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17.3.06

Federal budget vote by Landrieu a calculated risk

Sen. Mary Landrieu made a bold political move in being the only Senate Democrat to support the (late again) 2006-07 federal government budget, providing almost the winning margin. She needed to make it, but whether it will pay off is another story.

Landrieu increasingly has a credibility problem with Louisiana voters. She continues to cast votes with which the majority disagree, such as with judicial nominees and on tax policy, and articulating bad policy such as emphasizing union rather than port security and encouraging fraudulent elections, and by supporting pork barrel projects at the expense of flood protection. To mask how she is out of touch with her constituents, she selectively votes for certain measures usually involving bringing home some bacon for Louisiana.

The budget deal is one such. Part of it involves boosting federal spending on coastal restoration efforts in Louisiana. Better, because she went against the grain of her party she has some ammunition to try to defend herself against the argument that, for all her symbolism, she supports a party and its policies sadly misaligned with Louisiana’s interests. Best of all, the bill has plenty of additional spending in other areas that she can use as red meat to throw to her liberal base which otherwise gets irritated when she strays off the reservation.

But it’s those latter goodies that may waste her effort. House Republicans have balked at a budget that spends beyond a certain level, and the obvious way to cut spending is to reduce these measures – including spending on Louisiana coastal restoration. She may get lucky and not have that cut, because its funding would come from auctioning of wireless frequencies, offshore oil leases, and expansion of Alaskan oil drilling (explaining her past support for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, another example of a key vote to appeal to Louisiana’s majority).

If so, she gets the best of all worlds. Even if, as others point out, since the additional funding mechanism is not guaranteed even if that portion of the bill remains intact and then the funding doesn’t materialize, Landrieu still can claim she “did” something. (And if that happens, look for Gov. Kathleen Blanco to insist her resolve had something to do with it, by saying she would not approve of leases sold offshore Louisiana unless restoration money was found – but which is an entirely empty threat.)

But if the measure is removed and the bill comes back from conference, does she switch her vote? If the GOP still has enough to muscle it through, she loses the vote and the ability to appeal to the center on her subsequent, plus will have antagonized party leaders by the previous vote. As in Landrieu’s case, when your political philosophy fundamentally is at odds with your constituents’, it’s a fine line you have to tread.

16.3.06

Making some offices appointive, others term-limited good ideas

Even if unsuccessful in paring Orleans government, lawmakers seem to bring the same enthusiasm for state offices, as a review of some prefiled legislation shows. All in all, they would eliminate the lieutenant governor entirely, make the secretary of state appointive, and set term limits for all executive elected offices save the governor’s at three consecutive terms (the governor’s remaining at two).

These constitutional amendments may well pass. All are introduced by Republicans in a state where executive elective offices have seldom been held by them yet the electorate of which is continuing to move in that direction. Given a choice between making these two appointive or term-limited with others and allowing Republicans to capture them and/or stay in them or others for a long time, the Democrat-controlled Legislature (itself also becoming endangered as a majority) has a good excuse to go along with its minority.

The current lieutenant governor is looking for another job and his counterpart at secretary of state says he favors the relevant bill (and is not running for reelection), so they seem cool with it. Even professional political consultants, if looking at the aggregate, probably would not object to it: they may be losing a couple of million of dollars in revenue every four years without either office for people to run for (and buy their expertise), but having the term limits could make for more competitive races more often, which is where the real money lies.

15.3.06

Blanco budget bombs waiting to explode and wreck state

Gov. Kathleen Blanco does have a point when she observes that her 2006-07 executive budget for Louisiana really does not increase state spending when you remove from it extra monies given by the federal government for recovery from the 2005 hurricane disasters. But there are still plenty of bombs waiting to go off in that budget unless a lot of things break right.

Blanco’s thinking is that, after the cuts made near the end of 2005, monies from them can be in part reallocated to other uses. Of course, this assumes that the lofty revenue projections based on a quick recovery from the disasters, a rather optimistic scenario, pan out. If not, a lot of new spending of a permanent nature suddenly will have to find more revenue in a state with a hampered economy already overtaxed.

Her administration claims the total amount of state operating expenses from state sources will actually be 3.3 percent less than the existing budget. However, almost all of this decrease results from a “disaster dividend” said to be realized by offloading disproportionately users of, in particular, health care and labor programs in the state. This is far from certain given the unknown nature of who has left the state and who will return and when. This alone is a predicted expenditure reduction of around $600 million.

14.3.06

Landrieu win may ripple across state to Shreveport

The delayed New Orleans mayor’s contest may well have an impact that ripples all the way up to Northwest Louisiana, ultimately impacting who the next mayor of Shreveport will be.

The favorite for New Orleans’ top job is Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. Louisiana’s senior senator’s brother will win if he can take a significant amount of the black vote from incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin and split the white vote among Audubon Nature Institute head Ron Forman and former city councilor Peggy Wilson. A reduced black majority in the city would allow Landrieu to win with most of the white vote in a general election runoff with Nagin.

Landrieu winning would have him assuming office at the end of May. And then the Louisiana Constitution would kick in concerning a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office. Essentially, Gov. Kathleen Blanco would pick a successor, without any specified timetable, and the choice gets presented to the Legislature for confirmation.

Blanco should want to act fast. It would be nice to have a choice ready to go and voted on by the Legislature before it adjourned about Jun. 20. But more to the political point, Blanco would have a natural deadline of Sep. 30, because this is the day the Secretary of State would be elected which well could be a Republican. That person (if elected) is next in line if the state lacks a lieutenant governor to becoming governor. Even if a recall petition does not succeed in removing Blanco and she remains in office, whenever a governor leaves the state the next in line becomes acting governor with similar powers.

However, as much as she would not want a Republican breathing down her neck, neither does she want to appoint somebody who could become a rival to her in 2007, using a free ride into the state’s number two office as a springboard. It would have to be somebody who would be happy to try for a full term in 2007, who would be competitive, and who would not turn into a political opponent of Blanco’s as she will need all the help she can get in her own reelection bid.

Shreveport Mayor Keith Hightower well may fit this bill. Obviously a Democrat like Blanco, he’ll be out of office in about seven months, has plenty of campaign money to start a 2007 attempt, and would have the right attitude from Blanco’s perspective. The office has less power than any other statewide so Hightower would be viewed by other Democrats as a non-threatening placeholder with a decent chance of retaining it in 2007.

Should this happen, Shreveport would need a new mayor for four or five months. The city charter defers vacancies in the office to the state’s jurisprudence – the governor would appoint someone within ten days of vacancy unless the “governing authority” of the jurisdiction appoints somebody. In Shreveport, that would fall to the City Council.

This would introduce the Byzantine politics of the upcoming mayor’s race into the decision. Even a trial of a few months on the job could give somebody a leg up on the contest. Keeping in mind that, given current demographics, any black Democrat who reaches the general election is likely to win, unless encountering a white Democrat there, and the current council is comprised of three black Democrats, two white Democrats, and two white Republicans.

One intriguing scenario is that Democrats may kick current councilor Monty Walford upstairs. His reelection chances in a district that probably will be majority black in the fall are spotty and he may fancy he can do what Hightower did and bring together enough white and black voters to win the mayor’s race, given a boost of a trial run. Black Democrats on the Council would do this only if they felt confident a Republican could keep Walford out of the general election runoff; their goal would be to get Walford out of his District B seat to pave the way for a black winning there (and they could anoint a successor as Walford’s replacement).

Another is one of the two major anticipated black candidates for the mayor’s job, state Rep. Cedric Glover, would be appointed. His main competition would be the other such candidate, former television executive Ed Bradley. A few months on the job for Glover, who appears to be a more natural ally to the existing black council members, could only aid his full-term chances at Bradley’s expense.

Or who knows? Regardless, what New Orleans voters do in the spring could shape Shreveport politics in the fall.

13.3.06

Caddo schools need to close Booker T. Washington

Soon, the Caddo Parish School Board will make a decision about the fate of its Booker T. Washington High School. The correct call will involve some courage and creativity.

BTW, like a number of schools in inner-city Louisiana metropolises, has seen an exodus of students. At the end of the school year in 2005, over the past five years the district’s student population fell nearly 3,000 students, or almost 6.5 percent. At BTW, enrollment at the end of 2004-05 was 443, a drop of 246 in five years or about 55.5 percent.

There are two reasons for this. While population in the area served by the school is falling, it’s obviously not fast enough to record this drop. The main reason is that BTW, despite the inability of some to accept it, is a failing school along with its feeder schools. It has been classified as “academically unacceptable” two of the last three years, missed its performance growth target also two of the last three years, and achieved only “minimal” academic growth the past year.

Concerned families are voting with their feet. They are finding ways to get their children out of that environment, through majority-to-minority transfers, magnet programs, or simply by moving to another high school’s attendance zone. BTW’s inability to provide an adequate education for the majority of its students (over half of 2004-05 graduating seniors did not even score at the basic level on the Graduate Exit Exam), even as it has seen some improvement (in 2000-01 almost three-quarters did not reach the basic level) has caused its hollowing.

This has prompted the School Board to propose shifting attendance zones, but the plan drawn up is almost ridiculous in its geography. Students just a stone’s thrown from Fair Park or C.E. Byrd High Schools would end up going to BTW, and some families made location decisions on residences just to attend either of those other high schools. Busing expenses for the parish would escalate as well under the proposal.

There’s nothing the Board can do on its own to trigger the economic development necessary to bring back population to BTW’s current attendance zone, much less for the entire district (parish), and its attempts to increase quality of education at BTW have not had much payoff. Thus, the best policy would be to close BTW and farm out its students to Fair Park and Byrd (which, given the peak of their historical enrollments, could handle the extra students, mostly at Fair Park), as well as sending BTW’s best teachers there while discharging or transferring to other openings the remainder.

This will raise the hackles of some, perhaps including Board members who themselves are graduates of BTW, and teachers whose sub-par performances will have to improve for them to stay in the profession protected by their unions to whom quality education is an afterthought. But we can’t let sentimentality or politics get in the way of a decision that will improve education for students and save millions of dollars a year for the district. Even as district-wide enrollments have swooned over the past 13 years over 14 percent, hardly any facilities have been closed by the district, even as its budget has swelled over 55 percent or $130 million over the past 10 years.

But to assuage these feelings, the Board should resolve to name the next high school it builds (one has been talked about for years being built in southwest Shreveport) “Booker T. Washington.” Washington was a great educator and any place of learning should be proud to bear his name.

Allowing the situation to continue as is won’t make it, and changing zones creates other problems and will not provide better education at a cheaper price. The Caddo Parish School Board must act rationally, not emotionally, and close BTW.

12.3.06

Blanco reelection desire may explain reckless budget

As is her wont, Gov. Kathleen Blanco defended her latest unwise increase in budgetary spending by assuming Louisiana’s citizens need to be told how to think and/or are as confused about it all as she is.

As part of her budget which threatens to undo the needed fiscal restraint imposed upon the state by the hurricane disasters of last year, Blanco wants to make new commitments of about $135 million annually for raises in educators’ salaries, as well as increases in other areas. She says she heard of “a lot of excuses about why we should proceed with caution.”

Let me see if I can replicate those “excuses”: six months ago a third of the state’s economic output was severely damaged by the hurricanes that will take years to recover, the state probably lost a tenth of its workforce permanently, it will owe the federal government hundreds of million of dollars in reconstruction bills – and ongoing problems such as coastal restoration and unfunded accrued liabilities in state pension funds continue to exist, right? (And others claim this budget produces shortfalls in other, needed areas.) Even a best-case scenario argues for a standstill budget from late 2005 with no new spending commitments unless with commensurate cuts elsewhere.

Blanco and the state did some hard work (if not optimally so) in getting Louisiana closer to living within its means with cuts late last year, but suddenly now she has decided that resources that had gone to eliminated spending either now can be returned to those purposes or for new ones, like the salary increases. Prudence dictates that no additional spending occurs until the state solidly is back on its feet.

Yet Blanco dismisses this prudent strategy and indicated she seems quite confused, as also has been her trademark, about what she should do in office. “If I am doing what one group said should be done last year, and I am doing it this year, they say ‘Oh my God, we shouldn’t be doing that.’ I am just tired of the confusing messages, signals that they send out,” Blanco has said.

Let me try to put this into terms that render even Blanco’s confusion abated. Assuming she’s talking about the raise, which mainly Republican legislators argued last year should have been granted if commensurate cuts in spending had occurred elsewhere without raising taxes, let’s remember the situation then: Louisiana had a bloated budget and Blanco wanted to hike taxes to take even more money out of the public in order to spend more (on the raises). The disasters then reduced the state’s revenue-generating capacity by at least 5 percent for the foreseeable future. Cuts were made to compensate. But now she wants to hike spending again, saying we don’t need a tax increase to do it for educators’ pay – which is what her opponents last year desired.

Ordinarily, this would have worked because the cuts of last year would represent a reallocation in this year. But these are not ordinary times because the cuts were made not for reallocation purposes, but to offset a permanent, for the time being, loss in revenues. However, Blanco doesn’t see it that way because of a raft of federal funds temporarily coming into the state and additional revenues from unstable revenues sources temporarily producing extra revenues.

The problem is, she is proposing permanent increases in spending, and no amount of chanting “you have to have a little confidence in the economy” is going to assure these temporary sources of funds will translate into long-term economic growth that allows an overnight recovery from the disasters. A fiscally prudent policy-making approach would assume the opposite and, perhaps a few years from now, the state can enjoy any excess fruits of recovery.

Still, Blanco doesn’t seem to get that, and it leads to the question why something so simple appears to elude it her. It may not: the new spending could well be a reelection tactic. In the past, the most reliable way to win elections in this state has been to promise people stuff, regardless of whether the state could afford it. Under heavy pressure with low popularity as 2007 approaches, Blanco might well be drawing on her liberal/populist roots to present this unaffordable pledge as more trinkets to throw out to the crowds to make her more popular. (And the fact she is running radio ads trying to do the impossible by insisting her nearly 10 percent overall budget increase isn’t a return to “big government” using her campaign funds lends credence to this scenario.)

If so, it’s reckless and inexcusable. If not, then she apparently fails to have the acumen to run the state at this time. If she really feels strongly about handing out raises, why not make spending more efficient in areas such as long-term health care and use savings from there? Absent that, either way, her course of action endangers the state’s economic health.