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21.1.06

Welfare change to hit Louisiana bottom line

In her upcoming special session call, Gov. Kathleen Blanco might wish to add an item addressing something under the policy radar, the welfare portions of the federal 2006 budget reconciliation act (S. 1932). Failing to do so could cost the state millions of extra dollars.

It’s conceivable that Congress could pass the measure and president sign it before the special session is over. It would force states to place at least half (unadjusted, as current law permits) of their eligible Temporary Assistance to Needy Families recipients (mostly single parents) into workfare or job training programs. At present, Louisiana’s rate is about 35 percent so the bill would mandate a rise of at least 15 percent by October. The first year there would be no penalty, but that would kick in by Oct., 2007.

Act 16 of the 2005 Legislature budgeted around $17.7 million to fund programs that are composed mostly those designed to get TANF recipients training. (The federal government’s contribution is estimated to almost double this, and the figure presents almost twice what the state assumes it will pay out in cash assistance.) Pro-rated, this means about another $7.5 million the state will have to find somewhere in the lean post-hurricane-disaster environment to meet this standard.

Failure to achieve the 50-percent standard also could cost the state in another way. Federal law dictates that states must pay at least 80 percent of the 1994 TAF-equivalent level unless they meet the work participation requirement; if so, it’s just 75 percent. By failing to meet the standard, Louisiana could be required to pay around another $2.6 million a year into TANF activities (based on 2003 data) in addition to any penalty cuts in federal funding into the program (which is predicted to pay in about $137 million). The penalty itself could be from one to five percent, meaning a loss of up to nearly $7 million annually for noncompliance.

(Note, however, that training could cut TANF rolls and thus the amount the state must pay out in direct cash assistance. Still, it is budgeted for just over $9 million in this year with the federal government picking up another nearly $114 million, so the state’s savings would not be much.)

One way or the other, Louisiana is going to have to come up with these funds if the Congressional measure, as seems likely, will pass with this provision intact. If not dealt with during the special session, it will have to be tackled during the regular session.

18.1.06

Francis SOS bid augurs to keep job elective, kickstart GOP

Snowballs designed to turn into avalanches have to get started rolling somewhere, and the candidacy of Mike Francis for Secretary of State marks just such an effort for a concerted Republican takeover of Louisiana by the end of 2007.

Francis, an independent businessman, formerly held the top spot in the state’s Republican Party until being forced out after former Gov. Mike Foster’s reelection. This gives him cachet among GOP activists and donors, not just because of the connections he made during his long service to the party, but because when he left the state GOP sputtered as it veered away from his more conservative line.

Since this is a special election to fill the unexpired term of the late Fox McKeithen, there’ll be no competition statewide for volunteers and money. Plus, Francis is willing to commit a large sum of his own resources to the campaign. Finally, Republicans will be extra motivated to help him win back the office, the only statewide one held by a Republican until current Secretary of State Al Ater succeeded McKeithen.

All in all, it adds up to an impressive potential juggernaut of which Francis no doubt is aware. This explains why he declared his candidacy first, knowing such a show of force would discourage other possible rivals. The only Democrat who even has expressed any interest at all for the job, Sen. Sharon Weston Broome is way too liberal to be a credible threat.

Even if the office carries little in the way of political power and patronage, Republicans will not want to let this golden opportunity to grab it go by – and making any such victory sweeter the fact that it would usher out Ater, who has dragged his feet on calling elections as mandated in New Orleans by citing logistical problems (which can be solved easily) and federal government concerns (which have proven nonexistent). This obstinacy now has triggered a threat by the federal judiciary to set the elections itself within the week unless Ater does it first.

Democrats already may have thrown in the towel on this one. Ater, rumored to become head of the state Democrats after he leaves office, has stated he will lobby to have the Legislature make the office appointive for 2007 (and perhaps Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu is hinting at the same?). But with this prize now moving closer to Republicans, GOP legislators may prevent any such legislation from getting passed.

However, perhaps most importantly, a win by Francis could build momentum for big gains by Republicans in state elections in 2007. Francis already would have his job secure after a win the previous year to discourage opponents, and the activism that he might mobilize for that candidacy could spill over virally with other Republicans. Harping on Ater’s questionable deliberation which has rankled Republicans and following it with a big win could gin up bales full of enthusiasm for GOP candidates in 2007, with Francis using his new post to assist this movement. This will produce more and better candidates and greater support for them added to existing inertia moving in favor of Republicans.

If Francis can deliver on the potential of his candidacy, it not only would signal a Republican resurgence in Louisiana, but this could help bring the party to the greatest heights it ever has known in the state, even to majority status.

17.1.06

This time, Nagin inserts his entire foot into his mouth

I suppose I should thank New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin for validating a recent post I made where I wrote, at best, Nagin could make a general election runoff in the upcoming (fingers crossed) New Orleans mayoral election, but not win. In it, I noted Nagin’s recent good insider political skills but noted his conduct publicly concerning the initial phases of Hurricane Katrina’s striking the city and some remarks afterwards would keep him from reelection.

About the time I wrote those words, Nagin spoke to a rally in honor of Martin Luther King Day where, as has become his signature style, he waxed both astutely and idiotically. Maximal attention has been granted to his remarks about the Deity perhaps smiting his city with the storm, and that chocolate has been and will be the majority flavor of New Orleans’ racial composition.

New Orleans undeniably has its wicked side, but I just don’t think people would find that a convincing reason to unleash wind and flood on it (especially not when the Deity seemed to ignore situations such as wickedness in the White House in the latter 1990s). And absurdly asserting the war in Iraq is a mistake also meriting the Deity's attention will really win him bonus points among policymakers who back the war -- the same ones who have control over pursestrings that could shake some cash loose for reconstructing New Orleans. Moreover, Nagin lacks the Deity’s omniscience so how can he claim credibly that New Orleans always will be a majority black city?

Again, this isn’t the rhetoric that wins one another term in office and overshadows a very cogent point that Nagin also made – poorly. He claimed another reason why New Orleans took the Deity’s wrath was because blacks often were their own worst enemies when it came to achieving progress as a community.

Now, surely the Deity wouldn’t show His displeasure (if He even has any) at failures among black people or anybody else by injuring them – there’s enough in the way of excessive wind that does that already. But despite his apocalyptic rendition of the problem, Nagin’s central idea that the black community has done much to harm itself merely echoes others (which earns the wrath of those invested in the idea that pathologies in the black community are visited upon it by neither the Deity nor blacks themselves, but by evil whitey).

Maybe the “chocolate” remark was Nagin’s way of trying to reassure blacks that proposals for rebuilding New Orleans that he may endorse tomorrow that could be interpreted as discriminating against blacks will not. If so, even by his standards he reached new heights (or, perhaps better expressed, tumbled to new depths) of creating controversy. Or maybe he wants to appear as weird as possible, to make his political opponents underestimate him (the first part is working marvelously).

In the final analysis, this whole episode encapsulates Nagin’s political abilities – that while behind the scenes he seems to have some skills, his public behavior and rhetoric make him seem like a political eccentric. The latter traits certainly can’t assist in exercise of the former. He won’t get reelected, so the least he can do to help the city rebuild, and thus to reinvigorate the Louisiana’s economy, until he leaves office is when in public to just shut up.

Shreveport convention center ready to debut as white elephant

On Thursday Shreveport’s convention center opens for business, even though officially it will not be fully completed for another two months. Unfortunately, questions continue unanswered whether it will accomplish what its backers claimed it would do, bringing economic development to Shreveport.

Of most serious doubt is whether it really will attract enough business to make up for its cost. Keep in mind that if it comes in at around the $100 million figure often cited, interest on the bonds to pay for it will consume around another $45 million (over 20 years at 4%; these figures are assumptions probably not far off from reality). This brings the total price tag up $145 million, or $7.25 million a year or $36.25 for every man, woman, and child in Shreveport (assuming a population steady around 200,000) for the next 20 years. This means, without any operating costs worked in, that the total amount of additional taxes and fees the city takes in from its operation must be in essence $7.25 million annually for it to “break even.”

Further breaking this down, given 2005 budgeted figures, sales and use taxes triggered solely by the convention center (such as conventioneers dining out, etc.) would have to increase by about 9 percent to earn back the money being pumped into the convention center just for its building. This means guests would have to spend over $300 million if we assume it all gets made up in sales taxes. Even if the city attracts annually 30 mid-sized conventions of 200 attendees from outside the area, this means each person would have to spend over $50,000 during his visit to Shreveport – in Shreveport.

Theoretically, the revenue contribution is more complicated than this, since some property values could go up, jobs may get created creating other taxable sources of revenue, etc. (one which will not provide much more is additional hotel occupancy taxes – in 2005 their total is budgeted only at $1.5 million). I can’t give a good guess for these – nobody can. Still, it should be apparent that the only way the convention center will pay for its fixed costs is a couple decades worth of large numbers of convention attendees swarming the city spending far in excess of national averages and creating an unprecedented number of jobs as a result.

(Note that almost all of the kinds of jobs produced are hospitality in nature, considered to be the least value-adding of jobs created and among the least able to contribute to the tax base. Property tax receipts themselves rise incrementally and are far below sales and use tax receipts, so no great increase would come from here. Furthermore, let’s say these visitors go crazy on the riverboats – collections there now run only about $12 million a year, so even the a bunch of conventioneers spending money at the casinos like they were flushing toilet paper is just not going to add much revenue from this source.)

Compound this revenue problem by the fact that, as of now, the few clients lined up by the managers of the center are smaller and many are local who would have used other local facilities. In other words, they hardly bring new revenues for the city. And there continue to be plenty of predictions that nationally the convention business isn’t going to improve any time soon.

Finally, potentially discouraging use of the center are political considerations. On both issues of its construction and in hiring its management, the politics of race have been interjected by black Democrats of the City Council. Whether this ultimately inflates the final tab of the joint and/or reduces operating efficiency remains to be seen, but when unofficial quotas get pushed onto an operation, costs of building and operating usually increase. (And in the background waits the hotel attached to the center, now only months from completion, itself perhaps an even greater white elephant and drainer of taxpayer and city resources.)

Still the center is something the citizenry brought upon itself by voting affirmatively for the money to pay for it. Its presence may increase its citizens’ pride, it may raise the city’s profile a bit, and it certainly will allow Shreveport politicians to puff their chests out even more than can their brethren across the river already expert in doing that, but it's unlikely to deliver economic benefits that will pay for itself any time in the near, and likely even distant, future.

16.1.06

Another test ahead for resurrecting Nagin's political career

Despite inauspicious moments initially after Hurricane Katrina, is it possible that, left for dead politically, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin can resurrect his political career?

While Nagin bungled the evacuation of New Orleans before the hurricane, and the imposition of law and order and coordination of assistance immediately after, since the rescue portion of the crisis has passed he has staged a comeback. He seems to have mended fences with the federal government and it can be argued that he is on better terms with Pres. George W. Bush than is Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Nagin also has turned on the gladhanding with members of Congress who matter and can claim legitimately to have brought home some reconstruction bacon.

His efforts take place in the shadow of city elections forthcoming by the end of April. Only a couple of months ago, with the opening chapters of his storm response still in mind, pundits believed he had little chance for reelection. But a case can be made that Nagin’s chances have gone from none to competitive.

No other black politician has announced a mayoral run. Also, heavyweights such as Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu seem reluctant to enter the fray (in Landrieu’s case, because possibly he has much bigger fish to fry). If a projected field of conservative Republican and former New Orleans city member Peggy Wilson, liberal Democrat and former member Eddie Sapir, conservative Democrat and Orleans Parish School Board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz, and Nagin materializes, black Democrat Nagin has a pretty decent chance to make it to the general election runoff phase.

But getting any farther may be difficult. Nagin should get a solid majority of the black vote, but not overwhelmingly so. This makes winning difficult in an electorate that probably will end up majority white and those crossover votes simply are not likely to be there against Wilson or Fahrenholtz, given the relatively slow pace of recovery in the eyes of many white voters (if not Nagin’s outright hostility to some) and the fact, fairly or not, that Nagin spends more time in Dallas or shuttling around the country than governing in the city. He probably would have trouble even against Sapir, where the hesitancy of conservative voters to support such a liberal would get cancelled by Sapir’s picking up greater liberal black votes.

Perhaps sensing his electoral fate has brought about the dramatic rise (although anything coming from zero is by definition a “dramatic rise”) in his political effectiveness. Without feeling the need to impress any constituency, Nagin may feel free to do what he thinks best regardless of political consequences since they seem certain anyway.

How Nagin deals with the coming recommendations this week of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission will provide another marker in his post-hurricane career. He may well accept unpopular parts of the proposals such as building moratoriums in certain places after a certain period of time because he thinks them right. This kind of leadership may not get him another four years, but it may be effective at this particular time for New Orleans.

15.1.06

Stuck on stupid XII: Using kids erodes flood control case

Even as the many Louisiana officials return from their junket to The Netherlands to view flood control technology with reports on how it can be done in Louisiana, we must remember the limitations, both physical and political, inherent to this enterprise that itself was and is more political than technological.

While the apparatuses in The Netherlands are claimed to control for 10,000-year events at a cost today of $18 billion, in many ways what exists there doesn’t really compare to the situation in south Louisiana. First, it helps to consider the relative geographies of the places. The Netherlands would about fit into the “boot” of Louisiana – that is, where the state border suddenly veers east off the Mississippi River, instead draw an imaginary line straight south to the Gulf of Mexico. All area east of that within Louisiana’s borders takes up about the same land area as The Netherlands, and is roughly the size of the area that the flood protection debate addresses.

However, climatological and demographic differences exist between the two. Meteorologically, the storms that can hit The Netherlands just cannot compare to those that can strike south Louisiana – simply, there is no chance of a 150 MPH wind event striking The Netherlands, with its associated storm surge. Demographically, while the land area in questions may support about 1.6 million people, The Netherlands population is ten times that.