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24.2.07

Special elections signal trouble for incumbents, Democrats

Two trends concerning 2007 elections to the Louisiana Legislature hypothesize that revulsion against incumbents will magnify to the benefit of Republicans. Special House elections today presented no signs of invalidating either supposition.

While none of the contests obviously featured an incumbent, two of them had a candidate who was a high-profile incumbent in another position. In District 4, Shreveport City Councilman Calvin “Ben” Lester found himself out in the cold, missing a runoff from the all black Democrat field that sent former Caddo Parish Commissioner Patrick Williams and former City Councilman Larry Ferdinand to next month’s election. Lester certainly did not help his own cause with recent ethical problems concerning both campaign finance and legal services issues.

In District 1, current Caddo Parish Commissioner Jim Morris did win (going away) – but he also was a Republican in a formerly Democrat district deemed very vulnerable for takeover as a result of term limits (prematurely in this case becaue of the untimely death of Roy “Hoppy” Hopkins). This result, combined with the special election result for Senate District 16 in December, would seem to indicate that in this kind of district an experienced Republican will do well, but in other districts where term limits have kicked in, woe be an incumbent legislator of any party facing a quality opponent.

A few elections a trend doesn’t make, but simultaneously they demonstrate anti-current-legislative-incumbency and GOP momentum may play big roles in elections later this year.

22.2.07

Redesign secondary school curricula, exit exam

A sad reality I face every day as a university professor is, in one way or another, providing feedback to students unprepared for college work that signals to them their plight. It’s unfortunate because, theoretically, students who meet our admissions standards ought to be prepared for college work – especially since a number of them will have received “scholarships” from the state indicating, at the very least, they should be capable of college work.

While many students wash out or have initial difficulty in college because their attitudes aren’t right, that many were not adequately prepared further vexes as a public policy problem because a high school diploma in Louisiana, requiring passage of a defined curriculum and exit exam, with a sufficient grade point average theoretically defines college preparedness. Yet if a significant number of those who pass the courses with the required GPA and the exam are unprepared, there is a disconnection in the system.

The purpose of the exit exam, the Graduate Exit Exam, is to provide a standard beyond internal evaluation at each school. Somebody strolling through Louisiana high schools would notice vast differences in the demands being made on students, so the GEE attempts to present a uniform assessment of performance statewide. Students must pass it to get a diploma.

However, some fault the GEE for providing incentive for the school to focus on teaching to pass it, which may detract from knowledge and skills acquisition needed to succeed in college. If that is the case, then one of two decisions or both of them must be made and implemented. One would be to shape the GEE more to a facsimile of a college entrance exam. This would require consultation between state secondary and university systems to make the exam both indicative of knowledge and skills desired to be imparted in high school and those useful to collegiate success.

The problem would be that this would limit the GEE’s ability to assess whether students capably had completed high school for those intending not to go to college. Hence, secondly, a GEE variant for these individuals must be developed. It could be set up so that for the 11th grade testing that the student would choose which track, collegiate or not, to pursue, with a different GEE for each. The difference would be that a TOPS award, the “scholarship” program, would come automatically with a passage of the “collegiate” GEE, but would not with the passage of the vocational-oriented GEE. But passage of either would suffice for a high school diploma.

This strategy would require some redesign of high school curricula. All such schools would have to offer a vocational track which the student would have to decide (say prior to entering the 11th grade) whether to pursue but the curriculum for which would be constructed to satisfy the “vocational” GEE requirements. The “collegiate” GEE then would then have as a dual purpose testing for the ability to succeed in college, much as the ACT test does currently.

With the proper design, students will have a better chance of succeeding in both high school and college (whether they will is a matter mostly up to them, and partly as a result of teacher quality, a subject best taken up at another time). At the very least, it would make less likely under-prepared consuming resources from which they cannot benefit in college at the expense of those who can.

21.2.07

Kennedy actions serving state and his political interests

Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy has kept his streak going, rare until recently among statewide elected officials, of speaking and acting in a commonsensical manner the opposite of the special-interest-favoring, good-old-boy ethos predominant in the state. If he continues, he may present reformers of the conservative and/or Republican stripes next year the necessity of having to take a leap of faith.

Only last week, Kennedy, in his role of serving on special state committees, properly and publicly voiced displeasure at a plan to bring less accountability to the State Bond Commission and to engineer quietly a potentially far-reaching financial transaction. During this term as treasurer almost always, and sometimes with a lone voice, Kennedy has advocated sensible spending priorities and transparency in government.

These actions have led some to wonder, since the vast majority (but not all) of the good-old-boy crowd calls themselves Democrats, why Kennedy still identifies with that label, and further speculation runs rampant that Kennedy will switch to the Republicans and launch a bid challenging Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu in 2008. On the surface, this seems to be the optimal plan for Kennedy to achieve higher office, as he could present himself as the only other major candidate in that contest by taking away support another GOP candidate could get.

But it also raises an uncomfortable question for GOP supporters who would like nothing better than to get a Republican in and Landrieu out. Kennedy also ran for Senate in 2004, but in that contest his reformist tendencies were cloaked in left-wing rhetoric. That appeared to be a tactical decision on his part, thinking that eventual winner Sen. David Vitter would appeal to the right and Democrat Chris John would be boxed into the center by having a candidate like Kennedy come in from the left. It obviously didn’t work as Kennedy finished, if respectably, in third.

If Kennedy does have eyes on this office with this path, he will need to keep hewing to this line. The GOP may not be entirely convinced that he has put away his liberalism and other long-time Republicans such as (if he doesn’t win this year’s governor’s race) state Sen. Walter Boasso could be tempted to tackle Landrieu. A penchant for Kennedy publicizing every opportunity for contrasting his views against the populist majority of the state’s officeholders’ would be as much to promote good policy as to prove his trustworthiness to Louisiana Republicans.

20.2.07

Breaux entry unlikely to prevent GOP gubernatorial win

As Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s reelection chances continue to wallow, some Louisiana Democrats continue to hope some miraculous candidate on their side emerges to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Now they have increased hope latched onto Democrat former Sen. John Breaux as a potential savior. Should this happen, it would change the dynamics of the contest, but it’s not likely to change the results.

There are several reasons why Republican current candidate Rep. Bobby Jindal should be favored if it ever came down to this matchup in the general election runoff. First, Jindal has a tremendous head start in fundraising. Breaux has many connections and if Blanco bowed out a process could begin of defunding her campaign account and trying to move it over to his, but Breaux will not outspend Jindal in this contest by any significant amount, if at all.

Second, Breaux has been gone from the electoral scene and state for a couple of years, working in a profession wounded by recent unethical behavior by some lobbyists, an issue so important that apparently it was of some influence in determining the outcome of the 2006 elections. Jindal has been politically active and essentially campaigning for the past two years

Finally, Breaux is much more vulnerable on issues that Democrats might wish. It’s not hard to envision Jindal and other major Republican candidate state Sen. Walter Boasso hammering Breaux on a number of things – plenty of past votes showing how liberal Breaux has been in Washington, questioning how Breaux’s 32 years in office did not produce stronger levees, why only now Breaux has come out in favor of reform of Louisiana’s inefficient indigent health care system while Jindal has advocated it for a decade, etc. GOP candidates will have plenty of money to explain Breaux’s warts, something none others in their position have had since Breaux’s first attempt at the Senate.

The campaign theme would be very simple: in 32 years, as Louisiana fell further and further behind on almost every policy metric – economic growth, health care, education – where was John Breaux? What did he ever do to try to prevent this collapse, much less anything successful? What one thing did he ever do for the state, period?

Expect much of this exposure of Breaux to come at the hands of Boasso, for Breaux’s candidacy would eat much more into his support than Jindal’s. This would be a bonus to Jindal, who mainly could sit on the sidelines while one of his strongest opponents chips away at the strength of the other.

A Blanco withdrawal and Breaux entry would cripple Boasso’s chances, and about wipe out any small chance Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell would have to win. Almost certainly Breaux and Jindal would tangle in the runoff. But the fact is, Breaux is not well-positioned for a political resurrection in a climate where then state is slowly turning against good-old-boy politicians (especially of the kind associated with Prisoner #03128-095). The overall dynamic will not change – the GOP, Jindal specifically, would remain favored to win the office.

19.2.07

Processing tax chance may cost LA development projects

Even though it’s about eight months away, the uncertainty concerning the outcome of Louisiana’s governor’s election may claim economic development prizes badly needed by the state.

Louisiana is in the running for the nation’s first new oil refinery in about three decades, a proposed joint venture between Kuwait and an American company, although it has not yet been decided whether the idea will be pursued and both Texas and New Mexico also are in the running should it happen. The state also is competing with Alabama for a steel manufacturing plant which could provide hundreds of million of dollars worth of jobs and revenues. Obviously, the German firm will decide on the location that will maximize its profits.

But placing Louisiana at a competitive disadvantage for the steel facility is energy prices, which are significantly higher than those likely to be charged at the site in Alabama. The supplier would be Entergy, which has higher costs because of older equipment. More modern equipment including oil-burning generators would reduce the cost of electricity production to a more-competitive position.

However, gubernatorial candidate Democrat Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell has made a centerpiece, if not the only piece, of his campaign the idea to charge an oil processing tax of five percent on any oil coming into the state to be refined. He claims it would raise enough money, he asserts $4.1 billion, to allow the shedding of corporate and personal income taxes while adding only a nickel a gallon to consumer gas prices.

It’s a variant of a dubious plan Campbell has hawked for decades. Even accepting the implausibly-low five-cent claim, Campbell seems to forget that oil companies will raise prices to offset the tax and that oil is used in a variety of commodities plus other producers that use in their businesses, which means potentially significant price raises in many goods and services spread out through the economy. And, Campbell appears to have his head in the sand when it comes to the fact that there is some elasticity in the oil processing network that would allow shifting of processing to outside the state, or would encourage alternative competing energy sources to take business away from state refineries if their prices go up – ensuring that his quoted revenue figure may be significantly lower.

For an example, the possibility of this tax may convince Kuwait – which will not make final plans for a few years – to focus more on a strategy such as that of Saudi Arabia’s Aramco and Royal Dutch Shell to expand their Port Arthur, TX plant. If is concentrates on expanding in neighboring states not only could that avoid the tax but it could get the business that would flee Louisiana – and no new plant gets built here.

And the ramifications of this plan affect present economic development decisions. It will reduce incentives for Entergy from pursuing new oil-burning generators for fear of the increased energy prices they will have to charge for that fuel, forestalling any more-rapid decrease in energy prices and discouraging locating the steel plant in the state. Since the firm wants to decide within a month or so, it can’t wait to see whether the plan becomes reality and must factor in a penalty factor related to the possibility now.

As a commissioner, Campbell always has acted to ensure that in his view the utilities regulated by the PSC do their jobs fairly and squarely by the way of the consumer. Unfortunately, he errs in judgment on this issue. Even if he trails badly in the polls, his mere presence in the race over the next few months, and particularly if his numbers get better, if he continues to pursue this idea will serve as a negative influence on Louisiana’s economic development.