- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:

Feb. 10

The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, on lawmakers, other state politicians needing to pay for their own tickets and other extras:

While most of us have to use our own hard-earned cash to buy tickets to concerts or Saints games or pay for a nice meal out, politicians in Louisiana can spend other people’s money for entertainment. State law bans using campaign funds for personal expenses, but the Ethics Board points out that it allows expenses “related to a political campaign or the holding of a public office or party position.”

Combine the vagueness of that language with the fact that no receipts are required, and campaign war chests are basically like Monopoly money. That shouldn’t be allowed to continue.

NOLA.com ‘ The Times-Picayune and WVUE Fox 8 News analyzed more than 280,000 records of campaign expenditures between 2009 and 2012. The records showed that legislators spent about $7 million on tickets to Saints, LSU and then-Hornets games, food and drinks, golf outings — and even anniversary and wedding gifts and gym dues. Being buff is a requirement of office? That will come as a surprise to many voters.

“They can basically use these accounts as their personal checking account,” University of New Orleans professor and analyst Ed Chervenak said.

Former St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff Wayne Jones charged $508 at an Orange Beach, Ala., Hooters restaurant in March 2009. He labeled it as an expense for a wedding. Whose wedding? Who knows? He didn’t explain the expense.

Why should a voter care? If candidates or officeholders can get away with spending contributions in virtually any way they want, donors can curry favor. “You don’t want a campaign contribution that’s simply a gift in a different package,” Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, told a legislative committee in December.

These aren’t small amounts of money, either.

Between 2009 and 2012, Senate President John Alario of Westwego and his PAC spent $182,000 in campaign money for tickets and other payments to LSU, Saints, Hornets, the Bayou Country Superfest in Baton Rouge and other events.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley of Lake Charles spent nearly $20,000 on tickets to sporting events at LSU, McNeese State University and the 2012 BCS title game, records show. He said the tickets are given to charities for fund-raising or donated to constituents. He also spent $2,320 at Muriel’s on May 9, 2012, for an event described as “spouses luncheon,” but didn’t explain how that qualified.

Even though he left office in 2007, former state Sen. Francis Heitmeier spent more than $200,000 from a failed campaign for secretary of state between 2009 and 2012, according to records. Roughly 90 percent went to expenses that aren’t traditional campaign costs, the records showed.

The most troubling example, though, is former Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle. Between 2009 and 2012, he used his campaign account for 179 meals totaling $83,500. He also spent nearly $87,000 on golf and used campaign money for trips to Las Vegas and Florida.

Hingle is now in prison. After being nabbed by federal investigators for taking bribes from a contractor, he admitted improperly using more than $149,000 from his campaign account for personal or Sheriff’s Office expenses. He hid them mostly as payments to a video-production firm that provided no services.

That is not to suggest that other elected officials are committing fraud, but the laxity of Louisiana’s laws made it easy for Hingle to hide his improper campaign spending.

There may be no way to stop someone from abusing campaign money, but state laws can and should be tougher.

The Public Affairs Research Council suggests federal elections law as a good starting point. Federal law not only bans candidates from spending campaign funds on personal expenses, it describes what is forbidden, PAR said in a March 2012 report.

The expenditure can’t “fulfill any commitment, obligation, or expense that would exist irrespective of the candidate’s election campaign or … duties as a holder of federal office.” The law explicitly prohibits clothing, country club memberships, vacations, tuition and tickets to sporting events and concerts, among other things.

The Legislature ought to ban those sorts of expenses as well. Members of the committee that is supposed to come up with revisions to state law are among some of the big spenders, though, so they will have to put their own interests aside.

So far, no proposals have come out of the committee, which missed a Feb. 1 deadline.

One of the simplest changes would be to require receipts and other documentation of how money is spent. Expenses filed by all state politicians that lacked any description totaled almost $10.5 million between 2009 and 2012, according to the records reviewed by reporters.

Committee members said they are discussing proposals with state Ethics Board members, including possible requirements for officials to disclose who used tickets or who attended meals. That seems like a baseline recommendation. Voters — and donors, for that matter — deserve to know who elected officials are entertaining.

Rep. Stephen Pugh of Pontchatoula doesn’t seem inclined to support restrictions or receipts. “I personally do not feel there’s any abuse there,” he said.

He also acknowledged, though, that if constituents stop by his table at local restaurants to talk about a problem that gives him leeway to charge the meal to his campaign fund. That seems like an awfully liberal interpretation.

It also is another very good argument for tightening up the law.




Feb. 10

The News-Star, Monroe, La., on juvenile justice center being moved:

The number of young men incarcerated at the Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe has swelled in recent weeks.

In a nighttime move shrouded in secrecy, the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice closed the Jetson Center for Youth in Baker. Of the 76 residents at Jetson, 62 were moved to Swanson. The remaining 14 inmates were taken to the Bridge City Center for Youth near New Orleans.

Swanson now houses 160 youths in 11 dormitories. Also relocated from the Jetson facility near Baton Rouge were 54 staff members, increasing the facility staff from 148 to 202.

The state has been working for several years to implement a new treatment program for juveniles called the Louisiana Model for Secure Care. Its purpose is to remove children from prison-like settings and into an environment where they are mentored constantly and encouraged to change behaviors that landed them in corrections.

LAMOD is an offshoot of the nationally recognized Missouri Model that favors therapy and family involvement and developing skills for success in the free world.

Mary Livers, deputy secretary for the OJJ, said Jetson, built in 1948, was “in bad disrepair.” Some $28 million had been spent to maintain Jetson, but the facility remained inconsistent with the state’s treatment model for youth.

Livers said the dormitory configuration and the large size of Jetson, which is on 800 acres, did not allow for “appropriate supervision of youth by staff.”

“The campus itself is a correctional-type setting. It’s more prison-like,” Livers said. “We want to be therapeutic. We want a place where kids can get their needs met and change their behavior, and that prison-like setting does not support the direction we are going with the reform.”

“Our first priority is the safety of the youth and that they get their treatment,” Livers said.

While the move swelled the ranks at Swanson, it is not at capacity. The youth housed in 11 dorms have staff members with them all of the time to participate in their treatment programs.

Admittedly, the Monroe location will make it more difficult for the families of the youth formerly housed in the Jetson facility to visit.

“We will go the extra mile and make an extra effort to ensure that family engagement continues to be a part of the treatment process for our youth,” Livers said. “We realize that transportation and scheduling for visitation may be an issue for some families, and we will accommodate special visit requests if needed. In addition, if transportation to the facilities is an issue, our Probation and Parole staff will assist in transporting families for visits.”

It’s not the end game of juvenile justice reform in Louisiana, but this move does take the corrections program to a new level of opportunity. The smaller campus size at Swanson, combined with the beefed-up staffing and focus on treatment and education, may prove to help more boys and men to stay out of the corrections system permanently.




Feb. 11

The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La., on the budget being awry:

If there is good news from Washington about the nation’s balance sheet, in that the federal deficit is falling, there also are two depressing realities - the aging of the baby boom generation and the still major costs of government.

True, the budget deficit for 2014 - the fiscal year that ends in September - will show a deficit of $514 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

That fall is significant during the Obama years. The good news is partly because of growth since the recession and partly because of budget cuts.

It’s still too much money, even if, as the CBO noted, the deficit as a percentage of the economy is about at historical averages. The deficit ballooned in the administration of President George W. Bush, then in the market crash that has hobbled the budget during the first five years of President Barack Obama’s term.

And there is the troubling reality that a deficit still piles up debt, even as the national budget must care for the elderly via Medicare. The programs for the elderly will explode in cost as more of the baby boomers head for retirement.

And the CBO noted that growing our way out of the problem isn’t realistic given predictions of “slack” in the nation’s economic productivity.

What probably will have to happen, at some point, is another big budget deal that combines some tax relief for businesses, to appeal to Republicans, and some new revenue to narrow the deficit, to appeal to Democrats.

Hoping for the best, like neglecting household debts, is not going to work out well.



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