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11.5.06

Nagin wilting, Hightower wondering, Malone waiting

It doesn’t look like things will be going Ray Nagin’s way in his battle to win reelection as New Orleans mayor. I had postulated that Nagin could do so by collecting a good turnout of displaced voters (as well as hope the defeated Rob Couhig’s vote, probably almost all conservative Republicans, would split between him and challenger Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu to stay home).

However, early indications are that the displaced votes are running a little behind their totals from the primary – a normal expectation, but not one that would help Nagin. Further, the majority have gotten cast in Orleans Parish, where Landrieu is disproportionately stronger, probably from people who would have gotten on May 20 anyway but did so early for convenience.

Unless a big surge in displaced voters occurs, Nagin is unlikely to win, meaning Landrieu would be leaving his lieutenant governor’s office. That represents an opportunity for Shreveport Mayor Keith Hightower, who has been casting about for a political career after he leaves office at the end of the year. Even as Hightower continues to say he’s going back to the car business, he keeps raising money and he even spent tens of thousands on ads touting his presumed accomplishments as mayor.

But one job he did express interest in was that of being appointed lieutenant governor (by Gov. Kathleen Blanco to fill the unexpired term) if Landrieu left early. However, that more likely would go to former U.S. Rep. Chris John, who has a higher statewide profile by virtue of his failed attempt for the U.S. Senate and has worked more closely with Blanco on state Democrat affairs.

If so, I postulated awhile back that Hightower would turn his attention to the state Senate District 37, currently occupied by term-limited Republican Max Malone. And what are Malone’s plans? That he plans to hold a fundraiser that cannot be for his Senate seat may indicate he plans to run for mayor of Shreveport.

But with two serious Republicans already in the contest in former City Attorney Jerry Jones and current city Economic Development Coordinator Arlena Acree, and also Vernon Adams who polled 25 percent of the vote in 2002, in an electorate half-comprised of black voters, might this have him thinking about another office? Might he challenge Democrat Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell who gives every indication that he will exhaust his resources on a quixotic bid for governor in 2007?

10.5.06

Ater still doesn't get it, but he got Louisianans good

Secretary of State Al Ater is on his “Iblamefema” kick again, when in fact it was his own bad decisions that will cost Louisiana millions of dollars and do little more than politicize elections in the state.

Ater feels the extraordinary, in terms of effort, expense, and in lack of necessity, steps taken to entice voters to the polls for the New Orleans city elections last month and approaching this month, should be borne by the American taxpayer, not Louisianans. At the risk of being repetitive, the federal law is very clear that the federal government will not pay for any optional get-out-the-vote efforts that were both absurdly expensive (roughly $375 per extra ballot cast, while the usual expenses would have been in the neighborhood of $10 per vote cast) and competed with the existing, perfectly adequate, state processes for absentee/early voting. For those keeping count, the extra expenses of these elections are projected to be $6 million

But it’s obvious none of this gets through to Ater. Either he and his staff are unable to understand simple legal language, or he is being disingenuous, by continuing to repeat the outright false notion that the federal government ought to pay for these things and it is being discriminatory not to. That partisan undertones have been brought into the conflict belies his real agenda – to promote the efforts of the party whose top state job he coveted until being outmaneuvered by political rivals.

Recently, Ater has accepted plaudits for creating this horribly wasteful extra work for the election and making it work. Even though it was totally unnecessary, because it did go off well that has made it politically difficult to oppose measures like HB 1340 which today was reportedly favorably to the House of Representatives. This bill would make the satellite voter center concept permanent in cases of declared emergencies by the governor starting Apr. 30, 2007.

It takes little imagination to see how the process can become abused. Let’s say an election predicted to be close gets so divisive that some violent protests occur. If a governor thinks her party could gain politically from deploying this kind of voting, she could declare a state of emergency (which is very open-ended; practically any reason can be used). Worse, passage of this bill creates a slippery slope regarding election integrity. Doing something like this encourages those who are willing to compromise ballot security for political gain to ask that government do more, like loosen requirements for absentee voting without positive identification. It’s best not to invite wasteful use of resources and threats to election quality by supporting bills like this.

But Ater has shown support for this one, and other bills that more directly degrade elections, and still wants others to pay for the schemes he concocts. Again, this is repetitive, but it will be a good thing for the state to send this meddlesome waster of taxpayer dollars back to his home in Mississippi in five months.

9.5.06

Cable competition bill good for Louisiana citizens

What many people don’t understand about the ramifications of HB 699 is that it’s not so much telephone vs. cable companies, but rather it’s local government vs. the people.

This bill by Rep. Billy Montgomery would allow telephone companies to provide channel-selectable cable television service by going through a state franchising agreement, rather than by negotiating one by one local contracts. While the phone company side of the story is that greater competition ensues and the cable company side is that the phone companies get special privileges under this bill, the conflict actually revolves around other considerations:

  • Currently, negotiating locally for cable service which is almost exclusively granted to cable companies allows local government to extract concessions from operators such as requiring the making available of service to financially unprofitable customers, in exchange for which cable companies are unregulated in terms of their prices they may charge to customers and in the kinds of payments they must make to local governments which then can be passed along to consumers. Further, local governments are not compelled to grant contracts to providers other than cable even if the offer made by the other providers is much superior to the existing contract with the cable company.
  • The bill would grant a statewide franchise to phone companies that would make local governments unable to specify requirements concerning customer service and “buildout” (mandating service provision in potentially unprofitable areas), as well as not being able to force providers to carry public access channels or other channels favored by local governments on the basic (minimum) tier of coverage and would allow the state to supersede local right-of-way restrictions.
  • Thus, the question is, should greater competition be encouraged by allowing in phone companies under fewer restrictions than other franchisees have contracted for (some over 20 years) which will lower prices to consumers and reduce revenues to local governments, or is it unfair to do so? Specifically, by ridding the phone companies of having to adhere to local standards (like buildout, customer service requirements, channel provision, and assessing extra fees that can be passed on to consumers), would that reduce the barriers to entry (costs) to the market enough to encourage phone companies not only to get in the business of offering channel-selectable services at no extra cost (note that cable companies due to their near-monopoly status offer only a limited form of this and at premium prices) but to expand those services, given their start-up costs are lower because they do not have to adhere to the local standards and the extra expense that they entail?

    This answer depends upon how one conceptualizes the scope and purpose of local government. The organizations representing these governments have taken the position that local government needs to control the marketplace to excise from providers what it thinks is best, and thus opposes the bill. Proponents of the bill see the marketplace as a better, more efficient distributor of resources regarding this area of policy – and they have the better of this argument.

    For example, why should there be buildout provisions? It’s not like cable service, unlike water and electricity and/or gas, is essential to anybody’s life. Let the market decide who has access to cable; if enough people demand it, providers will do so. Why must government mandate this? Why is that so important to the polity?

    In the end, as is so often true in politics, you need to follow the money to understand who supports what. And again, it’s quite simple here despite the bill’s complexity: the current arrangement allows local governments to divert more money to their own coffers, extracted from the citizenry itself in the form of pass-along charges from operators, than probably would happen under the bill (the bill’s supporters would say not as signing contracts with phone companies for the service would grow the market at the expense of the one provider local governments cannot extract from, satellite, while its detractors argue legal changes could allow phone companies to evade paying such fees to local governments).

    This is why the conflict properly is viewed as one of local government rights vs. the peoples’. Do local governments have the right to raise money through a back-door scheme as under the current law and justifying it by referencing supposed benefits such as “buildout,” or does the state have the power to impose greater competition that may cuase local governments to lose revenues but which would aid consumers (and recall that all local governments in Louisiana, even those 32 entities operating under home rule charters, are subordinate to the state government that created them and may regulate their behavior)?

    The answer should be obvious: the latter, and even objections to this as being a “double standard” do not stand up under scrutiny. For example, one objection is that contractual arrangements have been made between local governments and cable operators for extended periods, locking in the operators under conditions that are more stringent than those that could be specified under this bill, putting them at a disadvantage. So what? This could be solved by state statute, by voiding all such contracts and allowing for renegotiation.

    Another is that customer service standards no longer could be mandated. But that’s necessary only in a near-monopoly situation which typifies landwire service today. If there’s real competition, the marketplace competition will eliminate the need for government to mandate.

    In short, even if one phone company likely would take up most of this new market, the fact is it would bring competition to a monopolistic market not so much dominated by cable companies, but by the local governments that use cable companies to create the near-monopoly to benefit both. The simple fact is, even if you assist a dominant supplier into a marketplace, if it squares off against a favored dominant supplier backed by government, more competition has been introduced and consumers ineluctably benefit. Two would-be monopolists competing prevents that market from becoming a marketplace ultimately dictated to by government. (Indeed, under the current law a local government could deliberately favor a provider for political reasons, and pass any additional costs into consumers.)

    In the final analysis, even if local government may lose revenues with this bill’s enacting into law, consumers as a whole gain. That’s why it was good that the bill advanced today in the House, and that it should become law.
  • 8.5.06

    Opponent of HB 604 & HB 669 fails in adequate explanation

    Stick a pig and it squeals, thus the reply concerning yesterday’s posting on both of the bills discussed, HB 604 which would eliminate the January local-only election date, and HB 669 which would put language on ballot propositions that would estimate the tax consequences to the “typical” voter and list the amount of money that “reasonably” could be collected by the tax in a year, by the general counsel to the Police Jury Association of Louisiana, Dan Garrett.

    While the two bills listed do not appear explicitly as “priority bad” in the PJAL’s tracking recommendations, from his comments it’s clear his employer is against them. Let’s see how he tries to defend against the essential truths of the matters, that these bills increase voter education about bond referenda (HB 669), save money, and reduce the disproportionate influence of constituencies that favor passage (HB 604). Starting with the latter:

    [A] review of actual election results shows no correleation [sic, misspelling] between turnout or election date and the passage or failure of a tax measure. As a professor I would have expected you to have actually done the research before making an assertion to the contrary.

    This “review” is news to me – and everybody in my profession who studies these matters. First, there is no such study extant in the literature that shows whether a tax referendum is likely to pass or fail depending upon whether it is affiliated or unaffiliated with other ballot items. If there is, it doesn't show up in any journal or book I've ever read, or seen indexed. If Garrett reads this, I would like for him to forward to me such a study, or at least the citation for it so I can look it up.

    But there is a ton of literature that points to the link between turnout and the presence of other elective offices on a ballot – that’s something you pick up in a basic state and local government or political behavior class. Simply, dates that have elective offices on the ballot drive up turnout in referenda contests compared to elections on dates that do not. (One study based on New Orleans turnout, which specifically looks at racial differences in referenda turnout, which Garrett may check is the state’s own James Vanderleeuw and Richard Engstrom in their 1987 Journal of Politics piece, “Race, Referendums, and Roll-off”).

    But note that his response dodges the entire point, which is not whether measures pass or fail, but whether local governments deliberately pick dates on which they can schedule noncompulsory (that is, voluntary voting), nonaffiliated referenda in the hopes of having them pass, on the theory that supporters of such measures are more likely to vote in such a low-stimulus contest than those against. While no study ever has looked at turnout of specific constituencies that would be favored by an affirmative vote (such as certain kinds of public servants receiving salary increases), others have made the link that the lower the turnout, the more disproportionately supporters of tax measures likely comprise the voting electorate on that item.

    A number of studies on voting behavior in referenda actions show that there is often stronger support for bond issues among those with higher income and occupational status. Likewise, a number of other studies show these are the characteristics of people most likely to vote in a noncompulsory voting system (like ours), regardless of whether the items are affiliated with other elective office contests on the same ballot. Thus, we may assume that a date chosen because it promises minimal turnout attempts to take advantage of the fact that as turnout declines, supporters of tax measures disproportionately comprise a larger and larger segment of the participating electorate.

    Garrett and his employers know this, but they don’t want to admit it. Either that or, as the general counsel to the interest group representing parish governments, I would have expected Garrett to have actually done the research before asserting a lack of causal relationship clearly contradicted by it.

    (Of course, another point he fails to address is that money is saved on behalf of local taxpayers by not having separate referenda-only elections. There another salutary effect here as well, the reduction of “voter fatigue” – the propensity of people to reduce their participation in electoral politics as the number of times they are called to the polls increases – which is precisely what local governments count on to weed out people who would vote against their tax measures. To assist him here, he could check Lisa Hill’s 2003 Australian Journal of Social Issues article. I am nothing if not helpful in educating others.)

    Turning to HB 669:

    [E]ven Rep. Powell could not define what constituted a "typical taxpayer". Taxpayers vary in income range, homeowners or not, business or personal, etc. If the author could not explain his own legislation, then how would local governemnts [sic, letter transposition] around the state be expected to comply?

    This too avoids the issue about whether the concept of greater information for voters is beneficial. An amendment simply could have been offered stating something like, “the measure shall have as part of its description, if a tax on unmovable property, the cost per year of a taxpayer with the current homestead exemption in force for a property valued at $100,000, and for one without,” and so on. It’s a straw man argument, and a very weak one at that, to say a problem in execution (one easily remedied as above) means the principle behind it is unattainable or unworthy.

    In fact, the literature shows the precise problem identified in HB 604, low turnout, could in part be mitigated by passage of HB 669. David Lassen’s American Journal of Political Science 2005 article observes that propensity to vote increases significantly as does relevant information about the referendum item being voted upon. And maybe this is why Garrett’s employer is against the bill, to reiterate my last posting: the people become more powerful and elected less powerful the more information they have about decisions made in their governance.

    In closing, Garrett made me an offer:

    In the future, I would more than happy to discuss any issue you wish, giving you the benefit of the other side of the issue.

    OK, if you can discuss these issues, please: (1) with already so many (four, even five) other dates throughout the year on which to hold referenda elections, knowing that the January date needlessly costs extra money, and that there is no justifiable new government spending that could not be put off or otherwise taken care of for a couple of months, why does your employer support keeping this date, and (2) why does your employer not support giving voters additional information about referenda when, as demonstrated above, it can be easily and precisely done?

    Shall we hold our breath waiting on answers addressing these exact questions?

    7.5.06

    Who does Legislature serve, people or government?

    State Rep. Mike Powell keeps tweaking the get-along, go-along good old boy (and girl) crowd in Louisiana to put the taxpayers first. So far, these politicians have gotten the better of him, but he keeps trying, to our benefit.

    Last year, Powell’s HB 415 would have produced savings for taxpayers in more ways than one. This bill would have removed the January option for local (bond and tax) and state (to fill legislative vacancies) elections, leaving now only March/April, July, October, and November (and February if you live in Orleans Parish) to get a vote in. It would have saved the state at least $500,000 a year (and millions across local governments in the aggregate) and eliminated a low-turnout election whose figures double, triple, and multiply even higher when in conjunction with regular elections with candidates on the ballot.

    But Gov. Kathleen Blanco vetoed it (after the state Senate almost did it in), even as it passed the House 87-8 and (finally, barely) the Senate 21-10, nonsensically arguing it reduced democracy. The main motivator, among several, for her action appeared to be the desires of the courthouse crowd in local government who like to utilize this date because, other than a special election, no regular elections for offices are held on this date which makes it easier to float tax propositions aimed at benefiting certain constituencies. With shockingly low turnouts likely therefore, interests’ voting power becomes magnified making more likely passage of the measure that disproportionately benefits them and the desire to spend that enraptures too many local elected officials across the state.

    Powell didn’t give up and produced this session’s HB 604, practically the same bill. This one got a stamp of approval of 101-0 in the House, but the Senate awaits. Will Blanco have the temerity to veto this one as well if the Senate provides a strong majority for it? Or will the Senate abandon its embrace of common sense that marked a majority of its members in its second 2005 vote?

    But the House itself already has threatened to derail another Powell measure designed to assist the taxpayer. HB 669 would require an election proposition which authorizes the levy or increase of a tax to state the estimated tax implications on the typical taxpayer and the estimated amount reasonably expected to be collected from the proposal for an entire year.

    That’s pretty simple and basic. For property tax propositions, newspapers will do something like this all of the time in stories about them. When the misbegotten Stelly Plan went under debate, the media also reported figures in terms of typical spending on items subject to the sales and use tax, with estimates for people in certain income brackets would pay given its changes. And budgets always estimate the amount of money a tax would raise. None of this is complicated, no does the bill ask for that.

    Yet opponents were able to get the “typical taxpayer” language stripped and others such as Rep. William Daniel IV said it would “prejudice” voters against tax propositions. So is Daniel admitting he wants ballot language to sway voters in favor of taxes? And since when is more information harmful to voters making decisions? Does Daniel support keeping the electorate in the dark as much as possible?

    Rep. Gil Pinac also raised a non-issue, that the ballot language could become too long for voters to read in their three-minute stay in the voting booth. However, Pinac may have forgotten that the language appears in numerous fora prior to the election – in fact, copies of the ballots are posted around the polling places for voters to read at their leisure prior to encountering the real thing.

    Powell is correct when he notes the real reason for so much opposition (a 51-all tie two votes short of passage) came in part because some legislators are concerned about providing voters too much information which may reduce the chances of state and local government squeezing out more money from the citizenry. It’s the typical attitude held by too many in Baton Rouge – the people don’t know how best to govern themselves, elected officials do, so keep the great unwashed in the dark. Let’s hope Powell and others can resurrect this bill because knowledge is power – and there are many in office who don’t want some of that power to be transferred from themselves to those they supposedly work for.