Is The Legislature The Weak Sister Of Louisiana Government?

Louisiana legislators — both Democrats and Republicans — have no one to blame but themselves for cuts in state health care that could severely affect the districts they represent. A majority of them have given Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration complete authority over budget matters.

Half of the House’s 105 members showed up at a joint committee meeting last week to find out how $329 million in health care cuts might affect the districts they represent. They left Thursday’s meeting with few answers, and that isn’t expected to change when the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget meets Monday seeking the same answers.

“People are just living in fear right now,” said Rep. Scott Simon, R-Abita Springs, who is also chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee.

Cuts to the LSU Health Care Service Division will reduce services and possibly close some charity hospitals and outpatient clinics. However, lawmakers have to face the realization they won’t have a voice in how the health care situation will be handled.

A group of Republican fiscal conservatives tried at the spring legislative session to cut $270 million in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s $25.6 billion state budget, but the 51 votes they had to get the job done shrunk to 40 when the final spending plan was approved 62-40. Senators not only restored the House cuts but added more spending to the budget.

The bloated budget wouldn’t have been approved without the support of most Democrats and the GOP lawmakers who defected when it returned from the Senate. Democratic legislators did most of the serious complaining at last week’s update, but they should know by now the Jindal administration doesn’t lose any sleep over their opposition and their continuing attacks on the governor’s leadership.

Spokesmen for the Jindal administration made it clear they will decide what happens to the charity hospital system, and they aren’t ready to reveal their plans. Legislators who asked where Dr. Fred Cerise was in all of this got a quick and firm answer. Cerise is LSU’s vice president for health care and medical education who knows the system well. He was secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

Bobby Yarborough, a member of the LSU board and Jindal ally, said Cerise wouldn’t factor into the process.

“I want to be clear that when he speaks he is not speaking with any kind of decision-making authority,” Yarborough said. “That will be the board and the president of the LSU System.”

Jindal and Bruce Greenstein, current secretary of DHH, made it clear back in February they weren’t happy with LSU health care officials when $34 million in mid-year budget cuts were put in place and the governor was accused of poor handling of state finances.

“The way LSU is handling its budget is simply not responsible, not acceptable,” the governor said.

Greenstein said LSU health care officials had “a long history of not tightening their belts.”

Those who spoke for the administration last week are approaching the health care situation with the usual bravado with which they handle all problems. They insist a new health care system will emerge that will be less costly and more efficient.

The example used most often by the Jindal team is the public-private partnership where LSU will move its medical education and in-patient services from Earl K. Long Medical Center to Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge. However, what works there may not serve the needs elsewhere.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, made that point. He said he is concerned about the possible closure of Moss Regional Medical Center in his city. He said legislative approval would be needed to close any charity hospitals, but “that doesn’t mean you can’t cut the funding where there’s no option but to close it.” Kleckley said other facilities don’t have the capacity to handle Moss’ 80,000 to 100,000 outpatient visits.

Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, was a leader of the fiscal conservatives in the House who cut the budget by $270 million. He and a coalition made up of legislative, business and civic leaders from around the state want to reform the budget-making process in order to avoid monumental cuts like those being put into place for the LSU health care division.

The idea has a lot of merit, and we wish them well. Unfortunately, the Jindal administration isn’t interested and won’t give them the time of day. Nothing has changed in its “my-way-or-the-highway” method of operation.

It’s difficult to have much sympathy for legislators who abdicated their powers a long time ago. They let the governor pick their leaders, stack their committees, fashion the state budgets, influence board and commission decisions through the appointment process, select the construction projects that get funded and veto appropriations that keep lawmakers in line.

Geymann and a handful of others have decided to give up important committee assignments and any perks they might enjoy in an attempt to try and recapture some political stroke. We applaud their efforts and encourage other legislators to join them. It’s the only way the Legislature will ever become the equal branch of state government it is supposed to be.

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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