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17.5.07

Losing whites bigger worry for LA Dems, data show

With the release of the latest census estimates, debate re-emerges over the impact of the hurricane disasters of 2005 on 2007 elections and beyond. As I have demonstrated elsewhere, Republicans can expect to get about a 50,000 vote boost relative to Democrats for statewide offices this fall. Do census data confirm this trend, and what will cause it? If you believe the conventional wisdom, you may be in for a surprise.

One notable thing to ponder is that the July 1, 2006 estimated white population (which includes those of a mixed-race background) actually shows a small increase over the same estimated July 1, 2005 population of about 4,000, whereas black population has dropped significantly by almost 139,000, over 9 percent. As far as elections go, this doesn’t quite tell enough, because we need to estimate how this affects the proportion of registered voters and of those who actually vote. Further, we need to compare by race, since the majority of whites vote Republican, and the vast majority of blacks vote Democrat.

If we look at registration totals, there hasn’t been that big of a loss in registrations from 2004 to the 2006 special elections despite disasters. The dropoff of both whites and blacks was around 43,000 compared to the 2,000 or so gain between 2000 and 2002, but of that dropoff, about 31,000 were whites. This is consistent with the trend of recent years: white registrations are losing ground relative to blacks’. Thus, all things equal, blacks voting power would be increasing.

But because of the storms, things are not equal. Further, there is the persistent turnout gap between races that one might think would be aggravated by this recent history. Statewide, over the 2000 federal, 2002 federal, 2003 state, and 2004 federal elections, the gap between the races in turnout averaged 8.75 percent. Yet in 2006 it was below this average, 7.9 percent. Remarkably, this was despite a huge dropoff caused by displacement in Orleans Parish among blacks: there, whites turned out 4.6 percent less than the statewide white average of 27.6 percent, but black Orleanians were 12.8 percent below the statewide black average, at a miniscule 6.9 percent. (In the past, black Orleanians typically voted at slightly higher rates than blacks statewide.)

This obviously means that blacks in other parishes were taking up the slack, so to speak, for those in Orleans in rates and thus to some extent numbers – but not totally. Consider also the proportion of the statewide electorate whites comprised – in 2002, blacks made up 26 percent of those voting falling 2.1 percent from that in 2006. This is consistent with the estimated population change that also saw a 2 percent larger gap open up white over black.

So, we have an overall white-black turnout rate gap holding steady, but relatively more whites and fewer blacks – even as the proportion of black registrations increases statewide. The latter is reflected in the estimated registration rate for whites in the state of 67.2 percent and for blacks of 62.3 percent, compared to 69.5 percent and 57.5 percent respectively the previous year – a difference more than halved.

To put all of this in perspective, this means that Democrats perhaps should be less concerned about retreat of its black base and more about white flight from the state and from their party. Even though the black base is down, the numbers indicate disproportionately it is non-registrants that have left the state, blunting this reduction. The opposite seems to have happened for whites: those eligible to be registered have disproportionately taken off. Further, turnout rates, even taking displacement into account, don’t seem to have suffered relative to whites.

Note that in my paper referenced above I surmised that the state would have lost about 135,000 voters for 2007 while the census figured a population decline of about 194,000 – in other words, using the registration rates above, very well predicted as of today. But of those 75,000 or so Democrats projected lost, adjusted for the figures above only about 40,000 of them are black. Republicans project only about 26,000 whites lost – 9,000 below the Democrat total.

In short, while Democrat losses among blacks are worrisome enough for them, statewide white departures will hurt almost as much in 2007. Further, since a disproportionate share of whites who left and won’t return were voters while blacks were the opposite, the nature of that kind of exodus going forward really hurts the party.

16.5.07

Report shows vested health care interests have no clothes

Once again, I am flattered that the Louisiana Public Affairs Research Council would take one of my ideas that appeared in this space months ago and run with it. The research outfit just issued a report that the Gov. Kathleen Blanco Administration and other political elites with vested interests in the current indigent health care system in the state are not going to want to see, but the recommendations of which are indispensable to improving outcomes and efficiency in the state’s biggest area of spending.

The report advocates putting medical education at the state’s public hospitals first, rather than the state’s current mode of giving priority to trying to get as much federal money as possible into the system from reimbursement for caring for the indigent. This change would occur through centralization of medical education in Shreveport, Monroe, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge and shedding the state’s interest in the other state-owned facilities. It also would broaden outreach opportunities for education facilitated in the non-government sector to take advantage of the latest knowledge.

It drew the usual pithy, shallow response from the Louisiana State University system which runs these hospitals, “If the Legislature does what PAR wants to do, the safety net would be dismantled,” and criticizes the statistics involved: mind you, only the state ever seems to have trouble with these numbers while every other public and private party involved with the issue affirms them. Most condemnatory from the report, which the LSU system can’t explain away, is that, unlike public hospitals in other states that show substantial increases in service volumes, Louisiana charity hospital trends since the mid-1990s show significant decreases in services delivered, although budgets continue to increase.

Further, the Louisiana charity system is heavily subsidized with state and federal funds. It relies on Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) funds and Medicaid for more than 80 percent of its operating revenue, compared to less than 40 percent for public hospitals in other states. Which all goes back to the questions LSU never wants to answer, and never has: why is it that Louisiana is the only state in the Union which maintains this two-tiered system; why is it that all other states have an adequate “safety net” structures without charity hospitals and Louisiana must have charity hospitals and rely on huge public expenditures? We’re still waiting, LSU ….

The report gives more ammunition to building a reasonably-sized new “Big Charity” in New Orleans, as well as a new Earl K. Long facility in Baton Rouge. It also backs up arguments made by those wanting to reform the system from its current money-goes-to-the-institution to the better money-follows-the-person regime. The state continues to make an (ineffective) case for a grandiose new Big Charity, and it is barging ahead with legislation that does nothing to reform away the two-tiered system.

As special interests more interested in retaining power and privilege dig in their heels at truly needed reform, this timely report adds to revealing both the weakness of their cases and the nakedness of their desires.

15.5.07

Boasso gamble likely finishes his political career

While the general consensus about state Sen. Walter Boasso’s switch from Republican to Democrat deemed him an “opportunist,” worth noting is that the move also involved considerable political risk for his career as an elective official. Simply, unless he wins the contest, that career is over.

Perhaps because it’s his business background where time means money and inefficiency means bankruptcy, or impatience, or even ego, but, as far as political ambitions go, he simply would not wait for the right opportunity as a Republican. As far as fitting ideology to party, he clearly melds more convincingly and gracefully as a Republican. He says he fiscally conservative (although he was the crucial vote in supporting a Gov. Kathleen Blancosick tax” measure) and pro-life. And he certainly chose an issue that at its basics is more personality-related than ideology-related, disaster relief response, if we believe his claim that was the issue that compelled him to switch back to the Democrats. (Question: had the likes of former senator John Breaux entered the race, would Boasso ever have switched?)

Regardless, had Boasso run for reelection this year, his future in the GOP and electorally would have been bright. It was clear to everybody but him that Rep. Bobby Jindal, the anointed Republican gubernatorial candidate, had the drop on him for party support and in electoral power – vastly greater fundraising ability, a statewide network which Boasso has yet to build, much higher name recognition, and a rock-solid voting and philosophical record more strongly conservative than Boasso’s.

Boasso could have won reelection easily and, if really interested in governor, wait four more years, then run for statewide office. Assuming Jindal continued through two terms, a win in another executive office would have made Boasso one of, if not the favorite, to succeed Jindal. Perhaps Boasso would argue the state needs him now and he couldn’t wait. (Question: just how different are the policy prescriptions of Boasso and Jindal, so different that Jindal could not carry out the things Boasso thinks are necessary?)

But even running for governor would not have been a bad thing, if Boasso was interesting in running for something else later and he had plenty of cash to burn. Even getting trounced by Jindal, or at best forcing Jindal into a runoff, would raise Boasso’s statewide profile in defeat. He would have been positioned perfectly next year for a run at the U.S. Third District seat now held by Rep. Charlie Melancon, or the U.S. Senate seat of Mary Landrieu – both Democrats. Republicans would have bent over backwards to put him up against Melancon, and, if not their top choice to face Landrieu, would have been right up there.

Those possibilities evaporated when Boasso switched back. As an elected official in an office on any consequence, more than one switch the public views as fickleness and/or opportunism, and party activists as somebody they cannot trust with dollars and support. Neither major party ever will accept him again if he loses this race, and he simply cannot compete under his current label against Democrat incumbents Melancon and Landrieu. Whether he even could get his senate seat back in 2011 is highly questionable; only by withdrawing soon from the contest and qualifying in September for his old seat does he have a chance, and even under this scenario Republican bitterness may cause his defeat.

Boasso had a promising political future as a Republican, as there is a certain amount of truth to his assertion that he often departs from politics as usual; for example, he has been one of the few state elected officials to buck vested interests in trying to get Louisiana to address its unfunded accrued liability problem in its retirements funds, and he strongly advocated flood control policy changes while most politicians from his area, openly or otherwise, opposed them. But his driving ambition to get elected governor by the most expedient means possible may have short-circuited any political future of his.

14.5.07

Cutting marginal LA income tax rates must top priorities

Were Gov. Kathleen Blanco running for reelection, she might show more enthusiasm for tax cuts with the state sitting on possibly more than $3 billion in surplus. But she’s not, letting her liberal Democrat instincts kick in to have her resist the idea of cutting government in any significant way. Still, she’s now admitting that maybe a few reductions would not cause the end of the world, so how should Louisiana proceed with this lukewarm, watered-down attitude of Blanco’s?

The grand slam of those trying to restrain government and give large portions of the citizenry their money back is reversion to the situation many years ago, where all federal “excess” deductions also could be claimed as such on Louisiana income taxes (none can be now), and lowering income thresholds to bump households into lower tax brackets, without reimposition of state sales taxes on many items. Such a laudable goal probably cannot be attained given Blanco’s and the Legislature’s liberal Democrats. Therefore, some part of this goal should be pursued, but what?

The ability to deduct some items could prove to be salutary across all tax brackets, particularly charitable, health care, and mortgage expenses. Charities do a better job than government of ameliorating the majority of social problems so their funding should be encouraged, while for the unfortunate few families hit with big medical expenses full deductibility of health care costs could help dramatically their situations, and since a home will make up a good chunk of the assets of many households, assistance here also is welcome.

But if only one thing could be attained, it would be best to go for raising the bracket thresholds and/or lowering the marginal tax rate. This is because the tax system in Louisiana is heavily progressive, penalizing the most productive members of society by requiring them to shoulder the majority of the burden. As a comparison, two years before the landmark 2003 tax changes (the “Stelly Plan”) went into effect, the upper 51.9 percent of household incomes paid 96 percent of all personal income taxes (that group paying an average of $1,588 compared to $70.50 for the lower group) while last year the upper 52.4 percent of household incomes paid 94.6 percent of all personal income taxes (that group paying an average of about $2,075 compared to $127 for the lower group).

While it is unfair to have so few carry so many on this revenue source, any reduction across the board would help all productive citizens, especially the most productive. If any single tax reduction can assist the state in getting more investment into the economy, that’s the direction Blanco and legislative leaders should head.

13.5.07

Poor test scores affirm need for real teacher evaluation

It’s politically correct in Louisiana to favor pay raises for elementary and secondary school teachers. This is in part because Louisiana has among the lower (but by no means the lowest) average salaries and is about the poorest state in the union. The official story is that the two are connected, the theory being higher pay means better education producing more economic development. As often is the case, the official story is wrong as demonstrated by the most recent test score statistics.

Difficulty understates the task of interpreting the statewide averages GEE (given to high score students in order for them to graduate) exams in a positive fashion. For the latter, first-time test-taking students treaded water in 2007 compared to 2006 on the sciences and social studies portion, while there were significant drops on the math and (especially) English portions. For the LEAP (given to fourth and eighth graders necessary to pass to advance to the next grade), the results overall were about even over the previous year with just one area of significant improvement, English.

The news is much worse on an absolute scale. While the state might put a happy face on the results for the most part, the dirty secret is to “pass,” one need only score at the “approaching basic” level on some of the tests – below the “basic,” “mastery,” and “advanced” categories. While the proportion of those scoring below approaching basic in all cases was usually less than 20 percent, when making the basic level the cutoff, that rose to an alarming almost 40 percent – even more on a few.

Note that approaching basic is defined as “a student at this level has only partially demonstrated the fundamental knowledge and skills needed for the next level of schooling.” The bottom line: even under these relaxed standards, 26 percent of fourth graders and 34 percent of eighth graders failed to be promoted. (Half of the GEE is given at the end of 10th grade, the other at the end of 11th, with other opportunities to take it again to pass, so there is no proportion “graduated” score that is reported.) Reconsider that: about one-fourth of fourth graders and one-third of eighth graders in Louisiana failed to be promoted.

This is poor quality education. And you can only go so far by blaming factors other than the overall quality of teaching itself for such a high failure rate. We don’t know exactly how much of factor inferior teaching plays in this because, unlike in many states, there is no teacher accountability measured in Louisiana – unions have for decades blocked attempts at any kind of evaluation for teacher quality.

Nevertheless, ideas to appropriate a pay raise for teachers circulate in the Legislature, to those currently working and across the board without regard for merit, on the curious, counterintuitive notion that as soon as salaries go up, these teachers will start doing a better job. This position in no way takes into account an investigation into how good of a job as a whole teachers are doing in Louisiana and whether that merits a raise. If scores were going up on the whole, slowly but surely since the last raise a couple of years ago, a case could be made for a raise (that is, above the cost of living – they already get annual cost of living raises). But why reward in aggregate a work force whose product is getting shoddier?

To remind of a sentiment that has appeared in this space many times, if pay increases are given to teachers, given the data a dubious proposition at best, the very least policy-makers can do is to insist on the implementation of regular testing and other accountability measures concerning teachers along with it. Otherwise, these unacceptable education outcomes simply will continue on, and lack of economic development in Louisiana along with it, no matter how high teachers’ salaries go.