Friday, June 18, 2010

Papal Bull: Jindal The Infallible

To hear Governor Bobby Jindal's coterie of loyalists, calls for greater transparency in the Governor's Office and legislative oversight of the sweeping privatization contracts the administration wants to implement constitute heretical questioning of their core belief in Jindal's infallibility.

Jindal's ascent in Louisiana politics has been based on a presumption of his intellectual brilliance. It started back when then-Governor Mike Foster named the 25 year-old Jindal to be secretary for the Department of Health & Hospitals (DHH). What followed was a job-hopping career that enabled Jindal to advance without the implications of his performance in one position becoming evident before he moved on to a new slot. He went from DHH to DC where he served as executive director on a Medicare panel. Then it was back to Louisiana in 1999 where Foster convinced the University of Louisiana system to waive its hiring standards in order to make Jindal head of that system. In 2001, it was back to DC where Jindal went to work in the Bush administration's Department of Health and Human Services. In 2003, he ran for governor. In 2004, he ran and won the seat of Congressman from the First Congressional District. He stayed there about two years before returning to Louisiana to run again for governor, winning the 2007 election.

At no step on that dizzying ascent did Jindal stay long enough to deal with the repercussions of whatever policies he might have proposed or implemented. It's different now that he's governor. Two-and-a-half years into his term, the impact of his policies are coming into focus. The picture for the state is not pretty. Essential services are being relentlessly and needlessly slashed. Yet, Jindal keeps plowing ahead while his supporters demand that the rest of the state continue to bow to his intelligence and ignore the implications of what he's doing.

From ethics reform to state budgets to privatization to the BP Gulf Gusher, Jindal's hidden but real record as governor is an uninterrupted stream of poor decisions and bad choices.

"Hey!" his supporters say, "The man's got an image to buff and a presidency to pursue. He can't be bothered by niggling questions about how his pursuit is wrecking the state."

Ignore those implications behind the curtain!

How dare you question The Smartest Guy In The Room?

Ethics: All That Glitters . . .

Jindal swept to victory based, in part, by positioning himself as having the answer to Louisiana's long history of political corruption. Interestingly, there was no corruption in the post-Katrina/Rita deluge of federal funding into the state. The administration of Governor Kathleen Blanco created and ran a squeaky clean reconstruction process that handled billions in federal dollars appropriated in the wake those two hurricanes and the federal levee failures in New Orleans after Katrina.

It is worth noting, too, that Jindal's deep ties to the Bush administration and his burning ambition to run again for governor may well have influence the heavy and early hyper-partisan effort of that administration to deflect blame for its failures onto the Blanco administration. I know, it's difficult to imagine the Bush administration playing politics with public policy.

Candidate Jindal incessantly touted his intention to win legislative approval for what he called "The Gold Standard" in ethics for state elected officials. In a special legislative session that took place shortly after his inauguration, Jindal got his ethics reform package passed, but problems were immediately apparent.

Enforcement of the state's ethics laws were transferred from the state Board of Ethics for Elected Officials to a group of administrative law judges. A large number of ethics board in place at that time resigned in protest over the obvious flaws in the process that relegated them to figureheads. An undaunted Jindal appointed a new board and, as problems have continued to manifest themselves, the new board members have become vocal in their criticism of the new ethics regime.

Jindal's 'gold standard' has actually crippled ethics enforcement in the state, a fact made embarrassingly clear when the administrative law judges refused to penalize a Democratic group that spent more than $600,000 in the 2007 campaign for attorney general. Here's how The Advocate described the case and the ruling in a May 22 article:
The three-judge adjudicatory panel found a Washington, D.C.-area Democratic group violated the state’s campaign finance law by failing to file required reports. The group spent $644,000 on television commercials criticizing 2007 Republican attorney general candidate Royal Alexander.

But the three-judge panel assessed no fine against The Louisiana Justice Fund because it said those behind the group did not know they were supposed to file. The group is funded by the Democratic Attorneys General Association Inc., a Denver-based organization formed to support the elections of Democrats to a state’s top legal post.

Ethics Board member Scott Schneider said the notion that a political action committee can come to Louisiana, spend $644,000 against a candidate without reporting it and then have no fine levied is “just unbelievable to me.” Schneider said lack of knowledge should be no excuse.
Ignorance is apparently blissful in Louisiana politics, particularly when it comes to violating campaign finance laws under the Jindal gold standard.

There was not a word about campaign finance reform in the Jindal reforms, which left in place gaping loopholes that allow well-heeled individuals controlling multiple limited liability corporations to make a mockery of campaign finance contribution caps.

But the pattern is clear. Freshly elected legislators deferred to Jindal's popularity and the perception of his intelligence. That the centerpiece of the Jindal campaign and what might have been his only claim of success having come a cropper, the need for closer scrutiny of the governor's initiatives, policies and their implementation are starkly clear. And it is precisely that kind of scrutiny that his loyalists are fighting desperately to stave off.

Taxes and Pay

Two decisions late in the first Regular Session of the Legislature in Jindal's term have come back to hurt the state and haunt his relationship with legislators.

The first decision was his 2008 choice to go along with a repeal of the income tax portion of the Stelly Plan. It was not part of Jindal's legislative agenda that year, but the state (still riding the surge of post-storm federal spending) appeared flush financially. Some legislators were eager to put money back into the hands of their benefactors. After Jindal signaled his approval, the repeal passed.

The need for budget cuts became apparent in the first half of the fiscal year that began immediately after that session.

Repealing Stelly costs state government about $350 million per year. It is a recurring hole in state government coffers since the other side of the voter-approved Stelly Plan reduced state sales taxes on food and residential utilities.

According to the Louisiana Budget Project, the elimination of the income tax portion of the Stelly Plan will have cost the state $2.2 billion in revenue by the end of the 2012 fiscal year (the budget Jindal will propose and the Legislature will act on in 2011). The tax break benefits those in the state's highest income brackets. The budget cuts in higher education and healthcare forced by this reduction in revenue hits middle- and working-class families and the poor the hardest.

In that same session, Jindal gave his consent to a substantial pay raise for state legislators. With his consent, members of both houses of the Legislature approved the pay raise at the end of the session and sent it to Jindal for his signature. His conservative base was as mad about the pay raise as they were happy about the tax cut.

Initially, Jindal reaffirmed his commitment to at least let the raise become law. But, as he became the target of the crescendo against pay raise, Jindal vetoed the raise after the session had ended.

Viewed from either side of the issue, Jindal demonstrated that the principle that he most cherished was his own political advancement. It damaged his credibility with legislators and caused Jindal's legislative director Tommy Williams to resign the night before the veto was announced.

The lesson to be drawn from 2008 is that Jindal's judgment on issues can be faulty and, therefore, must be questioned and examined. Yet, Jindal loyalists deny that the governor has made mistakes and the notion that he should be subject to the kind of second-guessing that he routinely engages in sends them howling in protest.

Privatization: Comforting the Comfortable

Jindal's most ambitious plan is to dismantle the state's public healthcare infrastructure and run billions of state and federal healthcare through the coffers of private contractors operating on the state's behalf.

Privatization is an old weapon in the conservative arsenal used on its attack on government and government services. As such, it has an extensive track record — and, like many ideologically driven concepts, the record does not measure up to the hype. Privatization does benefit the companies getting the government contracts, but the quality of service is erratic at best. This is no small matter when things like, say, healthcare or care for the developmentally disabled are involved.

Jindal handed his DHH Secretary Alan Levine that job of executing the demolition of the state's public healthcare and mental health delivery systems. Privatization is the method with the claim being that it will save the state money, although the claims associated with the privatization of state's mental health hospital in Jackson seem pretty slim.

What is not slim is the number of employees who will be moved off the state payrolls if and when team Jindal/Levine complete their mission. Coupled with the clearly signaled intent to shut down much if not all of the LSU Hospital System, Jindal and Levine intend to shed tens of thousands of workers from the state's payroll.

The total number of permanent job losses resulting from this privatization push will make the temporary loss of jobs resulting from the deep water drilling moratorium pale in comparison. But, classified state employees, unlike the owners of those deep water oil service companies, are not big Jindal contributors and that may well be why the governor does not see any equivalence between the job losses that will come as the result of his own initiatives.

What is missing in the push for privatization is any significant attention to the impact that this will have on the quality of care delivered. Stories abound about what happens when the push for profits clash with other essential issues like safety — in fact, there is a gushing example of the outcome of one such collision in the Gulf of Mexico now.

What we do know that will happen as this push continues is that some companies are going to get rich feeding at the state revenue trough. Medicaid is the largest single component in the state's budget. That's where the privatization efforts are focused.

The myth of privatization is that costs can be controlled while adding another hand in the revenue stream. The math does not work, though it can be made to appear to work in the short term.

As it turns out, a significant portion of the state's budget — $7 billion, according to Jindal's own Streamlining Commission — runs through the hands of already outsourced positions. That amounts to just under one-third of all state government spending. There are 16,000 active contracts in place but the state does not know how many workers are covered by those contracts.

So, the Jindal 'solution' is to dive deeper into privatization, to push accountability further beyond the control of government, and put more public dollars into the hands of private companies.

Clearly, privatization is not away to streamline Louisiana state government. It is, however, a very effective tool for enriching contractors who are all too happy to make contributions to the politicians who enabled them to connect into the public money stream.

Legislators appear adamant about enforcing some oversight onto this process. HB 1143 has won final approval by both the House and the Senate and is headed to Jindal's desk for action. Levine and DHH fought this bill every step of the legislative way, but to no avail. Levine threatened a veto early in the process. It remains to be seen whether that threat will hold after the bill won final approval in the House by a veto-proof margin on Thursday.

Again, Jindal's privatization push is another area where the hype does not match up with reality. Some check or review of the policy is essential. That is what the Legislature is insisting upon. That is precisely the kind of oversight Jindal and his loyalists are resisting.

BP', Berms and Bobby

The BP Gulf Gusher has been a catastrophe for the workers killed and their families, the state's coastal communities, fishermen, oyster men, our fisheries and our way of life. It has been something of a godsend for Bobby Jindal's national political aspirations and he has milked it for all it has been worth.

The disaster happened just as Jindal's ability/willingness to focus on state government and its many challenges had about run out. This is as long as he's been on any job in his adult life and his presidential aspirations are no doubt linked to the restlessness of the boredom with Baton Rouge that has clearly overtaken him.

It is either ironic or fitting that Congressman Bobby Jindal led the fight to open to drilling the exact part of the Gulf of Mexico where the Deepwater Horizon blowout produced the catastrophe that Governor Bobby Jindal has latched onto as his national political lifeline.

Before the spill, but Governor Jindal initiated a move that put more layers of bureaucracy between the state's Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office and the Office of the Governor by moving that office into the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. Inserting layers of bureaucracy between what should have been a key office in helping the state respond to this catastrophe seems like a mistake. Jindal loyalists say it ain't so.

The sightings of Jindal in Baton Rouge have been as rare as progress on staunching the flow of oil into the Gulf.

But, he's nearly taken up residency on the coast and his laser-like ability to hone in on a microphone or land in front of a camera lens has surged as he has spent more time there. Jindal's lack of engagement in the job he was actually hired to do — governing Louisiana — has contributed significantly to the uncertainty and bitterness that has flared over trying to deal with the state's various and mounting budget problems.

If Jindal had brought anything remotely resembling the sense of urgency to the budget issues that he brought to the effort to get sand berms built along the coast is there any question that things would be working more smoothly at the Capitol?

Then there is the matter of the idea for the berms itself. The idea came to Jindal by way of Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. It went from Jindal's ear to the press and it was all the governor could talk about for weeks. While he could not bring himself to stop talking to reporters about the idea (or pestering federal officials to approve what had become his idea), Jindal never could bring himself to speak to anyone who actually understands the Louisiana coastal ecosystem and the hydrology of tides about the idea.

There were plenty of knowledgeable people willing to discuss the merits of the berm idea with him. He just didn't want to hear it. In Jindal's mind Nungesser said, he believed it and that settled it.

Based on Jindal's prior track record in the Gulf alone — wrong on drilling, wrong on oil spill response — there should be room for questioning his judgment on the berms. Jindal never heard any of those until Admiral Thad Allen convened a hearing on the plan in New Orleans a few weeks ago and Allen made the governor sit through the scientists presentations about their concerns that the berms could cause more damage to the coast than doing nothing. Nungesser could not stomach it and walked out. He returned a bit later.

But, it is evidence that Jindal's bubble is so tightly sealed that no opposing views can permeate it — unless of course, having it punctured (how ever briefly) is the price of getting some cherished idea approved if even on a limited basis. So, work is underway on the berms and Jindal is there. It will be interesting to see if he sticks around if they don't work.

Being wrong once on deep water drilling is not enough for Jindal, he has now fixated on compounding the error by pushing for a speedy end to the six month moratorium on that drilling ordered by the Obama administration. Jindal has made his new Lieutenant Governor (and fund raiser) Scott Angelle the point man in talks with the federal government on this.

Based on Jindal's spotty record on the spill, legislators have approved a bill that will require Jindal and his staff to retain all records relating to the state's effort in response to the spill and to make those records publicly available.

Opposition from the administration is expected to be fierce, as second guessing is a game Jindal prefers to reserve to himself and not be allowed to be played about him.

The Plaquemines Pope Is Not Infallible

Despite the best efforts of Jindal's defenders to maintain appearances, the governor's track record has caught up with him. His successes have proven failures. His rhetoric has been exposed to be empty ideological cant served up by an increasingly arrogant yet desperate team to whom cooperation or compromise equals failure.

The state budget crisis is in shambles. The Governor has abandoned his job and the Capitol to chase publicity on the coast. He's working harder to save his national political image than he is to help the state he was elected to lead.

If Bobby Jindal won't stand up for Louisiana, then the Legislature will have to fill that void. It won't be pretty and it won't be smooth, but it will be necessary.

The all too fallible Plaquemines Pope has left the building.

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