Louisiana's got ethics now, yada, yada, yada. It's a new day, blah, blah, blah.
If you haven't heard the anthem by now, then you haven't been paying attention. From India to New York to Washington, D.C., Gov. Bobby Jindal has garnered oodles of praise for his February special session on ethics reform. While some of the accolades are rightly placed (we're finally going to learn how lawmakers make their money, thanks to new disclosure rules), few outside the Bayou State are aware of what slipped between the cracks during that special session.
For instance, the governor's star-studded transition team, which is still in action in many respects, escaped scrutiny altogether. As a result, its members remain a gang of political shadows operating under flimsy guidelines. Additionally, the Republican administration continues to dodge any proposals that would bring more of its own records into public view in a substantial way. Efforts to extend "reform" to the governor's office have been avoided like a case of scurvy, which is why good government groups place Louisiana on the bottom of their lists when it comes to openness in the governor's office.
To some lawmakers, that situation is unacceptable, and they're putting their political capital where their mouths are. On the surface, at least, these legislators appear more interested in sunshine for the state's citizenry than in servitude to the state's CEO. That formula is certain to win them praise and headlines, but it also may gut their efforts during the current regular session, which ends in June.
One major reform push comes from Baton Rouge Rep. Hunter Greene, a savvy attorney and politician-to-watch. Despite being a Republican and a hand-picked Jindal floor leader (he serves as chairman of the influential Ways and Means Committee), Greene has pointed his policy guns directly at the Fourth Floor of the State Capitol, where the governor and his minions have been known to hunker down when the transparency tables are turned.
Greene has filed House Bill 678, which would require a governor's transition team to report all expenditures to the state Board of Ethics. The kicker is that Greene's bill would apply retroactively to Jindal's transition team. It also would decrease the maximum contribution that can be made during a transition and inauguration from $10,000 to $5,000. "Why should the winner of an election be able to accept contributions at double the legal limit for candidates?" Greene asks. "Even if you're governor-elect, you're still a candidate raising money."
Greene also has filed a leveling agent in the form of House Bill 635, which would force all members of the governor's transition team to disclose the same financial information that the governor and statewide elected officials must hand over. The inspector general and the legislative auditor are in the crosshairs as well, but Greene's aim seems focused on the transition team, which he argues has a great deal of unchecked authority. Transition team members interview high-ranking hires, make policy recommendations and shape the governor's Cabinet. "These rules should apply to everyone in important positions," Greene says. "These people are performing and doing things that state officials normally do."
One conflict that could have been avoided under Greene's proposed guidelines involves Collis Temple Jr., who was tapped by Jindal's team earlier this year to conduct interviews for the Office of Youth Development, which had previously awarded Temple nearly $6 million in contracts. "That should have never happened," Greene says.
Greene's bills also puts the hat on Rolfe McCollister Jr., a Baton Rouge publisher who chaired Jindal's transition team and was secretary of Jindal's campaign. More so than any other transition leader in memory, McCollister has grabbed headlines. First, he offered to pay an ethics fine that is expected to be levied against Jindal, and now he's running "Believe in Louisiana," a political group that is raising and spending money to advance Jindal's agenda. As a "527 organization," Believe in Louisiana does not have to disclose financial information, but McCollister has pledged to keep the effort transparent.
A new state law requiring financial disclosure by so-called 527 groups is set to take effect on April 26, but even that isn't a guarantee. Two lawmakers GOP House Speaker Jim Tucker of Terrytown and Governmental Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Rick Gallot, a Ruston Democrat are advocating House Concurrent Resolution 14 to stall implementation of the law for at least a year. That would push the effective date beyond this fall's election cycle. As last week came to a close, the resolution was pending action on the House floor.
Shreveport Rep. Wayne Waddell, a Republican, is making his own push for transparency with House Bill 1100, which would open more records in the executive branch to public view. This isn't Waddell's first rodeo; he presented the same bill during Jindal's February special session, but the administration's allies shot it down. For Waddell and others, it was a bitter pill to swallow, given Jindal's penchant for national rankings. According to the Citizen Access Project at the University of Florida, Louisiana ranks dead last in access to the governor's office, right behind Mississippi.
Jindal's staff has argued that there are concerns over homeland security and economic development issues, although Alabama's governor's office, which tops the good government list, has managed to protect such files and land a mega-steel plant for which Louisiana competed. By contrast, one of the fastest-moving measures of the session is Senate Bill 343 by Sen. Ann Duplessis, a New Orleans Democrat. It would allow the state to conduct secret negotiations with businesses until 2012. The Senate has already approved the bill, and the House is expected to ratify it this week.
Waddell says he started fighting for more access in the executive branch following Hurricane Katrina, when Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco blocked his attempts to build a timeline of the state's response using executive branch communications. Furthermore, just last week, The Times-Picayune tried to obtain a report Jindal had commissioned from a group of retired generals that allegedly reveals low morale, leadership problems and nepotism in the National Guard. Jindal's office refused to release the report, "citing executive privilege," writes Capitol Bureau Chief Robert Travis Scott.
Waddell's bill, which he says is now backed by Jindal, opens a few new channels in regards to financial transactions in the governor's office, but it's a far cry from Waddell's original intentions. Even if adopted, the new law would do little to help Waddell rebuild a communications exchange or assist the press in obtaining reports. Still, it's a small step in the right direction, which is about all Louisiana citizens are likely to get these days from the Jindal Administration.
'It doesn't go as far as I wanted it to, and I wanted transparency for all 73 agencies in the executive branch," Waddell says. "But I'll take what I can get."