Political Horizons for Nov. 25, 2012

The “Antique Road Show” on the Public Broadcasting Service travels around the United States pricing cherished family heirlooms for two basic types of people.

There’s the person for whom an object evokes the memories that help define how they became who they are.

Then there’s the person who sees only the profit potential of the object.

Inevitably, there is friction between the two.

“We privatize as much as we possibly can around here. We’re doing garage sales, for God’s sake,” then-Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater said on April 4, 2011, according to a transcript of a meeting the Jindal administration held to mollify executives of privately owned Internet companies. The businessmen were angered that an $80.59 million federal grant, which the administration had previously backed, would go to a state agency.

“We are selling property to private folks. We’re privatizing the Office of Group Benefits. We’re privatizing the Office of Risk Management. We are about pushing stuff out,” Rainwater said at the time.

These days, as Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief of staff, Rainwater still repeatedly raises the argument that private companies often provide better service for less cost.

Not in this case, however. Wary of the privatization plan, the federal government withdrew the grant on Oct. 26, 2011.

Today about 400,000 Louisiana residents remain without access to high-speed Internet, says state Public Service Commission Chairman Foster Campbell, of Bossier Parish.

After several attempts, a legislative committee Nov. 9 approved contracting a private insurer to handle many of the functions of the state Office of Group Benefits. The winning vote came after two Republican opponents were replaced on the committee.

In explaining why Jindal’s popularity had dipped 13 points in one year, Baton Rouge pollster Bernie Pinsonat said Oct. 2 that people voiced concern, partly, over the relentless push for change, in this case public hospitals, without adequate explanation beyond his aides’ opinion that the present system is financially unsustainable.

“We’ve had charity hospitals in Louisiana since, when? Back in the 1700s? People are comfortable with it,” Pinsonat said in October. “The responses indicate that people are uncomfortable, at least, with not knowing what privatization means in terms of the continued access to health care and the quality of that health care.”

Sometimes in their rush to accomplish their goals, officials skip past some of the piddling but necessary steps, which the state Attorney General’s Office said in Nov. 15 opinion could lead to lawsuits.

This opinion found problems with giving proper public notice before making a decision was about consolidating a government job — merging LSU president and LSU Baton Rouge campus chancellor — rather than privatizing a government service.

But that theme runs through lawsuits that will be coming to court during the next few weeks.

Hearings in Baton Rouge’s 19th Judicial District Court begin Wednesday on a constitutional challenge of spending taxpayer dollars on private school vouchers.

Jindal and his allies argue that helping to offset the costs of private and parochial schools is necessary for some students to escape public schools his administration says are failing.

In that lawsuit, two teacher unions and several local school boards argue, in part, that the Louisiana Legislature failed to follow constitutional requirements for filing and passing the laws that create and fund Jindal’s education revamp.

Then there’s the lawsuit filed by the Louisiana Retired State Employees Association alleging that Jindal and his legislative allies failed to get a two-thirds vote of the Louisiana Legislature that the group argues was required to change the retirement offered new state employees.

The law replaces for new hires on July 1 the traditional pension with a 401(k)-like retirement plan, called “cash balance.” A hearing is set for Dec. 3 in the 19th Judicial District Court based in Baton Rouge.

Jindal’s aides routinely dismiss opponents as members of the “coalition of the status quo.”

Perhaps there’s another explanation why some people are slow to Jindal’s privatization party.

They could be like that character in “Lonesome Dove,” which seemed to run nonstop through this Thanksgiving holiday, who Augustus McCrae described with admiration for staying true to tradition: “He’s not one to quit on a garment just because it’s got a little age.”

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

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