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11.1.07

Port of N.O. must focus on sensible solutions

It’s been almost a year and a half now since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, triggering the city’s flooding. Memories fade about the event and the infrastructure that shaped it, and perhaps that’s the thinking why again we’re hearing from the Port of New Orleans as it tries to grab more taxpayer money for no good reason.

For many years, an ongoing project to replace the lock at the Industrial Canal (officially the “Inner Harbor Navigation Canal”) has continued. The Port supports this, even as studies have shown the $748 million device could be replaced far more cheaply, especially as the canal has continued to see a decrease in use with the wider Mississippi River being more accommodating to deep-draft ocean-going vessels and barge traffic going elsewhere.

It also has lost traffic as it connects to the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, itself in declining use for large vessels. MR-GO is widely blamed for increasing the impact of the hurricane. It looks all but certain that MR-GO will be closed for reasons of cost effectiveness and flood protection, which even though its use was on the decline, concerns the Port because there will be some loss of business.

10.1.07

Landrieu spending plan shows no comprehension of reality

Does Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu think Louisianans are stupid? Or is it he’s just a mental lightweight? Because nobody with any sense is going to buy his argument that the state needs a $125 million advertising blitz to cure its ailing tourism industry.

Landrieu bases this absurd idea on two equally absurd presumptions, that national media are conveying the impression that New Orleans still is filled with water, and that for every buck spent on tourism publicity, $16 comes back. Let’s review these claims.

Do an Internet search of both video and print stories about New Orleans and guess what you find? Stories about rampant crime committed by both criminals and law enforcement, along with news about the Saints, dominate the non-Louisiana media since the beginning of the year. Looking specifically at video over the past 30 days there are stories extolling it being “party time” in New Orleans and recommencing a small portion of the streetcar line, but nothing about high water.

Which makes one wonder if Landrieu somehow hasn’t gotten confused about his VCR and he keeps watching old news feeds over and over again (perhaps in an attempt to wipe out the memory of his mayoral election loss?) In any event, you can bet those in the tourism industry are watching current news and they know two things, that the water is long gone from New Orleans, and so is any semblance of law and order, now including shootings on Bourbon Street when the place is packed. And that’s why tourists and conventioneers are staying away.

As laughable as Landrieu’s assertion is on this subject, it gets more warped when he talks about spending taxpayers’ money to make it. Let’s see, if there’s a multiplier of 16 here that means the $125 million will turn into $2 billion in the tourist trade. Well, why stop there, how about spending $1 billion? Glory be, that will pump $16 billion into the state and we’ll be better off than ever before!

Landrieu doesn’t see the idiocy of his thinking because he never has believed that it is people and the private sector, not government, that create economic growth. If he had any sense at all, he’d want to steer that $125 million into the state treasury to pay for tax cuts for New Orleans small businesses to keep them afloat while the longer term problems get solved. Or, if he’d rather tackle the latter, devote that money to policing the city.

But that’s not what a lieutenant governor has the power to do, and Landrieu knows nothing more about being a political leader than taxing and spending, so that’s all that he’s capable of providing as he tries to revive his fading political career. Which goes to show New Orleans voters left themselves really bad choices after last year’s delayed primary election.

9.1.07

Performance-based college measuring must be done correctly

Having been on the front lines of educating at what is essentially an open-enrollment university in Louisiana for the past 15 years, I have great sympathy for goals outlined in the upcoming review of higher education in Louisiana. The fact is, as verified during my year of teaching in Illinois in 2000-01, the skills of the students attending and the quality of education provided at our state universities lag the rest of the country’s. However, one suggestion made to change this well could make matters worse rather than better.

Performance funding, or granting money to universities on the basis of some criteria that presumably captures their performance, in general is a good idea, but policy-makers must be careful when it comes to its actual measurement. With the new plan, campuses will be rewarded for how students perform in the classroom, based on graduation and retention rates, and how they do on exams for certification after they graduate.

The second aspect of that, testing, is a good idea and already is done in some areas such as for education degrees. But if left in isolation, the first part, classroom performance and its resulting ideal product graduation with a degree, will produce the opposite effect just as we’ve seen at the secondary level, i.e. dumbing down instruction and/or grade inflation designed more to get students out the door than to ensure they have a quality education.

Grade inflation increasingly is a problem in Louisiana high schools. Here’s just one bit of anecdotal evidence on this account: when my nephew graduated last year from high school, in a class of over 300, the average GPA of the entire class was slightly over a 3.0 (B) and over a dozen students had a 4.0 (perfect straight A). In contrast, when my wife graduated sixteen years earlier from another area high school with a slightly larger class, she and one other guy had a 4.0 – and it had been a couple of years, and would be a couple of years after, than any other student would achieve that.

Grades have gone up because of TOPS, the state’s program of giving free money for college for students meeting certain grade point averages. Simply, many Louisiana high school teachers are afraid of giving grades that realistically assess a student’s ability because they don’t want to have parents complaining to principals that they are cheating their children out of having a college education paid for. (If you want more proof, even as their GPAs seem to show they are well above average, why is it that Louisiana high school students score well below the national average on the ACT?)

If classroom grades and graduation rates become the only metric by which some college programs are rewarded with funding, the same thing is going to happen. In order to ensure maximum funding, university administrators will pressure faculty members to give away high grades like candy at Christmas, compounding a grade inflation problem that already is rampant among universities nationwide and getting worse. This gamesmanship will do nothing to improve the educational quality of Louisiana college attendees. Indeed, it will encourage lowering standards even below where they are now.

Thus, while performance-based funding is a welcome development in Louisiana higher education, picking the wrong way to measure it not only will not improve the quality of higher education in the state, it will make it worse.

8.1.07

Term limits, displacement effects among hot political topics

Most readers were unfortunate enough not to be able to attend the two panels at the Southern Political Science Association meeting in New Orleans dealing specifically with Louisiana politics on Saturday, one of which being the venue at which I presented my paper concerning implications of term limits on legislators and voter displacement on state politics.

So, as a public service, here I will sum up some of the more interesting conclusions drawn based on discussion proceeding from the paper and by other roundtable participants – political science professors Albert Samuels of Southern, Henry Sirgo of McNeese State, Joshua Stockley of Nicholls State, and myself

1. In my study, it must be reemphasized that even if the GOP is much better off as a result of term limits and displacement (which gives the party great advantage in 13 of 16 legislative seats made competitive by terms limits, and removed around 49,000 net potential Democrat voters from the state, respectively), this represents only potential gains where the party has to get the work done in order to realize such gains. Poor campaigning or inferior candidates will not.

2. At the same time, national trends are not likely to affect campaigning for state office because, with Louisiana having elections separate from any federal elections, there won’t be a much tying the two together. Statewide trends, by contrast, may well affect this. For example, if the outcome of the second special session causes blame to be heaped disproportionately on one party, that would drag on electoral competitiveness of all that party’s candidates.

3. Democrat Gov. Kathleen Blanco is in big trouble and by extension Democrat hopes for winning the state’s top office are as well. The Democrats would be better off with a candidate such as former U.S. House member Chris John but that current Republican Rep. Bobby Jindal would remain the most formidable candidate in the field. Democrat U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon probably would not be interested if Blanco bowed out. If Blanco persists in running, with her and Democrat Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell in the field, no other competitive Democrat would likely see any chance of making the general election runoff and thus not run, making Democrat chances of winning very slim.

4. Democrats also should be worried about the displacement of voters for other statewide offices, particularly for the seat held Sen. Mary Landrieu coming up for grabs in 2008. While these elections are almost a year or two away, demographic changes are not favoring the party at the statewide level.

5. By contrast, it would be a mistake to impute that difficulties Democrats are having statewide will translate into lower-level offices. For example, while much attention has been given to big Democrat displacement from Orleans Parish, proportionally as much Republican voter displacement has occurred in St. Bernard Parish. As another indicator, my study showed that while the GOP could pick up 10 House seats from term limits, by contrast as many Republican districts as Democrat ones, two each, are endangered by term limits in the Senate – both GOP-held seats being in the strongest Democrat area outside of the state, Melancon’s stronghold of Acadiana to the Delta.

6. Redistricting in 2011 as a result of the national census almost certainly will cost Louisiana a seat in the House. Whether it will be a majority-black seat preserved around New Orleans because of the nascent remaining legislative strength in the area and reluctance not to have one majority-black district in the state, or because of the historical antipathy of southeastern-most Louisiana to Orleans that will preserve something akin to Melancon’s Third District instead, it looks likely that the Democrats will be the losers as all Republican seats will be preserved – but much depends upon the results of the 2007 state elections in this regard.

That’s our best guesses for four-plus years out. We’ll just have to see what happens.

7.1.07

Tax cuts needed to preserve New Orleans small businesses

I attended the Southern Political Science Association annual meeting this past weekend in New Orleans, my first visit to the place since Hurricane Katrina, where I lived two decades ago. My anecdotal evidence confirms the thought that the city is in trouble and bold policy action is required to keep an implosion from occurring.

I didn’t go to gawk at the wasteland of New Orleans East, nor the struggling Lakeview, not even checking out the condition of my mighty alma mater the University of New Orleans and the area near it. Instead, I did quite a bit of walking (because the mass transit system, to my view, was far below in provision where it used to be) in the areas of town which were relatively undamaged by the flooding – Uptown, the CBD, and my old neighborhood the Vieux CarrĂ©. Economic activity in these areas is supposed to reflect the main forces driving the city forward. Besides a paucity of mass transit, I observed the following:

Noticeably reduced foot traffic around Canal Street and into the Quarter
Hotels significantly less busy that I ever have seen
More Louisiana State Police vehicles than New Orleans Police Department cars, and more private security vehicles, even cruising the main drags like St. Charles, the either of these
Vacant storefronts in places I never had seen before, along with the odd Dumpster beside a building or house

Two interrelated conclusions can be drawn from these observations, combined with the facts that many businesses are on the record as struggling, the city’s population is not even half of what it was prior to Katrina, its dependence on tourism has caused its economy disproportionately to suffer because of memories of the storm and rampant crime and suffering immediately in its aftermath that shies away tourists/conventioneers, and that a continued bad crime rate keeps the bad publicity rolling on in.

As such, plans to “market” the city with an initiative costing tens of millions of dollars will not have much return until the negative image of crime and, to a lesser degree, political ineptitude are reduced. No positive campaign can turn these around much less in in the short run, only political will can.

Since this will take time, the public policy problem becomes one of keeping the economy afloat with only about half of the people and half of the business available as before, until these factors are mitigated to enable support a business infrastructure at the previous level. While there’s nothing government can do that effectively stimulates demand for what New Orleans businesses have to offer, there’s much it can do to reduce businesses’ costs that can keep them profitable and running at this lower level – cut their taxes.

Instead of spending $20 million on ads, throw it back into the treasury and declare that any Louisiana-owned, small business (it’s risky, but I’ll let the Legislature define these terms) in New Orleans does not have to pay any state taxes of any kind. In fact, if the numbers show it wouldn’t be too big of a hit on state tax revenues, throw in as well those located in St, Bernard, Plaquemines, and even certain parts of Jefferson Parish as beneficiaries.

Sure, this may cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars, but only last month politicians across the state were debating what to do with a budgetary surplus estimated beyond $2 billion. This seems to be a much better long term investment with a portion of that money than a number of things suggested for spending these funds.

But this, along with measures to encourage more writing of insurance policies and to get Road Home rebuilding funds distributed faster, has to happen much sooner rather than later. Given the two most important people involved in this task would be Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, that’s a lot of wishful thinking for the kind of incisive and decisive leadership that this idea calls for. Nevertheless, it’s in the state’s best interest if it does.