Wish Lists of the GOP Governors
President-elect Barack Obama met with most of the nation's governors last week in Philadelphia's Independence Hall, where he discussed how the national recession is impacting individual states. Obama also wanted to get feedback on what could be his first official act as president in January — signing into law a stimulus package, estimated to be as much as $700 billion, to help cash-strapped states. Louisiana faces a $1.3 billion budget "shortfall" when the new fiscal year begins on July 1, 2009. We're not alone. Another 20 states already have cut $7.6 billion from their current budgets and 30 others have identified additional shortfalls totaling more than $30 billion.
Several governors deviated from the Obama script — most of them Republicans who have been mentioned as possible contenders for the GOP nomination in 2012. Politics thus did not take a back seat to policy at this gathering. As for who wanted what among the rising GOP stars, consider the following:
• Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal says he asked Obama to squeeze more money out of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other sources to help with coastal restoration and hurricane recovery.
• Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty told Fox News that he wanted Obama to postpone his planned tax increases.
• A spokesperson for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told the Associated Press that the former VP candidate talked about energy issues.
• Florida Gov. Charlie Crist reminded Obama that his state has a 7 percent unemployment rate, higher than the national average, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's new initiative to reform the way health care is delivered to the state's citizenry, entitled "Louisiana Health First," is focusing first on the regions with the greatest needs. That means places like Acadiana, Houma-Thibodaux and large portions of north Louisiana aren't part of the picture. Members of the state House received a briefing on the plan last week, which left many unwilling to endorse. Most, however, are aware that something – anything – needs to be done to improve the current picture. The day after the House met, the United Health Foundation announced that Louisiana had fallen to the bottom spot in its annual state-by-state health care rankings. The 50th spot was awarded due to Louisiana's abysmal rates of obesity, infant mortality and preventable hospitalizations. Still, Jindal's big health care redesign will not go statewide at the start.
State Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Alan Levine says the pilot program's reach could grow depending on its future outcomes, but a spotlight must immediately be placed on underserved areas like New Orleans and Lake Charles. "The regions are proposed based on the number of Medicaid beneficiaries that live in those regions and the number and breadth of providers available in those regions," Levine says. He adds that some elements of the new DHH proposal will benefit all areas of the state, so even the "overlooked" regions can anticipate a trickle-down effect in coming years. Additionally, as part of the new plan, DHH will implement disease management initiatives in all areas of Louisiana. "The initial locations are just that – initial locations," Levine says. "As DHH is able to demonstrate the coordinated care network program's effectiveness, it would then recommend expansion to other parts of the state."
Shucks! Oyster Permit Program Hits Snags
A new permitting process meant to keep out-of-state commercial fishermen from encroaching on Louisiana oyster harvesters is running into administrative hurdles, according to state Wildlife and Fisheries officials. For starters, the guidelines for the process approved by the Legislature earlier this year are so convoluted they could actually keep Louisianans from entering the industry. "It's one of the most complicated, difficult situations that I've seen," says Patrick Banks, a manager with the department's marine fisheries division. The permits are required for any boats that commercial fishermen intend to use to harvest oysters from most of the state's public oyster seed grounds or reservations. "We anticipate that there are folks working in the oyster industry, but don't own a boat, or others that just purchased a boat, that won't be able to get a permit," Banks says.
Members of the oyster industry, largely from Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, lobbied lawmakers to adopt the limited-access policy. The overarching goal was to help storm-weary fishermen impacted by recent hurricanes to hold onto their jobs. "The industry wanted this," Banks says. "We're just trying to make it work." Mike Voisin of Houma, president of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, says industry representatives are frustrated. The intent may have been honorable, he adds, but the outcome is something else. Banks adds that some fishermen are ready to ask lawmakers to repeal the new law during next year's legislative session. (For more on the difficulties facing the state's oyster industry, see Ian McNulty's cover story, "Pearl Jammed," on p. 31.)
Presenting... 'The Energy Coast'
In an attempt to secure support for coastal restoration and hurricane protection, state officials have argued for more than a generation that Louisiana's strategic location in the nation's energy supply chain was too important to ignore. That message is finally getting some traction, thanks to a regional approach orchestrated by America's Wetland Foundation, a non-profit advocacy group that originated in Louisiana. The new accord for bolstering the Gulf region is called "America's Energy Coast" and includes Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, which collectively contribute 90 percent of the nation's offshore energy production, 30 percent of its energy supplies and 30 percent of its seafood.
The group was formed earlier this year and promoted in a special section in Forbes magazine over the summer. Last week, AEC held a policy forum on Capitol Hill. Participating were H. Dale Hall, director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife; Mark Hurley, president of Shell Pipeline; Don Young, president of Ducks Unlimited; and R. King Milling, chairman of America's Wetland. More than anything else, the forum represented the next evolutionary stage for the America's Wetland Foundation — the regional push could soon go national, says managing director Val Marmillion. Recent successes suggest "a growing national foundation based in Louisiana that will continue driving the national dialogue about saving coastal Louisiana, while at the same time broadening the mission to serve as a voice for the entire region of Gulf energy producing states," says Marmillion. AEC brings together leaders of academia, industry, conservation, government and non-profit agencies from Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama. The underlying goal of the initiative is to establish policies and best practices to protect the Gulf Coast and the benefits it delivers to the rest of the country.
The unlikely coalition also includes Shell, the National Wildlife Federation, National Rifle Association, Ducks Unlimited, Entergy and others.