Political Horizons for July 31, 2011

Prior to a recent hearing, Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater stood in the hallway talking with other Jindal administration aides.

Predictably enough, as when wherever bureaucrats congregate, their overheard conversation turned to how the news media picked on them.

In this, the Jindal administration is not unique. It’s the old tension between reporters, who want transparency, and government officials, who see questions as unnecessarily slowing down their work.

Rainwater, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s top financial adviser, was called before the Legislative Audit Advisory Committee to explain problems with the program that succeeded the Road Home in helping homeowners rebuild after the hurricanes of 2005. Back in 2008, the program was advertised as Jindal’s answer to Road Home frustration.

Rainwater acknowledged that the $750 million program had suffered genuine troubles that required fixes.

“It was a poorly run program,” Rainwater said. The program’s head was replaced, and procedures were changed that have allowed more payments to homeowners, he said.

Called the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, the Federal Emergency Management Agency -FEMA - gave the state money to help about 20,000 hurricane victims storm-proof their houses, such as raising the structure’s elevation, which wasn’t covered under the initial Road Home grants. Only about 6,300 homeowners received the money over a three-year period, because of issues noted in a performance audit released on July 18 by Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl G. Purpera.

Most of that money has flowed since January because of adjustments that answered Purpera’s concerns, Rainwater said.

A big issue, according to the audit, is that prior to September 2009, the elevation guidance data used by the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program was “not reliable.”

As a result, basically, the state agency told homeowners that if they did the work to this or that specification, they would get a grant to help pay for it. But federal authorities found that the work approved by the state did not comply with federal standards, and therefore was ineligible for the money. Homeowners were stiffed.

The program is overseen by the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, called GOHSEP.

GOHSEP Chief of Staff Mark Riley testified that the rules the state bureaucracy used to administer costs were put together by state employees who no longer could find all the data they used to draft the guidelines.

When later asked for an interview, Riley demurred and released a prepared statement saying the program was unique, complex and large. While FEMA had no published data, the “uniform guidance” that was available supported the state’s rules, he stated.

GOHSEP is contracting with an “independent cost-estimation company to review” the guidelines, Riley stated on Friday.

Rainwater said in an interview Friday he felt the third party review would validate the state’s cost guidelines.

At the hearing, New Orleans Democratic state Sen. Ed Murray, chairman of the advisory panel overseeing Purpera’s work, told Riley that this was an example of why government needs transparency.

The Jindal administration, in this program, as it has with many of the governor’s policies, rushed a system into existence hoping that nobody would ask questions to slow down the effort until after it was a fait accompli, Murray said.

Murray’s point is underscored by other Jindal initiatives, such as the move to hire private companies to run parts of the state’s Medicaid system and its state employee health insurance plan.

Rainwater disagrees, saying Friday that he strives to give legislators a complete picture, even to those, like Murray, who often disagree with what the administration wants.

“I testified 40 times on the budget. I answered as many questions as I possibly could,” Rainwater said.

What we learned from the Hazard Mitigation program, Murray said at the July 22 hearing, was that two state employees drafted rules that impact the lives of thousands of people. But the agency cannot, now, produce the evidence supporting how and why to those regulations were made the way they were, he said.

“This is another example that tells me we make up the rules on the fly,” said Murray, himself no fan of reporters. “Doesn’t that sound kind of crazy to you?”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.