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10.11.05

Black Caucus puts politics ahead of practicality

Let’s be honest about why the Legislative Black Caucus has filed suit against Gov. Kathleen Blanco: it’s not about the Constitution, as some like Sen. Cleo Fields, the group’s lawyer say (how many cases has he tried, being a professional politician since age 23?). It’s that they don’t like the idea of government growing smaller, taking fewer resources from the majority of people, and redistributing those resources to a small group of people who overwhelmingly vote for, in large part, members of the caucus.

Blanco made cuts up to 10 percent in some areas as appeared to be permitted by the language of 2005’s operating budget bill (HB1, Act 16). Traditionally, anything outside of just a very few areas that was more than 5 percent had to garner to approval of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

By acting unilaterally, Blanco could immediately cut these budgets. Further, the Legislature has the option of ratifying these cuts, so the whole point could be moot. This suit is quixotic and detracts from getting on with the business of doing what’s necessary to puts the state’s fiscal house in order.

But it does serve one purpose: to highlight how the Legislature consistently hands over, and apparently has for years, power to the governor in this and other areas. Constitutionally, the Louisiana governor doesn’t have a lot of power. What greater power she has is due to the Legislature’s willingness to hand it over. This provision in the 2005 budget bill is a perfect example: how many who voted on it really knew what it meant, or even knew it was in there?

Blanco ally Sen. Francis Heitmeier, who is chairman of the committee that deals with the bill, summed it up when he said in next year's budget bill the Legislature simply should excise this provision. If the Legislature finally will start standing up for itself, this would be then place to start – in the 2006 regular session. This is the proper response to reconcile a political dispute between branches of government, rather than bring yet another branch to try to accomplish the stealth agenda of a group whose views on the matter are outside of the majority.

9.11.05

Liberal wackos remind Landrieu, us who she really is

With her supporters disproportionately having fled the state, Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu can’t catch a break as one of the fringe elements that increasingly make up her remaining base of support holds her feet to the liberal fire.

A group called Advocates for Environmental Human Rights occupied her Washington office’s conference room and demanded to see her, accusing her of supporting laxity in environmental regulations in her bill to loot the rest of the country to reconstruct Louisiana after the hurricane disasters. Landrieu eventually briefly complied, and the group proclaimed its stunt as effective.

These wackos really represent no one in the mainstream and hardly anybody outside of it. They get their funding from liberal foundations such as Mitchell Kapor and Ford, and are best known for trying to bring in front of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights alleged harm done residents of Mossville, LA, using the tired and discredited argument of “environmental racism” (the idea that those who may pollute deliberately set up operations to inflict impermissible pollution on racial minorities).

But groups like these realize they make up a bigger part of Landrieu’s shrinking electoral coalition and they are becoming bolder in making her toe the line where political considerations may make her waver from her core beliefs. It’s instructive that one of the leaders of the group specifically pointed out that, even if Landrieu’s legislation is identical to that of Republican Sen. David Vitter, they would protest against Landrieu because they did not consider themselves his constituents: “I don't know if she knows who her constituents are. We're here in her conference room to remind her who they are.”

How true that is, even if these nimrods have little to do with what the people of Louisiana want or what would be good public policy. And this will be an increasing problem for Landrieu, with these liberal activists reminding the world who she really is and that she supports many things a majority of Louisianans are very much against.

8.11.05

Fiscal situation demands sanity from higher education

The hurricane disasters present Louisiana with an opportunity to reshape higher education in the state in a way that will bring sanity to the system.

There are two problems with the way higher education is structured in Louisiana. First, there are too many four-year institutions and not enough two-year schools. For example (considering only public schools), Illinois, with a population of about 12.5 million has 15 four-year schools and 48 community colleges. Louisiana, with about 4.5 million, has 14 four-year schools and 9 community colleges. Isn’t there some imbalance and inefficiency here?

The other is that, as a vestige of discrimination, a separate track of schools was dedicated to only black students (while others, until the last 40 years, were shunning blacks) and has operated even in the shadow of other universities when all long ago were mandated to accept students of any race. Four of the five schools – only one of Louisiana’s few community colleges, Southern University Shreveport, in this system is the only one not almost next door to another institution doing the same thing – are essentially duplicative.

State leaders steadfastly have refused to accept that the state is overbuilt in four year institutions and tolerates having duplicative institutions side-by-side (Grambling and Louisiana Tech, Southern – Baton Rouge and LSU, and Southern – New Orleans and UNO, and the LSU Agriculture and Law schools and Southern’s versions) are within about five miles or less of each other. Just a comparison of state figures tells the tale – including vocational/technical schools Illinois averages 4,110 students per school, Louisiana’s is nearly half that at 2,357 per school.

Currently, Southern – New Orleans and Delgado and Nuñez Community Colleges are unable to open if not largely gutted by the disasters. SUNO particularly has been wracked by them with an estimate of $500 billion to rebuild – while UNO, with largely the same programs and which weathered the flooding much better, exists two miles to the west down Leon C. Simon. Why rebuild SUNO at all?

Far cheaper would be to allow SUNO professors to take presently open faculty positions at UNO when available, figure out a way to combine the community colleges into one, give generous severance packages to leftover SUNO and community college faculty and administrators, and reassign wherever possible classified employees to other nearby state institutions. Let’s face it, these schools serve mostly Orleanians and those down in the parish (St. Bernard) which will be reduced in large numbers for the next few years, so there’s no reason to waste resources on them.

But the rest of the state needs to step up to save money, too. Duplicative programs that still exist after the rebalancing of the 1990s at the pairs of schools mentioned above also should be reduced if not eliminated.

Alumni of these institutions might pout, legislators from their districts might fulminate, some students from them might complain – but with hundreds of millions, perhaps a billion dollars of budgetary deficits and capital expenditures to be stretched thin from rebuilding over the coming years, realigning Louisiana higher education in a way that makes sense is now positively overdue.

7.11.05

Mrs. Robertson goes to Government Plaza; short stay likely

When Pres. George Bush picked Dan Quayle to become his vice presidential running mate, most observers got caught off guard. Part of the reason was Bush’s trying to find an energetic partner yet one who would be loyal and not overshadow him; some observers hinted it was because other higher-profile candidates each had a serious flaw in the mind of Bush so, in essence, he picked a “lowest common denominator” candidate that none of his advisers really had any objections to.

Shreveport City Council’s picking of Cynthia “Cindy” Norton Robertson to fill the remainder of former City Council District D’s occupant Mike Gibson echoes strongly of this historical incident – except, by early indications, Quayle was much more politically astute and informed. And this probably was the intent of the Council majority of Democrats.

The dynamic of the 2006 city elections and the desire of black officials to control the Council hovered in the background during this process. Democrats would love to grab this Republican-dominated seat in 2006 but would have to pick one of their own with considerable political skills who could use the short incumbency to maximal advantage. Short of that, black council members wanted to put a fourth black Democrat on the council to control it until the end of 2006. Also in the background: the Council had to act expeditiously or Gov. Kathleen Blanco would make the choice for it

The depleted Council featured three black Democrats, a white Democrat (Monty Walford), and two white Republicans. Its first choice, nominating local lawyer and Democrat activist Hersy Jones, attempted to implement the plan for a black majority on the Council but Walford joined the Republicans to prevent the four-vote majority needed. Flummoxed, the black Democrats abruptly halted the meeting and eventually decided to reconvene several days later.

At that meeting, another motion to appoint Jones failed 3-3. After the nomination of three others by other council members did not garner more than two votes each, including those of a former Republican city councilman who said he would not run in 2006 and of a high-profile white Democrat who might have had the best chance of holding the seat in 2006, the black contingent nominated and confirmed the white Democrat Robertson with Walford’s vote.

This train of events shows the divisions within the Democrats who could not agree on a candidate viable in 2006. Simply, the Democrats on the Council wanted a political lightweight not affiliated with Shreveport Mayor Keith Hightower. And it seems they got exactly that with Robertson.

When asked why so few women had served on the Council (itself less than three decades of age), Robertson said “I guess people just don't give women a chance.” I guess she didn’t know that the Council almost always has had at least one female on it and one of them, Hazel Beard, went on to become mayor. Nor perhaps did she know only one woman tried to run in 2002 (but losing by a mere 76 votes) which might suggest the lack of women on it is because female candidates don’t give themselves enough credit to run, not the fault of voters, who can’t put women on it who don’t run for it.

She seems even less aware about the realities of campaigning and the coalition-building and voter-informing that comes with it. She said she would have been a candidate in 2006 even if Gibson had not left and still is, but added she has no plans to start fundraising for next year’s election, instead hoping voters will judge her on her accomplishments, not political advertising.

I hate to burst her bubble, but that is extremely unlikely to happen. Even as an incumbent, short of committing a crime she’ll be lucky if even 10 percent of the district knows who she is without any media (and you can’t walk to electioneer a district of 24,000 people even if you didn’t have a full-time job even if you started today). She should note that it cost Gibson nearly $35,000 just in 2002 to win the seat then. And, given the fact that she is in a historically-Republican district where by election day Republicans and Democrats will be about even in registration totals, with more than half of those Democrats white, she already has a steep uphill battle to win a term on her own.

While it never is bad to have a political novice in city elective office, Robertson shows all the signs of having a quick stay, so she had best use her short time in her seat wisely.

6.11.05

Has clueless Blanco caught fiscal reform religion?

When it comes to the state’s response to the fiscal challenges presented by the recent hurricane disasters, can elite and popular opinion bludgeon Gov. Kathleen Blanco into doing the right thing?

While within Blanco beats the heart of a liberal ideologue (save on social issues), throughout her governorship history has shown when her ideological opponents make enough of a ruckus she often caves in to them. Such seemed to be the genesis of her Saturday night massacre of a number of state agencies budgets, after mainly Republican legislators put the heat on her calling for her during the special session to throw her weight behind large budget cuts.

At first, it appeared that she would make cuts only up to 5 percent in most parts of government, some inquiring mind on her staff brought up language from Act 16 of this year’s regular session, the appropriations bill for the budget which, in the interpretation the administration sought from Attorney General Charles Foti, allowed her to cut up to 10 percent.

Legislators have cried foul over this, disagreeing with the ruling and saying their Joint Legislative Committee of the Budget statutorily needed to review this (although this language has been in the appropriations bill at least for almost a decade, and none of them ever bothered to find a definitive answer for this?). But Blanco bulldozed ahead and not only expanded the total reductions since the disasters to about a half-billion dollars, or about halfway to closing the deficit at present (although it will go higher), she made some good choices, particularly in choking closed the grant programs in the Office of Urban Affairs and the Office of Rural Development within the Office of the Governor – better known as the Urban and Rural (slush) Funds which are capital outlay gifts from the regular budget to individual legislators’ districts.

But before we can conclude that Blanco has caught the religion of fiscal discipline, we must note that she has yet to rule out a raid on the Budget Stabilization Fund and seems even more enthusiastic about the use of debt to fund current operations in the short term. And her apparent cluelessness on the differences between government and business borrowing erodes this confidence still more:

Blanco countered that borrowing money is just what businesses have to do when they get into a desperate situation outside their control. "Every business that is in trouble is happy to borrow some quick money. It is not very different from what we are experiencing," she said.

For one thing, if businesses are truly in a “desperate situation outside their control,” that implies it would be reckless to borrow money since, because these businesses cannot control the situation, by definition there is no plan that can bring about profitability, so why throw good money after bad? Also, if borrowed debt cannot turn around the situation, it is only the owners of the business (and, to a lesser extent if at all, the business’ creditors) who get hurt. Borrowing to fund expenses rather than assets of a sort leaves future taxpayers with nothing more except promissory notes to fulfill, which hurts the entire state. Finally, businesses don’t have to borrow to stay afloat, they can cut back operations, something even easier for government to do because it faces no marketplace where better competitors could drive it out of business because it cut services.

Hopefully, this fiction of hers one way or the other will get vanquished from her mind and she’ll concentrate on a combination of cuts and the presently available funds constitutionally from the Budget Stabilization Fund (one-third its balance). In fact, legislators may dare her to demonstrate her lurch towards fiscal sanity.

Normally a Blanco ally, state Sen. Francis Heitmeier, the Joint Committee chairman, asserts “Whatever cuts [Blanco] make[s] will be on the table as to whether we as a Legislature decide to keep them, enhance them, borrow money and fund them or restore them.” Maybe so, but then Blanco will have the chance to wield her veto pen, and will if she truly has caught fiscal reform religion.