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15.6.05

Sick tax passes because senators say one thing, do another

With 14 Republicans, who usually are against bloated government and unnecessary taxes, in the Louisiana Senate, at least one would have to defect for the sick tax HB 887 to pass. In fact, because a couple of Democrats were expected to vote against it, more would be needed. When all was said and done, Sens. Don Cravins and Nick Gautreaux broke against the tax raise, while Sen. Rob Marrioneaux found reason to absent himself (which is as good as a nay). For it to pass, therefore, five Republicans had to defect – and they did, Sens. Walter Boasso, Sherri Smith Cheek, Ken Hollis, Mike Michot, and Clo Fontenot, allowing the state to reach further into the pockets of health care consumers and insurance payers 26-11.

Cravins’ previous comments and Gautreaux’s failed amendments (to introduce more transparency into the tax and to redirect some monies to rural hospitals) presaged their opposition. Boasso was somewhat of a surprise to support it (although his testimony during amendment consideration made his position clear), while Fontentot was rumored to be shopping his vote around for pork, Hollis’ past voting record, Michot’s running a medical equipment company, and Cheek’s close relationship with the health care industry almost made their votes predictable.

But if one GOP defector would have to be singled out as the crucial vote, the one whom the interests that favored this bill invested in and got a payoff in the form of this passing, it would be Cheek. She has a history of talking as if she favors more efficient health care spending but her actions show, as in this case, that instead she would rather confiscate more money out of the people’s pockets. Her activities relative to other bills this session testify to this, and even on this tax she has said one thing and done another:

Blanco, not conservatives, fails state education

Bitter to the end, Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s comments about the failure of her cigarette tax for teacher raises/health care/whatever demonstrates why she continues to prove she is not the right person at this time to lead necessary reform of state finances and education.
Blanco made remarks at a press conference, and showed she still does not get it:

I know that thousands of educators and parents across our state are bitterly disappointed that a willful, obstructionist group sided with cigarette vendors and against our teachers and against our children.

First, I’m an educator and nonsmoker, and I’m delighted that state government is not going to be able to confiscate more of the people’s resources. Second, this “group” did not side with “cigarette vendors” and against “teachers” and “children,” it sided with lovers of liberty and against the big government liberalism that is at the heart of Blanco’s political philosophy.

Never forget that while Blanco may make some efforts to promote more efficient government, she does not at all believe in the concept of smaller government. Like her liberal friends, she wants more and more money sucked from the people into government so she can accumulate more power and do more things. She is no different than federal prisoner #03128-095 in that way (although, quite fortunately, she appears to be a whole lot more honest).

And because she is so blinded by her ideology, by her love of big government that, according to her rhetoric, she seems unable to understand the nature of the opposition. Thus, she rails about “profiteers” being aided by “conservatives” to create a “shameful victory.” No, it was a glorious victory for anybody who believes in the philosophy that government that governs the least governs the best, because the resources already are there for teacher raises without any raising of taxes.

This sentiment that “obstructionist” Republicans, plus a few Democrats, defeated the efforts to bring about the raises, is pure fiction because of the amendment on the operating budget bill to put teacher pay raises in the current budget, rather than contingent on a tax increase. The amendment barely lost, but one word from Blanco at that time would have reversed that outcome. Simply, Blanco refused to support educators when it counted the most.

Especially egregious here was that money existed so that no cuts would have to be made; this was after the state had gotten recognized much more funding. But Blanco’s response to this at the time? Most of the money should be used to plug a hole in health care. Yet if that was the case, then why was the sick tax necessary? Will Blanco’s appetite for more money to state government ever end?

There is still time for the Senate to amend the operating to stick in these raises. (If she wants to find a more-permanent revenue stream to back them, she can try health spending or slush fund reform.) Again, all Blanco has to do is say the word and she can muscle it through. Whether she does will determine if she really does support teacher pay raises or that she fails to support education in the state.

14.6.05

Despite some history ignorance, faculty do try to do their jobs

There is another instance in which I feel I should address a column written by somebody, falling under the same rubric as a posting last week to reassure the public that not everybody in academic is so bereft of actual knowledge and logical thinking that state taxpayers and those paying tuition aren’t throwing their money away. This is when a college student makes us look like we haven’t done our jobs.

Justin Shatwell gives us such an unfortunate example. Had he submitted this column about judicial activism as an answer to a question on one of my American Government exams, it would have been clear he neither paid attention to the lecture or textbook materials about the American judiciary and system of government.

In the column is a ton of ignorance about the views of the Framers of the Constitution about the role of the judiciary (easily researchable through the Federalist Papers), stunning naïveté concerning judicial philosophy and behavior, a failure to understand the concepts of popular sovereignty and control of government, and a misunderstanding of the relationship between law and morality.

One wonders whether Shatwell has any inkling of the nature of the present American judiciary:

The higher echelons of the judiciary are appointed, not elected, and are given lifelong terms so that they can rise above politics and do their jobs honestly. They are not expected to bow to the whims of the majority. Rather, it is mandated that they answer only to justice.

Actually, all of the federal judiciary (legislative courts aside) is appointed. Lifelong terms may allow judges to “rise above politics,” but simultaneously, conditioned only by the threat of impeachment (which is so difficult that it seldom occurs and not in the twentieth century for policy reasons), it also allows them to substitute in their own agendas. Even if in substituting their own agendas judges think “they answer only to justice,” it is their idiosyncratic version of justice, not some universally-agreed upon standard of it. In short, judges therefore become policy-makers, a view that ran completely against the grain of the Framers' intentions that the judiciary only settle disputes.

In fact, the Framers made it clear that the “majority” should always control the judiciary. This is why they gave Congress, elected by the people (both chambers directly since 1914) the power to change the jurisdiction of any court, in addition to the power to impeach (as well as several others – Senate confirmation of judges, funding of the judiciary, etc.). It shows absolute ignorance to argue otherwise.

But probably the most incredulous statement is that the Framers "entrenched the judiciary so that it could fight injustice from every source, including the will of the people."

This is nowhere near to what the Framers thought (indeed, this statement is contradicted in Federalist #78). Because the Framers saw men and their institutions as fundamentally flawed, they harbored no illusion that any institution, including the judiciary, could be designed to produce "justice." Instead, by the use of separation of powers and checks and balances, they sought to minimize the destructive power of government controlled by a faction by countering "ambition with ambition," giving flawed groups the ability to keep each other under control, maximizing the chances that only things seen as beneficial by enough interests could become policy.

Shatwell turns this philosophy completely on its head. His view destroys the very notions of checks and balances and separation of powers. He seems to believe judges are Platonic guardians, a super-legislature wise beyond all other policy-makers who somehow put aside politics and rule in the best interests of everybody, a view completely at odds with the fundamental philosophy behind our government.

He cannot even support his thesis by arguing the judiciary always is right. While the federal judiciary did empower the federal government to intervene in a state function in the case of desegregating education, a policy now virtually universally accepted, only a decade earlier the court essentially declared the Pres. Franklin Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans was perfectly constitutional, a move now almost universally condemned. So how can the judiciary be such an institution immune from criticism, an institution which makes these incredibly wise decisions, when it makes such stupid ones from time to time? Obviously not, because it’s not what Shatwell has invested in it.

Once again, please do not judge what is going on in academia by the remarks of somebody identified as a senior history major who obviously has learned next to nothing about the history and philosophy behind our Constitution. Believe me, some of us really are trying to educate, and many of our graduates do emerge with genuine knowledge and an ability to critically appraise it.

13.6.05

Health priorities show why state does not have a revenue problem

On the new tax issue, since the legislative session Gov. Kathleen Blanco has shown an amazing ability to talk out of both sides of her mouth. Before the session, she said there needed to be a tax on hospital for health care funds and a tax on cigarettes to fund teacher raises; otherwise, there would be no money for either. Presto, revenue estimates soar around $360 million, so there’s no need for any new taxes, right? Wrong, Blanco still insists on them.

She finally wins the hospital battle by getting a new tax on their revenues which largely will be passed along to consumers and ratepayers. So no more new revenues are needed for health care now, right? Wrong, Blanco now says the cigarette tax should go to health care, too (while winking and saying it’s really going to teacher raises).

For Blanco, she acted this way not just on new taxes, it’s also been the fiscal situation of Louisiana’s health care system. At the beginning of the session, she was saying she would bring more efficient use of health care dollars to the system, the major part of this a proposal that nursing homes not receive their long-standing favorable budgetary treatment that would save $60 million, receiving plenty of backing from Legislative Auditor’s reports that showed if Louisiana had similar standards as other states, almost $100 million a year could be saved.
Yet when the new revenue estimates came out, she suddenly backed off this.

To her credit, she has provided verbal backing to HB 697 which would allow reduced utilization of nursing homes in favor of more community-based care for the many users who could have needs met at a far less expensive per patient rate to the state. At least she’s not trying to reverse it like state Sen. Sherri Smith Cheek who also has provided some verbal gymnastics in the area of health care financing.

Cheek, who sits on the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and on the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, giving her large influence over health care spending, in her campaign and first year in office talked a great game about reform. But this session, she has done things that suggest rather than a commitment to taxpayers and patients that she would rather carry water for nursing home interests.

She got her committee to pass SB 253 which would enshrine into law the very formula that inefficiently uses Medicaid dollars to reimburse nursing homes, which would require a majority of the legislature to change. Fortunately, it looks dead for the session as since Blanco wisely said she would not support the bill without changes.

Then Cheek tried to throw nursing homes another bone concerning HB 697 by proposing an amendment in Health and Welfare to take much of the de-institutionalizing aspect out of it. Fortunately, other senators who have shown greater commitment to reform this session raised enough ruckus to get even nursing home owner and panel chairman Sen. Joe McPherson to back down with Cheek.

With health care taking up the largest single portion of the state operating budget, as long as we continue to have legislators with Cheek’s mindset on this issue in Baton Rouge, somebody with the mindset of Blanco’s on taxes is going to keep pushing them, successfully. It’s not a revenue problem we have in this state, it’s a spending priorities problem.