that, on the Louisiana coast, Bobby's in charge. Except when he's not.

BR Harder than BP

In some significant ways, the BP Gulf Gusher is an easier issue for Jindal than the current legislative session. After all, Jindal is not calling the shots. He's allowed the luxury of second-guessing both the federal government and BP.

Baton Rouge, though, is another animal and, since Jindal has gone coastal, things appear to be spinning out of control on the budgets (2010, 2011 and 2012). Members of the House have risen up to fight Jindal and Alan Levine's attempts to privatize broad swaths of state-owned healthcare infrastructure.

House Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin raised the possibility that the session could end without a budget in place for the next fiscal year. He did not mention whether that prospect included the possibility of not being able to close the hole in the budget for the current fiscal year.

While the BP catastrophe has enabled Jindal to fly around playing 'that dashing young executive in his state-owned helicopter,' he was elected to govern and he has done precious little of that in the last month.

The depths of Jindal's problems at the Capitol were on full display on Thursday when a healthy majority of the House (64-27) voted to require legislative approval of privatization contracts of longer than three years at the state's mental hospitals in Mandeville, Jackson and Pineville. House Bill 1443 is being pushed by Democratic caucus leader John Bel Edwards of Amite and St. Francisville Republican Tom McVea.

They got the bill out of the House Health and Welfare Committee on a 13-3 vote earlier in the month, then beat back three Republican attempts to water down the bill on the floor of the House on Thursday. None of the votes were close.

DHH Secretary Alan Levine, whose department pushing the privatization drive, thumbed his nose at Edwards and McVea in the Times-Picayune on Sunday, saying the bill won't affect the current privatization efforts in Jackson, as the privatization contracts under consideration there would be for less than three years. But it could affect the long-term plans for turning over mental-health services in Pineville to a private contractor.

Levine's taunting of the legislators does not indicate that he recognizes the change that has taken place in the House in recent weeks as the implications of the privatization move have become clear and Jindal has been away playing beachcomber.

Even more dangerous for the administration is a bill introduced by Republican Representative Kirk Talbot of River Ridge that would create legislative oversight on all state contracts. House Bill 1316 is due to be heard in the House Appropriations Committee tomorrow. The roots of the bill apparently come out of the Government Streamlining Commission hearings where it was revealed that state government has more than 5,000 professional service contracts operating at any given time.

Talbot's bill puts the Edwards/McVea bill in a context that undermines Jindal's privatization rationale. If state government spending is bloated, is the problem state employees or is it the explosion of unexamined, frequently no-bid professional services contracts? If it is, then is the solution still more contracts?

If a solid majority of the House is opposing Jindal on privatization, the Senate is going to be even tougher.

Jindal Operating Outside the Constitution

Democratic Senator Joe McPherson of Woodworth claims that the entire privatization scheme being pushed by Jindal is unconstitutional. McPherson told The Advocate in an article published today that the proposed state budget bill is filled with language amendments that are really substantive law changes that should require separate legislative approval.

McPherson told the Advocate he is particularly concerned about three pages of substantive health-care policy changes inserted in the budget bill’s section on state Department of Health and Hospitals financing.

McPherson pointed The Advocate to a 1977 court case that he said addressed the matter of using the budget bill to set state policy, rather than separate legislation.

A key court case governing the issue involved a dispute between Gov. Edwin Edwards and then-House Speaker E.L. “Bubba” Henry. In that 1977 case, the court concluded that all appropriations bills are banned by the Louisiana Constitution from containing substantive policy more appropriately enacted in separate legislation.

In the same case, the court said the Louisiana Legislature can include “qualifications, conditions, limitations, or restrictions on the expenditure of funds which would not be dealt with more properly in a separate bill.”
McPherson says that elements of the DHH portion of the budget involve sweeping policy changes that have not been subject to legislative review, particularly changes in state Medicaid policy.

In that same article, Levine appeared to say that he was prepared to go ahead on the privatization unless the Legislature specifically moved to stop him.

In comments to the Times Picayune, Levine raised the prospect of Jindal vetoing the privatization legislation.

On Solid Ground?

Jindal's attention-grabbing gig on the coast was put in some context this week when it was revealed that he's already being paid for his book, "On Solid Ground" which was ghost written and will be published by right-wing publisher Regnery Publishing. The book deal was announced in February and is scheduled to be released in July.

At the time it was announced, it was considered to be the soft launch of Jindal's presidential campaign. At the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans in April, Jindal said he was not running for president in 2012 thereby saving himself the embarrassment of a weak showing in a weak field of candidates.

The book was scheduled to hit stores after the end of the current legislative session, where Jindal was expected to emerge triumphant from another few months of dazzling legislators and the public with his brilliance.

Things have taken another turn. Fannin raised the possibility that the budget work might not get done during the session, requiring a special session in July. That kind of crisis in Baton Rouge might be able to draw Jindal back to the Capitol, but it's no guarantee. The national media will probably still be hanging out on the coast because the problems associated with the gusher will not have disappeared but have the very real possibility of being much worse than they are now.

Into this uncertain environment will come Jindal's book which he did not write and — judging by his dependence on federal stimulus dollars for his budget and federal aid to help mitigate the impact of the BP gusher — it will be about principles that he no longer holds.

The best answer might be for Regnery to ship the books directly to the coast where they can be put directly work in the effort to protect Louisiana's coast and marshes. Use the books as booms, Bobby! It might be a way to spare you from further embarrassment.

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