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21.4.05

Wooley's arrogance gives Odom a run for his money

Insurance Commissioner "Pimp(le) My Ride" Robert Wooley is giving Agriculture Secretary Bob Odom a run for his money as the most arrogant elected official in Louisiana. Not only does he not reverse or apologize for his having the state’s taxpayers buy him another luxury vehicle after just one year, he tries to justify it.

Some gems from this public servant:

  • The House Appropriations Committee hardly bothered to vet his department’s budget, which its chairman John Alario argued was because “Since it's not general fund you're tapping into, I guess it doesn't bother us as much.” Wooley was next to him and announced that he took this to mean that he was a model public servant because he cut his agency's spending 5 percent at the governor's request. Great; so did almost everybody other department head. But you didn’t see the likes of Treasurer John Kennedy then rushing out to buy a new vehicle after your present one got only a year’s use. And the reason hardly anybody raised a fuss was the committee is stacked 17-2 in favor of good old boy and girl Democrats who probably would do the same thing if they could get away with it
  • Wooley also said that he opted for a regular paint job rather than the flame decals that were part of the package. I am so impressed with the concern for the public weal this man Wooley has! What a sacrifice he made, sticking it to the taxpayers for only about $40,000 instead of $41,000!
  • The truck replaced a 2004 Ford Eddie Bauer-designer edition Expedition that had 30,000 miles on it. Uh, OK, I have a shade under 75,000 miles on my seven-year old van. Maybe he might try to squeeze a few more miles out of his state vehicles if he rather than the taxpayers paid for it.
  • Wooley said he declines other perks, such as having the state charter him a plane or pay for his cell phone calls. Wow, so it’s all right to abuse the taxpayers a lot, instead of a whole lot?
  • Wooley said he has saved the state millions of dollars by paying cash for the new building his department occupies. He said he didn't fuss when asked to cut his budget or when told to lease equipment that the state owns free and clear. That is so big of him! Imagine a state official actually treating the resources of his agency not as his own but as the taxpayers’? In other words, actually doing what his job requires? To what do we owe for this munificence?
  • Wooley said his enemies are trying to embarrass him. “They're not going to intimidate me out of doing my job,” he said. Sounds like he’s doing a good job of embarrassing himself by himself, and if he means living high of the taxpayers, he’s doing a good job of that already.

    We don’t need this kind of arrogance in state government. It shows the lack of real understanding that Louisiana voters have about politicians to put this guy in office instead of an upstanding, citizen-conscious man like Dan Kyle as happened in 2003. We’re stuck with this loser for the next couple of years, but let’s at least control this disregard for taxpayers by passing bills like Sen. Art Lentini’s SB 44 which would stop abusive practices like Wooley’s.
  • 20.4.05

    Raising standards improves TOPS, saves money

    Health care may be one area where common sense can bring costs under control, but another concerns the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS). This program now is estimated to eat up $117 million which, frankly, has turned into another entitlement program.

    TOPS has many goals, among which are to increase retention, both of in-state students going to a Louisiana public university and keeping them going to them, and to bring better education to a greater range of high school and college students. Its latest report shows it largely succeeds, but in an inefficient way. This has caught the attention of a Legislature eager to find money.

    A vital reform would make those who fail to maintain the (low) standards – 2.3 GPA initially, 2.5 after the freshman year – liable to pay back their tuition reimbursements, although a waiver could be put in for those who graduate from college within three (associates) or six (bachelors) degree. From the latest report, using an estimate of 30% suspended or cancelled from the program, of which half would not then graduate within the above time limits, at present tuition rates, that would save nearly $6 million a year (assuming it all can be collected). With this potential penalty, more incentive gets created for recipients to stay eligible.

    Another reform almost as important would be to raise eligibility requirements. Right now, to go to college the minimum of 20 to qualify is below the nationwide average on the ACT, and the maintenance criterion is just a borderline B/C (as noted, less the first year). Raising both of these would be good; in fact, bringing the standard for the basic award (Opportunity) up to the award at the next level (Performance), a score of 23, would dramatically cut costs, almost $80 million. (Note that a great many four-year public universities in this country have admission standards considerably in excess of the equivalent of a 23 on the ACT; only LSU is even close to this). Establishing a 2.75 GPA also would stimulate higher achievement and make the program more like an actual “scholarship.”

    Exactly the wrong approach would be to lower or remove entirely the ACT qualification. Not only would this give a green light for high school grade inflation, already a rapidly growing problem, but it would cheapen the entire program. For example, several New Orleans high schools graduate nobody who qualifies for TOPS even with its present low standards, yet do manage to graduate a number of students. This means a 3.0 at these schools probably may not even equate to a 2.0 at a quality school yet many of these students would go off to college at the taxpayer’s expense (and then almost all flunk out).

    One explanation for these results, that somehow standardized testing is “biased” against racial minorities, is a tired canard which the data solidly refutes. Indeed, the primary factor affecting scores is prior preparation, and all too many schools in Louisiana fail to do this job adequately. Higher ACT scores among Louisiana youth of all races will be reduced as a problem as secondary education teachers become more demanding and less indulgent, and discipline in schools improves (and not necessarily the provision of more money).

    Even more disastrous would be to place a family income cap to limit eligible applicants. This is patently unfair, denying students who have done everything they need to qualify solely on the basis of the family into which they were born and punishing parents for trying to be successful and provide their families better lives. If this is truly a “scholarship” program, “need” has nothing to do with it. Otherwise, it should be changed into a grant-like program such as the federal government’s version, where any Lousiiana college-admitted student, subject to family income levels, gets a grant. TOPS is supposed to be about improving educational attainment of the state’s citizens, not a wealth redistribution program.

    Replacing beneficial standards with artificial ones is not the answer. Insistence on higher standards will cut costs, provide more motivation (even for those who then miss out on TOPS money; nothing motivates a student to learn more than knowing he’s paying his own way), and, ultimately, a higher level of educational attainment.

    19.4.05

    Tame special interests to solve health care funding woes

    The Times-Picayune continues its excellent series detailing how the nursing home industry in Louisiana tries to stay one step ahead of the law while at the same time keep its gravy train rolling to the detriment of the state’s elderly, disabled, and taxpayers.

    The arrogance of their trade association, the Louisiana Nursing Home Association, rivals that of Agriculture Secretary Bob Odom. Even though they know they get favorable treatment relative to other states, even though the state is tight on money with so much of it going to health care, they howl when the slightest unfavorable change is threatened to be made.

    One need only look at the Legislative Auditor’s April, 2004 report “Medicaid Long-Term Care Options for the Elderly and People With Disabilities: National and Louisiana Statistics” to see how seriously biased the system in Louisiana is towards nursing homes:

    Louisiana ranked 1st in the nation in percentage of long-term care Medicaid expenditures used for institutional care in federal fiscal year 2002. Louisiana spent 90.2% of its Medicaid long-term care funds on institutional care.

    Louisiana ranked 1st in the nation in the number of Intermediate Care Facilities for the Mentally Retarded (ICF/MRs) per 100,000 people as of June 30, 2002, and 2nd in the nation for per capita expenditures for ICF/MRs in federal fiscal year 2001. Louisiana spent $79.57 per person for ICF/MR care in comparison to $32.00 nationally and $33.95 for the Southern Regional Educational Board (SREB) states.

    Louisiana ranked 4th in the nation in per capita expenditures for nursing facilities in federal fiscal year 2001. Louisiana spent $259.43 per person for nursing facility care in comparison to $148.70 nationally and $129.10 for the SREB states. Louisiana also ranked above both the nation and the SREB states in the number of nursing facilities per 100,000 people for calendar year 2002.

    They are a fine example of everything that is wrong with government financing of anything, because they have removed themselves from the marketplace, which they cannot manipulate and forces them to provide efficiently and safely, and instead can control government to expropriate wealth from the state while forcing many people into nursing homes who could live with dignity outside of them. This was a point made by the Legislative Auditor’s recent Performance Audit Report in its “Summary of Matters for Legislative Consideration:”

    The legislature should consider:

    DHH’s plan for equitable funding of a full array of long-term care services

    Repealing the Facility Need Review Law or amending it to eliminate problems and allow for open market competition among Medicaid long-term care providers (emphasis mine)

    In this report, the auditors found that the state could have saved as much as $97 million by having a uniform assessment process that would place those with long-term care needs in their most efficient setting and by adjusting the reimbursement system to be in line with other states. As of the end of 2003, fewer than half of the eligible people that could receive community-based services did receive them (a gap of 11,338). If it costs for one year $7.2 million to create 800 more slots, these savings could have paid to wipe out almost the entire backlog.

    In other words, the only thing standing between Louisiana providing almost every eligible person with long-term care services, in more appropriate environments, with no reduction in quality, is simply to change these standards noted in the report. And the nursing home industry is doing almost everything it can to prevent his from happening!

    What we have to understand is that funding woes in Louisiana health care are not some insoluble dilemma – a problem that will only get worse given the next year $400 million will be yanked from the state’s Medicaid allocation short of an act of mercy by Congress. It just takes the simple will to pass the necessary legislation and the fortitude to stand up to those forces that, out of their own greed, don’t want this to happen. Gov. Kathleen Blanco has said she is going to change this system. This legislative session would be a great time to start.

    18.4.05

    Nursing homes fight to keep their gravy train rolling

    How much more whining do we have to hear from Louisiana’s nursing home industry? For years the state budget has treated it so favorably, and it’s hardly been punished for its many problems (the Times-Picayune is running stories starting yesterday about the serious problems in the industry).

    Now because the state tries to bring some rationality to its health care cost structure, the industry whines about losing its favored status. This is, of course, an industry worth close to $700 million in revenues a year of which 85 percent of its funds come from taxpayers – payments by government. It’s an industry who has one of its own, state Sen. Joe McPherson, now controlling his chamber’s Health and Welfare Committee as chairman, whose record of partiality to the industry deserves scrutiny, who parrots such a pro-industry, “help us pay our mortgages” attitude it’s sickening.

    This is nothing new: it’s an industry that complains every single time any move is made to cut off its gravy train, in 2003, last year, and now – because nothing ever changes. Regardless of how much more efficiency in using and savings of taxpayers dollars in an era of severe pressure on health care spending would occur through restructuring, it keeps crying about how it’s going to be harmed:

    17.4.05

    Bills want to drive stakes into dollar-sucking policies

    As far as statewide policy goes, the number one vampire in Louisiana is Bob Odom. You can have statewide criticism of his notion to build a sugar cane processing plant with state backing without state oversight, you can have a report he helped commission to try to justify it end up showing it’s a bad deal for the state, but he just won’t give up the idea.

    Odom said he still believes the project will help farmers in central Louisiana. "It keeps those farmers in business," Odom said, noting that the study says the plant might not be a failure for the first 10 years. "That is 10 years down the road."

    So, maybe a dozen or two farmers might not be driven out of business by market forces with this mill, while Odom would make every single person in the state pay an average of almost $20 each to help prop them up with the mill – at least in the first 10 years. Assuming the cost isn’t really $105 million as the consultants say it really will be. Assuming the price of sugar doesn’t go noticeably lower (the likely scenario outlined by our very own LSU) as production and imports slowly rise while demand falls.

    So he’s going to keep fighting for it at this Thursday’s meeting of the State Bond Commission. Might as well; it worked for the number one vampire of local policy in the state, Keith Hightower. Despite public opposition to the plan, despite no true feasibility study that would say building a publicly-owned hotel next to Shreveport’s convention center would not lose money, Mayor Hightower is still going after it.

    But some wooden stakes may be on the way to help kill these policies that, even with every shred of evidence against their viability, somehow survive to waste huge amounts of taxpayer dollars. HB 232, prefiled the week before last by Rep. Shirley Bowler, aims to rein in Odom’s authority. Basically, it places almost all of the power that a Commissioner of Agriculture could exercise into the hands of the Legislature, provided the people pass it as a constitutional amendment. This would make it easier to counter such abuses of power as we’ve seen from Odom.

    Regarding out-of-control Shreveport mayors, two local-area legislators are taking aim at Hightower. Rep. Wayne Waddell’s HB 259 would prevent (except by unanimous vote) the Bond Commission from approving any proposal that was being litigated (presuming that frivolous suits would be recognized as such by the Commission and would garner unanimous approval). It would be too late to stop the issuance of bonds for the hotel project, but perhaps the state will learn from its mistakes.

    Sen. Max Malone’s SB 260 is much nearer to the point. It provides no bonds shall be issued, or no construction shall commence on a project for which bonds are issued, until an authority of a municipality having a population of more than two hundred thousand but less than two hundred twenty thousand (take one guess which municipality in Louisiana qualifies under this provision) has received prior approval by the electorate of the participating political subdivision on whose behalf or benefit the bonds will be issued.

    The bill’s wording means, if passed, that construction of the hotel effectively would be halted. Normally, I’m not a fan of such specific local legislation, but desperate things become necessary to override a decision that is so at odds with the well-being of the people of Shreveport.