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11.8.06

Looks like Blanco got hand caught in tollhouse cookie jar

As with how Floyd Landis could have registered too high of a ratio of testosterone in one isolated blood test, something doesn’t add up concerning the idea to put tolls on Interstates 10 and 12 in Louisiana. And the surface evidence points to Gov. Kathleen Blanco being less than forthcoming about an attempt to raise fees on Louisianans.

If you believe the story spun by her Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Johnny Bradberry, in March the state made a preliminary indication of interest to join in a pilot program that would allow state greater latitude in conversion of federal interstate highways into toll highways. In June, Bradberry alleged that he briefly informed Sen. David Vitter, and left information pertaining to the request, of that request.

However, earlier this week Vitter claimed he had just learned the previous week that the state for a fact was pursuing this alternative, and that Bradberry never had informed him of the fact the state wanted in on the toll program, leading him to denounce the idea publicly. For her part, Blanco remained mum until the end of the week, refusing to have media comments made, until she launched into a blistering, not-entirely-coherent tirade on the syndicated Moon Griffon radio program accusing Vitter of making misleading statements.

Somebody’s not telling the full truth. First, let’s imagine what Vitter’s motivation could be for suddenly launching a public relations offensive against Blanco on a contrived issue. And that is … none. There’s no election coming up that could help him, no event for him to try to distract the public from. There’s little reason to believe he woke up one day and said to himself, “Let’s see what mud I could sling at Blanco today.” It’s very credible that some contact of his at the federal level, or the state level, or constituent, or somebody who knew something about this only alerted him last week, and he sensed that sending a letter (with copies to other officials) to Blanco was his best bet of stopping this.

By contrast, Blanco and Bradberry’s stories sound implausible at best. Bradberry claims he’s the one pursuing the notion (but Blanco therefore gave him the order), and it is conceivable that he told and left the pertinent information with Vitter – but highly improbable as this would mean Vitter and/or his entire staff (that’s what his staffers are there for, so he catches these things) missed the importance of what Bradberry communicated in both word and document, something that you’ll seldom see a senator and his staff do.

And why would Blanco lash out at Vitter so publicly and with such vitriol unless she was trying to distract the public from the real issue – that she had been deliberately keeping obscurant the request because of what Vitter essentially said about it, that it would be injurious to Louisiana as well as she knows she is building a reputation as a governor who would rather spend and squeeze more money out Louisianans than do to the things necessary to reduce state spending and to redirect existing spending to more sensible purposes. This perception will forfeit any chance she has for reelection next year.

No doubt the state’s citizens increasingly are restless with the state pouring more and more money into roads with sub-optimal results. The last thing Blanco needed was revelation of this plan to feed this discontent, either because she eventually would have decided not to pursue it and it wouldn’t ever have become public knowledge, or because she needed more time to engage in a public relations campaign to make it appear more acceptable to the public. Now it’s what Vitter intended to make it with his remarks – dead, and Blanco brought into disrepute instead of her being able to use it to create a more positive perception of her leadership (along the lines of, “these are desperate times and Gov. Blanco has a solution”).

Landis says one thing, a lab says another, and maybe the Court of Arbitration in Sport will figure it all out. But we don’t have a formal court of arbitration of testimonies in political disputes. Instead, we have public opinion, and, from the looks of this controversy, a majority of the public probably will think it was Blanco caught with her hand in an embarrassing tollhouse cookie jar.

10.8.06

Odom creatively exacerbates sugar mill, ethanol boondoggles

Creative chap that he is, Agriculture Secretary Bob Odom is combining two boondoggles into one to make potentially a bigger mess impressive even by Louisiana standards.

When we last left off the saga of the Lacassine sugar mill, essentially paid for by money diverted from boll weevil eradication funds that no expert expects will be run economically, Odom was touting a $60 million sale of the $45 million facility was in the works, while at the same time arranging to guarantee the lending out million of dollars to retrofit the mill to the Lake Charles Cane Cooperative’s limited liability company that was to enter into a lease-purchase agreement of it. At the same time, Odom was looking to find somebody to build an ethanol plant next door, perhaps encouraged by the new state law that could force sales of the product in gasoline at higher prices to consumers.

Turns out he’s found something to go into agreement for 80 percent (of $45 million, not $60 million) and to build the plant for another $50 million – an ex-cement maker from Colombia, Cemento Andino S.A. (note: the company historically has been referred to as “Cemento” or “Cementos,” probably because there are at least two other similarly-named companies in South America). It’s not very “ex-“, as it turns out – only last November did it get out of the business by selling off its assets for $192 million. It appears the firm never has operated a cane syrup mill, much less ever built and/or operated an ethanol plant.

Not to worry, an Odom flunky assures the world, he personally visited with company officials and the engineers they’ve hired and finds them competent. If his boss Odom on this issue didn’t have less credibility than a Katrina “blow-up-the-levees” conspiracy theorist, that might actually mean something.

The kicker to the deal is that the waste product that presumably would come from the mill may not be used in the plant (if it gets built, seeing as one firm with experience in the area already has backed out), or even any Louisiana product. The contract allows the ex-cement maker to import grains to use in the plant – this when Louisiana farmers continue to be nervous about foreign agricultural imports into the state making it harder and harder for them to stay competitive.

Another Odom hack says this provision increases the chances of the mill being profitable (although I thought the original purpose of it was to help out farmers with their transportation costs, not to turn a profit) and that the firm will bring needed expertise to running the mill (even though one might think cane farmers might know something about that) and investment capital for it (even though Odom has arranged for two different loans to go to the farmers’ LLC to provide that capital).

It’s a good thing it appears that no additional state money will go down the rathole on this one, with the only thing continuing to plunge here being Odom’s credibility as a public servant who uses the taxpayers’ resources wisely.

9.8.06

Black Shreveport mayoral candidates must campaign hard

The opening of election qualifying also signals the period in which people may register to vote and participate in those elections is fast drawing to a conclusion, which will be crucial for determining who Shreveport’s next mayor will be.

Given that voting occurs largely along racial lines in Shreveport and there is a very good chance that the general election runoff will features a black and white candidate, the racial balance among registered voters in the city holds the key to who could win. For many years, black registrations have been growing faster that white ones but, unlike trends of a year ago suggested that by now, they still have not caught up to whites – leaving a gap of 1,722 as of Jul. 28 (however, total nonwhites outnumber whites by about 2,500; these figures from the combined active and inactive rolls).

Considering also the fact that historically whites turn out at slightly higher rates than blacks (2.4 percent in the 2002 contest) and a white candidate would be favored provided that larger amounts of racial crossover votes don’t break to the advantage of the black candidate (in 1994, for example, at the rate of 14 percent of whites of 7 percent of blacks). This means a black candidate must find ways to stimulate his base.

It’s far too simplistic to claim, “the only thing that gets people to turn out is emotion,” as said one appointed official. As political scientists have long noted, the single most important factor influencing political participation is age – the older a person, the more likely he is to vote (unless he becomes infirm). This is because as people age, they become more aware of how politics can impact their lives, and they gain more and vested interests – how well their kids are schooled, city services for their property, priorities for spending taxes paid, etc.

At the same time, observing that you can’t increase voting “until you get at the demography” describes the symptoms but misses the underlying disease. This is because the next two most important factors in participation are levels of education and degree of political efficacy (the ability a person believes he has to make a difference in governing). Better educated people are more likely to understand the process and see how it affects their lives, and thus are more likely to vote. People with higher degrees of efficacy feel more confident that they can effect political change through acts like voting. (These things also are inter-related: better educated people are more likely to rank highly in feelings of efficacy.)

Both of these factors, unlike age, can be changed within individuals. One elected official partially got it when she noted that nonparticipation occurs because “people don't feel any connection to the results of the process” – a contributing factor to lower feelings of efficacy. This highlights the difficult nature black candidates will face in trying to mobilize a black constituency – as blacks have lower levels of educational attainment and, partially as a consequence, lower degrees of efficacy.

(Understanding the theory behind political participation provides a much more complete explanation as to why “voters, especially in the South, are disproportionately both older and much more likely to be female. [They are] much less likely to be young and male,” as stated by one practitioner. First, aside from the fact this is quite an overstatement – whites compared to blacks and females compared to males were different by less than four percentage points in self-reported turnout in 2004 – it also misunderstands and overstates what the South has to do with it all.)

(Actually, age turnout differences among the four regions of the country are not very different – about 25 percent from highest to lowest turnout categories by age in the Northeast and Midwest, and 30 percent in the South and West. The reason why the latter two are greater is because they have greater proportions on nonwhite populations – black in the South, Asian and Hispanic in the West. These minority populations also are less well-educated and disproportionately younger. Sex works into this in the South because the black male population is significantly less well-educated compared to the black female population, and is much more likely to be imprisoned which prevents one from casting a vote. In other words, it all comes back to education, essentially – the region itself doesn’t make a differences, it’s aggregate levels of education and proportion of young population, not that Southern youngsters and males are less likely to vote because they are from the South.)

For the purposes of a campaign, however, educational attainment is not something you can change overnight. So, for black mayoral candidates to succeed in the next three months, since you can’t make your base older or better educated, you have to go after the efficacy angle. Specifically, you must address two political attitudes connected to it, perceptions of closeness of the election, and the salience of the election. Giving convincing details about how important the election will be for that person, and how every vote will count, are the best tactics to mobilize a base beyond its typical electoral response.

The numbers may not be as favorable for a black candidate as they may have appeared a year ago, but the recipe for victory still is the same – get out the vote.

8.8.06

Can the GOP actually win the Second District?

State Sen. Derrick Shepherd’s entry into the Second Congressional District contest held by embattled incumbent Rep. William Jefferson could spark a wave that would cause the unthinkable to happen – the district’s residents sending a Republican to Washington in November.

This district – in (pre-disaster) population terms about 80 percent Orleans Parish (minus small portions of Lakeview and the West Bank) plus an eastern chunk of Jefferson Parish on both sides of the Mississippi – from the present to any of its past incarnations (basically when it was just New Orleans) never has been competitive for a Republican. And even in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the numbers are decisively against Republicans. But a relatively recent scenario exists that could provide a blueprint for a GOP win.

In 1994, long-time incumbent and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Democrat Rep. Dan Rostenkowski fell prey to scandal, later going to prison on corruption charges. His indictments came only months before his reelection, after he had secured a place in the general election as the Democrat nominee. What normally would have turned out to be a Republican sacrificial lamb, political novice and former Army officer Michael Flanagan, defeated Rostenkowski as a result. (Just how aberrant this was became evident in 1996, when Flanagan lost big to now-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, now himself embattled by corruption charges; if any two states can compete with Louisiana in the area of big-time corruption, they’re Illinois and New Jersey.)

If Shepherd’s entry presages other heavyweights jumping in, such as New Orleans Constable and former city councilman Lambert Bossiere, Jr. and state Rep. Karen Carter, things could get very interesting. They have every incentive to join because open seats in Congress don’t happen often and history shows that once somebody gets into this district’s seat, typically they can stay there a long time. Such a chance may not come for the rest of their political lifetimes.

Even if Jefferson doesn’t resign or withdraw from running for reelection under the weight of the federal investigation into his financial activities, his precarious position (possibly made even greater by a likely indictment), ambitious politicians may see him as vulnerable as if he weren’t running. But this perception could cause a tremendous backfire for Democrat fortunes.

Every Democrat candidate that enters the race while Jefferson stays in it takes votes from him and (to a lesser degree) any other Democrat, but if only one credible Republican is in it, he gains relatively because votes will not be taken from him and there is a point of diminishing returns for Jefferson losing votes; there is a certain core that will stick with Jefferson even if he and Prisoner 28213-034 were found to be best buddies. Thus, we can envision the district’s vote as three distinct portions: the largest being the Jefferson do-or-die crowd, the next bunch being anti-Jefferson but preferring a Democrat, and the smallest being a solid Republican vote that would turn out for a credible Republican.

Fortunately for the GOP, there is a quality Republican running, Joe Lavigne, but for him to have any chance of winning he would need electoral good luck – and that may happen. With enough quality Democrats running, they might divide up the anti-Jefferson vote enough so that Jefferson and Lavigne could get put in the general election runoff. Then the anti-Jefferson voters would face a choice, perhaps terrible to some of them – vote for somebody they think is a crook, or vote for a Republican. Depending on what happens to Jefferson and/or his intransigence, things might set up for a Lavigne victory.

Of course, this situation differs from the Illinois example above because there it was two white politicians going after it in an overwhelmingly majority white district. This fall, the scenario presented here would feature a white Republican versus black Democrat in a heavily black district, damaging Lavigne’s chances given a history of black voters being less likely to cross over to vote for white candidates than the opposite. Still, the Second District has the potential to deliver a stunning surprise just after Thanksgiving Day.

7.8.06

Landrieu vote shows she remains liberal Democrat puppet

The following statement appears in the website biography of Sen. Mary Landrieu: “A moderate Democrat, she is known as an independent voice willing to cross party lines to support legislation that is right for Louisiana.” Her actions on recent votes on the minimum wage increase and a limited repeal of the estate death tax reveals this statement to be a lie.

Landrieu has been a consistent supporter of a hike in the economically-insipid minimum wage, but previously has shown more sense than most Democrats when it comes to repeal of the estate tax. That is the particularly immoral absconding of assets governments participate in when somebody dies and leaves too many of them to heirs, which has the practical effect of suppressing economic activity just like the minimum wage.

In fact, last month Landrieu proposed legislation that attempted to create compromise between Republicans who wanted to make the repeal of the estate tax permanent (it is scheduled to go back to its full 55 percent level in 2011 otherwise) and Democrats fanatically opposed to the idea. In fact, it was so highly considered by Republicans that they made it a major portion of their bill to repeal permanently the tax.

However, the Republicans combined in that bill this idea with the suboptimal increase in the minimum wage – as bad as a drag on the economy that would be Republican leaders felt repeal of the death tax would more than compensate for those negatives, if it were the only way to get the repeal made permanent. One would think that this gave Landrieu the perfect opportunity to get both her wants into law – a bill with the increase in the minimum wage that she has supported, and containing much of her language in regards to the estate tax.

But, guess what? The Democrat leadership in the Senate is so obsessed with warring on America’s most productive citizens, the ones who contribute most to society, the people who die leaving large estates almost always because of their skill in producing economic development and greater wealth for all, that this party of special interests decided it would rather punish these people than to transfer wealth to a small group of people to whom they have paid enormous lip service on the minimum wage issue. In short, the Democrats do not really mean what they say concerning their rhetoric about increasing the minimum wage – it’s just a way to buy votes that they’ll easily cast aside when it infringes on their insane desire to engage in class warfare.

Obviously, this provided a test for Landrieu’s presumed independence. If she really meant that she was not a puppet of the liberal Democrat leadership, if she really wanted to stand up for Louisiana, on the cloture motion regarding the bill (as Democrat leaders were going to launch a filibuster on it in order to prevent it from coming to a vote because a majority if the Senate favored it; to break an attempted filibuster 60 votes rather than a majority are needed) she would have voted in favor of this motion to limit debate, to allow a vote on a bill she had expressed so much support of in different forms.

Of course, she voted against it because we must never forget that Landrieu will say one thing to get elected, to make the people of Louisiana think she is with them, but when she gets to Washington she’ll vote more often against the state’s – and country’s – interest than with it. All concerned citizens need to pay heed to her behavior in relation to this incident. She is no “independent voice,” she does not “cross party lines to support legislation that is right for Louisiana,” she just follows her liberal instincts to empower her Democrat cronies, to the detriment of the citizenry.

6.8.06

Blanco closes barn door, chases budget reform horse

Gov. Kathleen Blanco must really think the recent political fallout of her reaffirming that she is a card-carrying member of Louisiana’s politics-as-usual crowd was bad, for she sent her Commissioner of Administration Jerry Luke LeBlanc to spin a dubious line to the media with yet another close-the-barn-door-after-the-horse-gets-out promise. News flash: it’s still not convincing anybody.

Last month, as the due date whether to cast line-item vetoes on the state’s operating budget drew near, critics raised their voices against a number of items destined to assist non-profit organizations in matters that appeared best left to the private sector to fund, and also other items for local governments that should have been so low on the state’s priority list as to be microscopic. What particularly raised their ire is that Blanco had promised such items would be removed from state funding with her bureaucratic box-shuffling that eliminated the so-called Urban and Rural Funds, yet here many of that type were still stuffed in the budget.

The solution, many argued, was for Blanco to use her line item veto on these. Pressured, Blanco politically blundered by saying other state elected executives should take responsibility for identifying such items, especially Treasurer John Kennedy. He happily did, almost immediately sending her a lit of tens of millions of dollars of items to axe.

Blanco, of course, had no intention of cutting much of anything on the basis of real needs for the state. We must not forget that Blanco conceives of the state budget first and foremost as a political tool to reward certain constituencies that she believes can keep her in power, and not really as device to ensure that the state only spends on things that are really necessary to the benefit of all, as well as reducing those total expenditures to allow more money to stay in the hands of owners of it, the people.

Only this attitude can explain the entire chain of events. Blanco went ahead and vetoed some very politically easy items, much of which she said would be restored, amounting to just a fraction of Kennedy’s recommendations. At the same time, she issued an executive order asking for basic data and reports on the items for non-public entities. LeBlanc’s latest appearance was to hype this bandage over a gaping wound, and trying to shift attention to the Legislature by requesting the order be passed into law.

This “accountability measure,” naturally, is no such thing at all, consisting of maybe 10 minutes work to prepare the first report and 5 minutes worth of copying each month or quarter it’s due. “Accountability” is useless when money is being spent for spurious reasons in the first place; her order will do nothing to stop money from being wasted and its only purpose is to distract the public from Blanco’s real failure of leadership on this issue.

If Blanco really meant it, if she truly were serious about budgetary reform, she would have issued a very different executive order much earlier in the year, setting out criteria by which any budgetary item not going to a government entity would be graded, criteria based upon how critical a need was to the entire state. She then would have put her money where her mouth was and vetoed any item that did not rank highly enough on the criteria. In fact, she even allowed the Legislature to flout her request not to put items in categories that tried to disguise their true nature, taking no action to negate that.

Because of the way Blanco handled it, in panic mode realizing she was taking a public drubbing over the controversy, it demonstrates she never considered such an alternative nor ever meant to enforce her articulated reform measure. Rather, she reacted to pervasive, negative public opinion she never anticipated to actions she really endorsed with a feel-good, do-nothing act. This dog-and-pony show fools no one, and putting the useless order into law will just serve to waste more taxpayer dollars.