Listening to debate on two key issues in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s legislative program has convinced me the governor’s team and opposition lawmakers have communication problems.
Jindal wants to privatize the operations of the Office of Group Benefits, which administers state employee and retiree health and life insurance programs. The process requires 300 employees. Other states do the same job much more efficiently by using private companies for processing claims.
The governor also wants to merge Southern University at New Orleans with the University of New Orleans, which he and others believe will better serve the students of that metropolitan area.
Both appear to be worthwhile goals, but the initial selling jobs were sadly lacking in details.
Let’s talk about the OGB plan first.
Sen. Butch Gautreaux, D-Morgan City, is chairman of the Senate Retirement Committee. It has conducted two hearings into the OGB proposal. The fact that Gautreaux is strongly opposed to privatizing the agency doesn’t exactly make him the most unbiased moderator of such important hearings.
Nevertheless, it was obvious from the first hearing that the Jindal administration didn’t do its homework. Too many questions went unanswered, and statistics to back up its reasons for change weren’t readily available.
The Division of Administration did send out a letter to persons served by OGB after the first hearing. However, that should have been the first order of business once the plan was put together.
When officials showed up for the second hearing, they had more facts and figures. But it was awfully difficult to follow the debate, and most who attended left more confused than they were when they came in.
Paul Rainwater, Jindal’s commissioner of administration, apparently realized the hearings were causing more problems than they were solving. He said the second was his last.
This was definitely an issue that belonged in the Senate and House Insurance Committees. You can understand why some state employees and retirees kept wondering whether a move was afoot to tinker with their retirement plans.
Private companies will eventually be asked to submit proposals about how they would administer the state’s health and life insurance plans. Once those are received, employees and retirees served by OGB deserve to get all the details before any changes take place.
You can’t blame those folks for being disturbed when OGB is their lifeline whenever they have medical or insurance problems.
Last week, we saw a repeat of those unanswered questions when the House Education Committee debated the SUNO-UNO merger plans for nearly six hours.
Speaker of the House Jim Tucker, RTerrytown, is sponsor of one of two merger bills. He said he believes the New Orleans metropolitan area will be better served by a merged university and made some good points. The current system isn’t working, he said.
However, there were some gray areas. For example, how much is the merger going to cost?
Why is there so much concern about the graduation rate at SUNO when 442 students graduated from there Saturday?
Will the merged university — like SUNO — be considered a historically black college and university? Being an HBCU has brought in $7 million a year in federal dollars for SUNO.
Is there any guarantee that FEMA money given to rebuild SUNO after Hurricane Katrina won’t be funneled to other higher education institutions?
Despite the absence of completely satisfactory answers, the House committee voted 10-5 to report the merger bill favorably.
State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, has a similar SUNO-UNO merger bill that was supposed to be heard Thursday by the Senate Education Committee. He obviously picked up on the need for more answers when he asked to delay the hearing.
“I want to be sure that all of us are in accord and we do it right,” Appel told The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.
Anger doesn’t help
Legislators who oppose the merger had a chance to speak, but three senators didn’t help their cause when they launched into tirades about why they thought it was a bad idea. They quickly turned off listeners with charges of discrimination and by claiming the ultimate goal is to destroy the Southern University System and deny educational opportunities to African Americans.
Each could have taken a cue from Dr. Ronald Mason Jr., president of the Southern University System, and other opponents who took a more reasoned approach to make their cases.
Mason made perhaps one of the best arguments of the day when he talked about the Grad Act passed last year that is designed to reward universities for better performance. He said legislators aren’t giving colleges and universities sufficient time to demonstrate they can improve under those new guidelines.
You can’t blame state employees, retirees, university leaders, students and others who see change as a threat to their way of life and the possible loss of their jobs. Officials advocating change can ease the pain somewhat by keeping those who are affected informed about what is taking place every step of the way.
The Jindal administration and the legislators involved on both sides of these important issues definitely need to work on their communications skills.
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].