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Fake outrage over funds shift good theater, not good govt

A minor jurisdictional dispute over location of a program in state government points out the major flaw of legislative micromanaging caused by legislators wedded to special interests and agendas who wish to appear like they are solving problems when in fact they are doing nothing of the sort, if not encouraging the opposite.

Last week, it became news that, over two weeks after the fact, the Elderly Protection Services unit’s budget authority had been moved from the Governor’s Office to the Department of Health and Hospitals, even as its administrative home remained there. This means a memorandum of understanding will have to be written for DHH to perform these services.

This wimpering denouement concluded a needlessly big argument over small potatoes. As have other governors in the past, earlier in the session Gov. Bobby Jindal tried to combine the functions of the Office of Elderly Affairs, located deep in the Division of Administration and in part to coordinate a number of tasks mandated by federal law and funding provided by it, into DHH. Since the GOEA, which gets about $45 million, oversees the Older Americans Act, it’s not an illogical place for it to be. However, at the same time, it performs a number of functions that not only have little to do with that kind of role, they also are largely duplicative in required oversight needs of others being performed in other parts of government with more expertise to do them.

Jindal’s idea was to realize scales of economy in service provision with the combination. However, some stakeholders disagreed with the approach (including a former underling), with Councils of Aging, required as part of the amended Older Americans Act that serve in provider roles of information and services, particularly objecting. At the same time, other groups involved in senior citizen advocacy such as AARP, ended up supporting the idea that part of the functions should be transferred. AARP endorsed the idea of folding EPS into DHH’s Adult Protection Services, and SB 762 by state Sen. Sherri Buffington became the statutory device by which to do that. Eventually, the Jindal Administration abandoned the idea of a full combination.

GOEA’s EPS responds to alleged elderly abuse, while DHH’s APS reacts to alleged abuse of the disabled younger than 60. Some dynamics differ in performing these functions but there are more similarities than differences and certainly the administrative aspects differ little. Still, the vast majority of the state’s Councils on Aging opposed even this smaller shift for a reason that might make sense to them in particular but not to taxpayers or clients. EPS, in a budget unit that spends only about $7 million annually attached to a relatively small agency of which it represented about $2.6 million, could be expected to be more captive and responsive to COA demands, as opposed to its placement in a budget unit of $30 million and part of the largest bureaucracy in state government. It might be more cost effective to the aggregate without reduction in service, but to the particular interests of the Councils, this arrangement would be less convenient and decrease their influence over policy.

While it passed the Senate, SB 762 got scuttled narrowly (but may have passed except for so many absences at the time of the vote in the House) shortly before session end. Largely Democrats, who have an ideological interest in maintaining more rather than less government, voted against it, after an amendment by vocal opponent Republican state Rep. Joe Harrison was approved that would have detailed reporting about the results of the transition at the requests of the Councils, who throughout kept trying to spin a narrative that the bill was the first step to some kind of “takeover” of them. It was a classic example of legislators responding to local, parochial interests that, to suit their own interests, preferred an arrangement that would provide duplicative, less efficient service that otherwise could be improved that would have benefited the general interest and clients – following a organization table recommend by past House resolution and what is done in the majority of other states.

But as persuasive as those interests were to legislators, these opponents went missing in action when it came to the budgeting for this function, which was submitted to the House, left the House, left the Senate, and was concurred in by the House, all containing language that gave the funding to DHH to perform the service. With minutes to spare in the session, Harrison had introduced HR 180 asking DHH to transfer back the budget authority, the entire debate over it being reading its preamble, and was adopted without objection, without any explanation as to why they never tried to retain budget authority for EPS in GOEA instead of letting it go to DHH.

So Harrison and various Councils knew all along this was happening, meaning the criticizing of Jindal smacks of hypocrisy and was designed for publicity sake, especially in waiting until the operating budget signed before getting either a gullible or complicit Baton Rouge Advocate to sound the alarm of something already public knowledge. Once the bill went to Jindal, he didn’t have the authority to move the money, only to veto it, and if that then there would have been no EPS.

To summarize, this became an exercise in trying to score political points. Opponents likely knew they’d never get the budget language changed so they concentrated, successfully, on getting the statutory change defeated, which they will be unable to repeat next year once DHH demonstrates it will oversee EPS effectively and efficiently. After all, by doing so they could demonstrate to special interests how they did their best to take care of them but got thwarted by Jindal, when in fact if they truly had broader public support, they could have exerted enough pressure to move the item around in the budget. But never pass up a chance to create a crisis if it can make you look better and/or your opponents worse, and that’s what Harrison and others tried to do. Fake outrage over somebody doing something you sanctioned by your inability to stop them may not be good government, but it is good theater.

And the larger lesson of all of this is to illuminate the danger of legislative micromanaging. Given the Legislature represents districts, in the operation of programs having 144 bosses creates incentives that produced opposition to the transfer and what would have been the missing of the opportunity to improve service delivery. Having one boss put there by the majority of the entire state gives the incentive to look out for the needs of all, including the clients served. This doesn’t even address the related issue that having a committee of 144 runs things is highly unlikely to provide the leadership, coordination, and coherence to run things as well as a single individual.

Micromanaging become worse when it becomes overtly political, as in this case, with the sacrificing of substance for symbol. Thankfully, in this case, any damage is just symbolic, not substantive, and can serve as an example of how to not fall for rhetoric over results in policy-making.


Anonymous said...

Your hero's hand-picked Sen Prez.

Your hero continues to say nothing as Mr. Alario continues to screw state taxpayers.

Anonymous said...

What you call a "minor jurisdictional dispute" is called lying and duplicity in most circles.

When the Scorecard lies and is duplicitous, the Gofer calls it something else and demonizes the other parties.

It is tiring and dangerous for this State.