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22.6.06

Public & "new media" score win over shamed politicians

Gov. Kathleen Blanco took my advice and vetoed the legislatively self-serving HB 1028. (Of course, that was the advice of hundreds, if not thousands, of others so maybe I had a little help.) Its demise tells us interesting things about Blanco, the Legislature, Democrats, the media, and public opinion in Louisiana.

As longtime readers know, I like to start my postings as an extension of a news item, in the form of a news story or press release. These readers also know that during sessions of the Legislature I compile the Louisiana Legislature Log where, among other things, I identify “good” and “bad” bills to track.

I tagged HB 1028 and its even worse companion SB 513 long ago as bad bills to track, hoping as with all in that category that they never saw the light of day. Apparently, I was the only one (that I know of) who bothered to even mention them in a published forum. I was wanting to write about them and kept waiting for a news article about them to show up, and waiting, and waiting …

Meanwhile, the things slowly moved through the legislative process. Contrary to the statements of a large number of red-faced legislators now claiming HB 1028 was a last minute surprise, they knew well in advance of the 6/18 and 6/19 votes what it was all about; lead opponent state Rep. Mike Powell said he discussed the bills with a number of his colleagues days before then, telling them in no uncertain terms what they meant.

However, the media black hole continued – until just a couple of days to go before the session’s end, when something about it finally popped up. But not in the mainstream media; rather, at C.B. Forgotston’s site. (Talk radio, however, was onto it a few days prior.)

Only after the session actually ended did the mainstream media kick in – not with stories about the bill, but in the reactions to it. (Or as one put it, “after ultra-conservative Internet bloggers began attacking the bill ….”). Both legislators and the governor’s office seemed a bit taken aback, then impressed, by the amount of grass-roots opposition to the bill, and Blanco with impressive speed vetoed it.

What have we learned?
  • Had it not been for nontraditional media, likely Blanco would have quietly signed it into law a few days from now. But blogs and, more importantly, talk radio pounded away at the bill, easily showing its bankruptcy. These channels reached the public and it infuriated many.
  • Blanco really is nervous, given her microscopic approval ratings, about her reelection chances. To rephrase, does anybody seriously think she would have vetoed this without all the negative public reaction? Bills of these types are cleared through the governor’s office prior to their introduction because they involve new spending; otherwise, they don’t get introduced, or never get a hearing or, if they do get one, are shot down quickly. She never had an objection to it until the very end.
  • And it’s not only Blanco who’s worried. Almost every Democrat in the Legislature voted for the bill, yet in a matter of 48 hours their statewide leader joined GOP legislators in calling for a veto. They’re liable to break their necks changing directions so suddenly like that.
  • Most legislators thought they could slip this one by (either that, or we must take them at their word that they aren’t very good at doing their jobs through inattentiveness) the public as “compensation” for being so ungratefully tossed out by the public through term limits. The era of hiding significant benefits to politicians may be drawing to a close.
  • If it’s the mainstream media’s job to inform the public about significant issues at the statehouse, they surely missed the boat on this one. That media can take no credit for public response; instead, the new media demonstrated themselves to be a powerful force, one that could mobilize the public again.

    Yet that leaves one final question: is the effect lasting, or is this just a temporary setback for the good-old-boy attitudes haunting Louisiana? I guess you’ll find out here first – or from some other new media sources.
  • Montgomery, Bossier City count on spinning the citizenry

    In another forum, an article I published similar to a previous posting here about the disappointing, to conservatives, recent voting record of state Rep. Billy Montgomery drew a response from Bossier Parish’s Assessor Bobby Edmiston. Edmiston stated his full support for Montgomery and questioned whether the legislator was as liberal as the column had made him out to be.

    But the Republican and elected party leader Edmiston (whose campaign was given $500 by Montgomery’s and whose wife contributed to Montgomery’s last year) offered little coherent defense for the Democrat Montgomery’s non-conservative votes or lack of appearance at other important ones that went against the Republican/conservative agenda. His only assertion that Montgomery votes conservatively used Montgomery’s affirmative vote – like almost all of his House colleagues – on the abortion-restricting SB 33 this session. Using this logic, no doubt Edmiston then would agree that Pres. Ronald Reagan was a flaming liberal, since the 40th president just once pushed for a tax increase while in office.

    Even if Edmiston is willing to excuse Montgomery for his missing recent crucial votes that mattered to conservatives where Montgomery could have made the difference (that’s the issue, not the argument Edmiston tries to put into my keyboard that he’s “not fulfilling his duties as a legislator”), it’s also indicative that Edmiston seems starry-eyed at Montgomery, supporting him “because he is ‘Coach.’” If Edmiston calls himself a conservative and actually does some research into what the people he supports do in elective office, he could not miss, as I pointed out in the column in question, that Montgomery had the second-most liberal/populist voting record in the 2005 Legislature. (Readers may investigate these telling votes here.)

    It explains why Montgomery, despite being desperately out of touch ideologically with his district, continued to get reelected – voters like Edmiston who care more that Montgomery is one of “them” than whether his votes actually in the aggregate comport to his constituents’ desires or individually to their own ideology – if they even know his record. It’s this lack of insight and reflection, a staple of the good-old-boy, populist politics of the past that Montgomery is counting on in any future political aspirations.

    He has every reason to expect success in this regard – many of the current crop of Bossier City elected officials managed to do the same in their 2005 reelection bids. One key issue so-called “conservatives” on the city council and mayor’s office managed to keep from experiencing electoral repercussions about was the $21 million gift parking garage to Louisiana Boardwalk developers who could have built it on their own. Proceeds from Bossier City’s investing this money could have forestalled a recent fee increase suffered by Bossier City property owners, or it might have been spent to speed along road improvements and extensions.

    Cognizant of this increasing image problem, Bossier City has embarked on a public relations quest to try to put lipstick on this pig. Around the anniversary of the opening of the Boardwalk, the city trumpeted data that, according to them, showed the parking garage gift was “paying off” itself quickly; in fact, the city has at least one administrator meeting with groups to spin this story.

    But to anyone who cares to critically think, that whole argument is revealed as a sham. In trying to understand the actual input the Boardwalk makes to Bossier City recurring finances, we must parse out the one-time and/or unrelated revenues – and this assumes the garage was crucial to the project’s presence which is unlikely. In short, we must find out what contribution the unique visitors – those who spent money at the Boardwalk who otherwise without it would not have spent money in Bossier City (or in the area to create jobs for Bossierites) – made in terms of recurring revenues.

    That means none of the one-time reimbursements from private and public sources count. Thus, just sales tax and property tax revenue increases matter. The latter we can dismiss because (something else the city doesn’t publicize) is the extra recurring costs of the property – policing and the like. Let’s say (lowballing) they equal the $200,000 annual property tax gain.

    Also note that only 30 percent of visitors are from out of the area (that is, 70 percent probably would have spent their money elsewhere in the area). Probably almost all of the visitors would have spent their money in the area anyway, too; only a small portion likely came to the Boardwalk just because it was there. And we cannot forget that, historical data show, half of revenues are generated by Bass Pro Shops which has its own parking area.

    But let’s be absurdly generous and say all 30 percent came just for the Boardwalk. At roughly one-half $1.8 million a year increased sales tax revenues times 30 percent, that means (not including interest) it will take (again, using very generous assumptions) almost 78 years for the Boardwalk to “pay” for the garage. Including interest earned, at current rates it never will: note that the unique revenues are about one-quarter the size of the interest that would have been earned if the money simply had been invested.

    Montgomery, himself a veteran taxer-and-spender, probably thinks that if the Bossier City public bought the garage scheme, then at least the half of the Senate 37 district that is Bossier City will buy his candidacy. But we peasants yet might surprise him and the ancient regime that has ruled these parts for so long.

    21.6.06

    Powell provides legislative heroism in 2006 session

    A number of disappointing events routinely occur doing a legislative session (here’s a good list of them), but from this milieu legislative heroes emerge. Perhaps the 2006 session’s most prominent example is state Rep. Mike Powell.

    Yesterday, even though a majority of their members voted for the bill, Legislative Republicans now have formally requested that Gov. Kathleen Blanco veto HB 1028. The bill gives legislators of certain length of service, part-timers, a full-time employee group benefit, a minimum of 75 percent of premiums paid for by Louisiana taxpayers.

    As noted yesterday, there’s no logic or rationale to justify this perk. Despite defending it as late as yesterday morning, Republican leaders now claim the bill was “hastily” considered and formally request that Blanco veto the bill (basically admitting they don’t read and/or understand the bills they handle, which is what they get paid for). But Powell was on this during the House debate, sounding the alarm. However, only a minority of his GOP colleagues followed his lead with their votes, while almost all Democrats there supported this self-serving measure.

    And this wasn’t the only occasion on which Powell bucked the prevailing trend of the Legislature on a bill now raising concern. On the final morning of the session, with HB 1281 on the floor Powell was the only legislator to speak against it, pointing out that the state through tax policy was now putting itself into the business of subsidizing all sorts of public and private ventures – golf courses, lakefront development – using taxpayer dollars not through the marketplace, but by political fiat. He almost succeeded in getting enough votes to turn this down.

    Powell also aided the state proactively. He saved more tax dollars by getting the state to eliminate the January election date for local elections despite insipid, inaccurate opposition in HB 604 (now sent to Blanco, who vetoed a similar measure by him last year). His HB 669, also facing squealing, silly opposition, which would have governments with ballot measures promoting a tax put a summary of its tax effects on the ballot, also has headed to the governor even though it was at first defeated in the House.

    While we may have a bunch of legislators who aren’t doing their jobs getting $1,400 a month and $115 per diem, we definitely got our money’s worth out of Powell this session.

    20.6.06

    Self-serving bill could have been worse; will Blanco veto?

    As bad as the self-serving legislation passed in the waning moments of the 2006 regular session of the Louisiana Legislature was, it could have been worse, and might still be repaired.

    SB 513 would have allowed any legislator (and appointed officials with a number of years of service) serving from 1995 for ten years to have access to state group insurance, even as they are part-time employees of the state, at the preferential rates paid by full-time state employees (75 percent subsidized, and that’s the rate for employees with 20 years or more). But it foundered after the Senate rejected simple House amendments and didn’t even get a conference report.

    It would have appeared to be a victory for the citizenry, because it prevents part-timers from getting a benefit that should be reserved for full-time employees and having taxpayers foot the bill. Recall that legislators expressly are designated as part-time because the authors of the 1973 Constitution felt legislators should be drawn from the ranks of the citizenry, that they should have to exist primarily in the real world to gain a better understanding of the typical, unelected citizen’s needs and desires. In doing so, they could self-insure or utilize their or their spouse’s employers’ insurance. The appointees added by the bill are the same. It is excessive to permit a full-time benefit to part-time employees.

    There are those that argue improving benefits would improve the quality of lawmakers by attracting higher-quality lawmakers to office. This is a curious form of self-deprecation: legislators who claim this imply they aren’t quite as good as the state deserves and that if this standard was in place those who follow would be better. Simultaneously, it is infused with hubris, disdainfully considering that there are plenty of individuals as capable as they – if not moreso – who would serve without any desire for such benefits because they feel it is their civic duty to forgo personal rewards.

    It also reeks of hypocrisy: why should legislators vote to give cheap health care to themselves at taxpayer expense when the state can’t even fully fund waiver slots for the disabled, it refuses to restructure the health care system that would save nearly $100 million a year, and, just this session, with no dissenting votes whatsoever, passed into law SB 613 which would enshrine into law a Medicaid reimbursement formula that inefficiently spends state health care dollars.

    So it was a big win for the state? No, the victory was illusory, because they got just as good of a deal for legislators on this account in HB 1028 which did pass (only cutting out the state appointed officials). Notice that legislators were so concerned about this getting through that, up until the final minute when they knew HB 1028 was going through, SB 513 was kept alive as a safety valve (and senators may try to use their vote to reject the SB 513 report as political cover). HB 1028 also was more limited in that it did not include the state appointed officials, and recent very negative publicity about this concept probably made legislators shy away from an even worse bill.

    Once again, Gov. Kathleen Blanco has been presented an opportunity to display some reform credentials with the passage of this absurd legislation. Relatively speaking, it’s not a lot of money, but it’s the arrogance displayed (mainly driven by the fact of term limits with too many legislators feeling they need to grab as much out of the system as possible before being forced out). Not having much to hang her hat on this regard, if she wants to burnish these credentials and do the right thing, a veto by her of HB 1028 is in order.

    18.6.06

    Ethanol bill's final form creates consumer worries

    Well, the pendulum swung a bit farther the other way on SB 454 than my previous post had hoped, and Louisiana consumers potentially are the losers for it, if the House of Representatives and Gov. Kathleen Blanco as expected accept conference committee recommendations.

    SB 454’s conference fate didn’t get a boost when the House picked another good old boy, state Rep. Jim Fannin who favors agriculture interests, and an advocate of the ridiculous notion that Louisiana needs a law to prevent gasoline retailers from selling below cost, state Rep. William Daniel IV, to the conference committee (in addition to the other mentioned in the previous post). Consumers suffered when these guys and the others assented to a conference report allowing a representative of the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation on the three-member panel that determines whether consumers would have to fork over more for gasoline sold in the state, replacing the Revenue Secretary.

    That politician still has some input, selecting the third member of the panel, the other being a representative of gasoline retailers, from agriculture economists available from major state university systems. But as we know the retailer representative will be (properly) biased in favor of consumers, surely the agriculture representative will be biased in favor of the special interests he represents. The tie will be broken by the choice of the Revenue Secretary’s, an official appointed by the governor.

    This official does have incentive to favor the consumer and pick an economist accordingly, because higher prices at the pump caused by higher ethanol prices would result in fewer gallons sold, and thus fewer tax revenues collected. However, the choice of who is this official that appoints the economist lies in the hand of the governor, and she may wish to put a person friendly to agricultural and environmental interests in that position.

    It’s hard to say in which direction the current occupant, Cynthia Bridges, would go. But one can envision scenarios in 2007 that could put a governor in office who clearly would be hostile to consumer interests on this matter, and would appoint somebody of like mind. The conference report gives only broad guidelines in terms of determining when ethanol’s price becomes equivalent to that of pure gasoline, so this selection could be crucial.

    While the final form of SB 454 does not unambiguously harm consumer interests, neither does it solidly protect them. Government always behaves more mischievously than less, and so Louisianans will have to maximize their protection on this account by electing governors who understand that the government that governs least governs best, and wishes to minimize intrusion into the peoples’ economic affairs.

    Blanco bests Odom, but will consumers also win?

    Finally, it seems the balance of “who pays and who benefits” is swinging into the favor of Louisiana consumers, when it comes to the aftermath of Act 313 of this legislative session. The act would commit the state’s gas distributors to make sure that at least two percent of their product is in ethanol when its production rises above 50 million gallons a year, no later than six months after.

    As previously noted, existing Legislative attempts left considerable doubt whether measures could be taken that would prevent higher prices at the pump because the cost of making the ethanol vastly exceeds now and for the foreseeable future will exceed that of gasoline processing, as well as it would potentially cause environmental hazards. Even legalities that on the surface would prevent the price spike upon implementation of Act 313 were uncertain because of the large role Agriculture Secretary Bob Odom would have played in it all.

    Odom fought moves to put into place a legal mechanism that would diminish his authority to declare Act 313’s provisions to be triggered, no doubt with an eye on transferring wealth from consumers to a few agriculture interests as soon as he legally could. However, a surprise consumer hero emerged to cut out Odom, state Sen. Noble Ellington whose past record tends to favor big government and special interests. He got the Department of Agriculture’s influence entirely removed, and even that of farm lobbies.