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31.3.07

Anti-politics-as-usual trend reconfirmed by more results

And the trend continues: candidates tainted with the perception of being “politics as usual” are going to have a hard time winning office in Louisiana this year.

The special elections for two state House seats are congruent with results of previous such legislative contests. District 4 had two ex-politicians face off, but the one who prevailed has the least connection to past politics. Democrat Patrick Williams served just a term as a Caddo Parish commissioner before choosing to run for and fail to gain this seat in 2003. His decisively defeated opponent Democrat Larry Ferdinand, by contrast, has served almost continuously in government for 30 years, first as a Shreveport city councilman, then working for the city, and most recently working for the state.

More to this point was the results of the District 94 contest, where political newcomer Republican Nick Lorusso bested fellow GOP member Jeb Bruneau. The latter is the son of the present seat-holder Peppi Bruneau, and that relationship appears to have been a major factor in Lorusso’s triumph.

The elder Bruneau resigned weeks ago in order to trigger a special election to have a winner seated right as the Apr. 30 regular session of the Legislature began. Lorusso, and others, charged it was an effort to have an election when a smaller portion of casual voters would participate and, with attention spans lower among the electorate rather than during a regular election, the Bruneau machine would get working and the Bruneau name would carry greater weight as a factor in making a vote decision to the assistance of the younger Bruneau.

Instead, this early resignation became an issue and looks to have backfired if that were the intent – but a risk perhaps the Bruneau’s were willing to take. Peppi is an astute politician and may have figured anti-incumbent or anything that smacked of an incumbent sentiment in October would make a special election a better bet for his son. If so, he underestimated the swelling of power of this sentiment that looks ready to intensify as the year moves along to the benefit of legislative newcomers and disproportionately against Democrats.

29.3.07

Election politics driving inferior building code policy options

For readers who have been in a recent coma, yes, it is an election year in Louisiana and, yes, that means a lot of pandering by politicians will go on even if it results in counterproductive policy. One need look no further for such an example as with deliberations made by the Louisiana House’s Commerce Committee.

The panel met recently to consider the implementation of Act 12 of the 2005 First Extraordinary Session, which established a uniform building code statewide. There is at least one outstanding issue of great importance, the extra costs into the thousands of dollars that new construction has to face for inspection to meet the code, and the obvious solution there is to make following the codes voluntary to some degree, where the incentive would be paying more now to have lower insurance rates later.

Another fix would be to vastly increase the number of inspectors, which are far and few between licensed in a monopoly fashion by the International Code Council. If there’s talk of really bringing costs down, this is the place to really start with government providing incentives for individuals to get the training, or, if the sector fails to ramp up quickly and cost efficiently enough, to empower other organizations to provide it and change the law to allow them to inspect. (Presently, the law allows for just an affidavit saying a structure meets code, meaning these high costs can be avoided, but there is talk of getting rid of that provision.)

But instead of these commonsensical solutions, some legislators are going off on tangents that threaten to exacerbate the insurance crisis in Louisiana. In a nutshell, insurance prices are too high in Louisiana because of too much government regulation. Reducing government interference will encourage policy-writers, which will lower prices. (And there’s always a Department of Insurance to oversee them.)

Instead, some politicians like committee chairman Gil Pinac are saying the state should force insurers to give discounts, and others like state Rep. Billy Chandler complain that “It is time for the insurance companies to come up with a plan . . . to give a reduction in high rates.” What Chandler seems to indicate that he doesn’t know is the code went into effect only on Jan. 1 of this year, so there are few if any structures even built under the code that are occupied yet; how can companies make these kinds of decisions with such a vacuum of information?

Even a plan to have government give tax credits to those living in approved structures isn’t optimal. This would take money away from other priorities and involve government in something that the private sector perfectly can properly price by itself.

All of these proposals are impatient responses attributable to a desire to look for fall elections. Instead of thinking clearly on the issue, legislators want to be able to crow during their reelection campaigns that they got people tax credits, or forced rates down, when the sensible, optimal thing to do would be to give the private sector time to fully understand the differing levels of risk and their histories under the new code, to then price things properly. That ability will meet interference by and ultimately produce higher prices from elected officials trying to insert more government into the process.

28.3.07

Foti miscalculation may harm Democrats' chances further

It appears that Louisiana Atty. Gen. Charles Foti will accept an invitation at least to review the question of whether former senator and Louisiana resident John Breaux has continued to be a “citizen” of the state. In doing so, an if we take Breaux at his word that a negative decision will dissuade him from attempting the race, Foti either can bring the state Democrats back from the brink of the political abyss, or perhaps plunge them in further.

Perhaps Breaux should be listening to fellow Democrat state Sen. Noble Ellington, who has realized among others that a Breaux candidacy would be a very poor gamble for the party’s fortunes. Despite wishful thinking on the part by Democrats, the legal odds rest very much against Breaux being declared a “citizen” of the state for he past five years as required by the state Constitution for governor, for that optimistic view rests on an interpretation that would permit even non-U.S. citizens to qualify. Democrats risk having no candidate capable of winning on the ballot at all come Oct. 20, so prudence dictates finding somebody whose qualification chances are certain.

But the political problems are perhaps even more insurmountable. A challenge to Breaux’s candidacy would drag on, even expedited, close to the election date itself, covering his candidacy in unflattering connotations, with months of prior unfavorable publicity by two, perhaps three, well-financed Republican challengers. While Breaux would be vulnerable on many fronts, his most glaring weakness would be he could not fend off accusations that he was part of a good-old-boy network trying to preserve its power by twisting the Constitution out of shape. This would be political disaster to all Democrats running at all levels, validating the suspicion of many state voters that Louisiana Democrats are too corrupt to be entrusted with running the state’s government.

Maybe Foti and Breaux realize this and have concocted this strategy to buy time to see whether a campaign with a realistic chance of winning can be salvaged (already a majority of voters statewide, in a hypothetical contest with Breaux, say they would choose GOP Rep. Bobby Jindal, who leads Breaux by 30 percent) and whether another Democrat candidate suitable to the party’s leadership’s tastes can be recruited. Foti would take his time and then issue an opinion against the question, allowing Breaux gracefully to withdraw and then unveiling the new candidate.

However, if either has let hubris cloud their political decision-making abilities, they threaten to let loose the dire consequences of creating a discredited candidacy that reduces all Democrats’ sate office chances in the fall. Among those would be Foti, who must know his opinion will have no bearing on then ultimate outcome of any challenge and who already has risked his reelection by zealously pursuing (with questionable constitutional authority to do so) a malpractice/murder case that seems doubtful. No matter what he says about it, a favorable ruling will make Foti seem corrupt and will reduce his reelection chances further.

While Republicans publicly already have launched efforts to dissuade Foti and Breaux, privately they may be thinking about Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, as these Democrats may be talking themselves into an unmitigated electoral disaster.

27.3.07

Bad personnel decisions to cost Caddo, Bossier citizens

As area local governments have demonstrated with some recent decisions they’ve made, there’s a wrong way to do things and, well, there’s a wrong way to do things.

In the past this space questioned Caddo Parish’s hiring of a lobbyist at a high salary who already had little time to commit to parish work, in part because she was employed by Bossier Parish also at a high full-time salary. Particularly noteworthy was the fact that in the three years Bossier Parish had her on the payroll, apparently only about 20 percent of the money paid to her actually was spent on lobbying activities for the parish (and apparently none at all in 2006). This led to the conclusion that the smart, constituent-driven decision for both parishes would be one of (1) each paying her considerably less, (2) each paying somebody else less to do a full-time job, or (3) dispense with the position and use those resources more efficiently among existing personnel to conduct lobbying.

One could try to make an argument that such a high salary for not much work would be justified – as one consistent defender of Bossier governments wrote – by paying a lobbyist $60,000 a year to get $3.9 million in federal projects (it is claimed, without independent verification). One could, but shouldn’t if one thought critically about the issue, knew something about lobbying, and could perceive the logical absurdity behind this thought.

Academic research shows that, except in the case of the very upper tier of lobbyists (typically ex-Congressmen, ex-staffers, or a few exceptionally talented individuals), there’s essentially no relation between lobbyist characteristics (including pay) and results (which themselves are hard to measure in any event). More intuitively, there’s no reason to believe that there’s not an individual out there who could have been paid, say, $30,000 a year who could not have done as well, or even have a parish pay $10,000 in expenses spread out over one or more employees to engage in this activity – and they might have had better results, which would seem very likely given little effort was made for the $60,000 in the case of Bossier last year.

Consider as well the absurdity of the statement that parish taxpayers had to pay $60,000 to get $3.9 million. With that logic, why doesn’t Bossier Parish pay $180,000 in lobbying expenses and – presto! – $11.7 million will come rolling in and it could stop trying to soak taxpayers and start turning shovels on the Arthur Ray Teague Parkway extension tomorrow?

(Alas, for the remainder of the year area voters should be prepared to suffer more of this drivel for at least one area candidate for office looks like he’ll make this exact argument for his election. It’ll go like this: “Elect term-limited state Rep. Billy Montgomery to the state Senate because he brought X projects worth $Y to his district.” The flaw in the logic is the same – that Montgomery was totally responsible, even if he wasn’t, for getting these projects so without him District 9 would have been left destitute these past 20 years. But there’s absolutely no reason to assume somebody else other than Montgomery wouldn’t have then, and couldn’t in the future, do as good of a – or a better – job of this. In fact, I think there's someone better.)

You might think Shreveport would learn from these instances that it’s all about priorities and being good stewards of the taxpayers’ monies. Instead, it seems new Shreveport Mayor Cedric Glover is as stuck on stupid.

While Glover is breaking all records in hiring personal staffers, in numbers of them and therefore salaries paid out, one job he specifically eliminated was that of city grant-writer. In great contrast the nebulous nature and indifferent results that lobbying provides, the results from grant-writing are tangible and direct.

A mayor has the right to put whomever he pleases into unclassified positions which this one was, including discharging a holdover from a previous administration. But making this a very curious decision was rather than put someone else into the job, he dispensed with it. Very likely this happened because a mayor only has a limited pool of salary money to pay out and, already having hired allies into these other jobs he created, there’s not enough to go around to keep a position into which apparently an suitable ally could not be hired.

Good grant writers, unlike most lobbyists, directly translate their work into funds because the grant process is mostly by merit infused with some politics, with lobbying being opposite. Unless one or more of Glover’s new assistants can start cranking out decent grant applications, this decision will cost a city whose financial picture currently looks bleaker rather than brighter in the future.

26.3.07

"Partisan" Democrat code for opposition to their policies

Befitting the name of this space, I will use my advanced education in political science to translate for readers what some members of the Louisiana Legislature mean when they say certain things. But, if readers want a summary of what it all means without this detailed explanation, they merely need to read the last quote from the previous posting.

When asked whether partisan behavior, meaning whether factions will form largely along partisan groupings in the 2007 Louisiana Legislature to contest things, will continue to increase in incidence, a number of such individuals replied:

1. Democrat House Speaker Pro-Tem Yvonne Dorsey, said “I would like to think that the partisan politics would take a backseat to some of the pressing issues we need to deal with. We should focus on those policy issues that really need to be addressed just like the governor has done in her executive budget.”

Translation: “Any opposition to Democrats equals ‘partisan’ and is bad. Agreement with Democrats is ‘responsible’ and good. Any opposition to the liberal ideology in Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s budget is bad for the state because, while it would try to reverse the liberal populism that has made Louisiana the least livable state in the Union, it would threaten our power.”

2. State Sen. Rob Marionneaux, a Democrat, said: “Unfortunately, it seems as though partisan politics is now come into Louisiana. Within the last three or four years, it seems that partisan politics has really taken hold in Louisiana, and that’s regrettable.”

Translation: “Things were nonpartisan and great when Republicans were too weak in numbers and will to stop whatever Democrats wanted to do. Now that they are actually acting like a political party and blocking Democrats’ will, this is bad because Democrats are always right and we know better how to run people’s lives than they do themselves.”

3. Democrat state Sen. Cleo Fields said Republicans are talking out of both sides of their mouths. “You cannot give tax breaks to the tune of $300 million on one hand and on the other hand say we can’t spend money,” Fields said. “We have to be fiscally responsible on both fronts.”

Translation: “I am an economic moron who cannot understand that tax breaks of any and all kinds put money in the hands of the private sector which uses it more productively and for the greater benefit of all the state’s residents than if it stayed in the hands of government, because it will spur economic growth that will create more revenues than if we spent it on reservoirs, football teams, and shell-game nonprofit agencies.”

4. State Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican, said “Personal spending is more important than government spending as far as long-term benefits. We are losing talented people to other states partly because of income taxes.”

Translation: none needed. Cassidy makes a compelling argument clearly backed by real-world experience and empirical data. If his views are indicative of those of new legislators coming into the Legislature over the next year, we have great reason to be optimistic about the state’s future.

By now, the lesson should be clear and really doesn’t require any advanced degrees, just common sense, to grasp. In the warped view of state legislative Democrats, “partisan” is when you don’t go along with them no matter how stupid their policies are. If so, let’s hope for a very partisan 2007 regular session.