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Debate preferred over rhetoric in assessing budget funds

While to some delving into the mysteries of Louisiana’s state budget ranks up there with root canal surgery, understanding its eccentricities develops a better understanding of what constitutes better and worse budgeting, and what needs changed to make it better. Dissecting Gov. Bobby Jindal’s fiscal year 2015 attempt on this account to go before the Legislature within the month exemplifies the issue.

Something about it that got observers wondering was how targeted spending increases could occur in certain areas when overall revenues were down overall. Even a small increase in general fund receipts would not account for the entirety of that. Let’s see why.

Again, to understand where everything is going, it’s helpful to keep terms straight. A simple kind of revenue to conceptualize is “nonrecurring.” These are defined as an unanticipated bonus beyond forecasted revenues and may be used on any of a half-dozen different purposes constitutionally defined, including debt defeasance, paying into the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Fund, supplementing its Budget Stabilization Fund or savings account, and paying down the state’s unfunded accrued liability on its retirement funds.


Unwise bill tampers with representative democracy

Mavens of the Louisiana Legislature purport that it takes several tries for some good bills to get into law. But offering up flawed legislation similar to earlier versions doesn’t make it good, and that’s the situation state Rep. John Schroder finds with his prefiled HB 108 for this upcoming regular session.

It resembles his HB 387 from last year, which went nowhere, with two extensions. The bill would protect any “public employee” who provides information to a legislator or committee from “discipline, reprisal, or threats of discipline or reprisal by the public employer for providing such information,” creates an enforcement mechanism, and provides for penalties. It differs in that it acknowledges Department of State Civil Service authority and defines what a “request” for information means.

By its introduction and in its wording, it carries a disingenuous air, implying that this practice already in the main is not outlawed. But, in fact, the majority of Louisiana state employees, those who are in the classified service, already have these protections; they cannot be disciplined or fired without evidence of unsatisfactory performance and they also have explicit protections (as the DSCS separately conveyed in conjunction with the filing of the bill) when engaging in issue advocacy, as testifying in front of a legislative committee would exemplify.


Fund draining tactic to trigger bad amendment rejection?

The Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration with its health care budget has made it put up or shut up time for the Legislature in regards to a number of controversial funding decisions it made in the past that favor nursing homes at taxpayer expense.

That comes in the form of a portion of the payments going to nursing homes for Medicaid patients coming from the Medicaid Trust Fund for the Elderly. The Fund was created with federal government money to provide a vehicle to prop up reimbursement rates, and since has received continued matching revenues from it as well as from investment activities, fines paid by these providers, and specialty license plate sales.

This creation occurred at the height of nursing home influence in the Legislature, in an era that allowed nursing homes in the state to ring up among the states some of the highest proportion of their revenues from Medicaid while delivering among the highest costs per bed, which continues to this day. This inefficiency grew worse with the implementation of a program to pay them tens of millions of dollars for thousands of empty beds while the crowning blow to taxpayers came when the case mix methodology allowing this overgenerous state of affairs became enshrined in state law in 2006.


Excluding profiteering from campaigning needed reform

The ready-made legacy or campaign issue of campaign finance spending reform remains available, with the matter up for discussion of candidates using campaign funds in enriching relatives – or even indirectly themselves – for providing campaign services.

While they provided unhelpful analysis regarding raising campaign funds, the media series of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and WVUE-TV highlighted some spending practices permitted for these funds that are ripe for change. They now add to that the consequences of lax regulations regarding elected officials’ family members and their own abilities to have campaign donations as compensation for activities performed in the course of campaigning.

R.S.18:1505.2 serves to define how expenditures are controlled to “immediate family members,” defined as typically in the larger ethics code as parents, siblings, children, their spouses, and parents of a spouse. These are prohibited directly, but may be made to entities where the member has “any” ownership interest. Here, anything goes as long as what is provided qualifies as a campaign expenditure, it is of fair value, and the business involved has been registered with the secretary of state for a year or has the appropriate license from a local government authority.


Change judge selection to promote judiciary right-sizing

Yeah, as was feared in this space and elsewhere, they punted. With that reality in mind, advocates of right-sized government in Louisiana now must look beyond this setback in how to reform the bloated Louisiana judicial system.

At least give credit to a special committee made up of legislators, judges, and lay people most connected to the judicial function of state and local government that gave every indication it would miss a legally-imposed Feb. 15 deadline on producing final reports on a full slate of judicial bodies, investigating questions about appropriate caseloads and resources for the three parish, five appellate circuit courts, and 48 district and 49 city court systems in the state. After three years, it produced something by this deadline on 8 court systems – the easiest with those being the parish and circuits courts – and left the other 92.4 percent off by boldly declaring more study was needed, and now its members can go congratulate themselves for being on time.

But incredibly off target, as New Orleans’ Bureau of Government Research has outlined. Past efforts by the group, embarrassingly for the special panel using that committee’s own methodology, demonstrated vast inequities in judicial resources across the state that indicated perhaps a quarter of all courts were superfluous, thereby rendering them as little more needed than as vehicles to transfer taxpayer wealth to a small group of elected officials and bureaucrats. It urged the commission, which appeared to dither with few meetings and no sense of urgency in scheduling activities to meet the statutory deadline to produce reports with meaningful conclusions about significant reform measures or reasons why that wasn’t needed, to be on time because this would be the last regular session of the Legislature before elections for roughly four-fifths of judicial slots this fall. The Constitution prohibits shortening the lengths of terms for judges, so any solution that includes eliminating judgeships this means a wait until 2020 for any action, with the remainder prior to 2016, 2018, and 2022.