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31.3.15

Compulsory voting, automatic registration bad ideas

Data surrounding recent local elections demonstrates why the compulsory voting idea floated by Pres. Barack Obama is a bad idea for Louisiana to adopt.



For example, in Bossier City, a whopping 6.6 percent of voters cast their ballots for two tax renewals to fund public safety services. In Caddo Parish, a special election and a couple of district tax measures prompted turnouts between 6 and 7 percent. In Ouachita Parish for district tax measures, stunningly-high 3.6 and 2.2 percentages bothered to participate. Such turnout is typical for these kinds of items, especially when there are no jurisdiction-wide or wider contests decided with them.



Obama had suggested that it would do the country good to be under some kind of scheme that required people to vote in elections, presumably along the lines of a place like Australia where people who do not cast a ballot in an election for all federal offices get fined a small amount, about US$16. He argued that this would “counteract money,” alleging that elections in the U.S. are not a product of rational decision-making by the electorate, but whoever spends the most.

30.3.15

Incremental TOPS bill requires substantial followup

At least it moves the ball down the field a little bit, the first bill in some time that has a political chance to improve the problem of Louisiana’s open-ended commitment to the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students having been prefiled for the Legislature’s upcoming 2015 regular session – but moves it only a tiny fraction.



SB 48 by state Sen. Jack Donahue would give the Legislature a cost-control mechanism over the TOPS award. Presently, the amount given per student is linked to tuition paid to Louisiana public colleges and universities, up to the highest amount charged by each kind (or a weighted average of each kind of these for a student wishing to attend a Louisiana nonpublic school). The bill locks in the amount at the academic year 2017 level – beginning almost 18 months from now – and gives the Legislature the discretion whether to raise the award for any future tuition increases past that level. This means tuition could go higher without TOPS fully paying for it.



As far as reforms of the program go, this is about as close as it can be to being no reform at all. It treats the symptom – escalating costs pegged at $267 million for this fiscal year for which the only control the Legislature has is its bizarre two-thirds majorities requirement to raise tuition more than 10 percent (for schools that meet certain qualifications; otherwise, no autonomous raise is permitted) – instead of the disease: a program so lax in its requirements (requiring for an award to pay for attending a baccalaureate-and-above institution only the national average score on the American College Test and a mediocre high school grade point average, and less demanding strictures to attend a community college or technical school) that it pays for too many marginal students to attend post-secondary education institutions, encouraging waste and making schools work less efficiently. Any serious reform must start with raising standards and graduating award amounts depending upon performance that reward excellence, which in turn creates incentive for more efficient learning and higher achievement in doing so.

29.3.15

Early endorsement illustrates LA Democrat weakness


That Louisiana Democrats moved to endorse state Rep. John Bel Edwards this past weekend at the quarterly meeting of their state central committee connotes more a defensive than offensive posture that illustrates the increasing weakness of the party.



Edwards has worked hard to position himself as the only quality candidate of this party for this office, and it paid off by this endorsement that, to say the least, by historical standards is unusual. State Democrats didn’t even bother to endorse candidates in the prior two contests, both won commandingly by Gov. Bobby Jindal, and prior to that endorsements would come only after the general election went into a runoff. Even going back almost a quarter of a century with endorsements prior to that on the electoral calendar, of Prisoner #03128-095, these did not occur this early in it.



That’s because they know Edwards is a longshot at best to win against three strong Republican candidates. The previous gubernatorial endorsement they made, in 2003, of Louisianans registered to vote, 57 percent of them identified as Democrats, while 48 percent of whites did so, making the party’s composition 56 percent white. Now they comprise less than 47 percent of the electorate, just 32 percent of whites, and the party has a black majority at 53 percent.

26.3.15

Expand execution methods to save more innocent lives



Utah just changed its laws to allow once again the use of firing squads to carry out capital sentences. Louisiana should follow suit with this and/or other methods.



The controversy comes over the difficulty in gaining access to the drugs needed to make the lethal injection method work in the least tortuous way possible. Political activists have tried, with some success, to pressure manufacturers of those drugs not to sell to jurisdictions that permit capital punishment. This has delayed one scheduled execution in Louisiana at least a year, where now the earliest it could happen would be the latter half of this year.



As state law permits only lethal injection, like Utah, which faced the same difficulty, Louisiana would have to make a change. Last year, an idea for legislation was floated to provide for alternative methods of carrying out a capital sentence, and it actually got far long in the process until its author state Rep. Joe Lopinto abruptly shelved it in favor of a study resolution for the Department of Corrections. That study presented an alternative heretofore untried, essentially inducing hypoxia, but Lopinto said of the fiscal-only session upcoming, with its restrictions on the number of non-fiscal bills that can be introduced, this doesn’t leave him room to go with any recommendation.

25.3.15

Cigarette tax report misleads on fiscal conclusions



In making decisions about Louisiana’s rickety budget this approaching legislative session, policy-makers need accurate information about their policy options. Unfortunately, a recent report about one of these issued by a leftist interest group does more to mislead than to inform.



As lawmakers ponder the utility of an increase in tobacco taxes to infuse revenue into the state’s upcoming spending plan, the Louisiana Budget Project circulated information about a dramatic increase in cigarette taxation. The organization estimated that a $1.25 increase per pack in that would generate $230 million in new revenues and encourage tens of thousands not to smoke, presumably saving many lives.



But it also goes on to allege that the state’s Medicaid program would save $523 million, its uncompensated care costs would go down by $88 million, and state health plans for its employees would rack up $85 million fewer in costs, for a total of $696 million a year in savings, from the impact of reduced smoking incidence. In order to come up with these figures, it extrapolates from a Centers for Disease Control 2009 report about the costs to state Medicaid systems of smoking-related illnesses.

24.3.15

Common Core contention invites BESE Trojan Horses

Those committed to education reform only can hope that the obsession some voters have with whether Louisiana should stick with the Common Core State Standards Initiative does not allow Trojan Horse establishmentarian candidates for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to get into office and to wreck the only real progress seen for decades in the state’s delivery of education.



Of course, the controversy itself largely qualifies as making a mountain out of a molehill. Wild-eyed prophecies of CCSSI bringing doom and Soviet-like control over education that the more excitable critics of Common Core scarcely have credibility; more sober minds raise concerns about quality and appropriateness of the standards that deserve close watching but should be manageable. Whatever the outcome of whether it gets used totally, in part, or not at all, that will make little difference in the ultimate quality of educational delivery.



Far more impactful is the degree of choice allowed in Louisiana schools and accountability attached to them and their employees. The continued expansion of charter schools and the facilitation of their establishment and operation, of the school voucher program, and of school and teacher accountability measures make a much bigger difference in provision of superior education. This present set of elected BESE members, with a pair of notable exceptions in the form of Lottie Beebe and Carolyn Hill, has accomplished much in taking what the Legislature has given them and ensured that it has been implemented to full potency, not watered down.

23.3.15

New NO law forcing choice between health/liberty, lucre



The hazards and hypocrisy of tobacco regulation and taxation went on full display as a panel of lawmakers grappled with New Orleans’ decision to ban smoking in almost all public places.



The Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget was reviewing the state’s contract with the city to provide $3.6 million to it for public safety services, ostensibly because these increase as a result of the presence of Harrah’s New Orleans Casino, the only land-based casino authorized by the state. The state receives the first $63.6 million earned by the casino, but the first and last $1.8 million of that are supposed to get kicked back to the city as compensation through a separate line item. Harrah’s officials claimed that fiscal year 2016 revenue to the state would be jeopardized, backed by a Louisiana State Police assertions that the city’s new, soon-to-be implemented smoking ban, which would include all New Orleans casinos, could cut revenues by 20 percent, even as that estimate appeared based on assumptions inapplicable to the market.



The figure drew some concern from lawmakers, and led to putting off approval of the annual contract until the Legislature’s regular session began. During that time, the entire Legislature likely will consider increasing tobacco taxes in order to raise revenues to close a budgetary gap in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

22.3.15

Defensive cracks give hope to higher education reform

Admirably, the Louisiana State University Board of Supervisors forced consideration of larger issues about the state’s higher education system when it requested that the Louisiana Legislature this upcoming session to free institutions from any constraints on tuition and fees and increasing autonomy in general.



In its meeting last week, the supervisors passed a resolution requesting greater autonomy, a preference supported by higher education administrators in general, and another which would return tuition and fee determination back to the governing boards like their system’s, altered two decades ago to require legislative approval of increases in these, although legislation from a few years ago made an exception to allow for increases up to 10 percent without that blessing so long as schools reached performance targets. Heretofore, administrators have not backed that measure with tuition, although they have with fees and have fallen behind a bill to set the stage for that.



They have resisted loosening tuition restrictions because then policy-makers could tell them that they must use this tool to increase revenues, forgoing some or any contribution of increased taxpayer commitment. That the 10 percent increases that have happened over the past few years occurred in conjunction with reductions in the state’s allotment lend credence to this view. Administrators always prefer using taxpayer resources than own resources, for as tuition and fees rise, at the margins fewer students enroll, which threatens programs and jobs, a special concern in Louisiana because of the overbuilt nature of its higher education system that already has too few students chasing too many institutions.

19.3.15

Gov. polling results present quandary for Democrats



A couple of polls concerning the governor’s contest later this year have hit the public consciousness. You can’t put much stock in them as to how the contest will turn out, but they do show the very broad contours of the race as it threatens to develop, and provide especially trenchant information for Democrats.



One organization put one out last week, and another followed this week, with roughly the same sampling frame. Both excluded cellular phone numbers, which almost certainly introduces error into the results as roughly three-eighths of the population nationally live in wireless-only households, and the proportion probably is higher in Louisiana as states with more extensive rural populations disproportionately have these kinds of households. It’s debatable how this bias works in if at all, for as the younger and Hispanics, for example, are both disproportionately likely to vote for Democrats and also not have households with landlines, at the same time they are less likely to vote.



Regardless, the results for both came out about the same: Republican Sen. David Vitter lead the way in the mid-thirties of percent, not far behind him came Democrat state Rep. John Bel Edwards, trailing much further back in the mid-teens was Republican Sec. of State Jay Dardenne, and trailing in single digits was Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle. The undecided portion comprised in the 10-15 percent range.

18.3.15

LA higher education needs reform before tax dollars

Understanding the policy debate concerning higher education funding in Louisiana means realizing that its leaders say one thing when in reality they fear it, in an attempt to deflect attention from larger truths about their environment that they wish to keep out of the spotlight.



At a recent forum that brought together various systems chiefs, campus heads, and the top dog himself, Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo, generally they stumped for what they termed “autonomy,” which they defined as marginal changes to practices and procedures in delivering higher education, such as in pursuing capital projects without so much bureaucracy to hurdle. These kind of changes will do little to stabilize funding and increase efficiency in higher education for a state ranked 18th in per capita spending on higher education now facing cuts of anywhere from $100 million to $600 million this upcoming fiscal year, depending upon legislative vagaries in the next few months.



But when queried about substantive changes in Louisiana’s higher education systems featuring genuine autonomy that would induce efficiency, these mandarins blanched. In particular, University of Louisiana System Pres. Sandra Woodley was dismissive about the notion of increased “privatization” (in the sense higher education mostly would control revenue-raising capability, have few constraints on spending decision-making, and its possessing a large degree of separation from state control), alleging through this that “only the relatively wealthy will be able to participate” in earning a college degree. She also called mythical that closing or merging campuses would put higher education funding on firmer ground, because it would cost more to educate different “universes” of students.