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If one had hoped that discussion about the state’s recent loss of a federal government grant opportunity at the recent Public Service Commission meeting could produce positive activity to produce more widely available broadband capability, that got dashed with the spinning of wild conspiracy theories that entirely lack credibility, contractors and agencies trying to cover themselves, and a state government that only too late realized it had headed in the wrong direction and then ran up against partisan political realities when it tried to salvage the situation.
Although the PSC has no jurisdiction over the matter, Commissioner Foster Campbell wanted it discussed. Almost two years ago the state, using the Board of Regents as the lead agency, was awarded a grant to link broadband access off of a high capacity line connecting the state’s northern universities that would have expanded access to public state and local agencies as far west as the Texas border and as far east as Baton Rouge. It was hoped that the lowered costs would encourage private sector providers to latch on and lower provision costs so more households and businesses could get this kind of service, supplementing slower current networks.
But as the project fell way behind, months ago the Division of Administration stepped in with, compared to the original, a very different plan that removed the state in large part from building and operating the network to a leasing arrangement.
Unfortunately, this required a lot of detailed reporting the state found difficult to produce in the short period of time that the federal government dictated the project had to be finished – probably not coincidentally, right after the inauguration of the next president – and unilaterally decided it could not be by then, thereby revoking the grant.
Regrettably, a forum that could have shed light onto how the project went off the rails and what strategy might be best employed to accomplish the objective of increased broadband presence instead devolved into a festival of evasion of responsibility and recriminations lacking little relationship to reality, designed not to inform but to score political points – with a direct relationship between evasion and blaming others.
An exception, being uninvolved in the project but most willing to assign phantom blame, was my friend Campbell. Resoundingly defeated by Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2007 for that office, he spun a wild conspiracy theory about how the Jindal Administration had wanted to steer business to certain private sector interests by removing state competition in a story that outdid even the most farfetched hallucinations of former district attorney, then judge, Jim Garrison. Producing no evidence to substantiate his claims and ignoring the facts that some kind of sabotage would cost the state $96 million worth of assistance where its contribution was just $16 million, that the project was on a course to failure under the initial model regardless, and that it made no sense that the Jindal Administration supported the original idea through most of the life of the grant if it had such a motive that was supposedly revealed when it endorsed the public-private partnership late in the game, such talk did nothing on this issue to achieving objectives desired by policy-makers, taxpayers, and the citizenry alike.
Nor did the shiftiness displayed by the contractor, Gulf Engineers and Consultants. An official, responding to the state’s criticism that the project fell way behind schedule largely because of the company’s tardiness, tried to latch onto the conspiracy theory. Besides also having the same lack of logic at play here – why would the state try to scuttle the project after having blessed it from the start in 2009 and being totally onboard with it throughout most of it -- the grant’s own progress reports belie that argument. A consistent theme through them was the state’s complaints of GEC being behind schedule, with GEC arguing the project was too big for the timeline involved in justifying its slow response.
Higher Education Commissioner Jim Purcell also brought up the compressed timeline angle in putting some blame on the Legislature, saying it waited seven months to appropriate the money (not much of it from the grant) for it to begin. But this shows the holdup was more a matter of sluggishness by his boss the Board of Regents, the odd choice to be the sole agency operating the grant, which could have forwarded the matter to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget at any time for approval of contracts.
However, understanding the political motivations behind the timeline and the unusual importance assigned to it helps to find out what really happened. The program, the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, came out of the Pres. Barack Obama’s spending bill, the disastrously unsuccessful and wasteful American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Key to Obama’s reelection efforts is to try to fool enough of the electorate into seeing this clunker as a sports car, by touting this tremendously inefficient effort as creating few if any jobs, in time for his reelection bid just shy of a year from now.
This is why the federal government was so adamant about keeping to the schedule: only in that way could (likely, if past precedent holds, imaginary) job numbers supposedly generated by this spending count as part of the ARRA effort in time to take credit for them during the election campaign. And it may have been hasty in pulling the plug in order to not make the project look like another ARRA failure – hasty because another very similar project is going on the next state over. Mississippi, through a pair of grants costing only $32 million, is attempting to do something similar in scope, but with a major difference that from the start that it planned for leasing through the private sector rather than undertaking an enormous building effort. Given enough time, Louisiana’s looked as if it could be as successful as Mississippi’s so far appears.
In reality, much more plausibly the scenario played out like this: when ARRA passed and the state became aware of BTOP, the Jindal Administration did not see it as a big priority, given its other fiscal challenges. So it allowed the Board of Regents to take the lead, on the presumption that a project would build off its Louisiana Optical Network Initiative. The Regents had their own fiscal challenges to deal with and got in way over their heads, offloading a huge contract onto GEC hoping it would come through. As the project faltered, the Jindal Administration began paying more attention to it, discovering the urgency and perhaps realizing the original government-centric plan neither was cost efficient (compared to Mississippi’s) nor good for encouraging economic development emanating from the private sector. Thus, the genuine fault of the Administration emanated from its lack of supervision and letting an inferior plan go through, not from any fantastic conspiracy.
As for any chance to recapture the grant, the proper course is to ignore the fatuous suggestion of Campbell to go begging to the White House. Instead, the Louisiana congressional delegation should get their colleagues to pass legislation extending the deadline in Louisiana’s case, where Sen. Mary Landrieu appropriately should take the lead as she, after criticizing the state on the matter, pledged to work to improve broadband access. In any event, any such attempt must avoid the unproductive political gamesmanship that pervaded the PSC hearing on the matter, even as the original idea behind the program providing the money was itself a political exercise.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 10:25