SADOW: Please Reject Joe Harrison’s Bill To Create An Elected Elderly Affairs Secretary

Perhaps the most surprising of a surprisingly bad crop of constitutional amendments not only would end up costing more taxpayer dollars for no policy improvement, but it could violate federal law if passed, all to feed ego and empower special interests.

HB 341 by state Rep. Joe Harrison proved surprising in that it even made it to the voters. The proposed amendment would allow expand the number of cabinet departments allowed to exist in the state from 20 to 21 and would allow a department authorized by the amendment to disburse funds from Title XIX of the federal Social Security Act, but limit its authority only to over programs not ever administered by another part of government and could come into existence only when it had its own appropriated funds after Jun. 12, 2015.

In practical terms, this means a Department of Elderly Affairs would be created, courtesy of Act 384 of 2013, which set this up contingent on there being enough constitutional room for it. This takes programs and authority from the Division of Administration, principally the Governor’s Office for Elderly Affairs, and also empowers establishing a new program to serve the “frail elderly.” How and why it got there illustrates the quest for political symbolism over policy substance.

A couple of years ago, Harrison embarked on this crusade with the backdrop of a proposed transfer of authority overseeing program deliveries from GOEA to the Department of Health and Hospitals that utilized Councils on Aging, which are created and funded by federal law to provide information and services to the elderly. COAs protested and found an ally in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s appointee that headed GOEA which led to her dismissal. They also became consternated about transferring operation of Elderly Protection Services, an agency that investigates and mitigates cases of suspected abuse of those 60 and older, from GOEA to DHH which, as would have been the case with the other change, would have saved money. The bill to do that was defeated, but that year’s budget transferred spending authority over EPS to DHH, effectively putting the cabinet department in charge, which Harrison protested.

The next year, Harrison failed to reverse that decision but did get passed the uncontroversial Act 384, despite no real evidence that in any way this would improve the lot of the elderly in the state. Few states in fact have such a cabinet-level agency and it would simply duplicate bureaucracy if not create more of it. Moreover, the only new thing about it, the “frail elderly” program, could be established as part of GOEA or DHH. But this could come into existence only by either getting rid of another department with the constitutional amendment expanding their numbers.

That became Harrison’s task this past session, but his several bills with these effects ran into opposition. Then, almost miraculously, he shoved HB 341 through the process finishing at the very end, the session’s last piece of legislation to be dealt with. In fact, 15 minutes prior to the end of session Harrison looked to give up, calling it poisoned, but then at the last minute urged it on to gain passage.

Senate machinations prompted Harrison’s initial last-minute reaction when the bill came back from the conference committee’s refusing to strip two of the other chamber’s amendments, those that limited its ability to run programs and the Title XIX designation. The former means only the “frail elderly” program (which is designed to run solely on state funds) or anything else new could be overseen by the new department – including being unable to run GOEA programs such as the distribution of federal funds from the Older Americans Act that keep the COAs afloat.

The latter confounds the amendment in that by federal law only a single agency may be responsible for administering any program reliant upon funding under the Social Security Act, which is DHH and which includes some designed for the elderly. That is, to follow that part of this amendment would violate federal law, therefore restricting the department from funding most services that presently are paid for by the federal government. It also doesn’t help that the Legislature must appropriate money for it before it can go into effect, which is subject to gubernatorial veto.

Thus, it’s almost a dead letter even if approved by the public. Yet it also makes matters worse, for two reasons. First, by flattening the organizational table in plucking an agency out from control of another, it creates a larger span of managerial control and duplicates bureaucratic functions now handled without additional cost in DOA, which increases inefficiency and thereby unneeded costs to taxpayers. Second, it increases the influence of both government-funded special interests like the COAs and those independent of government such asAARP. By giving them a special access point with fewer levels of supervision above it, this increases their chances of capturing the department and getting it to shill for their interests, which may not coincide with what’s best for the state or taxpayers.

Never one to pass up a chance to demagogue, Harrison proclaims the final form of the amendment is “a pretty sad commentary that the governor of this state is going to fight the seniors.” But nothing is further from the truth, as opposition to the amendment fights the creation of bigger government that brings no additional benefits to senior citizens. The inherent wastefulness of the idea is accentuated by the fact constitutionally it would do next to nothing.

Regardless, no doubt over the next few months Harrison, who got something on the ballot that even as it does nothing can allow him to make it look like a hero to senior citizens who don’t know any better (which can’t hurt come elections next year), and the special interests that will benefit even if marginally from a change, will blather about how great and necessary the department is in order to get an affirmative popular vote near the end of the year. Still, even given its neutered state, the fact it will do nothing for something should disturb voters who value right-sized government, and thereby earn their rejection of it.

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