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21.7.05

To the Caddo Sheriff and Commission: get on with it

Regarding the series of legal maneuverings that even the Louisiana judiciary declares is complicated, now another chapter opens in the long-running dispute between Caddo Parish government and Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator over who pays what at the Caddo Correctional Center.

I’m not a lawyer and, worse, I only have three college degrees, so I will try to make this almost-incomprehensible legal mess as least partly understandable. The parish owns the CCC. However, they contract to the sheriff to operate it, which is mandated by statute. Legally, they must pay the sheriff at least $3.50 a day per parish prisoner to do so, for which the sheriff is responsible for clothing and feeding such prisoners. However, it must pay additionally for medical and medical transportation expenses.

Obviously, at this statutory rate (which the parish cares not to pay any more) the sheriff could not operate the facility on only the daily funding rate. One way which generates more funds to do so is to take on state prisoners (there are other kinds too, such as federal prisoners and prisoners from other parishes, but to keep it simple let’s just assume that the two sources are parish and state prisoners). Here, the state must pay the sheriff at least $22.39 a day for the provision of the same kinds of services.

However, Caddo Parish argued that since non-Caddo parish prisoners are housed there, that the sheriff was bound to reimburse it for such expenses related to the general existence of the CCC in relation to the proportion of state prisoners there (roughly 25 percent at any given time). In May, the state’s Second Court of Appeals rejected that, allowing Prator to bill the parish for the additional expenses without himself being billed for what the Court called “fixed” expenses of the CCC.

But the bill Prator sent over apparently also includes expenses of the state prisoners, and the parish wants that portion excised out, which may lead to more legal maneuvering which already has cost parish taxpayers plenty (at least the Second Court’s bill only added about $200; it’s the lawyers’ fees that really add up). The irony of course is that, to this point, it is all about bookkeeping: parish taxpayers pay regardless, the dispute is just which parish entity gets what funds and who gets charged what.

Which is why, instead of continuing bickering, both entities need to discuss alternative ways of meeting their financial objectives. The Court suggested two ways immediately available in its decision. One would be for the parish to get the state to send reimbursement to it rather than the sheriff (which it then, of course, would have to turn right back around and hand it over to the sheriff any statutorily-required expenses). It also suggested that the sheriff could bill the state for the other expenses for state prisoners.

And then there always are legislative solutions. I’m sure Prator would find a lot of sheriffs ready to line up behind a bill that would increase the $3.50 level and/or the $22.39 level (it’s been tried before). And the parish could try to get state prisoners to pay additionally to it for certain things (again, it’s been tried before).

Both the parish commission and sheriff have expressed their desire to get this over with. So why don’t they start pursuing these other solutions as well? It’s only been two years now of this wrangling.

20.7.05

McKeithen's death raises provocative questions

I was sorry last year to find out that Louisiana’s late Secretary of State Fox McKeithen got injured and became quadriplegic. I had met him just once, not long after the infamous 1991 election when he explored the possibility of running for governor. In all likelihood, he correctly gauged that the times had passed by a politician of his demeanor for the state’s highest office, and instead ran and won three more terms as secretary of state.

I am not sure how to evaluate whether he correctly gauged the decision to take his own life, but that’s what he did when last week he asked to be taken off mechanical ventilation after putting his affairs in order, indicating that he could not live on a vent full-time. Since he had pneumonia, if he is like most quadriplegics and couldn’t go for more than a short time off the vent, he died quickly, perhaps unpleasantly, by suffocation.

If I had met him now, 11 years later after his accident, if the subject came up I might have counseled him to take a different course. Existing as a quadriplegic is no fun and one of the worst aspects of it is ventilation. I can see if one led a vigorous life that to be felled without warning in the way he was might cause more damage to his psyche than to his physical body.

But, as I have had visibly pointed out to me over the past 14 years, a body that refuses to work in almost any, even basic, way, need not connote that it is the time or appropriate to, literally, pull the plug on your life. Ventilation is a tremendously difficult thing to live with for somebody on it, and almost as severe for loved ones who take care of that person. Yet, regardless, ventilation is not a sentence stripping a person of any ability to contribute to society. So much still may be accomplished; to see such an example, click here.

I do salute McKeithen because in his few months of disability I think he did raise some awareness across the state about how the state can more efficiently utilize its resources to assist those who have major physical disabilities, which at this time are way too heavily skewed towards institutionalization and away from solutions that do not limit a persons potential, solutions in fact that often cost the taxpayer less than institutionalization.

I am demoralized to think that McKeithen, who had resources far beyond what the typical vent-dependent person has to assist him in living a quality life, nonetheless felt that he could not live such a life, and hope that the state’s insurance and long-term health care infrastructure did not discourage him from living. If nothing else, I hope Louisiana policy-makers as a result scrutinize more closely this infrastructure, without regard to personal interests, in order to improve the quality of life for people who usually through no fault of their own find themselves in situations akin to McKeithen’s.

19.7.05

Fool me twice ...

State Rep. Jack Smith seems to have gotten caught in a lie, and now he asks us to believe he didn’t know it. It happened in regard to HB 755 which originally was a proposal to establish a telephone helpline for families of alcoholic youth. It turned into a vehicle that would allow convenience stores to sell frozen, alcoholic drinks without a standard liquor license.

On the last day of the session, when dozens of bills are in conference and await floor action, the conference committee in charge of this one slapped on amendments longer in text that the original bill (which means a member or two on the six-member committee briefly told the others what should be done to the bill, and they agreed). Smith, a co-author with Rep. Carla Dartez of the bill, then carried it to the House floor where he insisted the conference committee additions did not add to the list of vendors allowed to sell daiquiris.

Smith, an insurance agent, claims he got counsel from a liquor lobbyist and Rep. Taylor Townsend, a lawyer, to back up this assertion. Regardless, others lawmakers such as Rep. Mike Powell, a lawyer, and Sen. Jay Dardenne, another lawyer, saw a very different and obvious meaning to the bill. So many did that the House forced essentially a retraction of a prior affirmative vote on the bill, and it died. Ever since, Smith has conducted damage control to remove the perception that he deliberately tried to mislead legislators.

His story: as a way to get funding for the hotline, he took without really reading the language the amendments written by the liquor industry lobby. After the impartial lobbyist and the learned Townsend reassured him, still without really knowing what it was all about, he got the conference committee to approve the language (yes, believe it or not, he and Dartez were both on the conference committee). Still an innocent, he then insisted to the House that, trusting these others, the bill didn’t do what it really did.

So, for this version of events to be credible; first, Smith had to approach the liquor industry with an idea for funding of the helpline; second, they said to him, “sure, no problem, and by the way, here are some amendments to the bill which look a lot like another bill previously rejected by the House but don’t worry they don’t allow for daiquiri sales in convenience stores;” third, even though it was his bill and he was on the conference committee, he decided not to read through the amendments and pushed them on trust from the highly-impartial (on this matter) liquor lobby (heavy sarcasm, thank you); fourth, when Powell to pick his brain on the matter, even though he really hadn’t analyzed the amendments, he still insisted he knows what it says and dismisses Powell’s questioning; and, fifth, when he joked about the matter later with colleagues, afterwards he said he wasn’t referring to this bill (although he apparently did not reveal which one he was being dishonest about?).

Believing this improbable train of events means two things, that you also believe the Louisiana Legislature isn’t really chock full of good old boys and girls who can’t pass the simplest ethics reforms, and that Smith is so incapacitated by the legislative process that he can’t even pay attention to what his own bills say, including when he gets a second chance by being on their conference committees, and then has the audacity to dismiss opposition and to joke about the subject.

If his constituents don’t move to recall Smith for incompetence and/or mendacity, the least they can do is get him to co-sponsor any of several pieces of legislation designed along the lines of last session’s HCR 31 which would have required a day’s layover of conference committee reports before floor action. Of course, it failed to pass the House by one vote – and Smith voted against it.

18.7.05

More Blanco partisanship present in HB 415 veto

While several of Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s line-item vetoes smack of partisan politics, it seems one of her regular vetoes does as well. That explanation aside, state Rep. Mike Powell’s HB 415 should not have drawn her ire.

This bill would have removed the January option for local (bond and tax) and state (to fill legislative vacancies) elections, leaving now only March/April, July, October, and November (and February if you live in Orleans Parish) to get a vote in. It would have saved the state at least $500,000 a year (and millions across local governments in the aggregate) and eliminated a low-turnout election whose figures double, triple, and multiply even higher when in conjunction with regular elections with candidates on the ballot.

Three reasons may explain her actions here. First was pure pandering to the courthouse crowds of local governments. The January date often is chosen by these governments because they are low-turnout elections where taxes may be raised. In this environment, whichever constituency gets favored by the raised taxes (usually government workers of some stripe such as teachers, public safety personnel, etc.) can turn out disproportionately highly its members to pass the proposition. Of the candidates on the last governor’s election, Blanco was most favored by local officeholders and this veto will help these allies and perhaps attract new ones as she tries to build a political machine through the state Democrats. (Their allies in the state Senate almost derailed this bill before it got to Blanco. First it was defeated then resurrected two days later, with many senators switching sides both ways in between.)

Second, particularly among Democrat local officials, it is, as it is with Blanco, their nature to want to transfer more resources from the people to government. Again, this January election takes advantage of human psychology to increase the chances of this happening, so it’s no accident that she would want to keep this date.

Third, the bill’s lead author Powell has been a persistent critic of big government and its spendthrift ways, counter to Blanco’s philosophy. Perhaps his most outspoken episodes this past legislative session involved questioning on the House floor whether it really made sense to build lakes in the name of economic development. Powell also is the favorite, should he choose to run, for Senate District 37 being vacated after this term by the most conservative member of the Senate and another critic of Blanco’s philosophy, Max Malone. One of Blanco’s allies, Shreveport Mayor Keith Hightower, like Malone term-limited, is chomping at the bit to take this seat and at this time Powell is the only person who clearly could beat him. Defeating one of his bills would be a way for Blanco to deny Powell a legislative accomplishment on which he could campaign.

In her veto letter, Blanco states there’s not much of a case to do away with an election day, writing that people need maximal opportunities to express themselves electorally. If so, then why did she not veto SB 53, which gets rid of a special December election date for congressional elections? Further, the election code already provides for additional election dates in RS 18:402(F)(7), so if the citizenry really wants it and/or the local government really needs it, they can have as many elections as they want (with two-thirds concurrence of the State Bond Commission.

If not hypocritical, this veto of Blanco’s certainly seems partisan, if not directed against Powell, then against Republicans and their philosophy favoring smaller government that does less in the way of absconding with the people’s resources, both in terms of raising taxes and extra money spent on elections.

17.7.05

Vengeance and hypocrisy are mine, says Blanco

With the line-item veto power, occasionally Louisiana governors will use it to get rid of some spending that truly needs to be excised. But more often than not, governors will use the power to punish legislators for presumed crimes against her. Local projects loaded into either of the operating budget, HB 1, or the capital outlay budget, HB 2, are at risk. We know it, they know, even if one reads their veto messages and that reason never is given.

Therefore, if a governor is going to use the power to bludgeon legislative opponents, she might as well not be hypocritical about it. It seems, however, that Gov. Kathleen Blanco got caught out in a number of her line item vetoes. Reading her veto letters and referring back to the two bills, many examples abound. The following are first excerpts from her messages, paired with similar projects that escaped a veto.

This amendment provides $150,000 payable out of state general fund to the town of Jennings for drainage improvements. This project has potential of being funded through the federal government's Community Development Block Grant program or through the state's existing rural development program.

But in HB 2 p. 56, lines 26-32:

Drainage Improvements Mimosa Gardens Subdivision, Planning and Construction
(Bossier)
Payable from General Obligation Bonds
Priority 2 $ 100,000
Priority 5 $ 95,000
Total $ 195,000


Doesn’t this project also have “the potential of being funded through the federal government's Community Development Block Grant program or through the state's existing rural development program?” Sure, but the state senator representing Jennings, unlike his Bossier counterpart, Republican Gerald Theunnissen, loudly supported Blanco’s gubernatorial opponent and opposed her sick tax idea?

This amendment provides $25,000 payable out of state general fund to South Beauregard High School for athletic facilities. As South Beauregard High School is a public school, the local school board should bear this cost if they determine this project has merit.

But in HB ,1 p. 34, lines 25-28:

Payable out of the State General Fund (Direct) to the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury for the Ward One Senior Citizen Group for renovation and improvements of Moss Bluff Middle School
$15,000


Isn’t this a school, too, one not that far away from the other? Why give the money to the police jury to pass on to a nonprofit group to do the work? Why doesn’t the Calcasieu Parish School Board have to bear this cost? Is it because South Beauregard High’s area is represented by Republicans Rep. Brett Geymann or Sen. James David Cain?

This amendment provides $89,000 payable out of state general fund to the St. Tammany Arts Association for safety purposes. As this association is local in nature and serves an area of the state with a solid local tax base, the citizens of the area should shoulder the cost of this project if those citizens deem this project has merit. Items such as this are eligible for funding from the Arts Grant Program in the Office of Cultural Development, within the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.

But in HB 1 p. 264, lines 1-3:

Payable out the State General Fund (Direct) to the city of Westwego for the Westwego
Performing Arts Theater and Community Center $120,000

Why does Westwego not have to go through all of these hoops? Maybe Westwego isn’t as affluent as some areas of St. Tammany Parish, but it’s not a slum, either. Could it be because perhaps Blanco’s biggest critic about her unwillingness to find money for an educators’ pay raise and her great willingness to raise taxes was one of the state senators representing the parish, Republican Tom Schedler? And Blanco wasn’t through with the state’s most politically conservative area:

West St. Tammany YMCA, Building, Planning and Construction (St. Tammany): This is the only YMCA project in the bill that would receive a general fund appropriation. The project has $200,000 in Priority 2 and $2,800,000 in Priority 3 for a total remaining appropriation of $3,000,000 after the veto of the $150,000 in general fund dollars. The capital outlay request submitted for the project indicated a total request of $3,000,000. Consequently, the $3,000,000 appropriation would be a sufficient amount to fund this project along with the $3,700,000 in matching funds identified in the bill should the Bond Commission give its approval.

But what about in HB 2 p. 127, lines 18-27:

CANARY ISLAND DESCENDANT ASSOCIATION
Multi-Purpose Building, Planning and Construction
(Plaquemines)
Payable from State General Fund (Direct) $ 100,000
Payable from General Obligation Bonds
Priority 2 $ 100,000
Priority 5 $ 100,000
Total $ 300,000

Why does this nonprofit get to tap into the general fund and not the one represented by Schedler? Perhaps because its Republican senator, Walter Boasso, did not offer a perfectly acceptable pay raise plan that didn’t raise taxes while Schedler did?

Perhaps the most blatant of these cases came with her veto of Republican Sen. Max Malone’s item that would have shifted $12 million from building the Shreveport convention center hotel to helping to improve the Jimmie Davis Bridge between the city and its easterly neighbor across the Red River, Bossier City. The shift would have occurred only if a court found the legally the hotel could not be built using the money within the next year.

Blanco’s veto message rambles something to the effect that if the project were held off starting it might produce revenues more slowly and cost additional funds. But doesn’t Blanco even care about the legality of the project? In her thinking, it seems that it’s better to flout the law (if the courts find the money is not be used in accordance with its stated purpose) than to risk extra taxpayer subsidization of the project. Is that the attitude about the law a governor should have?

If Blanco is going to use her powers to exact vengeance, the least she can do is come up with better excuses. Otherwise, her partisanship and hypocrisy show right through.