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2.12.05

Partisanship appears to lie behind Ater's actions

When I was in graduate school in New Orleans, whenever with certain of my friends and we remarked on something unfortunate happening, there would be a standard articulated response. For example:

Me: “Reuben Mayes rushed for over 200 yards and the Dolphins still beat the Saints!”
Randy (or Tom, Mark, A.J., etc.): “I blame Reagan.”

This, of course, made fun of the penchant of Democrats then who always tried to connect anything, no matter how totally unrelated, to an imagined misdeed of our fortieth president. I get the same feeling whenever I hear yet another Louisiana Democrat (and some Republicans) complain about “FEMA” to deflect from their own inabilities to perform their jobs in a competent, impartial fashion. At the rate they blame the federal government, those outside the state are going to stop calling us “Louisianans” and start calling us “Iblamefemans.”

The latest to succumb to this disease is the temporary Secretary of State Democrat Al Ater, who alleged presumed Federal Emergency Management Agency intransigence in part lay behind his decision to recommend delaying New Orleans elections until perhaps as late as November, 2006. Democrat Gov. Kathleen Blanco has said she’ll follow whatever recommendation Ater makes.

While Ater also cited other concerns such as logistics as a reason behind his recommendation, he seemed miffed that FEMA would not abandon privacy guidelines and turn over information about the locations of alleged displaced persons to his office. Further, he seems nonplussed that FEMA does not hand over to him a wad of money to pay for contacting these individuals and to enable him and his staff to engage in “outreach” and to barnstorm across the country to see them.

What this shows is Ater seems to show a curious selectivity in performing his job. Does the state conduct information campaigns such as the one he envisions with its two recognized classes of out-of-state voters, college students and those in the military? No; it’s incumbent upon these individuals to gather their own information about how to vote absentee. Why should Ater get $750,000 of taxpayer dollars that could be used for other reconstruction purposes to help displaced people when it never has been state policy to do what he proposes for others in a similar kind of situation?

But Ater probably is unconcerned with those individuals because college students participate in small numbers and the military, well, it’s unreliable because it typically strongly votes Republican. Ater would prefer to boost Democrat turnout because the majority of displaced individuals are Democrats. Worse, many of these displaced people probably have no real intention of ever returning to the state yet Ater is trying to single out these people and pump them for a vote.

Further, the timing he suggested, particularly singling out the Sep. 30 date as it is one where there already will be statewide elections and would cost little extra, raises questions. Democrats believe the farther in the future an election is held, the greater the chances will be that the displaced people who are disproportionately Democrat will be able to return, making their likelihood of voting greater and improving Democrats’ chances at getting elected.

However, if Ater truly were concerned about the integrity of the process. i.e. to stay as close to the original date as possible, he would have instead championed the newly-established statewide Apr. 29, 2006 date. After all, the Legislature went to the trouble of creating this date to allow dealing with constitutional amendments coming out of the special session, and it buys about three extra months past the original Feb. 4 date which should be more than sufficient to overcome any logistical problems now present, and cost no more extra than the Sep. 30 date.

Definitive proof of Ater’s partisanship laying behind these decisions may come if he assumes the chairmanship of the Louisiana Democratic Party as has been rumored. Even if that never happens, his actions regarding elections in Louisiana cast serious doubts on his impartiality.

1.12.05

SOS contest may be harbinger of GOP Louisiana takeover

With Sec. of State Al Ater signaling that he will not run to complete the office’s term, as well as plummeting poll numbers for Gov. Kathleen Blanco, there’s now not one but two statewide contests about which to speculate, the results of which well may be linked.

Ater probably was the Democrats’ best shot to hold onto the office being an incumbent of sorts, as one thing becoming clearer is that the aftermath of the hurricane disasters will disproportionately tilt the state’s electorate towards the GOP, as well as create some minor conversion from the Democrat to the Republican column. This trend may be accentuated in the New Orleans area given it has been the epicenter of the tragedy.

While much attention has been paid to the disproportionate share of Democrats fleeing the state and unlikely to return, the conversion aspect has been well underway for contests at the highest levels of political office. Sen. David Vitter’s 2004 win was just the latest in a trend towards the GOP, which occupied the Governor’s mansion between 1996 and 2004 (even if by a RINO) and then who barely lost it to a Democrat who kept trying to sound like a Republican during the campaign against a candidate who lost because of the prejudices of Democrats, particularly from northern Louisiana. (Of course, Pres. George W. Bush carried the state healthily twice.)

This means that if only one or two higher-profile Republican candidates enter the contest, one is very likely to make the general election runoff and then subsequently win. By contrast, names being bandied about on the Democrat side to date have less-than-stellar chances. Marjorie McKeithen may have the legacy, but she doesn’t hold any elective office as a base and is largely unknown outside of Baton Rouge – it’s been a long time since John McKeithen stomped around north Louisiana so that name has little currency among the Republicans and DINOs she’ll need there. And any New Orleans-based politician who in August might have been competitive just from having the Orleans area as a base no longer has that strength.

Shreveport Mayor Keith Hightower might have been a potential quality candidate but his tenure as mayor has been so divisive that he has fragmented any potential northwest Louisiana base from which to grow. In short, any quality candidate with an “R” next to his name has a better shot that any Democrat yet speculated to run.

Naturally, the good old boys and girls are going to fight the Republican trend in the state tooth-and-nail to delay the payoff to the GOP as early as 2007. The race to complete the Secretary of State’s term may end up as a referendum on Blanco and the Democrats controlling the state as well, and may presage the governor’s race outcome.

30.11.05

Stuck on stupid X: Reform the Louisiana flood control money pit

And there’s a reason why the federal government still hasn’t decided whether to pay for Louisiana to have stronger levees, three months after the first of the hurricane disasters – because Louisiana’s leading female politicians keep acting like they’re stuck on stupid.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco has done her share by supporting cosmetic changes to the state’s flood control policy while abandoning a measure that would have produced meaningful change. Sen. Mary Landrieu keeps on caterwauling about how the federal government isn’t doing enough (read: the mean old Republicans fronted by Pres. George W. Bush who, Landrieu never seems to remember, secured a majority of the vote against her preferred candidate) even in light of her own efforts to pull strings to use federal money that could have gone to flood control for other purposes.

Don’t think Washington isn’t noticing that state leaders did nothing this past legislative session to reform the flawed system of governance that was the main cause of the failure of flood protection. Tinkering at the margins is not going to root out the problems of patronage and cronyism endemic to the current patchwork system of levee boards and the wasteful activities of some of them which spend tons of money on activities other than flood protection and maintain what is there badly.

Don’t think that Washington will take seriously any tantrum that Landrieu will throw by trying to keep the Senate in business. Republicans and many Democrats will be infuriated by her actions and her sinking influence in the Senate will strike a new nadir.

(And don’t think the rest of the nation hasn’t noticed that Louisiana needs to prove itself worthy of national largesse.)

The federal government perfectly reasonably will hesitate to commit any additional funds of the American people to a state when it cannot be certain that the monies invested either will be used efficiently or to maintain adequately assets built thereof. While Landrieu’s idea of allowing the state to collect more from offshore drilling dedicated to levee improvements is not automatically bad, it is a total nonstarter until the federal government can be assured the money will be spent wisely.

State Sen. Walter Boasso’s bill is a good starting point for the next special session, which should receive Blanco’s unqualified backing, and then Landrieu needs to stay out of the way of the grown-up Republicans to create a mechanism, maybe by altering the current royalty arrangement to make it like that of other states’, that will ensure state-of-the-art flood control without politics getting in the way. Again, it’s another dose of tough love that Louisiana needs.

29.11.05

Bossier City has lost right to make citizens pay for its mistakes

Bossier City is preparing, after a month of controversy, to wrap up its budget. The crux of the argument has come over city government asking the citizenry to pay more for through higher Emergency Medical Services and waste collection fees. The city has tried to argue that the roughly 5 percent of the budget paid for out of monies that have come from gambling revenues needs to be eliminated, and raising the fees is the easiest way to do it.

To analyze this, we need to understand the philosophical justifications for fee increases versus using gambling revenues and the interest thereof. Recognize that neither fee can be tied directly to any discrete amount of service to any particular individual. The waste collection hike is said to handle costs of street cleaning and grass cutting of which neither is related to the individual pieces of property whose owners pay for waste collection of all kinds (even if they don’t use those services). The EMS charge is a kind of mandatory insurance which again bears no relationship to the actual users of it and the amount of it they use.

Worse, at least in the case of EMS, the existing revenue structure (fees compelled from Bossier City property owners and charges to those actual users outside the city limits) at $4 million a year pretty much satisfies all current EMS direct and indirect costs. (In fact, if the city is dead set on hiking fees, why not do it for out-of-town users instead?) In other words, in both cases, there’s hardly any more relationship between Bossier City citizens’ usage of units of these services and what they pay for them than there is with, say, sales tax revenues and public safety expenditures allocated to each citizen.

So, why should, say, EMS fee hikes have any more moral justification to be used for, say, steep increases that the city has been forced to meet in retirement contributions and insurance premiums to which they are essentially unrelated than would any other source of revenue, including gambling revenues and the interest thereof. Indeed, you have a better moral argument for using the gambling monies because they are revenues being generated already without having to take more resources from the citizenry as the fee hikes would.

The city argues that the instability of gambling revenues makes it a riskier use of them for continuing operations, and rightly so. But note that the city is sitting on $30 million in such revenues (which it can’t spend) and almost half again of that comes in every year (which it can and does spend), which means on an annual basis the account’s balance is the equivalent of one-third of the city’s annual budget. (Contrast this with the state’s version, which makes up about one-sixtieth of its budget.)

That’s a lot of the public’s money to sit on, instead of returning it to them in lower taxes etc. or in using it to provide more services. You can justify sitting on it only if by hanging onto it those same actions are accomplished.

Sadly, Bossier City did not. Had the city not blown $78 million on an arena which doesn’t make money and on a parking garage gift to developers who easily could have paid for it attached to an enterprise that shows no signs yet of expanding the economic pie, this plus the $30 million would have thrown off enough interest income every year (at least $6 million a year) so that it would pay totally for the deficit spending that mostly is plugged now by annual gambling revenues.

In short, either the city should have accumulated a huge pot of money the interest of which could help smooth out the ups and downs in gambling revenues, or it should use some of those revenues to reduce the burdens on resources Bossier City residents must cough up to the city – after all it is their money, not the city’s. The one thing it could not do was to spend all this money on dubious “economic development” schemes which might bring a lot of attention and pride to big fishes in small ponds but do not bring near the return on investment that investing it or “rebating” it would have had.

But, in fact, that is what Bossier City did and, after its unwise use of the citizenry’s money, it has the audacity to ask the citizenry to make up for the consequences of that misuse. If unable to cut expenses, as undesirable as it might be to use gambling revenues for continuing operations, at least for this year it is more morally correct to do so than to penalize the citizenry for mistakes in governance. Ill-conceived use of that money forfeits any right for Bossier City politicians to take more from the people.

28.11.05

Landrieu remaking political self to challenge Blanco?

Since when does Louisiana’s lieutenant governor, whose main purview is over tourism, culture, and recreation, get involved in a debate over flood protection, levee boards, and relations between different levels and parts of state government? When your name is Landrieu and you’re casting a covetous eye on the governor’s office.

It is entirely possible that a political revolution is brewing in Louisiana, the shortcomings of the current liberal/populist regime from state to local governments having been exposed by the hurricane disasters, and resentment to which has been fueled by the statements and actions of those invested in that failed ideology who continue to demonstrate that they are stuck on stupid. And Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu seems to have discerned this and is trying to catch this wave.

Of course, the irony of it all is that Landrieu himself has occupied one of the top spots in the stuck-on-stupid crowd, a scion of Louisiana’s last great plantation family. But response to the disasters has opened new avenues by which he can try to divorce himself from his past and try to remake himself politically similarly to the ongoing attempt by his older sister’s compatriot Sen. Hillary Clinton.

So when levee boards (as well as other local and the state governments) keep pointing fingers at everybody except where they should, at themselves, for inadequate flood protection, right after, either through commission or omission, a special session bill that would have improved matters gets scuttled, Landrieu abandons his stuck-on-stupid brethren here to argue for consolidation of levee district functions.

If Landrieu appears serious in a quest to unseat the beleaguered Gov. Kathleen Blanco, we can look for him increasingly to stake out different preferences from her on matters of making government work “better” (although he will not abandon his love of big government that he shares with her). And, for the family’s sake, this scenario seems more and more likely as the post-disaster political environment has seriously endangered Sen. Mary Landrieu’s reelection chances the year after the governor’s race. At this point, having a Landrieu in the Governor’s Mansion, able to use the power of the office to assist her statewide, may be the only thing that could save her from defeat.

Naturally, her brother faces the same daunting electoral odds, especially if Blanco does not desist in running for reelection. Still, in his current low-profile job he has a greater opportunity to warp his image away from his past, and may think that he can put one over on the state’s voters. After all, since so many others have done so in Louisiana, history suggests that he does have a reasonable chance at success.

27.11.05

Blanco shows signs she may not impede Louisiana's improvement

Perusing Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s remarks about the past special session, one gets the sense that she kind of, sort of, understands what Louisiana is up against and maybe, just maybe, with a lot of prodding and enlightening, she’ll actually do something constructive about it.

She seems to grasp that businesses will need incentives to return to the hurricane-devastated areas of the state, but can’t seem to see past a state sales tax-free three-day holiday and a $5 on $1,000 utility tax exemption are things designed to improve marginally a fundamentally bad situation made worse. In other words, the disasters only magnified a structural problem already present, that Louisiana invests too much power in government to control aspects of the economy (whether by confiscatory tax policy, poor spending choices, inefficiency induced by politics, corruption, or all of the above) rather than in having it avoid interfering with the economy as much as possible.

Blanco gives us no better example of her thinking on the issues of flood control and government spending. She touts SB 71 as “putting together a hurricane protection authority that will manage both coastal restoration and hurricane protection - with a pretty big stick, I might add, because the authority has been given a lot of authority to create a master plan and then have the local boards adhere to it.”

In reality, instead of streamlining and improving the process of flood protection as SB 95 would have (which she refused to back), this bill she will sign just empowers an additional government agency, with all the inefficiency and extra expense that this entails, which can only poke and prod over a considerable period of time with great effort local levee boards to follow a master plan which may take years to develop. While coordination is a problem the larger problem is that some levee boards have become havens for patronage and extraneous activities that only entire restructuring, not rearranging, can eliminate. Blanco simply has moved around deck chairs on the Titanic, and who knows when the next iceberg may hit.

The same myopia exists with Blanco concerning state spending and how to address it in an era of collapsed state revenues. While her cuts and the agenda she endorsed to cut in the Legislature were almost all good and necessary, they ignore the reality of the situation, a reality that has existed for decades in the state: Louisiana’s government features more inefficiency than necessary, with some misplaced spending priorities. That means the optimal strategy to solve this problem comes through cuts of whole, unneeded operations, rather than taking slices from small to medium out of almost everything.

To cite three different examples; on the operations side, why should the state continue to favorably subsidize nursing homes beyond the market’s true demand for their services? On the capital side, why spend money on local, nonessential projects? On both, scuttle the rebuilding and reopening the devastated Southern University – New Orleans when perfectly good facilities with plenty of capacity exist a couple of miles down the road. Blanco doesn’t indicate she understands that businesses don’t just cut corners when in trouble, they lop off entire inefficient functions of low overall importance some of which are very dubiously related to the scope and purpose of government anyway.

And, while Blanco still doesn’t seem to understand that the worst thing that could happen would be to try to borrow the state’s way out of the situation, putting a bandage over a problem rather than doing the restructuring to heal and eliminate the problem, she does give us a glimmer of hope by her commitment to use most means possible to try to improve the abysmal public school system in Orleans Parish by making it the state’s school system. It’s just unfortunate that the drastic measures necessary to save Orleans schools probably never would have happened at this time without Hurricane Katrina’s destructiveness.

Because of the incompleteness of her solutions, regrettably Blanco must call another special session – the question for her is not if, but when. If enough people who properly understand the situation can put pressure on her, she’ll have one that gets at the roots, rather than the surface, of the state’s problems – many of which existed long before the disasters and exacerbated them while becoming themselves magnified. At least she’s shown there’s a chance she can play a constructive role in the major policy overhaul needed not just for the state to recover from disaster, but also to make it a better place in which to work and live.