Gov. Bobby Jindal is having one of those bad weeks that powerful Louisiana governors don’t have very often. Two of his major legislative initiatives have run into a buzz saw of opposition.
Jindal refused to throw in the towel on his move to sell three state prisons to private companies. However, to say it suffered a major setback would probably be an understatement. Getting a majority of the Legislature to approve the plan appears at this point to be a remote possibility.
The deal is definitely off if legislators find another $87 million to replace the prison sale price that is plugged into the governor’s budget for the year beginning July 1.
The governor doesn’t need the same approval in order to sell the Office of Group Benefits to a private company, but finding supporters is like looking for that proverbial needle in a haystack.
The Office of Group Benefits provides health and life insurance to some 250,000 state workers and retirees and their dependents.
How does a governor with so much executive power run into problems like these? In this case, it’s for a number of reasons.
Jindal is an effective communicator and he had an opportunity to do a selling job on his privatization plans when he addressed the Legislature Monday on the opening day of the fiscal session. He opted instead to — once again — tout what he calls his successes over the past 3 /2 years. Most of us like to talk about our good days, but reflecting on the past doesn’t always help us solve today’s problems. And the biggest headache facing the governor and the Legislature is the $1.6 billion shortfall in next year’s budget.
Anytime you talk about privatizing state operations you have to remember that hundreds of state workers will probably lose their jobs. And members of the administration haven’t offered those possible casualties any kind of hope they might somehow survive.
The state does have too many employees, but are they the people working in state prisons and those who administer the Office of Group Benefits’ health and life insurance programs?
We don’t hear much talk about weeding out some of those state officials and employees who are making more than $100,000 a year. One recent count showed there are some 2,000 of those folks on the state payroll who are working in just the higher education and health care fields.
Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell, put his finger on another administration failing when he said it should have held town hall type meetings around the state to discuss its plan to sell the Office of Group Benefits.
The governor’s team could have done the same thing at those three prisons once it decided they might be sold to private companies.
None of that would have made the ideas less painful, but those who are affected would at least have had a forum to air their concerns. And some of them might have offered legitimate reasons why the sales are unwise.
Paul Rainwater, Jindal’s commissioner of administration, did a good job explaining the proposed sale of the Office of Group Benefits. However, by the time he had that opportunity a lot of misinformation had already been disseminated.
Yes, there are 250,000 people being served by the Office of Group Benefits, but only some 62,000 would be affected by the planned sale. All the rest are getting health care through private HMOs that are only supervised by the Office of Group Benefits.
That point was never hammered home.
The Division of Administration also showed up without detailed information on the 48 states that don’t run their own insurance programs. One lawmaker said maybe Louisiana and Utah, the other two who do, are right and the others are wrong.
That’s possible, but highly unlikely. However, we still don’t know for certain.
Then there is that $520 million fund balance at the Office of Group Benefits. Some legislators are convinced Jindal and private companies can’t wait to get their hands on that money. Those funds are used to pay insurance claims and operating expenses.
Rainwater said it wasn’t so, and the money would continue to be used as it has been in the past. Maybe so, but the suspicion is already out there.
Dr. James A. Taylor, president of the Louisiana Retired Teachers Association, talked about the concerns of his organization’s 22,000 members. They don’t have access to Medicare, he said, and live on average retirement benefits of $28,548 a year.
“People want the security of the state,” he said.
Congress gets the same reaction when it talks about reforming Social Security and Medicare.
Jindal and Rainwater were both correct this week when they said the private sector often does things more efficiently than government. However, taxpayers and others who benefit from government services believe they have a voice in what happens when they elect the governors and legislators who make the decisions.
Look at gasoline prices, for example. The costs continue to climb out of sight, but motorists are at the mercy of the big oil companies and speculators who make money off the retail market.
It’s only human nature to fear the unknown, and that is where Jindal and his troops dropped the ball. What people don’t understand scares them to death. And there is a lot about the privatization of the Office of Group Benefits and those prisons they don’t know and that causes them to be suspicious.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].