Gov. Bobby Jindal has once again sacrificed the well-being of Louisiana citizens on his ideological altar, this time ignoring the needs of at least 100,000 Louisiana residents. But it's OK — they're poor and don't vote for him anyway.
At issue is $80 million in federal grant money to bring some 900 miles of fiber- optic cable — and with it, broadband Internet service — to 21 rural, poor communities that private Internet providers refuse to serve because it's not profitable.
The same grant would also tie together schools, libraries, health care centers and homes in those underserved communities — along with colleges and universities in Louisiana and Mississippi. The tie-in to higher education is why the state Board of Regents, which oversees colleges and universities in Louisiana, initially applied for the grant from the U.S. Commerce Department. The grant was awarded early last year.
The Jindal Administration took over the grant this year and essentially killed it, although Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater claims that was not Team Jindal's intent. That's an open question.
Rainwater recently told the state Public Service Commission that the Regents should not have applied for the grant because the government-run program would compete with private industry — the same private industry that refuses to serve the economically depressed areas that the program was designed to serve.
What Team Jindal did was hijack the grant and insert private providers at the very end of the deal — the cheap end, in terms of cost outlay, and therefore the profitable end — and the Commerce Department balked. Under the guise of "public/private partnerships," the administration's plan involved leasing broadband use rights from local Internet providers instead of building new ones.
There's nothing at all wrong with public/private partnerships, mind you. Some of them work very well, in fact. And some have even been approved under the stimulus plan that produced the grant.
The trouble with Jindal's plan is that it didn't provide enough specifics to assure the feds that the network would be completed on time — and that it would actually accomplish what the grant was designed to accomplish.
That's not my conclusion; that's what Commerce Department Assistant Secretary Lawrence Strickling said. "The Louisiana project, as originally submitted, promised great benefits to unserved and underserved areas of the state," Strickling noted when the grant was rescinded. "However, after the state determined it was unable to implement the original project plan and fell significantly behind schedule, it proposed major modifications to its original proposal without adequate technical and financial details and a viable schedule for completing the project."
Rainwater and Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell blame lawmakers and the private contractor hired for the project. They say lawmakers took too long to approve the grant work and the contractor caused repeated delays; the contractor, GEC Inc., denies causing any delays and says it would have completed the job on schedule. Nonetheless, GEC was fired by Team Jindal, and now the whole project is dead.
Rainwater also said that private companies complained about the initial approach taken by the Regents (under Purcell's predecessor). When pressed on that point by Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, who represents some of the communities the grant would have served, Rainwater got to the heart of the matter: "We do not believe in state-run enterprise competing with private companies."
Campbell noted that most of the state's largest providers signed letters in support of the grant. He then asked, "I represent one-half of north Louisiana, many of whom can't get high-speed Internet, and you're telling me we're not getting it because you had a problem with it philosophically?"
That's what happens when ideology trumps reality.