Education Reform, Health Cuts Loom

Can you believe it? U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal are on the same page for a change. Well, maybe just a half-page.

Meanwhile, a split has developed in the state’s health care community over how to take care of the poor while dealing with mid-year budget cuts.

And, finally, you will be happy to know politicians are still taking care of their own.

To put it mildly, the relationship between Landrieu, D-La., and the Republican governor has been rather cool. Landrieu has been critical of Jindal in the past for failing to take advantage of federal grants. One example is the $80 million the governor rejected that would have helped develop Internet service in the state’s rural areas.

On the other side, the governor has refused to publicly thank Landrieu for her efforts in securing Medicaid funding for Louisiana when losses could have been devastating. There has also been a lot of speculation that Jindal would run for Landrieu’s seat in 2014, but that appears to be questionable at this point.

So why the sudden cordial relationship? The two, who are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, agree the state’s public education system needs a drastic overhaul. It will be one of Jindal’s key initiatives at the legislative session beginning March 12.

Landrieu was a major participant at a recent session on the education reform effort in Baton Rouge that some 800 people attended. She praised Jindal for taking on the issue during his second term. She also plans to invite members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to Washington and will talk to the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus about her education views. BESE makes policy for the state’s public school system, and the caucus is expected to be critical of the governor’s proposed education changes. Jindal and Landrieu are in agreement on expanding charter schools, improving the tenure system that gives teachers job protection and giving parents more choices in where their children attend school.

Teacher unions, which are Democratic Party allies, won’t be happy Landrieu is supporting tenure changes. However, they will like the fact she opposes the voucher plank in Jindal’s reform effort. Vouchers would give school tax money to parents to pay for private school tuition.

“I don’t believe this reform effort is going to be successful if you make vouchers the centerpiece,” Landrieu said.

While the two high-ranking officials aren’t in complete accord, it’s encouraging Landrieu and Jindal have found some common ground. The state’s children deserve this rare accommodation between the two.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the senator’s brother, brought the health care issue to prominence when he said state midyear budget cuts pose a grave threat to his city. Every Louisiana city like New Orleans and Lake Charles with a state-operated hospital feels the same way about cuts in vital health care services.

Officials with the Jindal administration have taken a lot of heat for $29 million in budget cuts, and decided they have had enough. Bruce Greenstein, secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said the loss of health care services is the fault of poor planning by LSU’s Health Care Services Division. That is the division that is eliminating jobs, closing pediatric clinics and reducing mental health, osbstetrics care and other services at state hospitals.

“It’s caused a great deal of unnecessary anxiety,” Greenstein said. “When they released their cuts, they did not release a plan.” He added, “They got their budget and a whole lot more money. They were spending at a rate that would have put them above it. We all have to live within our budgets.”

LSU health care officials declined to comment. Either they don’t have an answer to Greenstein’s remarks or have decided not to stoke the fires of discontent.

Greenstein is correct when he says cuts by the LSU division show a lack of consideration of the impact all of this has on communities. Those who have to rely on state hospital care may find some of it at local private hospitals in their areas. However, it’s an extra burden they — and private hospitals — don’t deserve.

We leave you today with the latest example of a longtime politician who has found another lucrative public job that will pay him $150,000 a year. Former state Rep. Noble Ellington has become chief deputy in the state Department of Insurance, the No. 2 job in that agency.

The highest public salary Ellington has ever made will enhance his state retirement beyond the average state employee’s wildest dreams. Pensions are based on the number of years served and the final three-year average compensation. Ellington served 24 years in the House and Senate. He received $36,189 in 2010 while serving in the House, according to his latest public disclosure form. His new salary is four times that amount.

Whether Ellington is qualified to be chief deputy to Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, the man who hired him, isn’t the issue here. The question is whether he got the job because of his political connections. One newspaper reader answered that question, saying, “It must be really nice to have friends in high places.”

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than ÿve decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].

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