Smaller Government Is A Tough Sell

Louisiana citizens want a smaller state government, but that is easier said than done. Just ask Gov. Bobby Jindal and Paul Rainwater, the governor’s commissioner of administration.

One of the ways to reduce the size of government is to turn over state operations to private companies. And Jindal is a strong advocate of privatization. Some have even joked about him selling the state Capitol if it would reduce the employment rolls and save money.

The latest effort to privatize involves the Office of Group Benefits, which administers the state health insurance program for 225,000 state workers and retirees. And it hasn’t gone well so far.

A half-dozen individuals got together this week to complain about turning over health insurance operations to a private company. However, no one from the administration was there to hear their complaints or defend the governor’s plans.

None of the opponents of privatization should have been surprised. Jindal and Rainwater, who is also the governor’s chief budget architect, were out of town. However, you can be sure they didn’t want to be there anyway.

All you had to do was read the list of speakers to understand why.

Tough crowd

State Sen. Butch Gautreaux, D-Morgan City, has been an outspoken opponent of the plan since it surfaced. His Senate Retirement Committee held hearings during the legislative session, even though this isn’t strictly a retirement issue.

“The reason they’re not here is because they cannot give a reasonable explanation why they’re doing what they’re doing,” Gautreaux said.

Other opponents included Frank Jobert, executive director of the Retired State Employees Association; Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers; Tommy Teague, former chief executive officer of the Office of Group Benefits; and Jean Armstrong, president of the League of Women Voters of Baton Rouge.

Three or four other major employee groups are also against privatization of health insurance.

Rainwater told Gannett News this week’s panel was stacked against him.

“The fact is, nothing will happen until 2012,” he said. “There will be a lot of opportunities to discuss this. I’m sure there will be a lot of public forums that are more constructive.”

Here is what Jindal and Rainwater want to do:

A private HMO already handles health insurance coverage for all but about 62,000 employees and retirees. They are under a Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) plan. OGB administers their plan, and Jindal thinks the state should get out of the health insurance business.

Rainwater said Louisiana and Utah are the only states that manage their own insurance policies.

Opponents are afraid they will end up getting less health care coverage at higher prices because a private company has to make a profit and the state doesn’t.

Anyone in the same circumstances can understand their concerns. They like the way their claims are now being handled.

State Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, said it’s a big issue with state workers and retirees. He is chairman of the Senate Insurance Committee.

“My e-mail has been blowing up with messages from constituents all across the state,” Morrish told Gannett News. “I’m very concerned about it because people all across the state are affected.”

Rainwater said that is because of the scare tactics of the opposition.

The only approval Jindal needs to proceed with privatization is an OK from the money committees in the state House and Senate. And the governor had a lot of input on the makeup of those committees.

Rainwater, who spoke in Alexandria on Tuesday, explained why the governor is so big about privatizing state operations.

“We have scarce resources, so we need to create efficiencies,” he said. And he listed some things that have already been accomplished.

The state’s work force has dropped from 90,000 to slightly more than 77,000, he said. Services have been consolidated, and state departments have been restructured.

Jindal tried to sell some state prisons during the last session, but legislators rejected the idea.

“In the state of Louisiana, we’ve got a large prison system, and we’ve got to find a way to downsize it,” Rainwater told the Alexandria Rotary Club.

Results touted

Look at the bottom line, Rainwater said.

“Louisiana is outperforming most states in the country,” he said in his defense of efforts to privatize.

Something tells me if Jindal and Rainwater are convinced privatization of the health insurance program will reduce the size of government and save money, it’s going to happen. A smaller, less-expensive government is what most people in this state want.

Opponents of this latest plan can only hope Rainwater will live up to his promises.

“Retirees don’t have anything to worry about,” he said. “It saddens me that people who oppose the change are trying to scare people. This is not something we’re going to do if it doesn’t make sense.”

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].

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