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28.1.05

When Primary Elections Become Too Primary

To the Louisiana House’s Governmental Affairs Committee: when in doubt, check with your friendly neighborhood political scientist. Just don’t all thank me at once for this free information and advice on a technical election matter.

Last week, this committee convened to come up with some ideas concerning the presidential preference primary’s future in this state. Their main worry came from the fact that the exercise cost the state $2.8 million, or about $1 for every eligible voter, $10 per actual voter, for a contest that really made no difference in the presidential nomination sweepstakes.

Both panel members and those testifying in front of it, from all political stripes, lamented this situation and wondered what to do it about. Well, let me use my Ph.D. in political science and 19 years of teaching in the field at the university level to try to help.

To begin, a correction: it was reported that Louisiana’s efforts to have a primary or caucus before the first caucus state, Iowa, ran afoul of an Iowan state law. This was not the case – the only reason why Iowa gets to have the first caucus and New Hampshire the first primary for the Democrat side is it is written into the party’s rules. A companion rule does not exist for the GOP but traditionally party leaders from all states have deferred to this scheduling, in part due to the Democrats’ insistence on it and the confusion that would occur if different parties had primaries on separate days.

This panel may wish to review with interest the national Democrat Party’s plans here, which in a couple of weeks will convene a commission to study the issue. Voices of reform have articulated that the increased front-loading, or states bunching their contests earlier together in the nomination season, distorts the process. Worse, a free-for-all leapfrogging of states trying to battle for earlier and earlier positions logically could lead to the first contest occurring the weekend after a presidential election.

Louisiana has gone down that road before, where Republicans tried to have caucuses prior to Iowa’s in 1996 and 2000. In the first case, most candidates boycotted the event and in the second it never came off. Better would be a plan pushed by the National Association of Secretaries of State to create a rotating schedule of regional primaries.

Of course, Louisiana simply could save money by opting out entirely of a primary and holding much less expensive caucuses. A half-dozen states did so in 2004, and Secretary of State Fox McKeithen has suggested it here.

Getting the Democrats to remove the rules making Iowa and New Hampshire sacrosanct as first should represent a starting point in this endeavor. On the Democrat side, in 2000 Delaware and in 2004 Michigan challenged the Democrat National Committee on the issue, but it forced both to back down. More backbone by other states, with quiet support by party frontrunners for the 2008 nomination could make this reality.

But unless the Democrats by this time next year have endorsed such a move, Louisiana will have to jockey with other states for relevancy, so now may the time for Democrat House members and Democrats statewide to put pressure on the party to make this move. If it doesn’t happen, a money-saving caucus might also make worry over a date less stressful.

27.1.05

A Tale of Two Weeks

What a difference a week makes – one week Louisiana’s Bond Commission defers to the wishes of a local politician on a local project, but only days later defers the wishes of a powerful statewide politician on a matter of some statewide importance.

Last week, Shreveport Mayor Keith Hightower got his wish granted to sell $40 million in bonds to finance the building of a city-owned hotel to accompany the city’s under-construction convention center. This week, Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom had the commission table his request for $85 million in bonds to build a sugar cane syrup mill pending further study.

At this time last week, nary a word was out around the state about Odom’s project, which would be the second he has built leveraged off $12 million a year from slot machine taxes originally intended for, and having successfully financed, boll weevil eradication. But led by a charge from talk radio show host Moon Griffon and later picked up by the mainstream media, the attention given to Odom’s plan, which lacks any real feasibility study with economically questionable premises for use of tax dollars, displayed what a truly bad idea it was.

Odom did himself no favors by publicly questioning the integrity of Gov. Blanco, who came out of this conflict a winner in almost every way. Only she had enough leverage over her appointee and the legislative members of the Commission to stop it, and she did, pleasing taxpayer, good government, and sugar cane grower advocates.

Now it would take a miracle for Odom’s plan to come to fruition, given the economics of the situation that surely will be revealed in the upcoming report. This constitutes a stunning setback for Odom, who, only months earlier, was directing the Democrat Party’s endorsements. Odom, we must understand, is perhaps the truest of the “good old boy network” in state by his longevity in office and stature, and the way in which he tried to pull this off has served more as the rule rather than the exception in his political career – a style which has gotten him into as-yet unresolved legal trouble.

Hightower, in his own way a member of the network, proved more politically adept by getting a study to fit his objectives (even if that study cautioned that the scenario presented was perhaps too optimistic) and did not go challenging anybody in a position of authority. His effort also benefited from very little representation of his opponents at the meeting, and that it was a project the mistakes of which would fall on the shoulders of Shreveporters, not the entire state (although in a per capita sense Shreveporters would pay more, about $200 a head as opposed to one-tenth that to state residents, for its failure).

Hightower’s political future came out much brighter after his win; Odom’s now is a big question mark with his recent actions shining even more light on a career that best operated in the dark. Even though under indictment, Odom easily gained reelection in 2003 but already two notable politicians, Democrat Public Service Commissioner Dale Sittig and Republican state Sen. James David Cain, have all but announced they will vie for the job in 2007.

Perhaps they won’t even get a chance. A pair of Republican lawmakers have said they wish the Legislature would remove the $12 million annually flowing almost unmonitored into Odom’s hands, but perhaps they should go further. The Louisiana Constitution allows the Legislature to make his office appointive, and there is precedent (removing the superintendent of education not long after the constitution’s ratification, and recently the commissioner of elections) for doing this. Only a dozen states have elective Agriculture Commissioners, so why must we continue to be a part of this minority?

Maybe that would be the best way to make sure we have no more Bob Odoms; if too many people are so inattentive to his back-room, who-cares-about-the-people leadership as to let him stay in office, maybe their representatives will be leaders and prevent the likes of him from disgracing the public weal again.

26.1.05

Bernhard: Onward through the Fog!

By his own admission, Louisiana Democrat Party Chairman Jim Bernhard involved himself little in politics until recently. If we are to take his recent remarks concerning his plans for leading the party, it shows.

Some questions that leap to mind about his comments:
Does he know what a political party does?
Does he know what the Democrat Party is?
Does he know the issue preferences of the Democrat Party relative to the Republicans?
Did he pay attention to the 2004 elections?
Does he plan on keeping this job long?

Let’s review some of the more interesting statements he’s quoted as making. First, he says he switched from independent to Democrat last year because he felt that the party’s policy desired to "give a helping hand, rather than a handout" to people and that he wanted to support policy that would close the gap "between the haves and have-nots."

25.1.05

Don't Commit a Turnover on Higher Gas Taxes

Discussion is beginning to pick up on state Rep. Billy Wayne Montgomery’s idea to raise the state gasoline sales tax by one cent a gallon. Today, the Bossier Chamber of Commerce will consider whether to endorse it, and its Shreveport version will take up the matter soon thereafter. The old ball coach is playing the good old boy game of politics here: expand the pie enough for everybody and maybe you can get something passed.

In trying to increase this from 20 to 21 cents a gallon to fund both sections of I-49 construction, not only does Montgomery bid for the support of Shreveport-area legislators, but also those stretching from the coastal parishes from Lafayette to Jefferson Parishes. Were he to secure all of their votes in both chambers, he’d already be better than halfway to getting this passed.

But support of these local delegations is far from certain. In the Shreveport area alone, Senate District 37’s Max Malone is perhaps the most anti-tax, pro-efficiency legislator in the Legislature – unless he gets outdone by House District 6’s Mike Powell who’s only been in a year and is just beginning to build that kind of record. Legislators like these will look pretty suspiciously on any tax increase.

Especially when it comes in this area of highway construction. In 1989, the state was promised with the establishment of a special additional sales tax on gas that the proceeds would go to the completion of state highway projects deemed crucial, and then the tax would roll off. Sixteen years later, only five (one just two weeks ago) of the 16 eventual projects brought into this (the TIMED program) have been completed.

Worse, Louisiana’s highway construction hardly is known as efficient. Secretary of Transportation and Development Johnny Bradberry, upon his taking the department’s helm last year, suggested that some not insignificant cost savings from more efficient use of resources loomed on the horizon. Comparative statistics back him up on this; per capita spending on highway in Louisiana, comparing the weighted average of itself and Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas, was 4.7% higher in 2001. Montgomery’s plan would push the Louisiana average close to 10 percent higher.

Actually, what Montgomery ought to do first is get his legislative colleagues to take away Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom’s slush fund of $12 million a year (from the now completed boll weevil eradication program) that he can devote to whatever projects he pleases. He’s already trying to leverage that into building sugar mills when those in the private sector are shutting down. Keeping in mind the 9-to-1 match of federal highway dollars to states’, the amount that’s already gone under Odom’s control could have paid for completing the segment of I-49 from Shreveport north.

The fact is, slapping yet another tax on users of Louisiana-sold fuel would allow too much inefficiency to continue to permeate the state’s government. I-49 completion should be a top priority, but a state truly committed to this has the resources at hand to do it without yet another tax hike.

24.1.05

It's easy -- rename the Superdome the Super Bowl

This story has been kicking around for six months, right after the last session closed and the state barely got the New Orleans Saints their contractural payment. In fact, back then on PoliticsLa and more recently on BayouBuzz (although neither seems to have archived it) I ran this column, so I guess to make sure that everybody in the world can possibly see it, I reprint the latter version here (with one sentence added):

BATON ROUGE -- Frustrated at the inability of the state to sell naming rights to the stadium formerly known as the Louisiana Superdome, yesterday Gov. Kathleen Blanca issued an executive order renaming the structure the Super Bowl.

For awhile it had appeared that the state would have to go with some kinds of tax raises to fully fund a deal that during the previous Foster administration had been made between the state and the main tenant of the Super Bowl, the New Orleans Saints, to pay off the team $15 million a year to stay in the city. In 2004, however, the state had to cough up about $13 million of this to prevent going into default which would allow the Saints to leave without penalty. Part of the shortfall came because naming rights estimated at $4 million a year have not been sold.

Blanca’s move was another way of spurring economic development in the state, she asserted. “While we are waiting for some fine corporate citizen to fork over millions of dollars a year for the right to name a building few people hear about, this renaming will prove to attract business to the state like mosquitoes to one of those zapping things we see in a lot of yards but which nobody really knows the name of them so they call them something like ‘bug zappers,’” she said.

“By renaming the building the ‘Super Bowl,’ the National Football League, to avoid brand confusion, will feel compelled to have the game of the same name here each and every year,” she testified. “Economic studies have shown that the Super Bowl game is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to a local economy and should enable a payback to the Saints with ease.”

Asked whether she anticipated that the NFL might sue over a trademark infringement by use of that name, Blanca retorted, “It’s a building we’ve named; it’s not a game we’ve pilfered. Did anybody sue Tulane when they played in the Sugar Bowl? Besides, with the civil law emphasis to our legal code plus judges who run for election who would get pulverized at the ballot box faster than Aaron Brooks hanging in a dissolving pocket, if they ever ruled against something that could help the Saints out, we could tie the NFL up in court until the cows come home so I don’t think they’ll challenge us on this.”

When reminded that trademarks would be a matter for federal court in Washington, Blanca retorted, “If the NFL is that foolish, I’ll issue an executive order preventing Louisianans from participating in such an unfair league. Over 10 percent of starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl game have been Louisianans; how foolish would it be for them to cut off a prime source of QB’s in their premier game?”

Blanca also pointed out that with the new name the NFL may feel obligated to have the Saints be one of the two teams to play in the game of the same name every year. “It wouldn’t be right to have the home team of the Super Bowl not play in the Super Bowl for the Super Bowl,” she opined. With this advantage, she argued that attendance and television exposure, thus revenues for the team, would go up, making the Saints stay in New Orleans more economically viable, and would reduce the state’s financial exposure.

When told of the governor’s remarks, Saints sportscaster Buddy Hackett said, “I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that the Saints will play in the Super Bowl next year. To be honest with you, it’s probably the only way they’ll ever play in the Super Bowl.” Hackett also added, “But what really impresses me is the governor’s knowledge about football. I think that state law granting state officials preferential access to athletic event tickets, as well as subsidized ticket transportation by the state police, is working wonders.”

Questioned if the state can forgo the $4 million estimated to be received for naming rights now at least temporarily off the table, Blanca pointed out that “I campaigned promising economic development would be a top priority, and since taking office a year ago I already have given away now nearly a hundred million dollars of projected state monies in economic incentives to concerns like getting 10 jobs at tank car manufacturers and a few more at pool companies in order to save Louisiana jobs and even to create some new ones. I would give away billions to keep jobs in this state. So what’s $4 million?”

House Speaker Rep. Joe Pepper echoed Blanca’s sentiments. “Doubting the governor’s wisdom on this issue is so typical, all these busybody critics of our fine, efficient government. Try to give a hardworking committee vice chair a raise and they jump all over you. Give away $25 million annually through the Urban and Rural Development Funds and they pound you. It’s only $4 million, after all – not even ‘real’ money. If they get upset about that, wait until they see how much more we caused the state to owe in future years by stringing out payback on our underfunded pensions.”

When informed of the governor’s comments, former Gov. Mike “Murphy” Foster said, “I’m disappointed. All of this selling of and traveling outside of and fussing about the state and economic development tell me this woman’s been riding one too many motorcycles without a helmet. Out of my way, I’m late to some ducks’ early funerals.”

(Sadly, a week after this last ran, longtime New Orleans sportcaster Buddy Diliberto died.)