Scott Jordan

PAR delivers withering session critique

Louisiana government watchdog Public Affairs Research Council has issued its commentary and assessment of the legislative session that ended Monday — and it’s a blistering critique of Gov. Bobby Jindal and Louisiana legislators. Some highlights (or lowlights, if you will):
HEALTH CARE ...These measures don’t even scratch the surface of the hard shell protecting the state’s antiquated and inefficient charity hospital system, nor do they address the needs of the state’s 600,000 insured residents. EDUCATION
“As a short-term remedy for a sub-group of public school students, this $10 million voucher program (HB 1347) may be effective, but it does nothing to improve the performance of public schools.” Regarding the administration’s initial resistance to pre-K education initiatives, PAR writes, “To oppose a proven reform and support dubious ones demonstrates a disturbing contradiction.”
“Another disturbing trend is the continued call to trim budget fat that no one can find and to add fat that no one will trim. Following all the government-bloat campaign rhetoric repeated throughout the campaign season, the 2008-2009 executive budget submitted was $551 million in state general fund expenditures higher than this year’s budget.”

Another hotbed of disappointment is:

“Ethics and transparency were shortchanged as lawmakers struggled to clarify the administration’s 2008 ethics agenda. ... While the Legislature did appropriate $4 million to the Board of Ethics as requested (HB 1), the code of ethics and the board’s ability to enforce those laws took big hits. ... Legislation regarding financial disclosure produced mixed results ... More than $300 million was added for the Department of Economic Development to create or retain jobs in the state. Negotiations for the incentive deals can be deemed confidential by the department secretary and kept from the public for up to 24 months. This secrecy creates the potential for misspending and means that controversial projects may be well underway before citizens learn of them or are able to voice concerns. ... A final major setback for government transparency was the rejection of HB 1100, which would have limited the extraordinarily broad public records exception for the office of the governor.

Under a heading simply titled “Ridiculous,” PAR notes:

... Passage of shortsighted, fear-motivated legislation like the ban on using public funds for stem cell research and human cloning (HB 370) threatens to discourage outside investment in the state’s economy. Similarly, the Louisiana Science Education Act (SB 733) — a.k.a. the Louisiana Academic Freedom Act — which would allow the teaching of creationism in public school classrooms, threatens to undermine any hope the state had for overcoming its backwater image and is likely to lead to costly litigation.

PAR’s conclusion is sobering:

The governor has defended his refusal to veto the legislative pay raise by saying that he wouldn’t want the veto to cause a derailment of the clear path to reform laid out by his agenda this session. That path is not so clear, actually. There are a few promising, modest reforms sprinkled throughout a range of policy areas, but this session was short on big reform.

Rather than sparking a new era for Louisiana’s economic progress, this session instead served to establish a new order of power struggles between the executive and legislative branches of government. The Legislature put up a surprising fight on several fronts long considered protected by gubernatorial power: capital outlay, budget making, pay raises, tax cuts. Equally surprising, this growing rebelliousness was often met by the Jindal administration with disengagement and detachment. The governor lost control of the two most important bills of the session, the Stelly tax cut and the legislative pay raise. Perhaps having these early power struggles out of the way, Louisiana’s newly elected leaders can now get on with the business of planning for substantial reforms that overhaul the tired way things are done. Health care and education would be the place to start.