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28.10.06

Arguments against health care redesign lack any merit

Forces of regressivity, paying more attention to the desires on entrenched interests than those of taxpayers and of the health care uninsured in Louisiana, continue to moan about health care redesign in the state.

Recently, the state forwarded to the federal government a plan that would encourage the shifting away of federal health care funds from Louisiana’s anachronistic charity hospital system and give the individuals receiving the increased options outside of that system to use these dollars. This is the model the rest of the nation is adopting, moving even further away from Louisiana’s vintage 1930s strategy of running several large hospitals and inviting the uninsured to use them – the only such system in the U.S.

However, the state did not show a lot of enthusiasm for this plan, even though the federal government said it would pay potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in transition costs. The reason, of course, is because a big bureaucracy has been created around the operation of these 11 hospitals (nine run by a state agency, the other two by LSU) and, if there’s one thing the good-old-boy-and-girl network loves in Louisiana, it is big government. By having money following the person rather than the state, this regime threatens to downsize the state’s inefficient system, and overall size of government.

26.10.06

Web poses problems for traditional media and politicians

If you’re reading this posting, you probably already have joined the ranks of those who prefer information about current events (in this case, Louisiana state and local politics) because of two advantages it has over the traditional media – which some politicians would prefer you not have.

One, you may be here because you like the immediacy. This column is based upon stories appearing from traditional media outlets. The problem they face is they can disseminate information in traditional forms only a limited number of times a day. Take a television or radio outlet. The former might be able to broadcast news four times a day and the other maybe once an hour except at night, for a very limited number of stories. That’s the broadcast media; as far as the print media, they get one shot a day. A lot can happen in 24 hours.

As a result, these traditional media are establishing web presences. Still, their information provision remains quite limited. A newspaper or TV station might be able to provide five current stories a day, while the wire services can do somewhat more on the web. That helps are far as information provision – as long as the consumer has the desire to gather information that way. But practically no analysis occurs on a real-time basis from these traditional outlets. Which is why you may be here – not only do you get a news item probably more quickly than you get it from turning on a media outlet, or picking up a print publication, but you get analysis of it – often well before you would see it broadcast or printed – in context with other things going on. And you get it according to your schedule, not theirs.

(Note: some days I wake up and, after other duties are done, troll news stories for an interesting topic that I think people would want commentary on, and deliver. Other days, I have an idea of something brewing and will wait for it to come to fruition, then write a column about it – like a press conference, court ruling, legislative decision, etc. Especially in the second case, I’m likely to comment on it hours, even days, before the traditional media do, as perhaps some of you have noticed by now.)

The other reason you could be here is that you have found this to be a reliable marker for news and analysis you might not otherwise find on your own. It is not so much speed but coverage which really rankles some politicians, because they are coming to grips with the fact it is much harder for them now to be themselves without the public finding out who they really are and what they really believe.

The reaction to the latest media article in the state on the topic of independent, non-career journalists providing news and commentary encapsulates perfectly this elitist, arrogant attitude. (Note to the author of this article, who had tried to contact me about it: too bad we couldn’t connect, because I could have told him some good stories about local politicians’ reactions to this space.) One politician quoted, state Sen. Rob Marionneaux, basically argues that he gets to say anything he wants, no matter how asinine (and he’s among the prolific producers of ridiculous comments on the floor of the state Senate) as a legislator, yet people like a lawyer and former legislative employee, a doctoral communications student, and a political science professor are a problem because they provide factual information about him and “editorialize” in their online postings.

Their fear, of course, is that new media of this type is disproportionately consumed by politically interested and active people who, in a two-step process, convey the information to the public as a whole. These new media comprise a multiplicity of gatekeepers that politicians cannot control, unlike the traditional media. Because the traditional media rely upon these politicians for information that grabs readers that creates ad revenue, they must have access to these politicians or they suffer. But new media, who base their products more on commentary and less on production of news stories, have no such constraint and essentially lay outside the grasp of any politician.

Louisiana typically rides behind the curve on innovation, including the use of the web for gathering news and commentary, but it is catching up, and those politicians who have built their careers on controlling information disseminated about them are having to adjust to this new reality. And they don’t like it because they know, just like the dinosaurs, that the new reality threatens the extinction of their political careers.

25.10.06

Blanco wins insignificant, even pyrrhic, victory on suit

A win’s a win for Gov. Kathleen Blanco, even if it is insignificant and may actually help her political opponents more than she.

Louisiana reached a settlement with the U.S. Minerals Management Service over leases of tracts in the Gulf of Mexico for oil extraction purposes. The state had sued, claiming the federal government did not adequately take into account the environmental impact of the hurricane disasters of 2005 when it approved the sales, over Blanco’s objection. Federal law allows a governor to object over the sales, triggering an agency review which must come back as positive before the lease sales can occur.

Months ago when the state sued, Blanco tried to create the impression that this action of hers was a vital step to getting a greater share of royalties from production on these leases into state coffers. The reality, of course, which she appeared to acknowledge during the announcement of the deal, is that it has nothing to do with any such efforts. Rather, increasing Louisiana’s take is up to the majoritarian branches of the federal government.

The leading House of Representatives proponent of getting a law passed to allow Gulf states to get a larger piece of the pie is none other Rep. Bobby Jindal who, if one can trust polls a year ahead of an election, would swamp Blanco out of office faster and more powerfully than a levee breach can offload a ship into New Orleans East. It’s almost certain this legislation will pass before the 2007 election, perhaps by as early as the end of this year. If so, Jindal (along with Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter), can take most of the credit for sending the state billions of dollars.

Blanco, on the other hand, can be credited for delaying lease sales which could have brought more money to various government treasuries (including Louisiana’s) and will keep gas prices higher than they should be by postponing supply increases down the road. All she succeeded in doing was to get the federal government to re-study the environmental impact question. Nobody seriously suggests that any such study would conclude that lease sales must stop to preserve Louisiana. Blanco’s move was just a tantrum masquerading as a consequential policy option.

(The state is trying to argue that some funds might come Louisiana’s way as a result of this settlement, that, in their words, an “honest” assessment would produce funds for “mitigation” of environmental problems. This is wishful thinking: activities occurring as many as a couple of hundred miles have had and are going to have no impact on Louisiana’s land. Actions taken by companies on Louisiana soil are just that, not as a direct result of drilling and, in any event, the companies would be responsible for compensating the state, not the federal government which only leased the tracts.)

Jindal (or others) can remind the electorate of this next year during the gubernatorial campaign, that while he (or others) did some something constructive on this issue, if anything, Blanco acted destructively. All in all, the episode turns out to be another demonstration of Blanco’s inabilities to provide leadership or sensible policy prescriptions, and helps to explain the low esteem with which she is held by the citizenry.

24.10.06

Landrieu, Melancon should be very afraid of Boasso

All that we learned from the trumpeted press conference given Monday by state Sen. Walter Boasso is that he’s running for office. Which one, we don’t know.

Boasso used the opportunity to stump for a website he’s created and backs that purports to induce positive change in Louisiana, which doesn’t really have any information on it one couldn’t get from elsewhere. Its whole tenor and tone suggests it’s building money for a war chest and publicity for a political campaign in the indeterminate future.

A number of observers speculated Boasso would use the occasion to announce for a specific office, governor. Ordinarily, with Boasso’s deep pockets (owning a substantial shipping firm), his coming to the forefront of fiscal and governmental reform issues, and being a Republican with a Democrat governor under heavy criticism, one might expect that the Governor’s Mansion would be his target.

His main problem is that he’s three years too late. At the same time the political novice Boasso made his run for the state Senate, then-novice, now U.S. Rep. and fellow Republican Bobby Jindal made a run for governor and came up just short. Since then, Jindal has collected large sums of campaign dollars and a huge surge of popularity that threatens to swamp any other candidate in the quest for the fourth floor in 2007. It also doesn’t help Boasso that he and Jindal roughly come from the same part of the state.

If Jindal, as it very likely, chooses to run for governor, Boasso must know he would have an incredibly uphill battle to fight. It’s a measure of the rock-bottom fortunes of current Gov. Kathleen Blanco that some observers talk of a Boasso candidacy that would assist her fortunes. What they should understand is that not only would Boasso be as likely to peel votes from Blanco as from Jindal, but also the Republicans probably could ace Blanco out of the general election runoff.

But given the chances of having to beat at least one of Blanco and Jindal to the runoff post, there are easier, and very prestigious offices that Boasso could chase besides governor. In 2007, Boasso could do as Jindal is treating 2006 – a warmup election where Boasso next year, like Jindal this year, could draw token opposition and use the chance to start campaigning for higher office earlier, while not having to vacate his current office (and surely Boasso knows that just four years in state government without ever having run for statewide office makes him a little green for such a big-time campaign as for governor).

The next year could be Boasso’s real opportunity. The Third Congressional District could be his target which this year leans towards incumbent Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon. (This is in large part because his main challenger, state Sen. Craig Romero, burned a lot of bridges among faithful GOP voters when he indirectly aided Melancon in the 2004 runoff against Republican Billy Tauizn III.) Boasso has the resources and the record that could bring this Republican district back in line, especially if the top of the Democrat ticket produces a big Republican year.

However, his ambition may be loftier than that. Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu also must run for reelection in 2008, and no prominent Republican candidate has come forward. With roughly 78,500 more votes gone as of now for her from the state, Boasso would be a good bet to have the state deliver both of its Senate seats into Republican hands. She, and Melancon, should be very worried about Boasso’s increasing profile.

23.10.06

Does "Superintendent of the Year" mean anything?

Just a few days after it was announced that Caddo Parish school superintendent Ollie Tyler was named as the state’s representative for a national school administrator’s award, the state issued school and district accountability scores – leading one to wonder how Tyler deserved the award and, even more importantly, whether it meant anything.

First, note that the Superintendent of the Year award is doled out by the American Association of School Administrators. Not only does this organization spout the usual trendy leftist drivel all too common in the area of education (for example, see its thoughts on school vouchers), observe the qualification to merit the award: applicants must demonstrate leadership, communication, professionalism and community involvement. Does everybody see the glaring omission in here? In fact, really the only criterion that should matter isn’t on its list: results.

You can provide leadership that makes Winston Churchill seem like a soapbox agitator in Hyde Park. You can communicate in a way that makes Ronald Reagan seem mute. You can redefine professional, and you can attend every PTA meeting everywhere. None of that matters if the children don’t learn, whether you define that strictly as achieving to exceed a demanding certain level or, more generously, as making progress towards meeting that level. Reviewing Caddo Parish schools’ records over the past year, there’s serious doubt whether Tyler (or, reviewing other district’s results, many superintendents) would qualify on this account.

From 2005 to 2006, the year of Tyler’s presumed excellence, of the 69 schools tested in Caddo Parish, only 26 met the (minimal) criteria for progress (and just one of the 11 high schools). This proportion was below the statewide proportion of 40 percent. Further, the state baseline average was at 85.1, of which only 24 schools (including three high schools) met this criterion. (Keep in mind the state’s real goal was to be at least 100 this years, of which only 15 were this year, including two high schools).

(Just for comparison’s sake, next door in Bossier Parish 13 of 29 schools, 45 percent, met progress criteria, 20 exceeded the baseline, and nine got the desired target or better. This seems at the very least to meet, if not exceed, Caddo Parish’s standards, but Bossier superintendent Ken Kruithof didn’t win anything.)

This is not to denigrate Tyler’s accomplishment; I’m sure she is a great speaker and motivator who gets along famously with most of the community. But what Louisiana needs are superintendents that get students adequately educated and, from test results, they seem to be in short supply. Maybe because too many of them buy into an education establishment that strives more to make its members feel good rather than pursue policies that fulfill children’s needs for student achievement.

22.10.06

Zaitoon attracted protesters; bad sign for incumbents

I was intrigued by a comment somebody else that had been in the political science profession made about the special elections for insurance commissioner, that the reason Libertarian S.B.A. Zaitoon racked up 11 percent in the insurance commissioners’ race was because Democrats had no place to turn with two major Republican candidates in the contest. It echoed a comment made by a campaign operative of one of those GOP candidates on television Saturday night.

On the surface, it seems ridiculous. Ideologically, libertarians are much closer to conservatives, which ideology is the hallmark of Republican, not liberal Democrat, candidates. To me (as I announced on Shreveport’s KSLA-TV during election night and in a subsequent posting), it sounded like these voters were protest votes against the two Republicans, both incumbent officeholders.

Still, the claim deserved some investigation, so I got parish voter registration statistics and Zaitoon’s vote in each, and computed a linear regression of the vote percentage on the percentages of white Democrats, black Democrats, Republicans, and other party registrants. This technique can determine which factor has an impact on the vote, and the strength of that factor, relative to all factors.

If this claim were true, we would expect to see several things: (1) the higher the percentage of black Democrats in a parish, the higher the percentage of the vote for Zaitoon, (2) the higher the percentage of white Democrats in a parish, the higher the percentage of the vote for Zaitoon, and (3) the higher the percentage of Republicans in a parish, the lower the percentage of the vote for Zaitoon (we also should expect to see the higher the percentage of other party registrants in a parish, the higher the percentage of the vote for Zaitoon, but that is unrelated to the question posed).

Upon performing the regression, it seems there is a kind of truth to the assertion, because the strongest determinant of the vote for Zaitoon was percentage of black Democrats in a parish – twice as strong as the only other significant factor, other party registrants. In both cases the higher the percentages, the higher the vote percentage for Zaitoon in a parish. But, both white Democrats and Republicans were missing from the equation; neither group’s numbers were shown to be related to Zaitoon’s percentage won.

This tells us a two things; firstly, that Democrats as a whole did not view Zaitoon, absent a Democrat, as the non-Republican to vote for, but black Democrats seemed so against the idea of voting for anybody listed as a Republican that they voted for a Libertarian, and, secondly, since the negative relationship was not present for Republicans (because their percentages should have varied positively with the combined total of the two Republican candidates), this says to us that a significant portion of Republicans defected and voted for Zaitoon, out of protest.

So, in reality, the vote for Zaitoon was a double-protest vote: some blacks because they didn’t want to vote for a Republican, and some Republicans because they didn’t want to vote for an existing officeholder even of their own party. It wasn’t Democrats generally because those who were white were no more likely to vote for him than either of the other two major candidates. Race and Republicanism really mattered here, reaffirming that a groundswell is brewing against long-time incumbents who will try to run in state contests in 2007.