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18.11.06

Session call shows Blanco has caught jailhouse religion

“Jailhouse religion” runs rampant among the incarcerated, where many more prisoners than actually have done so claim they have reformed their ways, in order to obtain reduced sentences or privileges. As the election year 2007 looms, Gov. Kathleen Blanco in her special session call for the end of this year shows she has caught it in an attempt to make Louisiana voters forget that she often has passed on opportunities for lower taxes and sensible spending. (“Call” is in parentheses above because it is not official and may not even be constitutional in that form, when a formal call comes.)

Just to name some examples, about 18 months ago Blanco was all about raising taxes on health care consumers by creating an new tax on health care facilities that would have passed the cost through to consumers, instead of steering the state away from its bias on institutional care which on Medicaid reimbursements alone would save the state nearly $100 million a year. (Then, she quietly led for the repeal of this tax after the realities of it in the post-disaster environment sunk in.)

Another was concerning the $12 billion backlog in road repairs (despite a special tax levied almost 20 years ago to address this) which she now claims she’ll have addressed in the special session. But only months ago, even as she denies it, she tried to float an idea about slapping tolls on roads to fund this, in part because she has allowed very low-priority but politically well-connected capital spending going on in other areas such as funding horse barns and creating reservoirs that assist a select few in the state. Had she mandated sensible spending, the road backlog already would have been whittled by hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars by now.

In addition, she has had plenty of opportunities in the past to address the huge and growing unfunded accrued liability in the state’s retirement accounts, another session call. But every time she had the chance, she preferred spending operating funds on programs favoring the interests of certain individuals rather than tackle perhaps the biggest ticking time bomb the state faces.

And, the Blanco record is chock full of instances where she cared more about distributing benefits to a favored few than to the people of Louisiana. This year, she signed onto sweetheart deals for the politically-connected, increased prices at the pump for consumers (while creating an imperfect mechanism to prevent that), prevented a reduction in cable television prices for consumers, and supported perks for lawmakers until great public outcry got her to reluctantly cast a veto of them.

Does anybody seriously believe that if next year were not an election year and that Blanco’s approval ratings weren’t in the tank that she would not behave in the tax-and-spend manner she has in the past, bloating up the state budget? Her call contains good ideas and, if implemented properly, they will do more good for the state than the sum total of her contributions to date by far. But, informed voters next year will recognize the expediency and convenience of her conversion to supporting these ideas and would do better to support for governor genuine reformers such as Rep. Bobby Jindal or potentially any of a number of other candidates for Blanco’s job.

16.11.06

Lucky again, Melancon may need more to keep seat

Now lucky twice, depending upon the political environment over the next two years, U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon may still need some luck to survive past a second term in the House of Representatives.

Democrat Melancon, of course, got lucky initially with infighting among Republicans and with the candidates’ vote distributions in 2004. He barely made the general election runoff against Republican Billy Tauzin III by narrowly besting Republican state Sen. Craig Romero, and then scraped out a win against Tauzin in large part to Romero’s bitter negative ads against Tauzin.

In his first term, Melancon set the stage for his reelection by voting more conservative than liberal in the most “deviant” Republican district in the country – no district held by a Democrat after the 2004 elections had a higher proportion of voters for Pres. George W. Bush than Melancon’s Louisiana Third District at 58 percent. But to repeat, he needed fortune to smile on him, in the form of a crippled GOP candidate, national political trends, and the weather to secure a second term.

While Melancon no doubt deplores Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, his political career got a boost by it. It helped depopulate and decimate two decidedly Republican parishes in the district, Plaquemines and St. Bernard. Almost two-thirds of their residents voted for Bush in 2004, but by election day 2006 it was estimated that the former still was short over half of its population and the latter over three-quarters. Assuming displaced people were proportionate across the political spectrum, a GOP opponent of Melancon’s could be expected to have lost (adjusted for turnout) almost 14,000 votes. (The remainder of the district largely escaped depopulation.)

National trends helped Melancon too, as a portion of the electorate was turned off by the GOP as a whole and Democrats were electorally astute enough not to publicize their own agenda which is far to the left of the preferences of the American people in general, and certainly specifically to Melancon’s constituents. But what sealed the deal was the flawed Romero as his main opponent, trying again which was the whole purpose of his scorched earth campaign against Tauzin two years ago as he thought Melancon would be easier to defeat in the future. However, some hard feelings remained against Romero by voters and, especially in a year where it was playing defensively, the GOP leadership recalling how he sabotaged Tauzin’s otherwise near-certain win was in no hurry to commit many resources to his campaign.

Lucky a second time, Melancon probably will need more in two years, and could get it. Even if he continues with casting enough conservative votes to reassure some district voters, and tries to position himself as a centrist between the Republicans and the much more radical Democrat House leadership, already he is making votes that can come back to haunt him. A shrewd 2008 opponent will bring up his support of Rep. Steny Hoyer, one of the most liberal members of Congress, for Democrat (therefore Majority) Leader and that next year he will vote to install as Speaker of the House another hard leftist, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, both of whose agenda runs squarely against Americans’ and the Third District’s, best interests. Further, nomination for the presidency by the Democrats of their frontrunner Sen. Hillary Clinton would bring such approbation on Melancon that he and a number of others of his party likely would be swept out of office regardless of what they do.

Still, maybe national Democrats will fail to nominate Clinton and even give a more moderate party member the slot, returnees to Plaquemines and St. Bernard may be slow in coming, and perhaps the Republicans will not nominate a quality challenger (state Sen. Walter Boasso probably could beat Melancon right now, but he well may have eyes on higher office). If so, Melancon may continue to be the biggest anomaly in the state among its national officeholders.

15.11.06

Nothing new with sugar mill deal; still bad for taxpayers

Old wine in a new bottle isn’t going to do the trick. The proposed sugar mill at Bunkie is still a bad deal no matter how it gets rewrapped, and the State Bond Commission must reject it tomorrow.

The Commission must give approval because half of the deal involves the state issuing the bonds to build the facility. That is a new aspect of the deal, as private investors are anticipated to put up money for the other half and supporters tout that this improves the risk to the state regarding the deal. In fact, it and other changes to the dynamics surrounding the deal have done nothing to make it an enterprise for which taxpayers should bear responsibility.

Beginning with the financing issue, the private sector will touch the deal only if at least half of the risk is borne by the state. Translation: it’s going to fail to pay back construction costs, and it’s worth only half of the $135 million (up $50 million in estimated costs over the past couple of years) cost to build, so when it goes into default, the private financial backers essentially will repossess all of it despite backing just half of it. Meaning: at best taxpayers must subsidize a money-losing operation for the foreseeable future; at worst, they throw away $67.5 million for nothing.

14.11.06

Legislature, LSU system should listen to Regents

Another, not inconsiderable, factor has entered into the debate about Louisiana health care redesign – the state Board of Regents, significant because it governs budgets and academic affairs concerning the LSU system which runs the charity hospital system in the state. Yet another waits to be heard from.

As the state is being nudged, somewhat forcefully, by the federal government to restructure its archaic, inefficient, institution-heavy system of health care for the indigent, the LSU Board of Supervisors has fought the idea of eliminating the charity system. In most of the hospitals, care is below comparable community standards, programs are fragmented, and patients are forced to travel long distances to access care. The federal government wishes the state to move to a model where money follows the patient, meaning any hospital can provide indigent care at adequate reimbursement rates but which likely would mean the state government exiting ownership and operation of a majority of those public facilities.

But the Supervisors don’t want to follow this sensible path, despite a recommendation from the Regents that they do so because trying to run an indigent health care system the Regents claim dilutes LSU’s ability to pursue its primary function regarding these hospitals, medical education. In response, the Supervisors say the Regents have no authority over the hospitals and they are doing a good job running things. However, the Regents are correct – anything administrative that distracts from medical education cannot be a good thing, and the Regents do have the right to oversee that. (This dispute wouldn’t exist if Louisiana didn’t have such a convoluted system governing higher education – just like with the charity system, no other state in the union does things this way.)

That answer masks the real reason the LSU system wishes to keep as many of the hospitals as it can: money, in the form of reimbursements for indigent care – although if you asked some of the individual facilities, they might wish to free of the system, because typically surpluses a hospital makes from reimbursements exceeding costs get redirected back into the system. The more charity business the system can do, the more potentially it could redirect funds.

Of course, two could play this game if the Supervisors defy the Regents on this. For budgeting, the Regents could start cutting funds going to medical education, denying the system the extra funding, in essence, since these funds would have to be spent on medical education at that institution. But, ultimately, the single biggest factor, the state Legislature, would be the one that will have set policy and budgets for higher education as well as indigent care.

Which is why the following needs to be done by the Legislature, acknowledging that the Regents are correct on this issue:

  • Keep LSU Medical Center Shreveport, E.A. Conway (Monroe), Medical Center of Louisiana New Orleans (better known as “Big Charity”), University Medical Center (Lafayette), and W.O. Moss (Lake Charles) in a system run by LSU
  • Divest the state of all others (including cancelling any plans to build a new facility in Baton Rouge to replace the aged Earl K. Long facility)
  • Realign medical education so that each advanced program is taught at just one of these five institutions
  • Rebuild Big Charity but on a smaller scale than currently envisioned, to take into account the reality of a much smaller population base to be served
  • After this realignment, immediately start redirecting health care dollars for the indigent to the patients themselves, usable at any private or public facility that meets the records management criterion of the health care redesign panel

    Naturally, this obviously more efficient means of providing indigent health care requires political will focused on better care for fewer dollars, not in sharing the wealth – a quality Louisiana government historically has had in short supply.
  • 13.11.06

    Jindal likely, but Boasso possibly, gubernatorial winner

    You don’t say, U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal is actually leaning towards running for governor! Not only does he command substantial leads in polls for that 2007 race, but being in the minority in the House for the next two years might not appeal to him as well (even if the GOP likely will recapture Congress in 2008 absent more self-destruction, and that may not even matter if national Democrats commit political suicide with the nomination of Sen. Hillary Clinton for president), making it virtually certain he will do so.

    But, understatement aside, the dynamics of the contest could get very interesting. Incumbent Gov. Kathleen Blanco seems sacred and bound to try again, and, despite political minimal life-support levels of popularity, she has every reason to believe that she would be the most competitive Democrat. Her problem is she presently is a definite underdog to Jindal and, under certain circumstances, might not even make the general election runoff.

    Fellow Republican state Sen. Walter Boasso’s gubernatorial aspirations rest upon the right combination of events. He must realize that, under most circumstances, regardless of the amount of his personal wealth he spent on a statewide campaign, Jindal is just too popular to be taken out. Like Jindal’s, Boasso’s record in office is necessarily short but, even as Boasso is more conservative than liberal, there are some votes he’s taken that conservatives will not forget and they will prefer Jindal. That means in a Blanco-Boasso-Jindal matchup, Boasso is likely to get squeezed out in the nonpartisan blanket primary, which is why he would be smarter to try for the House or Senate in 2008, where, depending on what happens in the next two years, he might even be the favorite against Democrats Sen. Mary Landrieu or Rep. Charlie Melancon.

    However, Democrat Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell has said it is fairly certain he will run for governor as well. While his simplistic populist agenda would be rejected by the majority of Louisiana voters, it would peel a number of them off Blanco’s column. If that happened, Boasso would stand a decent chance with Jindal of acing Blanco out of the runoff, and then, with Democrats and leftists more comfortable supporting him than Jindal, a Boasso-Jindal runoff would be a toss-up.

    Yet this is a big gamble for Boasso. The only way it would work is with that combination. It may not even work if Blanco did bow out, because another liberal Democrat of stature who could (unlike Campbell) claim he was really a moderate has said he will run if Blanco does not, lobbyist and former U.S. representative Chris John. He probably would siphon off voters for Boasso that Blanco would have lost, meaning even with Campbell in the contest a Jindal-John runoff is most likely (which still is likely to go to Jindal, given his much higher profile than John’s over the past few years and that he is closer to Louisianans’ issue preferences than John).

    In short, Jindal is almost a sure thing to make the runoff, and nearly as certain to win it, at this point. Only Boasso would have a chance to defeat him. But Boasso would have to get just the right help from the Democrats, and that’s a risky thing to count on especially when a U.S. House or Senate seat seems more within his grasp.

    12.11.06

    Veterans Day, 2006

    In honor of Veterans Day, please access the link above to learn more about how Veterans Day came about.