Next time Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks about transparency in government, you can see what a forked tongue looks like.
When announcing his third special session call of the year, saying that he had approved the budget passed in the second edition — which hardly differed from the one he vetoed from the regular session — the Democratic governor also gave notice of signing a bill that creates the “Louisiana Checkbook” website. This expands upon the existing LaTrac site, allowing for a more detailed and user-friendly overview of state spending.
While sought by legislative Republicans and heartily endorsed by their counterpart Democrats, don’t hold your breath on seeing it soon as it doesn’t have funding to proceed. Nonetheless, Edwards took the opportunity to assert “we will continue to promote transparency at all levels of government. The people of Louisiana deserve nothing less from us.”
Yet his actions belie his words. Just a couple of weeks earlier, Edwards vetoed a pair of bills designed to promote increased ability of legislators to gain information. One would have required the administration to notify a legislative panel about changes to spending for personal services contracts. Another would have mandated a quarterly report on job vacancies. Both passed unanimously in the Senate and with lopsided House of Representatives majorities.
The bills’ authors, GOP state Reps. Tony Bacala of Prairieville and Rick Edmonds of Baton Rouge, have clashed with Edwards over measures that would rein in government spending. They as well as many other Republican legislators have complained about the Edwards administration’s reticence when it comes to providing detailed information, especially concerning health care spending.
In his combined veto message, Edwards took hyperbole and bogus excuse-making to new heights by alleging the bills “improperly interfere with the operations of the executive branch and violate Art. II Sec. 2 of the Louisiana Constitution.” Really? Issuing an occasional report and another one quarterly, reports that the Legislative Fiscal Office said wouldn’t affect the administration’s workload in any material way? And these contravene the Constitution in that they allow one branch of government to “exercise power belonging to either of the others”?
Never fear, Edwards comforted, for he wrote he would avoid this frightening overreach by instructing executive branch agencies “to be transparent in their operations and to cooperate fully with legislative requests for information about their operations.” No doubt he also allows a fox to guard his henhouses at the Governor’s Mansion.
Further, before issuing the call for the special session that begins Monday, Edwards received a letter from the House Republican delegation asking that he include legislation that would allow the Legislative Auditor’s Office access to state agency records for programs spending taxpayer funds. He declined.
Why might Edwards want to block sunshine that beefs up compliance efforts? Because it could torpedo the tax-raising agenda at the heart of the call, as witnessed from testimony during a regular session hearing over a bill to create a Medicaid fraud unit.
The auditor, as part of a one-time task force, discovered that about half of Medicaid applicants who also filed tax returns (only 39 percent of all those applying) reported incomes at least $20,000 higher than what they put down on their applications, a discrepancy that would make them ineligible in almost every case. That equates to a potential nearly $500 million in improper benefits paid out by Louisianans, a staggering amount of waste.
It's an amount that spoils Edwards’ argument that the state absolutely needs a tax increase to fund services.
Bad enough that Edwards obstructs legislators trying to oversee wiser use of taxpayer dollars. Worse is that he hypocritically claims to do the opposite.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at 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 at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.