SADOW: Edwards Politicizes “Reform,” Capital Outlay

If Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards has shown anything in his just about four years in office, it’s that he plays politics ruthlessly with state money in his quest to create an image and to hold onto power.

During his re-election campaign, Edwards has touted certain capital outlay projects and “savings” from criminal justice changes he promoted. The latter claimed it could lower the state’s incarceration rate without an increase in crime and thereby save money, by diverting nonviolent offenders and releasing others early. Money retained would go into the general fund and programs that supposedly would reduce recidivism.

But a review of the outcomes indicates that benefits from these – money for criminal justice efforts and projects benefiting local areas – often didn’t materialize in areas where Edwards has faced criticism from other elected officials. Indeed, Edwards on projects has gone out of his way to deny these to specific legislators critical of his policies.

Consistently through four budget cycles Edwards has cast line item vetoes striking projects in the same districts he claims benefit from other spending. During debates this election cycle, he has played up, for example, money flowing to create a new interchange off of Interstate 20 in Bossier Parish, even as only weeks earlier he cast vetoes on projects in the same area as revenge against one of his staunchest critics, Republican state Rep. Dodie Horton, and against GOP state Sen. Barrow Peacock, who had helped push along a bill facilitating tax refunds of inappropriately-collected revenues that Edwards opposed. (Both cruised to re-election, while Edwards finds himself in a toss-up for re-election against a political rookie.)

Yet perhaps most singled out has been the St. Tammany Parish legislative delegation, from the parish with Bossier that has produced perhaps the most ideologically conservative of legislators most vocally opposed to Edwards. In a recent letter picked up by new media, they and Republican Treasurer John Schroder (a former area legislator) accused Edwards of “making politically motivated cuts to highway and safety projects in St. Tammany, on top of an $11 million cut of funding for the St. Tammany arts district and his veto of $9 million for a Slidell flood protection levee …. According to official records of the Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD), highway funding in St. Tammany Parish declined significantly during Edwards term of office.”

At least St. Tammany saw some of the money from criminal justice changes, with the opening of a new re-entry center for released prisoners. Across the state, more new day reporting centers and specialty courts garnered these funds in addition to the three new reentry centers.

But the Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office, which handles the third-largest number of prisoners in the state, saw no money for any new programs coming its way. Its leader, Republican Sheriff Steve Prator, has been the most vocal critic of Edwards and the criminal justice changes among a group largely held in check by Democrat Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards (who also has his own campaign account serve as a conduit for donors to his brother’s campaign who have maxed out in money given and/or want to obscure their ties to the governor).

On a talk radio program last week, one of the hosts noted she had picked out two former inmates released early that had committed violent crimes since. Prator said he knew of more and added that, while some area social service agencies had received money from the program to provide services at the back end, his agency had received zero funding for front-end programming.

Regardless, Prator continued his critique of the overhaul. He pointed out that it would be years before recidivism statistics could be computed that would accurately test the new policy’s effectiveness while Edwards ran around the state telling anyone in earshot that it was an unqualified success. He didn’t mention that, starting this budget year, almost all of the “savings” from having fewer inmates spend fewer nights imprisoned would disappear in higher daily payments made by the state to sheriffs and others holding state prisoners, so only lower recidivism rates could declare the changes a success and wise policy – anecdotal evidence aside of early-released convicts committing violent crime earlier than the might have otherwise.

John Bel Edwards behaves no differently that past governors who used political calculations in steering taxpayer dollars in favored directions. Voters need to keep in mind the politicization he has injected into the criminal justice changes he touts that can detract from their effectiveness and that whether their area sees capital outlay benefits depends upon the good-old-boy tactic staying in his good graces.

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