State Contract Review Process Still Floundering

Just when you thought it might finally be safe to swim in Mississippi’s contractual storm waters, the MDE and Mississippi True contracts erupted.

As reported by The Clarion-Ledger, “both State Auditor Stacey Pickering and the state’s legislative watchdog ‘PEER’ committee blasted the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) and vowed further investigation into its contracting and purchasing.”

PEER questioned MDE practices that seemed to intentionally evade state contract review oversight.  As reported by Mississippi Today, PEER pointed to contracts issued to the same company from 2014 to 2016 “having apparent similarities in scope of work and for amounts that collectively exceeded bid thresholds, rather than competitively bidding contracts for such services.”

Pickering said the avoidance was intentional, “They have blatant disregard at the Department of Education for procurement regulations.”

CL columnist Geoff Pender was especially skeptical of MDE behavior. “So far, the explanations from MDE have been of the ‘nuh-uh, ‘taint so, nothing to see here’ variety and, ‘whoever did that is no longer here and a dog ate the paperwork.’ Explanations from the board have been nonexistent — odd, given serious issues have been raised over spending of millions of taxpayers’ dollars under its watch.”

This comes virtually on the heels of the contract scandals at the Mississippi Department of Corrections that led to criminal charges and convictions.

Rep. Jerry Turner and Governor Phil Bryant tightened up the contract review process, but not soon enough to prevent the Division of Medicaid from slipping a $2 billion contract through via a loophole.

Mississippi True is the legislatively authorized Provider Sponsored Health Plan created by Mississippi hospitals to compete with out-of-state companies for the state Medicaid managed care contract.

Medicaid leaders decided this $2 billion contract did not need to go before the contract review board. When Medicaid’s internal process gave the managed care contract to three out-of-state companies, Mississippi True protested. Gov. Bryant directed Medicaid to submit the contract and its review process to the review board.

Last month the review board finally considered the contract but took no action. Staff said Medicaid’s contracting process did not fully comply with guidelines, but recommended the board waive that noncompliance and approve the contract. The board was unable to get a seconded motion to either approve or disapprove the contract.

Changes intended to strengthen the review process, however, provided a loophole Medicaid will jump through. While the law says the review board is to “approve all personal and professional services contracts” in excess of $75,000, a new section was slipped in that says a contract “shall be presumed to be approved if the Personal Service Contract Review Board does not object to the contract within thirty (30) days.”

Since the review board took no action, Medicaid says this new provision lets it move ahead. Mississippi True is seeking court intervention..

This spring, Turner passed additional legislation to strengthen the review process. It repeals the 30-day loophole. But, unusally, the Legislature delayed implementation of Turner’s changes until next January.

So, despite the prison contract scandal, we still have two government agencies dodging contract review, an indecisive contract review board, an ill-timed change to the law, and ongoing contract eruptions.

With apologies to Tammy Bullock-Rutherford, that’s so Mississippi.

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Rights, Entitlements, Public Interest and Health Care

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service lists the following as the rights of American citizenship: freedom of expression; freedom to worship as you wish; right to a prompt, fair trial by jury; right to vote in elections for public officials; right to apply for federal employment requiring U.S. citizenship; right to run for elected office; and freedom to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Actually, the Bill of Rights and other amendments to U.S. Constitution provide many more individual rights, including: freedom of assembly and petition; freedom from unreasonable search and seizure; right to own property and freedom from government seizure without cause; right to keep and bear arms; right to “no-quartering” of troops in peacetime; rights to due process and equal protection under the law and freedom from self-incrimination and double jeopardy; freedom from excessive bail and fines and from cruel and unusual punishment; right to citizenship; freedom from slavery, poll taxes, and involuntary servitude; and voting rights for women and 18-year-olds.

U.S. Supreme Court rulings and Congress have established rights to privacy; freedom from racial segregation, discrimination, and sexual harassment; rights to same-sex conduct and marriage and inter-racial marriage; contract, property, and abortion rights; and freedom from discrimination based on disabilities.

Not included are any rights to government benefits like those provided by Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, Unemployment and various welfare programs. Since Congress can change or end these programs at any time, they are impermanent entitlements, not vested rights.

What, then, of the popular concept that U.S. citizens should have a right to health care?

Because of Medicaid, Medicare, and Obamacare, health care is well on its way to becoming an entitlement, but not a right.

Given the growing financial burden of existing entitlements, should health care for all become a national entitlement?

The fiscal answer is “no,” entitlements should be trimmed to reduce budget deficits. The emotional answer is often “yes” due to mounting and extravagant costs for drugs and extraordinary care.

These days there seems to be only frenzy in discussions about health care. However, some dispassionate discourse yields interesting ideas like this one. Why not treat and regulate access to health care as an essential public service like utilities and other industries “deemed to be affected with a public interest?”

“Medicine as a Public Calling,” a scholarly article by University of Michigan assistant law professor Nicholas Bagley, informs this idea:

“The debate over how to tame private medical spending tends to pit advocates of government-provided insurance—a single-payer scheme—against those who would prefer to harness market forces to hold down costs. When it is mentioned at all, the possibility of regulating the medical industry as a public utility is brusquely dismissed as anathema to the American regulatory tradition.”

“Closer economic regulation of the medical industry may or may not be prudent, but it is by no means incompatible with our governing institutions and political culture.”

As Bagley points out, this may not be the way to go. But this concept and other out-of-the box ideas should be dispassionately considered, away from raging political ideology, if controlling health care entitlement costs while retaining essential services is our goal.

 

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State Flag Conflict: Morality vs. Heritage

Former state GOP executive director, elected Republican official, and chief of staff to Kirk Fordice, Mississippi’s first Republican Governor since Reconstruction, Andy Taggart has publicly challenged his party to step up and “lead the charge in finally removing from our state flag the representation of the Confederate battle flag.”

Saying such a move “will make a strong, moral statement” acknowledging “our current state flag is divisive and hurtful to a significant number of our fellow Mississippians,” Taggart joins Republican Speaker of the House Philip Gunn in taking a stand against the controversial flag.

“Changing the flag is the right thing to do,” Speaker Gunn said last year. “We can deal with it now or leave for future generations to address. I believe our state needs to address it now.”

Over a decade ago, another longtime Republican leader spoke out strongly on racism, retired Federal Judge Charles Pickering.

All active Baptists, these three leaders align with the moral approach against racism pursued by the Southern Baptist Convention. In its historic resolution on racial reconciliation adopted in 1995, Convention members resolved to “commit ourselves to be doers of the Word (James 1:22) by pursuing racial reconciliation in all our relationships, especially with our brothers and sisters in Christ (1 John 2:6), to the end that our light would so shine before others, that they may see (our) good works and glorify (our) Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).”

Last year, the Convention encouraged members to stop displaying the Confederate flag.

And this past June, the Convention called every form of racism “antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ” and resolved “we still must make progress in rooting out any remaining forms of intentional or unintentional racism in our midst.”

Other denominations are taking stands too. For example, following the Charlottesville upheaval, a diverse group of ministers held an outdoor, public prayer gathering in Meridian. Their theme was “let’s talk” and their goal was to get black and white to understand each other better and live together better. Among them was Dr. Rhett Payne, III, a Reformed theology pastor at predominantly white First Presbyterian Church in Meridian. Back in church, Dr. Payne preached on “Truth, Satan, The Christian Mind…and Racism,” declaring racism as “offensive to God.”

Recently, the Daily Journal’s Bobby Harrison wrote an epic column on Southern heritage. In it he empathizes with the heritage sentiment of some flag supporters, noting there may have been people marching in Charlottesville “with pride and heritage in their heart, not hate.”

“But,” he continued, “it was difficult to find those in the midst of all those who were there with hate and bigotry in their hearts, waving not only Confederate battle flags, but Nazi swastikas. When the symbol is more identified with hate and bigotry, it is reasonable to argue that creates a problem for a government that still flies the emblem as part of its official banner as Mississippi does.”

“The truth is that it might be too late to separate the banner from hate,” Harrison concluded.

Taggart was lambasted in political blogs, but garnered some praise for putting morality ahead of heritage regarding the flag conflict.

Where there is faith, there is hope.

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Fear, Hate Messaging Makes Government the Enemy

“The first principle is that everyone is scared,” said Mike. “The second principle is that everyone hates.”

Wondering what drives our politics these days? Read Eugene Burdick’s powerful 1956 novel, The Ninth Wave. “A prescient and still relevant story,” opined one critic. The opening quotations come from the book’s lead character, Mike Freesmith, who harnessed the power of fear and hate to control an election.

Today, big money and big data have taken these principles to new heights to manipulate and control voters to enhance their political power.

“Everybody worries about something,” Mike said. “Up in an office on the top floor of the Golden State Building, we’ve got a research staff picking out every group, every locality, every organization that’s got something to worry about.”

Operations today are much more sophisticated as algorithms mine the Internet and social media for gigabytes of data on individual voters; fear and hate messages are tested through blogs, emails and texts and responses measured; and incessant telephone and email surveys gather and analyze opinions on a daily basis.

“They exploit decades of behavioral science research into the flawed, often irrational ways human beings make decisions to subtly ‘nudge’ us—without our noticing it—toward one candidate,” reported Newsweek in June.

In the book, once people’s worries were identified and characterized into broad categories, “I tell them what to be scared of,” Mike said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Nowadays, once the operators hone effective messages, dissemination begins through sponsored radio and TV talk shows, blogs, social networks, and advertising. The dissemination goals are to tell people what to fear and to stir up hateful emotions.

The real purpose behind these machinations, however, is to get large blocks of people to rely on the message moguls as trustworthy, real authorities.

“There is one thing the masses know,” said Mike, “real authority. And a real authority is someone who can satisfy their desire to hate and their fear. A good authority works the two of them together.

“He plays ’em like they’re an organ,” Mike continued. “He sits at the console and gives ’em what he thinks they need; a little fear today, a little hate tomorrow.”

The organmeisters today don’t speak directly to the masses, but communicate by multiple means through the vast message operations they fund and control.

One diabolical technique described by Burdick thrives today — pick out something people have, then persuade them someone is trying to take it away.

“Try and take something away from people and all of a sudden that’s the thing they want,” Mike said.

Consider the various freedom movements. Those behind them have convinced blocks of people that government is trying to take away some freedom. As a result, more and more Americans now alternatively fear and hate government.

Once most Americans took pride in our unique Constitution and the representative form of government it empowers, a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The powerful manipulators who utilize Burdick’s “fear + hate = power” formula have turned cherished government into the enemy.

Beware of fear and hate.

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Waller and Randolph Rumored as Potential Reeves Challengers

Rumors that Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves will get a serious primary challenger for Governor intensify.

There’s the rumor he can’t beat Attorney General Jim Hood so politicos and money men are looking to recruit a strong challenger who can.

There are rumors of growing concerns by Republican leaders that Democrats could win three races, Governor, Lt. Governor and Attorney General if Reeves is at the top of the ticket.

And there are rumors that potentially strong candidates are stirring in case there really is something to all these rumors.

Discontent with Reeves’ leadership – lack thereof, style, tone, etc. – seem behind the rumors. One longtime Republican leader told me he will oppose Reeves even if it means voting for a Democrat. Another said the state needs a governor who can actually lead, not one limited by what’s politically popular. (Are there still candidates like that who can win a primary?)

There’s also rumor of a survey showing Hood ahead of Reeves.

All this points to Reeves needing a strong showing in the upcoming budget committee sessions and next year’s legislative session. How he comes through all that may dictate Hood’s chances to upset him and, consequently, chances he gets a strong primary opponent.

Among the many names tossed about as primary challengers, the most intriguing are two Mississippi Supreme Court justices, Chief Justice Bill Waller and Presiding Justice Mike Randolph. Both come with substantive resumes and could mount strong primary campaigns.

Both have military pedigrees, a positive in military friendly Mississippi.

Waller spent 30 years in the Army guard and reserves, rising to Brigadier General. He was awarded the Legion of Merit and is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College.

Randolph is a decorated Vietnam war veteran who served with the Army “Big Red One” 1st Infantry Division. He later served as a reserve officer in the United States Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps and is a graduate of the Naval Justice School.

Both got their law degrees from Ole Miss, had successful legal practices before entering the judiciary, and are considered conservative judges.

Both are married, attend Baptist churches, and have children and grandchildren.

They aren’t clones, though.

Waller, of course, is the son of popular former Governor Bill Waller (1972-76). Randolph is the son of a construction worker with a third-grade education.

Waller has never been highly visible in party politics (judicial races are non-partisan). He was first elected to the Supreme Court in 1996, rising to the position of Chief Justice in 2009. A Mississippi State University graduate, his political base lies in Jackson and central Mississippi.

Randolph, on the other hand, was a highly visible Republican before Gov. Haley Barbour appointed him in 2004 to serve out former Chief Justice Ed Pittman’s unexpired term. He also received an appointment by President Ronald Reagan to the National Coal Council. His political base lies in Hattiesburg and south Mississippi.

While Reeves is the clear favorite with a substantial war chest and statewide base, his performance over the next eight months will likely determine if Waller, Randolph, or others take him on.

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Does Generals’ Coup Put Warbringers in Charge?

Seven Days in May, written by Fletcher Kneble and Charles Bailey and published in 1962, portrays a tense, nearly successful coup of American government by a cadre of senior generals. A quote on the cover of the paperback attributed to the Army Times said, “They say it can’t happen here, but if it does, it probably will be pretty much as Knebel and Bailey say.”

Wrong. Over 18 days in August three senior generals accomplished a coup peacefully, co-opting a volatile President and inexperienced Secretary of State.

On July 31, retired Marine four-star General John Kelly moved in as President Trump’s Chief of Staff.  Over the first 18 days in August, he began consolidating his power, culminating in the ouster of the President’s closest advisor Steve Bannon.

Kelly’s rise gives him and two other generals extraordinary power in the Trump administration. Retired Marine four-star General Jim Mattis serves as Secretary of Defense. Active-duty three-star Army General H.R. McMaster serves as National Security Advisor. In particular, with Bannon’s ouster and no-one appointed to replace Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security, these three now dominate military and national security policy decisions.

Business Insider discounts Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, saying there is “concern among some diplomats that he is not a major player in Trump’s national security team.”

“Connected by their faith in order and global norms, these military leaders are rapidly consolidating power throughout the executive branch as they counsel a volatile president,” said a Washington Post article.

In the novel, generals attempted a military coup to replace a president they saw as weak and misguided. Ironically, one of their concerns was their president’s willingness to trust Russia. Many experienced foreign policy experts see our current president as weak and misguided, and he wants to work with Russia.

The influence of the generals became clear last week when President Trump announced not only will the United States maintain its military presence in Afghanistan indefinitely but will send more troops and expand their role. Prior to that, Trump and Bannon were singing from the same song book – how many years must a failed war go on before it is allowed to end?

Until last week, Trump had called leaders “stupid” who wanted continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Now, Vice President Pence is justifying expanded military operations and proclaiming opportunities for a “stable” and “prosperous” Afghanistan, talk reminiscent of another failed war, Vietnam.

A Reuters commentary said, “Bannon’s departure may have made Trump more likely to listen to his generals and dive more deeply into the Afghanistan mess.” Indeed, Bannon lost out and the generals took control, unlike Seven Days in May where patriots thwarted the generals’ coup.   

Trump’s bellicose approach to North Korea, statements about intervening in Venezuela, hints he may pull out of the Iran nuclear accord, and, now, his flip-flop on Afghanistan feed concerns that the generals will push military force ahead of diplomacy.

Still and all, it’s too soon to say this coup puts warbringers in charge. Wise and cautious generals can be effective peacemakers. Pray for peace.

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Do Governor’s Appointees Not Give A Squat about His Standards?

Did you read Geoff Pender’s terrific column “Take some aspirin before searching Transparency Mississippi website” in the Clarion-Ledger?  If transparency in government spending matters to you, this is a must read.

Pender pointed to non-transparent disclosures on the transparency site by the Mississippi Division of Medicaid, then said, “Apparently, they don’t feel like telling the public squat about their travel. So they don’t.”

Then Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant was a champion for passage of the 2008 law creating www.transparency.mississippi.gov, noted Pender.

Now Bryant is Governor, but agencies under him are callously subverting transparency in government spending.

Not good.

Oh, Pender outed several subverters, including Superintendent of Education Carey Wright and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, but they aren’t under Bryant’s authority like Medicaid and the Department of Banking and Consumer Affairs.

The main culprit targeted by Pender was state Medicaid Director Dr. David Dzielak. Pender wrote: “When Dzielak travels out of state, and he does so frequently, he lists the destination as ‘out of state travel.’ He lists the title of the meeting or seminar as ‘office of executive services’ whatever the heck that means. He lists the meeting purpose for all his trips as ‘Any out of state meetings and/or activities pertaining to the office of executive services.”

“Why thank you for sharing, Dr. Dzielak,” exclaimed Pender, who added, “most in Dzielak’s agency appear to follow his lead.”

This isn’t Dzielak’s only variance from open government standards that Gov. Bryant has championed.

Following the disclosure of corruption in contracts issued by the Department of Corrections, Bryant called for strict standards and transparency in government contracting and signed major improvements pushed by Rep. Jerry Turner. One key change was revamping the Personal Service Contract Review Board to provide more independent and professional oversight of government contracts.

In late June, Dzielak prematurely signed a protested $2 billion Medicaid contract, skipping the contract review process altogether. The awarding of Medicaid’s MississippiCAN managed care contract is now the subject of a lawsuit and legislator protests

“DOM’s (Department of Medicaid’s) actions, first in failing to adhere to the terms of the RFP, and then in moving forward to implement its awards despite the pending protests, violate numerous mandatory statutory and regulatory requirements, and constitute a fundamental departure from the fair and unbiased administration of the procurement process for the MississippiCAN program, which again, is one of, if not the largest, public procurements in the State’s history,” the complaint stated.

Various news reports said many legislators question Medicaid’s rush to execute the contract without review.

Intriguingly, Medicaid’s website highlights its commitment to “fair and equitable” contracting and states it will evaluate proposals in accordance with “provisions of the State Personal Service Contract Review Board.” PSCRB guidelines show Medicaid subject to its purview. However, a Medicaid attorney said insurance contracts do require review by the board. There is no such exception in the statute establishing the PSCRB.

“It should have gone before the review board,” said Rep. Turner.

Do the Governor’s appointees not give a squat about his standards? Perhaps the Governor should sit Dzielak and other subverters down and find out why.

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