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25.3.06

More misestimations of Orleans population, registration

Sometimes, a blind pig finds an acorn. We observe a good example of this aphorism and its opposite (they often don’t find one) in a couple of announced studies of New Orleans’ population and voter registration totals which have in common that they both take rather debatable approaches to their investigations.

Greg Rigamer of GCR and Associates makes, to be frank, a mistake when he assumes just because registered voters in large part have not changed registration addresses to outside of Orleans Parish that they will be in Orleans to participate in the Apr. 22 and May 20 elections. As anybody familiar with the electoral behavior literature knows, it is hazardous at best to assume that just because displaced individuals have not changed their registrations that they faithfully will troop to Orleans Parish on election day – especially when the best estimates have roughly 275,000 Orleanians living out of state at the present, (and no more than a small fraction will avail themselves of early, mail-in, or satellite voting).

Yet the GCR Associates study the state paid for makes precisely the bad assumption that most on the registration rolls in Orleans will be present and ready to vote. The report’s author does not seem to understand that changing a registration in order to reflect the fact that they will not show up in April and May to vote, when faced with much bigger problems and entirely uncertain about when and if they will return to New Orleans, is probably the last thing on displaced Orleanians’ minds.

As I noted in a previous posting, my paper presented at March’s meeting of the Louisiana Political Science Association demonstrates, comparing historical rates of changes in registration totals to the present to show the actual “retention” rate of voters we can expect to be on the ground in Orleans on election day, these estimates are too optimistic on both the numbers that will be present (projected to be 130,000 in April, 138,000 in May) and in the proportion of blacks present (about 53 percent). (And my offer still is good: if anybody wants a copy of the paper, write me.) Data are no good unless you’ve got good theory behind it.

At least Rigamer actually does not overestimate too badly in both numbers and percentage of black population. Still, it’s disturbing that the state paid taxpayer dollars for an analysis that appears to be so unsophisticated and off the cuff (although neither is that inefficiency atypical of Louisiana government). Totally missing the mark is an academician who seems to offer little more than historical speculation and anecdotal evidence to say New Orleans won’t have a majority black population for some time (although, not having seen it, I’m having to go on the description afforded of it).

News flash: New Orleans did by the end of 2005 (about 80,000 blacks, 76,000 non-blacks, according to my estimates). Lesson (drawn from both examples): it takes good data used reasonably to draw truly valid conclusions about New Orleans’ future political geography.

23.3.06

Money, innovation can help repair indigent defense

One helpful aspect of Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s executive budget is its increased emphasis on improving the quality of indigent defense. Roughly 80 percent of all criminal trials in the state involve indigent defense, and due to unstable funding sources the system has a tendency, despite the best efforts of many, to underperform and perhaps even take resources from the judicial and law enforcement systems.

This point got driven home February when a New Orleans judge threatened to free prisoners awaiting trial because the ravages of the hurricane disasters essentially had stopped any revenue from coming into his public defense system, paring public defender staff by sixth-sevenths, making adequate defense virtually impossible. Eventually, the state coughed up $500,000 in emergency funding to keep it going.

Blanco proposes doubling the amount of money going to the Louisiana Indigent Defense Assistance Board which distributes such funds. Historically, however, LIDAB’s District Assistance Fund has been weighed more towards smaller-populated districts. While this may help keep indigent defense operating in these areas, larger jurisdictions are where the majority of the state cases get heard and where unfortunately appears the staggering number of cases a public defender is expected to represent. Currently, LIDAB is reviewing its criteria to determine DAF funding disbursements.

By all means the Legislature should adopt the $20 million request, one of the few significant spending increases justifiable in Blanco’s budget. However, as LIDAB revises its DAF formula, it should try to get more money to where the most cases are, and Legislative oversight is appropriate here.

Some innovation may help. For example, looking at the state’s two public law schools (Louisiana State and Southern), about 60 graduates a year specializing in criminal law pass the state bar exam. What the state could do is initiate a program that would pay for in-state tuition (about $21,000 at Southern, $30,000 at LSU) for graduates who pass the bar and are willing to commit to three years working in a public defenders’ office. LIDAB could set up a competitive process where districts send in requests to have a public defender sent their way on bar passage, the numbers of which would depend on the number of students in this program. (Graduates failing to live up to their obligation would have to immediately pay back the pro-rated share of tuition.)

Even if this attracted 10 additional students, at least it would provide some additional public defender support. With LIDAB supplying their salaries at roughly $35,000 annually, an equal mix of LSU and Southern graduates and the same number in the pipeline would cost $605,000 annually. Not just the state but the students would benefit – it would give these students a chance to get a law degree that they might otherwise be unable to pursue due to lack of finances. And, assuming they wish to specialize in criminal law, there’s hardly a better practical experience to gain knowledge in the area than public defense.

If indigent defense is going to be done, it needs to be done correctly, and additional funding and policy changes should put this quest on the right track.

22.3.06

Polls buoy Jindal's hopes, crush Breaux's and Blanco's

Rep. Bobby Jindal and state Republicans hardly could ask for better news – a Verne Kennedy poll for the 2007 governor’s contest puts Jindal way out in front and sheds light onto the new reality in Louisiana politics, a state Republicans will enjoy to the chagrin of Democrats.

The poll had Jindal at 39 percent, retired U.S. Sen. John Breaux 17 percent; Gov. Kathleen Blanco 16 percent, U.S. Sen. David Vitter 10 percent and former Attorney General Richard Ieyoub 2 percent. Shaw Group CEO Jim Bernhard, PSC Commissioner Foster Campbell and state Sen. Walter Boasso each had 1 percent. But the most interesting statistics were the attendant “don’t know” figures – 12 percent for the “primary,” 9 percent for the “general” election. Similarly discouraging for Democrats, another poll privately commissioned by Democrat Party strongman Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom put Jindal in front of Breaux heads-up 48-42.

They may try in the near future, but there simply is no way for Democrats to put a positive spin on these numbers, probably beyond their worst nightmares 18 months out from the election. Consider:

  • There is no upside for Breaux’s numbers – after 32 years in the state electoral spotlight, there’s little he could do in campaigning terms to increase a positive view of him among voters
  • There is little upside for Blanco’s numbers – if this is the best a sitting governor can do who, because of the hurricane disasters, is in the news every day, she is in deep trouble.
  • Vitter is not running; it can be assumed most of his vote would be headed Jindal’s way if the election were held now putting Jindal on the cusp of duplicating Vitter’s 2004 Senate election by winning outright in the primary.
  • 12 percent “don’t know” is a low figure this far out, devastating to the incumbent Blanco and quasi-incumbents like Breaux, showing a number of people already have made up their minds and, research shows, well over half who make an early choice stick with it all the way through.
    In a hypothetical general election runoff, with just 10 percent undecided at this point, Jindal already just shy of half, and quasi-incumbent Breaux well below half, it will be very difficult for Breaux to turn that around.

    If these discouraging numbers prompt Breaux to stay with his cushy post-Senate lobbying gig, the news gets worse for Democrats. Another older poll had Jindal comfortably ahead of Blanco 53-31 head-to-head, numbers ringing a death knell to a sitting governor when a challenger polls over 50 percent and her 22 points back.

    None of this should have been a surprise. Blanco has looked incompetent throughout the aftermath of the disaster and Jindal much the opposite. Further, his close loss in the 2003 race should have sent a warning to all future opponents. Simply, someone as young as he, with absolutely no electoral experience whatsoever, almost never comes within an eyelash of winning the state’s top office (not even Huey Long, who already had got elected to the then-Public Service Commission, came as close at a similar age in 1924).

    Jindal epitomizes the “new” Louisiana politician – a true conservative reformer. Why he defeats Breaux is he provides such a stunning contrast to the “old” style of Breaux – a closet liberal who became increasingly so, very comfortable with the good-old-boy system.

    Jindal beats Blanco on competence; he beats Breaux on reformism and ideology. Anything can happen in 18 months, but on the balance, he poses a serious problem for Louisiana Democrats.
  • 21.3.06

    Louisiana yet again warned to get its act together

    Sen. David Vitter served notice that Gov. Kathleen Blanco and the Louisiana Legislature had better get with the program in the upcoming legislative session in order to maximize the state’s chance of getting optimal federal assistance to offset effects of the hurricane disasters of 2005.

    In a speech, the Republican Vitter, who should know better than anyone else in the state given he is the only Louisiana elected official that sits with the majority in the Senate, emphasized the main issue that could cause the federal government to take a circumspect attitude in doling out recovery funds was state government’s ethos regarding managing monetary resources, and stressed four areas in which state government action could assuage federal fears:

  • Demonstrating that there was coordination among all levels of government to produce a unified vision about recovery
  • Having decisive leadership in and around New Orleans to create an environment in which recovery, driven by people, not government, could occur
  • Proving through governmental spending reform actions that the state was a good steward of funds
  • Displaying an attitude of fiscal prudence

    Vitter did not mince words, which we can presume echo the thoughts of congressional leaders who control how much money the state will get: “We need bold reforms to prove to the nation . . . we are getting our act together in Louisiana government.” Unfortunately, early indications are the Democrat elites who run the state, as usual, don’t get it.

    Coordination and leadership appear uncertain. Only recently has the state gotten with it with a housing recovery plan after dithering in anticipation that the federal government would do something on its own. The just-released Bring New Orleans Back commission’s report, modified by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, provides an excellent starting point and the state’s plan to pay homeowners for repair or sale of their properties should be folded into it regarding Crescent City recovery.

    More troublesome has been Democrat Blanco’s and the Democratic-controlled Legislature’s history regarding spending reform and fiscal prudence. In the past special sessions, Blanco had to be pressured to embrace flood control reform, and she allowed the Legislature to scuttle any attempts to consolidate wasteful government structuring in Orleans (while she fought tooth-and-nail for legislation to increase the chances for fraud in elections to assist the Democrats). Also, her latest budget indicates a reckless use of money designed to enhance her reelection prospects that even Vitter found necessary to directly address. And too many in the Legislature not only remain clueless about all of this, they incredibly think they are doing everything right and are too closed-minded to understand why the rest of the world thinks otherwise.

    Again, as Vitter’s speech reminded, it all comes down to this: those with political power in Louisiana historically have sided with a liberal/populist agenda to the detriment of the state’s economy and general quality of life. America didn’t much care about that until a crisis occurred and it had to intervene. Now it’s asking Louisiana’s power elite to grow up to help make the intervention effective. And if they won’t Louisiana will need tough love which the federal government will accomplish by withholding sufficient recovery resources until they do.
  • 20.3.06

    BNOB report makes good economic, political sense

    Maybe I should term this the “Between the Lines Echo Effect?” The Bring New Orleans Back commission plan modified by city Mayor Ray Nagin contains very sensible ideas that will maximize New Orleans’ recovery from the 2005 hurricane disasters – as well as maximize Nagin’s chances for reelection.

    Most importantly, the plan calls for minimal government involvement in the use of land. Nagin resisted an earlier commission suggestion for tighter government control on who could rebuild where. The marketplace should be given as wide latitude as possible so that individuals can decide. They’ll be best able to look at resources (including government funding) and information (flood map levels, general economic activity, etc.) to derive the optimal decision of whether to build, much better than a collective entity such as government could rule for them.

    Wisely, Nagin helps in the provision of data for these disparate decisions by issuing the appropriate warnings, even going so far as to caution that city services may be curtailed in some places. Despite all of this, some complain this means that areas of the city that were disproportionately poorer would be unable to sustain the return of their former residents. Oddly enough, these critics champion the cause of poor people to live in flood-susceptible areas. If these people want to live in New Orleans, they can relocate to other areas of the city. And if they can’t afford that, nobody is putting a gun to their heads and forcing them to live in New Orleans: there are plenty of other places near and afar where they can reside, and get compensation for any property they leave.

    In fact, a number of them displaced from these neighborhoods probably are better off where they are living now because of New Orleans’ multitude of societal problems – another issue presciently addressed by the plan. It identifies political and educational hurdles to overcome in order to create an environment that reduces such problems.

    For example, it recognizes that New Orleans’ Byzantine, bloated government must get trimmed and recommends citizens being given the opportunity to express their preferences on the matter through a referendum. It correctly gauges the necessity of sweeping away the previous failed educational system in the city wholesale and replacing it with a transitional, appointed commission to reestablish public education in a way that gives it a much better chance of producing excellence.

    Finally, it is a politically astute document. It recognizes that it asks for aid from a skeptical American public, and through oversight and self-monetary-help provisions allays fears that the liberal/populist mentality that has plagued Louisiana for so long, and New Orleans in particular, will inefficiently, if not entirely waste, federal assistance.

    It may appear odd that a document such at odds with this kind of political culture which trumpets government as the solution to all ills could emerge from this environment. It did because it was not driven by the state power elite, but by concerned citizens. And Nagin is wise to embrace it in principle, both for the pragmatic reasons already stated, but also for political reasons dealing with his attempted reelection.

    Nagin is the only major black candidate in the race and thus can attract a good chunk of that vote. However, problems loom for him in the electorate with reform-minded voters that previously supported him. Backing a plan that has reform so thoroughly written all over it cannot help but reassure this bloc to support him again in a race that should prove to be very competitive.