Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Impunity & Immunity: Governor Jindal out of control on the coast & at the Capitol

Bobby Jindal says he's not running for president. That's probably because he's too busy acting like a king.

It's been a heady couple of weeks for the Governor of a state mired in a deep fiscal crisis largely of his own making and confronting an epic ecological and economic catastrophe that he had a hand in creating.

Jindal swept into Baton Rouge on the Friday before the final day of the legislative session to declare his support for the Senate version of the budget and House conservatives rolled over and gave him what he wanted. He ignored large majorities in both houses and strong public support for transparency in his office by vetoing a bill (HB 37) that would have made all state records relating to the BP Gulf Gusher available under the state's open records act.

Jindal acted with impunity towards the Legislature and the public with his veto of HB 37. In his veto letter (bottom of the page) to Clerk of the House, Alfred Speer, Jindal added insult to injury by giving a completely bogus explanation of his action:
The Deepwater Horizon incident is a man-made event with responsible parties that will create long-term challenges for the State of Louisiana. This bill would allow BP and other parties with potential liability to the state to obtain information retained by any state agency responding to this tragic event. Such access could impair the state’s legal position both in responding to the disaster that is unfolding and in seeking remedies for economic injury and natural resource damage.
As was pointed out here, attorneys in lawsuits always petition records from the other party. It's called discovery and the state has no power to shield any records from such a process in a court proceeding. Jindal's veto, though, will keep those records out of the court where he is most vulnerable — the court of public opinion, where his high-handedness and disregard for the opinions and views of those outside his immediate circle have created a backlash against him in both houses of the Legislature.

Another veto prospect is HB 1443 which would require legislative involvement and oversight of the privatization contracts for state mental health hospitals. That bill passed by smaller margins than the Gulf Gusher records bill, but it did have the support of a broad bi-partisan coalition of legislators in both houses. Department of Health & Hospitals Secretary Alan Levine all but promised a veto in an attempt to block passage, but neither body would back down.

Jindal displayed so little regard for the Legislature that some of his allies in the House (at least they were allies before the budget deal) tried to sneak provisions into a Senate-passed bill that would have granted immunity from liability for state and political subdivisions for actions taken in the effort to combat the results of the BP Gulf Gusher. Another House amendment in the bill would have eliminated the need for Jindal to veto the Gulf Gusher records bill by protecting them. Senators caught on to what was happening and killed SB 520 and the sneak attacks contained in them.

The reason Jindal might have sought the immunity provision only became evident after the session ended when the U.S. Department of the Interior shut down dredging for Jindal's pet berms project because the state was violating the terms of the permit issued.

Jindal screamed "bureaucratic red tape." The Department of the Interior responded that the state had been told the dredging was not being carried out in compliance with the permit and had dragged its feet in moving the dredging operation to an approved source of sand. The Time-Picayune summed it up in a story that appeared on Wednesday, June 23, two days after the session ended and three days after the attempt to grant Jindal and Nungesser immunity from liability:
Jindal and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser criticized the delay Tuesday and asked the federal government to allow the state to continue dredging from the current site as it prepares to move operations to another sand borrow site a mile farther offshore.

But the Obama administration said the state has been unprepared since the beginning, has caused further delay because it did not have the proper pipe available and has continued to ask for more time to shift to the offshore site. According to the Interior Department, it gave the state permission for more than a week to use the closer source of sand while locating the pipe, but that allowing the state to continue dredging could have negative impacts on existing barrier islands.
Jindal and Nungesser risked destroying the fragile island with their dredging ostensibly in order to save the coast from the oil. It is disturbing but consistent with this project that was never the subject of any scientific review and was rammed down the throats of federal regulators by the fear that Jindal or Nungesser — or both — would stroke out if their request for a permit of some kind was not granted. Having received the permit, the Governor, his parish government sidekick and his hand-picked contractor — the Shaw Group (who happens to be a heavy contributor to the Louisiana Republican Party) — immediately proceeded to ignore the terms of that permit.

By the time the dredging was shut down, Jindal had been resisting the federal government's prodding of the state to move its operations for at least a week. That means that Jindal was engaged in resisting the federal government at the very time his liability immunity amendment was inserted on the House side and the attempt was made to sneak it through the Senate.

The senators could not be fooled and Jindal was not able to intimidate the Department of the Interior on the dredging permit, so the work was forced to stop. The immunity question became moot. As is his custom, Jindal ranted and he raved, but the operation was stopped while the dredge was moved.

The New York Times pointed out that Jindal gets petulant when he does not get his way. He's not getting his way much along the coast — nor has he used the tools he's been given to handle the state's portion of the response to the disaster.

For starters, the paper reported, Jindal had gutted the state oil spill coordinator's office — with predictable results.
The state has an oil spill coordinator’s office. Its staff shrank by half over the last decade, and the 17-year-old oil spill research and development program that is associated with the office had its annual $750,000 in financing cut last year. The coordinator is responsible for drawing up and signing off on spill contingency plans with the Coast Guard and a committee of federal, state and local officials.

Some of these plans are rife with omissions, including pages of blank charts that are supposed to detail available supplies of equipment like oil-skimming vessels. A draft action plan for a worst case is among many requirements in the southeast Louisiana proposal listed as “to be developed.”

Initially the state and federal responders worked well together until Jindal started grandstanding.
On May 3, Mr. Jindal went public with his dissatisfaction.

“We kept being assured over and over that they had a plan, that there was a detailed plan, that it was coming; we never got that plan,” he said.

But under the law, oil spill experts said, there are only two kinds of government plans pertaining to spills, and the state is partly responsible for both.
Jindal had met the enemy and it was himself. Still, he insisted on blaming the federal government.

More evidence emerged that Jindal's frequent displays of public outrage were coming at the expense of the steps he should have been taking to effectively respond to the catastrophe.

CBS discovered that Jindal has not used all the resources at his disposal to fight the encroachment of oil into coastal waters. Specifically, the network reported that Jindal had not called out all of the National Guardsmen that President Obama had authorized him to use in the clean up.

According to the network, Jindal offered a tart response to that story. As posted at Pro Publica, the response from Jindal's spokesman doe not respond to the point of the CBS story but is filled with continued criticism of the federal government. Jindal apparently believes that the best defense is a good offense.

Jindal has left the business of governing the state to others in Baton Rouge. He's been bounding along the coast from microphone to camera to microphone for almost 60 days. In front of cameras, complaining about the federal government's inability to respond to his every whim, Jindal has felt empowered. He has not had to hassle with legislators or budget holes or people wanting to know what he's really doing besides preening for cameras.

So, he vetoed the spill records law. He'll veto the legislative oversight of his privatization push. But, he's staying on the coast — and near the national spotlight — until the gusher's capped or something really bad results from his berm idea.

The only viable alternative would be for Jindal to turn on the (again) disgraced Senator David Vitter and challenge him in the Republican primary, saying that he has to go to Washington to get more face time on TV this right for Louisiana. Don't forget that the Vitters' post-prostitute press conference near the New Orleans airport took place just 30 minutes prior what was supposed to be the final, triumphant stop on Jindal's announcement tour for his campaign for governor.

Don't think for a minute that Jindal's forgotten that. And, don't think for a second that he's going to stick around Baton Rouge to deal with a $2 billion budget shortfall next year. Been there; done that.

He's out of here. Like Sarah Palin, his day job is holding Jindal back. A fight with Vitter looks like the most attention-grabbing way out.

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