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12.1.06

Devil will be in details of Blanco's next special session call

The “unofficial” Legislative special session call has come from Gov. Kathleen Blanco, consisting of a mixture of opportunity and danger.

Blanco aims true when she says she will ask the Legislature to take up levee governance reform, as well as housing issues (perhaps dealing with the uncoordinated response to trailers where she did throw some weight around to get New Orleans to locate more there and more quickly – levee governance could be in place already had she chosen to do the same last year), and consolidation of Orleans Parish government (again, success here will depend upon her willingness to commit political resources). Her other two proposed items can be much dicer, depending upon the specifics of her call.

Concerning insurance, it’s not so important how Blanco would like the Legislature to deal with the many uninsured affected by the hurricane disasters (which will depend upon the fate and final form of Rep. Richard Baker’s current legislation in front of Congress), but in how to prevent the same problem in the future. The state needs either to mandate that all people who live below sea level have flood insurance or, even better, leave it optional but pass laws preventing those caught short from suing insurance companies or the state after the fact, and prohibiting the state from reimbursing these irresponsible owners.

The most potential mischief rests with election issues. Blanco will act responsibly if she limits the agenda to operational concerns such as precinct lines, polling places, elections commissioners’ residences and ratios per precinct, etc. But she will allow subversion of democracy if she includes plans promoted by Secretary of State Al Ater to allow persons who never have appeared in front of an election official for registration verification to vote by mail.

To do so would facilitate election fraud. Who knows how many people currently on registration lists really exist or are still alive, with names usable by unscrupulous political operatives? Or how many fictitious “people” would get created between the time this one-time exemption goes into affect and the close of rolls for participation in delayed New Orleans elections?

While Ater claims the federal government or U.S. District judge Ivan Lemelle might look askance at any plan that does not allow for displaced voters who did not register in person, bad policy should not be made as a result of bad jurisprudence, and the swift and compliant response of the U.S. Department of Justice to the state’s previous requested modifications of voting standards (mandated under the Voting Rights Act) shows that it is a controversy only in Ater’s mind.

Blanco needs to keep these issues at the forefront when she does formulate and issue the formal call around Jan. 31.

11.1.06

Recall petition presents quandary for advocates of change

With a recall for Gov. Kathleen Blanco now officially launched, this presents a double-edged sword, and her ouster may fail to improve the policy situation in Baton Rouge for now and the foreseeable future.

Little doubt exists that Blanco failed as a leader for the catastrophes that struck Louisiana in a one-month period beginning in late August. That and her subsequent actions also signal as suspect her ability to lead the state out of the severe consequences of the hurricane disasters.

But a successful recall would promote Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu into the Governor’s Mansion (which would give him another chance to redecorate). In the aftermath of the disasters, Landrieu has articulated more sensible, and more politically astute, policy preferences than has Blanco it appears in an effort to launch a gubernatorial candidacy in 2007.

While what he has said may make him appear to be a superior governor than Blanco, we cannot forget that Landrieu is as faithful as she a card-carrying member of the good old boy, politics as usual crowd to which Blanco belongs. The flashes that make it appear he is heading away from his (and his family’s) populist background towards the political center likely will prove just that, intermittent, and his true liberal ideology would shine through forcefully if handed the reins of state government.

This could hamper the state in providing the leadership it needs in 2007 when elections come around. If Landrieu assumes the top spot earlier, this could solidify his chances at getting the job for the full term at that time.

So, potential signers of the petition have a choice to make. Landrieu might prove to be a better leader in the short term than Blanco, but the long-term impact of his occupying the capitol’s fourth floor probably will not be any better (in fact, it may boost the flagging fortunes of his sister Sen. Mary Landrieu, herself just as reliably wrong-headed on many issues of the day as her brother and Blanco) than what she can do and could reduce the chances of far superior leadership emerging in 2007.

10.1.06

Government consolidation efforts provide silver lining to hurricanes

As one of the few silver linings to the hurricane disaster cloud, the storms’ impacts have triggered a useful debate in Louisiana about government consolidation and even have seen the idea translated into practice.

The merging of many functions of the law enforcements agencies in Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, and St. Bernard Parishes may presage similar, and welcome, news. The concept around the state isn’t new by any means: witness the many merged governmental functions among the four cities in East Baton Rouge Parish with the parish government, as well as the metropolitan governments of the city of Lafayette with Lafayette Parish and Houma and Terrebone Parish.

But the impact of the storms has given new impetus to the idea that tremendous scales of efficiency can be achieved by taking separate agencies geographically proximate to each other and largely doing the same thing and consolidating many, if not all, of their functions. Even politics-as-usual Gov. Kathleen Blanco belatedly has jumped on the bandwagon with her next special session call likely to include measures concerning consolidation of levee governance and to reduce the fragmentation of some local government in New Orleans by paring the number of assessors from seven to one and merging the criminal/civil tracks in administering the justice system.

Even the traditional media, after paying scant attention to the issue, now seems interested (although government reformer/critic C.B. Forgotston has long championed the idea). An intriguing concept comes from Chris Tidmore who writes of merging entire Orleans and Jefferson governments and provides a good case not just for doing so (which always has existed) but why it is at least politically feasible at this time (which has never before existed). In past columns in other venues, I have argued that Caddo and Bossier Parishes would benefit greatly from merging all governments (save school districts) in the majority of their functions.

Americans often resist this idea because we believe strongly in self-government, and that fragmenting power among many subgovernments not only facilitates this, but also it reduces the power of any one government that, at least at the lowest levels, reduces its potential for mischief (although when considering higher governments, James Madison’s arguments in the Federalist #10 are compelling). Efforts in Orleans will provide a valuable test of political will to achieve this – for example, to date the inefficient, often patronage-laden Bridge Police, Causeway Police, and Harbor Police adminstrators have shown no enthusiasm for a consolidation that likely would eliminate their agencies.

While the state was grateful that the storms’ surges quickly and briefly washed over the landscape, let’s hope the surge from this idea is much longer-lasting past any recompiling levee governance and Orleans Parish. Miraculously, it even could lead to downsizing state government. And that would create a very nice, extensive silver lining to the otherwise bad impacts of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

9.1.06

Landrieu, others need to have deeds match symbolism

Part of the dysfunctionality of Louisiana politics is so often lip service gets paid to policy desired considerable, while these same elected officials fail to address or take responsibility for conditions that prevent the desirable outcomes from occurring. Such as example looms as various state politicians make their ways to The Netherlands for tomorrow’s seminars on how that country handles flood protection.

While Sen. Mary Landrieu, one of the organizers of the effort, correctly noted that “[i]t's all about the technology, the will and the right priorities,” either unintentionally out of a lack of wisdom or intentionally to deflect from her own culpability, Landrieu failed to clarify that she and others, in the past, have failed on the accounts of will and priorities. Prior to the hurricane disasters, Landrieu put politics ahead of protection in her lobbying that served to siphon money from more valuable flood-control efforts to lesser, even peripheral projects. Prior to and since the disasters, Landrieu has done little to promote reform of systems that would better produce the “right policies,” both at the federal level and state level.

Proper political will could solve for problems at both level of governments. Members of Congress can refuse to try to influence which projects get funded on the basis of perceived interests and sources of future votes, something which Landrieu could champion in both word and practice. Landrieu also could have joined the chorus of state voices that clamored for meaningful reform of levee governance, who, along with other important voices that stayed on the sidelines such as Gov. Kathleen Blanco, could have prevented its thwarting by other, pettier interests in the state’s lower legislative chamber in the past special session.

Unless Landrieu – and others with similar records as she who have not visibly tried to take political credit for this move like she has – takes responsibility publicly for her past inadequacies in this area of policy and genuinely seeks to change the political climate (such as deciding priorities in funding on the basis of principle and in throwing her weight behind levee governance reform) to prevent the problem from resurfacing, this exercise merely becomes show-and-tell and an empty publicity stunt. All the best plans and technology in the world will go to waste unless politics as usual gets removed from flood control policy.

8.1.06

Prudence penalized, risk rewarded with Louisiana insurance

You are a Louisiana homeowner who bought insurance, kept the premiums up to date, and made no claims on it. The reward for your foresight is a 15 percent rate hike to pay for a state welfare program.

In essence, that’s what the state has done for the next year to replenish the risk fund of its home insurer, the Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corporation. Further, it can keep two-thirds of that increase for up to the next 25 years. The government corporation writes policies, at a higher average rate of at least 10 percent that a parish’s top 10 insurers, where other insurers might not write such policies.

(It is not mandatory that insurers assess this charge, which applies to fire, homeowners, allied lines, and commercial multi-peril - nonliability, but if the state is going to hit up insurers extra, you can be sure they’ll want to recoup the extra charge rather than sacrifice revenues elsewhere.)

In other words, the presence of this mechanism creates an artificial ceiling on premiums and invites building in areas not properly valued in terms of risk. Even as Insurance Commissioner Robert Wooley defends the agency, which came about as a result of state law, it’s clear that its presence is just a way to shift costs from people willing to engage to riskier behavior to those who are more prudent.

Wooley points out that without the agency many people could not get insurance because policies wouldn’t be written for them in some areas. This is untrue: insurance companies will write policies for anybody as long as they are given the right, in the aggregate, to make money doing so. This may result in sky-high rates in some areas but it is the state itself whose regulatory practices artificially keep rates down that actually discourages the policy writing.

Instead of hitting up ratepayers (or, for that matter, taxpayers) to subsidize for others’ risky mistakes and the state’s insistence on regulating insurance rates, the state needs to abolish this agency and to legally require anybody who lives below sea level to buy flood insurance. In all cases – standard homeowner’s, fire, commercial, and also flood – the state must largely deregulate pricing, concentrating only on preventing collusion. By doing so, rates will be allowed to rise to realistic levels, insurers will step forward and, probably, owning and building may suffer because of increased costs. But that’s acceptable to prevent the state absconding with other ratepayers’ funds to make up the difference – nobody has the right to occupy structures wherever they want and to have others pay for it.

Letting the free market work never is a bad idea – a notion Louisiana historically has had a difficult time accepting, and in large part explains why the state remains economically developmentally backwards compared to its brethren.