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12.10.06

Change attitudes, not accessibility, to increase LA voting

“I'm certainly going to make it a personal mission to increase voter turnout” – new Secretary of State Jay Dardenne.

Good luck with it. What most politicians and those who do not study voting behavior do not understand is nonvoting is much more an attitudinal problem than structural problem. That is, you can make it tremendously easy to vote but you’ll barely increase the rate of voting. Or (as I remind my classes), you can lead a person to a voting booth, but you can’t make him vote.

Political scientists have learned that five attitudes essentially govern the rate of voting for individuals: (1) strength of identification with candidates, (2) strength of attachment to parties, (3) perceptions of party competitiveness, (4) feeling of the importance of elections, and (5) feelings of political efficacy (that is, how strongly do they feel they have the ability to make a difference in politics). Let’s take these in turn with Louisiana.

On the first, given the personalistic political culture in Louisiana, this would argue for higher turnout in Louisiana relative to other states. This, however, is more than compensated for by the next two because the institution most able to entice people to vote is the political party (after all, their job is to win elections and you win elections by getting people into the voting booth). No other institution comes close in ability to mobilize voters. But we have the weakest parties in America in Louisiana and, until recently, no real competition between the major ones.

The fourth factor is devalued by the large number of election dates and the fact that Louisiana insists on having state elections and most parochial elections not concurrently with federal elections, as all but three other states do. Making them concurrent raises the value of any given election to the voter, because more is at stake. The fifth also depresses turnout: when you have a dysfunctional state government that has guided the state to the bottom of almost any meaningful quality of life indicator, that tends to sap people’s belief they can influence the world of politics. Simply, they get discouraged which does not prompt them to vote.

So if Dardenne is serious about this, he has to find ways to change these attitudes. Putting satellite centers in shopping malls isn’t going to cut it. In fact, in a legal sense, there’s little he can do to change these attitudes.

But he can play the role of advocate. He can stump for laws that increase the power of political parties, that reduce the number of election dates, and that make state and parochial elections concurrent with federal ones. There’s not a lot he can do about changing the defeatist, fatalistic attitude many have about Louisiana government, except to speak as much as possible about the things that hold it back and to articulate support for a reformist agenda.

These are the things to do to try to pump up voting rates. If he restricts himself to addressing only the infrastructural concerns (which is largely what the Secretary of State only can do in a formal sense), he has little chance of succeeding in his personal mission.

10.10.06

Heitmeier withdrawal admits sobering Democrat picture

Facing a very uphill battle, Democrat state Sen. Francis Heitmeier withdrew from the Secretary of State general election. Despite what some thought, Heitmeier never had a chance after he barely made the runoff against two strong Republicans, with a particular danger signal being that he barely won the Democrat stronghold in the state, Orleans Parish, which is accustomed to giving Democrat candidates double or triple the votes of their nearest Republican competitors when only one major Democrat runs.

Heitmeier mentioned this hollowing of support in Orleans, and his acknowledgment presents a very sobering picture for Democrats statewide. The latest population estimates put the parish population at around 187,525; black population is estimated at 86,917, a reduction of 239,060 from the 2000 census while white population is around 82,048, down 53,908. At the end of the third quarter, 2000, 46.65 percent of blacks were registered Democrats, 34.22 percent of whites were Democrats, and 22.15 percent of whites were Republicans.

Computing the losses, assuming they are uniform across registration, and assuming absentee participation rates cancel any partisan advantage (all favorable assumptions for Democrats) this means that 129,969 Democrats and 11,941 Republicans have left New Orleans. Considering that about half of the white Democrats consistently voted Republican, the carnage to the Democrats is around 100,000 voters since 2000 in Orleans.

Taking the three other hard-hit parishes from the 2005 hurricane disasters into account, Jefferson, St. Bernard, and Plaquemines, will reduce this deficit some (about 14,000 in Jefferson, 6,800 in St. Bernard, and 700 in Plaquemines). This difference of 78,500 in 2003 would have put now U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal in the Governor’s Mansion (and no doubt have the state on the road to a faster, better recovery than its present occupant) and in 2002 would have meant Sen. Mary Landrieu would have been retired out of that body after just one term.

It also means that if Jindal, as widely expected, runs for governor in 2007 and if any strong Republican runs for Senate against Landrieu in 2008, we can expect both offices to be possessed by Republicans. Turning back to other 2007 statewide races, it would appear at least half the statewide offices will be held by the GOP, and it’s worth noting that Atty. Gen. Charles Foti won by fewer than 100,000 votes in 2003, while it’s possible that one strong challenger could seriously threaten Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu given he barely avoided a general election runoff in 2003. Even Agriculture Secretary Bob Odom could be threatened given his tumultuous tenure, despite his large 2003 win.

Heitmerier’s withdrawal shows the future of Louisiana increasingly appears to be Republicans’.

Stuck on stupid XX: Blanco instransigence may cost LA

One important reason why Louisiana has fallen behind the rest of the national on quality of life indicators is because its good-old-girl style of governance places greater importance on protecting favored constituencies than in creating more efficient government that uses resources more wisely. Its current position on health insurance for the indigent provides a perfect example of Louisiana wanting to do the same old thing – and how that may cost the state a chance at hundreds of millions of dollars as a result.

In order to garner funds from the federal government, with a deadline of Oct. 20, the state must demonstrate how it has “redesigned” health care in the state. This particularly is an issue given the damaged health care infrastructure in New Orleans, and decisions about rebuilding and building new hospitals in the charity hospital system. Louisiana is the only state that covers health insurance for the indigent through provision by state-run hospitals.

Federal Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt has been insistent that the state use the model the federal government and remainder of the country has been moving towards steadily, “money follows the patient.” It has been demonstrated to produce better and more efficient outcomes by increased and more flexible choices for treatment, instead of the “warehousing” system used by Louisiana that forced care into the less-efficient public sector and made for “one-size-fits-all” solutions that do not emphasis prevention or optimal, individualized patient care.

The state bleats that it has to keep some form of the charity hospital system (which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars just to rebuild) prominently as part of a redesign because it’s otherwise too expensive. This is because this arrangement allows the state to suck in Medicaid dollars it otherwise would not get because the charity system is so heavily invested in indigent care, despite its gross inefficiency, while shifting focus would not save as many dollars retained by the state as it would have gotten through Medicaid, estimated to be extra to the state $231 million a year at first, coming down to $155 million thereafter.

As a result, Democrat Gov. Kathleen Blanco, state Secretary of Health and Hospitals Fred Cerise, and many of the panel she created to study the matter continue not only to resist this idea; rather, they wish to use coercion to force people to pay into the system. Their redesign model does not exit the state from the charity hospital business; indeed, their idea of revamping includes mandating middle-class parents to pay for insurance for their children and forcing health care costs onto small businesses and the voluntarily uninsured who can pay.

Even the state’s cries about being to poor to afford money-follows-patient revamping ring entirely hollow. Only a couple of years ago the state’s own Legislative Auditor found a simple restructuring of reimbursement rules could save the state nearly $100 million a year, away from rules that favored high-cost warehousing of the elderly and disabled in nursing homes instead of more efficient community-based care. Instead, this spring the state took the rules that created this favoritism and embedded them into law.

But an even bigger sacred cow than nursing homes is being saved here, and explains the actions of Blanco and her cronies – the charity hospital system. As one (maverick) member of the redesign panel noted, the real conflict on the panel involves the future of the charity system; until the state resolves to rid itself of the system (by selling off, if possible, most of its hospitals and retaining only the teaching institutions), Blanco will continue to fight the will of the federal government and the better ideas it has in this area (just as she did with the superior ideas it had for structuring the state’s recovery from the 2005 hurricane disasters).

Especially mind-boggling is that an excellent plan already exists, in a modified (admittedly for the worse) fashion already proving its worth in Massachusetts, recommended by the Louisiana State Medical Society and acceptable to the federal government. But Blanco and her minions refuse to accept any form of it, hiding their protection of big government’s involvement in health care through buzzwords like trying to have a “responsible” plan.

Once again, many of Louisiana’s leaders remain stuck on stupid, wanting to keep an existing system in power, wanting to keep doing business as usual, not because it’s the right thing to do, but it brought them power and privilege. And, yet again, it looks as if the federal government will have to practice tough love to move the state forward. The remaining question is just how stubborn is Blanco willing to be to fight to save the good-old-girl network’s interest on this issue, and how much it will cost Louisianans as a result.

9.10.06

Ethics Board needs to recuse self from speech regulation

So since a Bogalusa city councilman requests that the Louisiana Ethics Administration Program take up an “advisory opinion concerning the regulation of web-blogs[sic] and blog sites and the placement of political campaign signs,” as a blogger who comments on Louisiana politics I guess I need to address this.

Democrat T.D. Kates is a busy man, finding time in the past couple of years to march against presumed racism. He also seems to enjoy making requests to the Ethics Board, such as giving campaign funds to pay for lighting public parks in his district (the Board says it’s permissible), as well as being involved in charges brought up against other entities, such as accepting free rides from air ambulance firms wishing to do business with the city (the company was found in violation and fined), as well as being subject to charges himself, such as failure to disclose relevant information (he was found liable and asked to provide it, although he wasn’t fined).

Maybe Kates’ interest comes from the fact he contributes to blogs, or perhaps because the question of who pays for dissemination of information about government officials is near and dear to his heart, having been told by the Attorney General’s office that a mailout to his constituents paid for by the city might violate the law.

One might wonder why he took the time to do this instead of making sure he didn’t file his ethics reports on time, but, here it is. That he filed such a request may not mean he wants there to be regulation of them, he may just want clarification on whether they can be in any way particularly if they appear to be connected to some kind of political campaign, even as it appears his hackles have been raised about a local web site.

However, as I observed earlier today in a previous post, nobody is forced to believe in anything on a blog, or even to read them. The same holds true with any “traditional” media source. So if the Ethics Board were to hold that there had to be some “truth-in-labeling” on blogs established by a campaign to masquerade as being unconnected to a campaign, this would create two highly undesirable conditions: (1) a level of intrusiveness into the process of campaign argumentation that should not exist (2) no reliable or clear understanding about the dividing line between what is true or untrue labeling.

Consider that (presently; who knows with a Supreme Court that upheld BRCA?) no law anywhere requires any truth in labeling in campaign ads (so long as they don’t surpass the judicial standards for libel or slander); wisely, the First Amendment has been considered to protect this latitude with the interpretation assuming that people are not so brain dead that they can’t separate the wheat from the chaff. Any moves to regulate would produce such a chilling effect on political speech as to seriously compromise democracy.

But perhaps even worse, who determines what is a “masquerading” entity and what is not, and how can they do it? For example, is a newspaper that has an online version which relentlessly prints positive stories about some candidates and negative ones about others any different from a blog run by a campaign? Or if that newspaper in its online version runs ads for just one candidate (recall that there is no “equal access” rule applying to the Internet; see here for this and related issues)? Again, what’s the difference between that and a “hidden” campaign blog?

This all may be a tempest in a teapot, as the Ethics Board surely will be sensible enough to rule it has no jurisdiction on this matter. That seems to be the the tack it will take, according to its staff. But the fact some might consider such regulation of political speech as appropriate in no way allows Louisiana to shed its reputation as a place whose politicians care so much about their power and privilege that they would contemplate this.

People know to be wary buyers of blog information

Before investigating the larger question of blog regulation, it's helpful to review the presumed impact that blogs have on the political scene.

In a recent exploration of the issue, one remark is that many of these blogs “parade themselves as legitimate news sources” without revealing conflict of interests or doing all the checking that mainstream media does. “Blogs don’t exist under those same rules, those ethical standards … many of them are ideologically driven, partisan or both. They are for hire.”

No doubt some of them are for hire, and if not literally for hire, then they are willing to sacrifice any claims to being balanced or to engage in an objective search for the truth or exercise of right reason, in the pursuit of furthering a political agenda. (Perhaps the most famous example being the “leaking” of alleged exit poll data on election day 2004 to leftist blogs in an attempt to boost Democrat fortunes.) In some ways, however, the above quote doesn’t make sense because who wants to write a blog dealing with political issues unless they have an opinion to share? At the same time, there’s no guarantee the mainstream media will use “ethical standards” or are not “for hire” (Dan Rather, anyone?).

So is the solution that which is suggested by another campaign operative in the story, that there should be some type of disclosure of who operates the sites and their political ties? Besides the obvious enforcement problems and that this would be discrimination against one form of media (there’s no law forcing the content of campaign ads to be verifiable, for example), this view gives short shrift to the critical faculties of voters. Yes, they may not be very attentive typically to politics, but, on the whole historically, there seems to be a collective wisdom among them that have produced more hits than misses (true, the proportion of misses is higher in Louisiana than probably anywhere else, but, over time, still more hits).

To be blunt, while generally people may not be always good judges of public policy, human psychology is pretty good about sniffing out the degree of veracity about a candidate’s claims about himself or his opponents. In addition, political psychology tells us most people use what are termed “schema” or perceptual screens to judge information, and these screens typically work well to discount claims that on their face a person finds dubious.

In short, people can be critical consumers of this information. If they see a piece of news on a blog that does not seem to have any convincing corroboration (and the fact they are trawling blogs indicates they are more interested in politics than most which also means they already have perceptual screens in place that will prejudice how much credibility they assign a piece of information), unless their schemata is such that they believe anything that supports their views and doubt anything that does not regardless of the level of proof, that information isn’t going to sway them from their established view.

In the end, though, if one is going to complain about blogs they believe distort or outright try to manufacture the truth, the simplest solution is to start your own to counteract. In the end, the argument with facts and logic on it side (which, I may immodestly point out, the postings of this blog prove time and time again) always appears superior, and acts as the most convincing.

8.10.06

Special session for insurance matters costly but wise

As she did in regards to the flood control reform horse, Louisiana Democrat Gov. Kathleen Blanco has decided to chase down another horse after she left the barn door open, this one concerning assistance to home insurance policyholders having to pay extras in premiums through no fault of their own. Other elected officials had begged for her to set aside some money in the 2006 budget, and, after she did not support that, then to pledge to take some of the anticipated 2007 surplus to provide rate relief against a surcharge being imposed by the state to fund its government-sponsored insurance operation for high-risk dwellings.

As usual, Blanco displayed indecisiveness about the matter, so Republican and black Democrat legislators turned up the heat on her by demonstrating they were close to calling a special session on their own to put the desire (and additionally to address the related matter of housing provision) into law. Suddenly, the request didn’t seem so hasty to her and she has pledged to divert a portion of the surplus.

But, actually, a special session wouldn’t be such a bad idea in any event. While normally we should be loathe to allow the Legislature into session (especially with an increase per diem from $115 to $138), if done properly this issue and another related to it make it worthwhile. That other issue is commercial insurance – the rate at which premiums and deductibles for commercial property have shot up compares to Reggie Bush flying by Saints’ opponents’ defenders. This truly has become a crisis threaten to delay the state’s economic comeback.

True, it will cost nearly $20,000 a day in legislators’ salaries for every day in session, plus some more for staff, supplies, and the like. Yet if made very narrow and timed carefully, it’s worth the risk. Concerning the former, it must only deal with insurance issues. For the latter, the date must be after the Revenue Estimating Conference meets to declare money being available (which could be used to pay off debt, and the money saved on debt payments then shuffled for the insurance solution) and at a time guaranteeing the Legislature will not have opportunity for mischief – making Dec. 18-22 the perfect dates.

Those five days are enough time to hash out some potentially good solutions, yet short enough to save on costs and prevent mischief, and timed so that legislators will have every incentive to end it as quickly as possible. It’s a drastic and costly step, but one where the rewards well can exceed the costs.

Because, of course, Blanco as is her wont is providing no leadership – just as she had to be dragged kicking and screaming into backing levee district governance reform. On that occasion, she wanted to protect the patronage and cronyism inherent in the old system. This time, it was to reserve more money to dole out in 2007 to favored programs and constituencies rather than spread it among insurance payers and business. So, legislative leaders have to force her to act but time is of the essence; the end of April when the regular session commences will be too late with many by then already having paid extra premiums and business still being choked for another half year or more.

The time on this issue to act is soon. It will take a rare show of assertion from the Legislature, but it would be a wise move.