The good news is that flood recovery money has become available for Louisiana. The bad news is that, thanks to Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, the state remains unprepared to distribute these funds and may face further needless postponement in obtaining more in the future.
Last week, the federal government granted access to two tranches of money — $438 million initially available in February and another $1.22 million to serve an expanded population — in response to severe flooding last year across the state. But when the funding was announced, the state had no administrator in place to begin the distributive process.
The contractor selection could have happened prior to releasing the first batch originally approved by Congress in October, according to Republican U.S. Rep. Garret Graves of Baton Rouge. He questioned why the Edwards administration, in order to to begin distribution sooner, didn’t start planning to look for a contractor then or after federal government approval of the state’s plan in early 2017. Edwards claimed that federal officials told him to combine requests — Congress appropriated the second amount in December — or else the first allocation would arrive later.
This assertion doesn’t make a lot of sense. Even less understandably, once the process to hire a contractor finally started after the first release, an official backed by Edwards tainted the effort.
The contract winner technically had to have a state contractor’s license, but the low bidder did not at the time of submission, although it secured one shortly thereafter. However, the counsel for the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors, Larry Bankston, opined the bidder had to have the license when submitting and vacated the winning bid, prompting that bidder to take the matter to court.
Just last year, the board hired Bankston, a former Democratic state legislator convicted of corrupt activities in office. With many of its members reappointed by Edwards after he took office, the board dumped its previous, Republican-oriented counsel in favor of Bankston, a move that GOP Attorney General Jeff Landry originally vetoed over ethics concerns. The Governor’s Office vigorously defended the hire, and Landry relented to give his required approval.
But it turns out that a losing bidder employed Bankston’s son, and the elder Bankston’s action positioned that firm to win the contract. At that point, the Edwards administration pulled the plug on the search, which culminated in swiftly awarding the contract to the original winner days after the funds release.
While’s there’s no evidence Edwards wished to provide Bankston an opportunity to advance the son’s fortunes, his defense of Bankston for that job smacks of cronyism, echoing past corrupt Louisiana politics that did not go unnoticed during recent Congressional hearings about government response to the disaster, at which Edwards testified. He made matters worse when, under questioning about his petition for an additional $2 billion, he could not offer any, even rough, data that would justify the need, leading the GOP chairman of the Republican-majority committee to call him “clueless.”
As Edwards always does when facing criticism, he declared Graves and the panel’s Republican interlocutors driven by partisan motives — only to introduce division by saying Graves “can no longer be trusted.” Yet the fact remains that decisions made by Edwards resulted in Louisiana being unprepared to start bringing relief to people suffering from the floods. Worse, his choices erode Congress’ trust in Louisiana to handle competently any additional recovery dollars, delaying things further if not shutting off the spigot.
Louisiana’s previous Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco, limited herself to one term by overseeing a slow, convoluted response to the hurricane disasters of 2005 that she blamed on partisan opponents. Edwards seems to have learned nothing from his political ally’s experience.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics, www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email email@example.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.