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Louisiana editorial roundup

December 5, 2018

Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:

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Dec. 5

NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune on Sewerage and Water Board employees who “bailed” amid issues that prompted a boil water advisory:

The Sewerage & Water Board’s executive director was vague about exactly how two high-level employees failed to respond during a power outage in November that led to another boil water advisory in New Orleans.

Ghassan Korban, who took over the S&WB in September, told the City Council that the two employees “bailed.” They were at the Carrollton power and water plant, but “they were not responsive.”

He also said, “They failed to perform. That means they didn’t do their job.”

And then: “They didn’t necessarily leave, but they were not available.”

Or, our favorite: “They opted not to be engaged.”

Exasperated New Orleanians have had some fun speculating on social media about what the two employees were doing.

The implication from Mr. Korban is that when the pressure plummeted, the two employees yawned and said, “Good luck with that.” A few hours later, city residents awoke to the news that they once again couldn’t use tap water without boiling it first.

That is infuriating.

The Sewerage & Water Board said via Twitter that both employees “were immediately suspended without pay,” and one has resigned. There may be a civil service process to come, so Mr. Korban’s careful language is understandable.

And it was refreshing to see him admit to the council that there were problems with these S&WB employees. The utility’s management hasn’t always been open and honest about the agency’s failings.

Still, New Orleanians need a better understanding of what happened Nov. 17 to lead to the boil water advisory. What did these two employees fail to do? Should the protocol in emergencies be changed to avoid this sort of break down in the future?

Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer suggested a possible change to the city’s civil service procedures to allow quicker disciplinary action in these kinds of circumstances. “I think they need to be treated at a higher level of accountability,” she said, noting that plant employees are responsible for the health and safety of residents.

The Sewerage and Water Board employees who went AWOL weren’t the only problem Nov. 17.

An Entergy utility pole powering some of the water pumps was knocked down around midnight, but Entergy didn’t notify the Sewerage & Water Board until about 4:20 a.m. In a situation where minutes can make a difference in solving a pressure drop to prevent a boil water order, a lapse of four hours is totally unacceptable.

Melonie Stewart, Entergy’s vice president of distribution operations, said her company didn’t have a process in place to notify the Sewerage & Water Board about the power loss at the time. The company has now set up a direct line for communication between the two utilities.

“We recognize that notification is critical,” she said at the City Council meeting Monday. “But we also recognize that we had a seriously unsafe condition. Our operator was focused on making that situation safe, and not focused on notifying the Sewerage & Water Board.”

That is no excuse. Someone other than the Entergy crew at the scene could have contacted the Sewerage & Water Board.

The series of missteps aggravated the City Council. “This is the most insane thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life,” Councilwoman Palmer said. “I’ll be very clear: This whole thing is crazy.”

It is.

As troubled as the Sewerage & Water Board has been, it’s still a surprise that key employees would simply decide not to do their jobs during an emergency. Mr. Korban has inherited a mess.

It won’t be easy, but New Orleanians are counting on him to clean it up.

Online: https://www.nola.com/

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Dec. 5

The Advocate on the state budget and the Revenue Estimating Conference:

One of the great ideas to come out of the crash in the state’s economy, and thus the crash in its budget, was the notion of the Revenue Estimating Conference.

Before the REC was established, and before other reforms were made in the late 1980s, the worst had happened. With a huge proportion of state revenues coming from spiking oil and gas revenues, Louisiana voters got used to easily funded services and benefits.

And state leaders grew accustomed to using oil price estimates as a convenient way to dodge tough budget problems.

Money got a little tight, and governors or the Senate president typically had to deal with conflicting demands on the available cash. Why not just “estimate” the price of oil higher? More money was anticipated, and a politically plausible budget was passed. Until the crash of the mid-decade, it more or less worked.

The oil crash was a harsh teacher. Legislators and reformers pushed a better system, creating the REC to generate more objective revenue estimates to constrain reckless spending at the State Capitol.

One of the key REC figures was Jim Richardson.

The LSU professor and teacher in the highly regarded public administration program was one of the Big Four among the REC members, the others being the Senate president, House speaker and state commissioner of administration.

It was fortunate for Louisiana that Richardson’s experience and credibility drove the discussion based on the numbers, not the political wishes of the spending trinity next to him. Over 30 years, he has served the state well. His retirement from the REC post is a milestone, and we hope it draws attention not only on his contributions, but the principles that underlie the REC and other processes of financially responsible government.

In the past few years, partisan arguments have taken over at the State Capitol, traditionally not the place where R and D labels meant much of anything in day-to-day deliberations. Some of the more conservative members in the Republican-led House have said that the REC numbers are bogus, even though they are informed by predictions of several state economists and the fourth member, Richardson, without a political ax to grind.

We see the REC as a fundamental improvement on the past and a far better solution to budget forecasting than partisan battles or complex fixed formulas that have been kicked around as alternatives. Those have not worked well in other states.

Ultimately, it is the reasoned judgment of legislators and governors that determine whether the state is spending money responsibly. But that process has been helped along by an independent vote on the REC from Jim Richardson.

His successor will have big shoes to fill.

Online: https://www.theadvocate.com/

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Dec. 4

American Press on President George H.W. Bush’s Louisiana connections:

President George Herbert Walker Bush, who died Friday at age 94, had close ties to Louisiana, and came to the state’s rescue after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005. Bush also had many of Louisiana’s prominent businessmen and public officials as friends.

The Advocate in a story by Tyler Bridges said, “Bush’s relationship to Louisiana was unique among modern presidents.” Bridges contacted a number of Louisianians who were close to Bush for his report.

Bush was nominated for president at the Republican National Convention in the Superdome. He was elected president on Nov. 8, 1988, carrying 40 states, including Louisiana.

Although he grew up in Connecticut, Bush moved to Texas after serving as a pilot during World War II. Bridges said Bush traveled throughout south Louisiana in the 1950s, seeking to acquire drilling rights for his Texas-based oil company and making friends. He developed close relationships with the state’s congressional delegation while serving in Congress and as vice president and president.

Bush played paddleball in the U.S. House gym while he was vice president, and invited former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, who was then a congressman, to join the matches.

Henson Moore, another Louisiana House member from Baton Rouge, was deputy secretary of energy in Bush’s Cabinet. In 1992, he became the president’s deputy chief of staff and got to see Bush up close.

“What the public saw is what he was in private,” Moore told Bridges. “He was never two-faced. He was a very noble, well-meaning individual who had a high regard for everyone.”

Bush connected with Louisiana’s Democratic U.S Sens. John Breaux and J. Bennett Johnston when he was vice president. They played doubles tennis together. The games continued after Bush became president. Breaux said friendship was more important to Bush than partisanship.

A year after Hurricane Rita, Bush went to Cameron Parish with a $2 million check for a hospital destroyed by the hurricane and came back when it reopened. He and former President Bill Clinton had teamed up to raise disaster funds.

Cameron Parish District Attorney Jennifer Jones helped organize those two Bush trips. She called Bush “an extraordinary man” who “made me a fan for life.”

Americans have come to realize that is exactly who Bush has become for them, an extraordinary man who put his country and his people above everything else. We have all been blessed to have known him.

Online: https://www.americanpress.com/

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