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24.8.06

Stuck on stupid XIX: Blanco denies delaying housing money

A year ago, Hurricane Katrina was churning towards the Gulf Coast and Louisiana officials kept an eye on it. Despite that, crucial figures such as New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco bungled, through poor planning followed by erroneous execution, attempts to cope with and minimize the loss of property and lives that would result from the storm’s landfall.

How they have coped with that spawned a new phrase, courtesy of a no-nonsense military man, for the Louisiana political lexicon, “stuck on stupid.” It’s the attitude demonstrated when public policy problems created by these officials’ own actions instead are blamed by those officials on others; they are incapable of understanding that it is their own beliefs and doings causing problems, and so they have to try to blame others for their own faults. Unfortunately, Louisiana has demonstrated in the past year that it has far too many politicians emblematic of this phrase (hence my nineteenth such named column), and it frequently has been lead from the top by Blanco.

Her latest exposition of why she remains stuck on stupid comes from her remarks at the grand opening of a state branch office of the Road Home program, designed to assist Louisianans in rebuilding their residences. Or, as wags have put in deference to the fact that a large number of state citizens have picked up on Blanco’s poor term in office, the “Road to the Governor’s Mansion,” as Democrat Blanco tries to use the program’s giving away of lots of money to entice people to support her for reelection next year.

It was all vintage stuck-on-stupid Blanco at the New Orleans ceremony. Trying to forestall criticism that it took nearly a year to get all of this going, she said the center's opening “culminates extraordinary days, extraordinary battles” in which the state had to spend months demanding greater help from federal officials who “at first didn't want to help us.” She spouted more such nonsense when she said part of the delay occurred because the White House decided to oppose Rep. Richard Baker’s bill in Congress to create a public corporation that would have bought hurricane-damaged homes and resold them to developers.

In truth, the delay mostly was Blanco’s doing. First, she took forever to get things going, in terms of providing leadership for institutions and laws to deal with recovery. (By contrast, Mississippi, which in some places had everything flattened as far as 60 miles inland, immediately got going and is far ahead of Louisiana as a result in all but the most severely damaged places.) Then, she refused to support important measures such as flood control legislation proposed to better protect the state and to show the rest of the country the state meant business, that recovery monies wouldn’t be poured into the same untenable situation, until a barrage of criticism made her change her mind.

Instead, she wasted time and efforts first by backing a ludicrously-large, few-strings attached $250 billion gift request to the federal government, then by backing the Baker bill which would have created a huge wasteful bureaucracy and likely would have put the U.S. taxpayer much more on the hook with fewer protections of their monies. National lawmakers derided the first and wisely deferred on the second. She wasted valuable time and effort conducting a public relations campaign, even in the halls of Congress, trying to blame others for her shortcomings in dealing with the storm during and after it (even being less than candid about it all).

What we know of as the “Road Home” came about only after all of this, where Blanco had to call another special session of the Legislature just to make up for errors she made regarding the first – and then in the regular session she had to wait for approval of the government structure to carry it out because her suggestion how to run it was too bureaucratic and put too much power in her hands, leading to Legislative modification. Only after all of this then did the federal government feel it could trust Louisiana to use wisely its tens of billions of dollars of gift monies.

A real leader would have lopped six months off this process. And so, almost a year later, with heavy hearts we’re still forced to proclaim (all together now), “Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, you remain thoroughly stuck on stupid.”

22.8.06

Shreveport mayor's poll tells little now, maybe more later

The Shreveport Times commissioned an exit poll concerning the city’s mayor’s race and it tells us … really nothing.

That’s perhaps a bit terse. Actually, it does tell us a few things. It says that state Sen. Max Malone has a long hill to climb to get himself into City Plaza – not impossible, but such a late start is not going to make it easy for it. It also reveals that Liz Swaine, relatively speaking, is doing stronger-than-expected – but probably some of the choices of her are a reflection of residual name-recognition from her television anchorwoman past rather than a genuine commitment to vote, meaning her overall strength is overstated because some of her supporters now will turn out the be unreliable later (and with such a high name recognition, she doesn’t have much upside).

But the utility of this poll is doubtful because barely half of the polled electorate even professes a choice, unusual in a situation where the campaign has been going on for months with only fifty-odd days out from the contest. This should be most worrisome to state Rep. Cedric Glover, who barely polls above his presumed closest competitor for votes, retired television executive Ed Bradley, and who trails Swaine. Somebody who would be expected to roll up more than half of the black vote at a minimum should be expected to have higher figures barely a month before the election.

However, all in all, the poll leaves us with far more questions than it can answer. Are Swaine’s totals firm? Are Malone’s a reflection of his late entry or that former city attorney Jerry Jones has done a solid job of building committed support among a significant number of voters that could carry him into a general election runoff? Can Bradley broaden his base beyond a few white liberals and angrier black supporters, indicated as a possibility given Glover’s relative weakness? Could a poll also-ran like city director of economic development Arlena Acree, with so much of the vote still outstanding, take advantage of the large proportion of undecided voters to disproportionately improve her standing?

(Tentative answers in reverse order are: (1) Acree has a lot of room to move up with the favorable ratings she has, but whether she can trigger this is another matter, (2) Bradley’s upside with his ratings looks pretty limited, while Glover does has some room to move up, and (3) with so many saying they don’t know of Malone, expect a dramatic rise in his fortunes if he can make himself know which, again, is a problem given his late entry – but forget about the absolutely inane comment about Malone’s placement that “He's got a very incendiary rhetoric. Those who will vote for him don't want that to be known,” because it’s the lack of name recognition, not undercounting, driving his total as of now.)

With 34 percent of the vote still unpledged, so much still could happen. That’s the real message this poll gives us.

Senators' grandstanding impedes real insurance solutions

You know there are elections around the corner when you get a bunch of grandstanding by members of the Louisiana Senate who make a lot of silly, unhelpful statements, but who really offer no serious solution to insurance problems in the wake of the 2005 hurricane disasters.

We seem to be having Senate Insurance Committee meetings left and right across the state, even though the Legislature won’t convene for another eight months. Chalk that up to its chairman’s Republican John David Cain running in the Sep. 30 special election for insurance commissioner, as if doing this makes it look like he’s doing anything constructive at all.

Other members seemed to have seized the opportunity for free publicity to make themselves sound like champions of the little people in order to win votes – a dangerous but prevalent mentality among Louisiana politicians which casts aside the desire to thoughtfully analyze public policy problems and has lead the state to being at or close to the bottom of every measure of quality of life.

Running for Congress, Republican Craig Romero sputters about how allowing insurer Farm Bureau to cancel policies after previously being allowed to raise rates – in essence, pocketing all of this money during a period of low risk – was akin to theft. Well, I don’t know the minute details about how the state’s Department of Insurance works, but I do know that the Department’s actuaries regularly review rates with a company’s financial position being part of that calculation. If Farm Bureau sopped up this money now, then in the future the higher balances will mean they will be forced to charge lower rates. That’s not theft; it’s the “pay me now or pay me later” choice where the company has opted for the latter.

Running for mayor of Opelousas, Democrat Donald Cravins thundered about “companies are basically exercising a free hand to do as they will with very little regulation from the state Department of Insurance. There's a law in effect that says a company can raise a premium 10 percent. They're raising them 20, 30 and 40 percent.” Well, I’m no senator, but I do know that R.S. 22:1401 says the Insurance Rating Commission may permit an increase of any size after appropriate review by the Deaprtment. So is Cravins charging, because he sees a “free hand to do as they will” by the presence of some large increases that the Department of Insurance is not properly vetting rate increase requests, and that the Insurance Rating Commission is derelict in its duty? Unless he has proof of these things, making such allegations is irresponsible.

Running for reelection next year, Democrat Nick Gautreaux wants to introduce a bill to allow the state-owned insurer to lower its rates. What Gautreaux doesn’t seem to understand is rates are going up because they have been under-priced relative to actual market conditions – and the subsidizer in the past to compensate still are Louisiana taxpayers and home insurance ratepayers, who thusly are compelled to transfer some of their wealth to other individuals who live in high risk areas. This would just under-price risk even more and put greater redistribution demands on those who chose not to buy home insurance in risky areas.

You get foolishness (and bottom-shelf state rankings) like this because of an attitude that too many have in this state that other people ought to pay instead of you paying for your own decisions. For those who go around saying home insurance now is “price-gouging,” and that if rates aren’t forced lower that “quitting, going on welfare and letting everybody else pay my stuff” is the preferred alternative (as if somebody hasn’t been paying for part of their insurance all along because of under-pricing revealed by the disasters), let’s be clear: nobody is putting a gun to your head and making you own a home wherever you want to live. If you think home insurance is too high, sell out and rent. Or, move away to a lower-risk area or to a less-grandiose property if you want lower rates.

I’m sorry, it’s just that simple. There’s no grand conspiracy among insurers to artificially inflate rates; even in a heavily-regulated industry such as insurance there’s enough of the free market left to prevent collusion and to ensure that private insurance will be made available to all who want it – if the state doesn’t allow the reward to not compensate for the risk involved by pursuing a populist solution of lower rates just because they were under-priced for so long. And it’s certainly unfair to make others pay for a few to have the privilege of artificially lower rates. But perhaps the worst thing of all is to hear these politicians, instead of offering serious analysis based upon some understanding about how the real world works, spout off with drivel that only makes coming up with the optimal solution all the more difficult.

21.8.06

Challenge should negate ex-con, felon candidacy

Maybe starting tomorrow we’ll finally get a clarification about Article 1, Section 10 of the Louisiana Constitution to see just how airtight it is in preventing felons unpardoned for their crimes from running for elective office in the state before 15 years have passed (assuming their sentence has been completed).

Prisoner #08515-035, Joe Shyne, was convicted in 1994 of soliciting a bribe while performing duties as a Sherveport city councilman office, a federal crime. He served his time in prison, a year, but then came back to win back the seat in 1998. State Sen. Max Malone (now running for mayor) didn’t think this was right, as did a large majority of Louisiana citizens, when he introduced a constitutional amendment that they approved that theoretically should keep Shyne from running for that office again until 2010.

But Shyne claims a governor’s pardon, which he got in 2003 from former Gov. Mike Foster, will suffice, even though the state’s Pardon Board a year later concluded the governor had no power to affect a federal conviction (this done to determine whether election rights could be restored to Prisoner #03312-095; no doubt he sees that decision as part of the massive conspiracy of the federal government and its judicial system against him, despite any real evidence). Malone and Shyne’s opponent current councilman James Green, disagree and challenged his candidacy.

Besides the 2004 opinion, in addition Malone says he has an attorney general’s opinion backing him up. Shyne himself doesn’t even seem to understand the issue, because he argues that it was a state law that took away his right to run – not seeming to know the Louisiana Constitution that he swore to uphold on several occasions (and didn’t) excludes him (at least until the next election cycle). But he admits he’s got a weak case by asserting Green’s bringing the challenge is “a chicken way out” to prevent Shyne from winning the election.

Of course, Shyne took the real “chicken way out” by breaking his bond of trust with his constituents in the past and now by wasting taxpayers’ money in an attempt to regain an office for which the people have said he cannot deserve. Still, with a judiciary nationwide that has steadily moved in the direction of making rather than interpreting the various constitutions, anything could happen in a court case, but Shyne will be off the ballot if common sense holds.

20.8.06

Stuck on stupid XVIII: it's the competence, stupid

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is opening mouth, inserting foot once again. And, once again, he displays the tragic ignorance of so many politicians from the Crescent City that ends up exactly disproving the point he tried to make.

Once again speaking before what he considered a friendly audience (the National Association of Black Journalists), Nagin alleged the federal governments’ actions towards New Orleans were biased against its recovery, intimating it was because New Orleans’ is a poorer city with a higher proportions of black citizens. Doing a derivative rap of Spike Lee, Nagin argued, “if that would have happened in Orange County, California, if that would have happened in South Beach, Miami, it would have been a different response.”

Actually, it’s funny he should mention those places, since they aren’t so different from New Orleans in terms of competence of local government. South Beach, which actually is a term of the southern part of Miami Beach which is governed in part by the famously corrupt Miami-Dade County, FL consolidated government, is part of an area with a huge Hispanic population. Orange County, CA famously mismanaged itself through the use of derivatives to lose over $1 billion, and is an area with a rapidly-growing Hispanic population. Nagin didn’t seem to know or couldn’t recognize the effectiveness problems of these governments.

Which is the entire point of why the federal government has appeared so meddlesome, so halting, to turn on the money taps to New Orleans: it does not trust politicians like Nagin, and those potentially far more corrupt, who have run New Orleans into the ground over the past several decades. The federal government understands that if you have a reprobate on your hands, you just don’t turn over the keys to the kingdom to him, you have to guide him, with tough love as needed, to maximize the chances that the best decisions get made. And then the reprobate’s representative accusing the donors of bad intentions is really going to get them to loosen up their wallets.

It is a sign of Nagin’s cluelessness that he doesn’t seem to realize any of this, that he and his ilk have been part of the problem in the past (and now are derided by many who say it’s not other governments’ not greasing city government’s palms enough that’s the problem, it’s that Nagin isn’t doing much of anything). Nagin is ignorant or dishonest to blame race and class for retarding the recovery of New Orleans; if he kindly will line himself up and almost all city elected officials of the recent past in front of a mirror, they will see who ultimately are responsible not only for that, but for depleting New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina that will make a comeback even more difficult.