By Marsha Shuler
June 24, 2012
Gov. Bobby Jindal promoted ethics and transparency in government as a first-term governor, making the issues the focal point of a special legislative session in 2008 — his first year in office.
After the first legislative session of Jindal’s second term, it’s appropriate to take a look at how ethics and transparency are faring these days.
For his part, Jindal returned in 2012 with legislation to fix flaws that have been impeding ethics enforcement since the new laws were enacted in 2008.
The problems largely involved the law under which the Louisiana Board of Ethics became the prosecutor and the Ethics Adjudicatory Board now decides whether violations occurred. Lawsuits and inter-board disputes erupted.
The 2012 fix made the lines of authority clearer; allowed more time for the Ethics Board to bring charges if investigations were impeded; and gave the Ethics Board a limited right to appeal adjudicatory board decisions.
“It was a mixed bag,” said Ethics Board chairman Blake Monrose. “Some of the stuff will help us. Some we will have to continue to struggle with.”
“They gave us an appeal right. I’m very happy about that. I’m just sad that it comes with a price tag,” said Monrose, referring to a provision that requires the board, i.e., taxpayer, to pay attorney fees and court costs if it loses court appeals. Monrose said whether to appeal when questions of law are at issue because of adjudicatory board interpretations should never be a factor in decisions.
The Legislature approved more exceptions to the ethics code — allowing conduct that would otherwise be prohibited. The special carve-outs allow certain people or groups to do things that otherwise would violate nepotism and conflict of interest laws.
The Ethics Board opposed all the bills.
“We want to do our job of enforcing the ethics code equitably and fairly across the board. The more exceptions there are the more difficult it becomes,” Monrose said.
Under new exceptions, members of the Jefferson Parish Council and two parish hospital boards can now hire relatives as medical professionals at East and West Jefferson public hospitals without violating nepotism laws.
Doctors on the board of St. Tammany Hospital can have a private business relationship with companies that contract with the board.
A member of the Greater Baton Rouge Port Commission, his family or related business can now contract for the sale of grain to a grain elevator owned by the port commission.
“If you want to kill ethics, do it one local bill at a time,” said state Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, referring to the continuing parade of bills seeking exceptions. “If we are going to destroy ethics in this state, let’s do it straight out.”
Jindal signed them all without batting an eye.
Meanwhile, the 2012 Legislature’s attempts to expand transparency in government came up short as Jindal wielded his veto pen.
Jindal rejected a bill that would have required annual reports on the progress of administration initiatives under which private companies took over $2.2 billion of the state’s Medicaid business as well as management of behavioral health care.
Under Bayou Health, five insurance companies are responsible for the coordination of medical care for two-thirds of the state’s 1.2 million residents covered under the government’s health insurance program for the poor. Under the Behavioral Health Partnership, one company is responsible for mental-health care of children through adults.
Jindal said the initiatives would reduce taxpayer costs while improving patient health.
The legislation sought specific information aimed at gauging how the programs are faring in both areas.
“In a time when transparency is key and private providers are voluntarily reporting pricing and quality data, I don’t think it is too much to expect the state to be transparent as well,” said Louisiana Hospital Association president John Matessino.
Jindal vetoed the measure saying it required “duplicative and unnecessary reporting.”
It marked the second year in a row that Jindal axed bills trying to shed light on the operations of Bayou Health.
Marsha Shuler covers state ethics issues for The Advocate.