Friday, 26 December 2014 09:00
Surrealism of Jindal’s Louisiana budget cuts
 

louisiana-legislatureby Tom Aswell, Publisher of Louisiana Voice.com

One of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s favorite activities (second only to trips to Iowa and New Hampshire) appears to be his now-routine exercise of mid-year budget cuts and hiring freezes.

But like any deft politician, he leaves himself wiggle room.

 

Lots of wiggle room.

On Jan. 15, 2014, Jindal, in reaction to the state’s worsening fiscal condition, issued an executive order for a “limited hiring freeze” that extended to some 40 state agencies. That order stipulated that no agency use employee transfers, promotions, reallocations or the creation of new positions in such a manner as to exceed a ceiling imposed by the commissioner of administration. 

JANUARY HIRING FREEZE

As state finances continued to deteriorate, Jindal followed up with a statewide expenditure freeze on April 14. While that order imposed statewide cuts, it listed enough exemptions and exceptions as to render it practically meaningless—except for higher education and healthcare expenditures not covered by federal funding. As has always been the case, those were not spared. 

APRIL EXPENDITURE FREEZE

The order continued a trend that has come to define the Jindal administration: extensive mid-year cuts.

Then, on Nov. 7, Jindal issued his first executive order of the 2014-2015 fiscal year that began on July 1 for another statewide expenditure freeze. Again, the main areas cut were higher education and health care, though as with the April order, other agencies felt at least some of the effects. Theoretically at least, the only exceptions were essential services and federally funded programs. NOVEMBER EXPENDITURE FREEZE

Now, Jindal is at it again. On Dec. 18, he issued yet another executive order, the fourth of the calendar year and the second this fiscal year. This one called for expenditure reductions totaling $153 million and authorizing Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols to impose an additional $17.4 million in cuts for total cuts of $170.4 million.

DECEMBER EXPENDITURE REDUCTION

Among the latest cuts ordered by Jindal included:

  •  Higher Education: $4.9 million;
  •  Department of Education: $6.77 million;
  •  Corrections: $336,780;
  • Division of Administration: $3.5 million;
  • Veterans Affairs: $240,000;
  • Office of Juvenile Justice: $1.98 million;
  • Office of the Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH): $131.8 million (includes $127.44 million in cuts to medical vendors, $2.64 million to medical vendor administration, and $308,213 in cuts to the Office of Citizens with Developmental Disabilities);
  • Office of Children and Family Services: $964,980;
  • Department of Natural Resources: $1.29 million;
  • Department of Economic Development: $1.4 million.

One of the more interesting sidebars to this entire scenario is that with the latest executive order, DOA gave some agencies only eight working days in which to provide a myriad of information, including lists of all contractors and amounts paid on the contracts.

DOA has consistently taken weeks and sometimes months in which to comply with similar requests by LouisianaVoice, a point which will be raised in any future litigation by LouisianaVoice. We will, in all probability, cite that long-standing legal precedent Goose v. Gander in our legal arguments.

We mentioned at the beginning of this post that Jindal has left himself a lot of room to maneuver around his own dictates and we had little problem in finding good examples.

In early November, only hours before that Nov. 7 hiring freeze for example, the Office of Group Benefits (OGB) brought two six-figure appointees over from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana to assist OGB Chief Executive Officer Susan West in handling an agency that appeared to be spinning out of her control.

West makes $170,000 a year as CEO but the governor’s office somehow saw fit to pay Thomas Groves $220,000 a year as Assistant Commissioner and Elise Cazes $106,512 as Group Benefits Administrator.

And now we learn that OGB is still hiring long after that hiring freeze took effect last month.

The Office of Civil Service will close applications on Friday (Dec. 26) for the position of Group Benefits Director (what that entails). The salary range for that position is between $50,900 and $107,000, according to the Civil Service announcement.

That’s a pretty big spread and our bet is the new hire won’t be starting at the bottom of that scale.

It seems curious to us that OGB managed to survive—and even thrive, building a $500 million reserve fund balance—without all that added weight before the decision to fire former CEO Tommy Teague in April of 2011, lay off more than 100 personnel, to privatize the agency and in the process, manage to lose half of that $500 million reserve fund.

Not satisfied with increasing the number of administrative positions at OGB, the administration is currently advertising for a Chief Legal Officer for OGB, according to listings provided by Civil Service.

And then there is the case of Chance McNeely who, since last march has served as a $65,000-a-year policy analyst for the Governor’s office but more recently was appointed as Assistant Secretary for Environmental Compliance at the Department of Environmental Quality at an as yet undisclosed salary.

Three things stand out about the McNeely appointment. First, with Jindal’s term of office winding down to just over a year left, McNeely need a nice cozy spot to land in a classified (read: protected) position.

Second, the creation of that position would seem to violate Jindal’s own directive of last April that “no agency use employee transfers, promotions, reallocations or the creation of new positions in such a manner as to exceed a ceiling” imposed by the administration. Jindal and Nichols would argue that that caveat applied to the previous fiscal year, not 2014-2015 and technically, they would be correct. But the state’s financial condition is even worse than last year, so one might reasonably assume that prohibition should have been carried forward into the new fiscal year. But when it adheres to the wishes of Jindal, the rules apparently do not apply. After all, it was in a Division of Administration staff meeting a couple of years ago that the directive was given to staffers to not let the law stand in the way of the administration’s wishes.

And third, since when does Jindal care about the environment anyway? Remember that Jindal himself described climate change advocates as “science deniers.”

Curious indeed for a governor obsessed with reducing the size of government.

But, as those cheesy TV commercials say, there’s more. We also have the Department of Education.

Since January of 2014, DOE has chalked up 300 new hires—190 full time and 110 part time—at a combined salary of more than $9.6 million, or an average yearly salary of $50,857, including part timers.

The Recovery School District (RSD), which has experienced a string of critical state audits, had 93 of those 190 new full time hires at a combined salary of $4.1 million.

DOE hired 50 part time employees at $500 per week or more (a combined salary of $2 million per year) and 16 of those part timers, all employed by RSD, were hired at $1,000 per week or more. One of those, guidance counselor Nancye Ann Verlander, was hired at a part time salary of $3,000 per week ($156,000 per year), according to records provided by Civil Service.

Two others, Kathryn Elichman and Kenneth Elichman, were hired as part time administrators at $1,600 and $1,150 per week ($83,200 and $59,800 per year, respectively), records show, and a part time school nurse receives $72,800 per year.

Meanwhile, Jindal travels the country visiting fairs and community groups in Iowa and New Hampshire and grabbing network TV face time at every opportunity to proclaim how he has delivered a balanced state budget, reduced the size of government, lowered taxes, and turned Louisiana into a utopia for its four million citizens.

Those citizens, however, somehow continue to see Louisiana turn up near the bottom of surveys of all things good and at the top of all things bad.

Such is the surrealistic world of budget cuts and hiring freezes in the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal.

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