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28.6.07

Having, eating cake describes Legislature ethics bill kill

I guess I should have stayed pessimistic instead of looking for a silver lining earlier today. Snatching death from the jaws of life, the Louisiana Legislature managed to kill meaningful ethics reform this afternoon.

HB 730 would have required, at a very minimum, every elected official in the state and then some except for some smallest jurisdictions to report for themselves and from immediate family members some broad categories of income in a process that likely would take 10 minutes to complete – done by state and local elected officials in almost 20 states already. After both houses basically unanimously agreed to versions that were not very different from each other, and three conferees from each chamber agreed on one compromise version, the House rejected the report and the Senate then refused to consider it.

Being so close to agreement, it’s hard to believe it would founder at the last minute. The official excuse given was that, from the House’s perspective, the conference’s stripping application to local elected office – even though both the entire Senate and House had agreed to that – made the bill unpalatable enough.

Removing that procedure in conference appears to have come from conferee Democrat Senate Pres. Don Hines, as a kind of final “up yours” to the state of Louisiana before he is term-limited into a long overdue retirement. Author Democrat state Rep. Michael Jackson told the House he thought the Senate wouldn’t pass the conference version, therefore, even though it had previously, and just enough House members thought they would just as soon, as Jackson said, throw the baby out with the bathwater, in a narrow vote.

It seems so very odd that something the chambers had agreed upon without really any dissent should, on the final day of the session, suddenly become a deal breaker. Why did it out of the blue become a problem? And why would the House prefer to go with no loaf than half a loaf? Wouldn’t reporting requirements on legislators even without local officials be better than none?

Apparently not, and this surface logical disconnect fuels the notion that the fix was in all of the time, at least for enough legislators to cause its failure. Enough of them may have wanted to get a vote in showing they “cared” about higher ethical standards, but then House members could turn around and say they essentially killed the bill because it didn’t “do enough” by removal of the local official provision, while Senators got a free ride. Everybody’s for ethics reform, on the record – and yet there’s no change whatsoever.

This ridiculous ending only adds more tarnish to an already underachieving session – but (again straining to see a silver lining) maybe will cause even more disenchantment among the Louisiana people to elect candidates this fall that will bring about real reform in the near future.

Session represents another missed opportunity

As the 2007 regular session of the Louisiana Legislature comes to a close, one gets a sick feeling that an opportunity of historical significance was missed by it, one that could have accelerated the state away from policy that for decades has retarded the state’s growth and quality of life. Still, there is a silver lining.

Simply put, Louisiana’s state government is too big and intrusive which dampens economic growth as well as personal freedom in the process. Ultimately, the people must blame themselves to some degree because we in aggregate continue to put economic illiterates such as Gov. Kathleen Blanco and a Democrat majority into office. As if we needed one more example of this, take Blanco’s comment yesterday: “It's important for the public to know that a tax break is like the Legislature's spending money, only it disappears.”

Only an economic ignoramus or willingly deceitful politician would make a statement so at odds with economic theory. Has Blanco never heard of the Grace Report, which shows government wastes a third of the money coming into it? Or of the Laffer Curve, which demonstrates that the more money kept in the private sector, to a certain point (and with Louisiana’s high tax per capita collection rate, it’s definitely on the suboptimized part of the curve) the greater government revenues will be through economic growth?

I’ll lay it out very simply so maybe even Blanco can get it through her head, finally: tax breaks create wealth that (generally, unless there is a low-tax environment to begin with) does not “disappear” but instead strengthens the economy which in turn creates a more stable financial footing for government. Spending by government even on necessary things (like needed infrastructure) is where about a third of the people’s money disappears in waste.

Unfortunately, Blanco and the Democrat-controlled Legislature were in charge and so the most tax relief that anybody looks to be getting will be about half of taxpayers will get about a one percent return of their money taken by the state, despite a record surplus that comprised over 10 percent of the budget for a state growing smaller. Further, spending on recurring commitments will hamstring future elected officials in being able to provide the necessary downsizing of government to create better quality of life.

At least there appears to be one bright spot. With the public in a hostile mood about Louisiana state politicians (evidenced by Blanco’s bowing out of reelection opportunities, current out-party Republicans picking up open positions in special elections, and anybody seen as an incumbent of any kind having a hard time in special elections), some meaningful ethics reform actually seems to have come out of the session. That (unless something dramatic happens before the end of the day) it seems to have beaten long odds shows those legislators running for election in the fall are scared of the public’s antipathy towards the lack of quality of their service. It probably won’t be enough to return many of them to office, however.

Yet in the final analysis, this session fits squarely into the pattern seen in Louisiana state government over the past few decades – squandering yet another opportunity to keep the rest of the world from passing us by. And perhaps the ultimate silver lining is that maybe now the Louisiana electorate will be further incensed by this behavior to make the changes necessary to improve the state in those fall elections.

27.6.07

Stuck on stupid XXV: Parents told childish Blanco "no"

For most people, when they were young and came into a (relative) financial windfall, be it from gifts or from some kind of labor, their parents instructed them not to go out and blow it on candy or whatever, but to save it. That way, we were instructed, you could invest it and have it grow and ready for the future when you really might need it, instead of spending it on some transitory pleasure.

By contrast, Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s parents must have told her something quite the opposite, if we understand correctly the analogy she tried to use to disparage those who support tax cuts from a huge Louisiana surplus: “I think they're like a bunch of spoiled children, and we're on vacation, kind of, and they think mom and daddy can buy them every single toy and balloon in the whole place. And, you know, parents have to say no after a time.” It indicates just how absolutely, totally clueless she is and has been about good public policy that would improve the quality of life that she personally has retarded in this state for the past four years.

Only Blanco, and her Democrat majority allies in the state Legislature, would conceive of investing in the people of Louisiana as something that should be denied. Only this backwards-thinking mob would think you “invest” in economic development by taking money owned by the people in the first place and instead of letting it stay with the best investment around, the productive capacity of the people and the marketplace, you abscond with it and shovel it into growing government such as by creating more bureaucratic jobs in a state with declining population and funneling tens of millions of dollars to dubious projects.

Of course, this nonsense proceeds from their liberal viewpoint but also has a more immediate precipitant: like spoiled brats, they put themselves first before anybody else because this spending also serves the goal of trying to get themselves elected or reelected and puts their political opponents in a future bind – and to top it off they’re doing it using somebody else’s resources. Only immature children would try to justify this by ignorantly calling it the opposite, or thinking they can twist words trying to fool grownups with this explanation.

Naturally, we see very clearly how the Blanco lexicon equates “tax cuts” with “spending” and “spending” with “investment,” and how this reflects the exact antithesis of the real world. We realize this because we are the parents, and long ago we told the childish perpetrator of this ridiculous attitude and philosophy “no” when it came to her reelection.

26.6.07

Next governor must save LA from new hospital stupidity

Gov. Kathleen Blanco set the state on an unwise collision course with the federal government regarding the new Big Charity hospital in New Orleans. Let’s hope it’s a decision that doesn’t cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in wasted spending.

Over the weekend, Blanco’s allies in the Louisiana Legislature confirmed that the state was going to forgo federal money, at least about $225 million, to build the new facility, because it would involve too much “red tape” – created by the state’s own intransigence. The bureaucracy involved came as a result of the federal government’s questioning the scope of the planned new facility whose price tag has doubled within the past year.

In large part that happened because of different concepts in how the provision of indigent care was to occur. All parties want the new Medical Center of Louisiana – New Orleans facility to provide medical education capacity and specialized health care services. But others want to go beyond that just that, all relating to their different views on how indigent health care should be delivered in the state.

Every other state in the union follows a strategy of money-follows-the-person for indigent health care, but Louisiana insists on a money-goes-to-the-institution strategy which limits patient choice, reduces quality of care, and costs more. Even so, many political elites and special interests in the state want the latter because it brings more money into state government, increases the number of people on the state payroll, and gives them more power and privilege as a result – much more than they care about efficiency and outcomes.

Blanco’s team suggested building a large facility because it has no intention to switching to a more efficient system with improved outcomes – and even conjured a study assuming the state stuck with the existing system to try to justify the decision. If the switch was made, the hundred or more extra beds under Blanco’s plan would become superfluous – as suggested by the federal government last week in its note announcing postponement in turning over the money the state has qualified for purposes such as this.

So Blanco read the writing on the wall – reform or the money wasn’t forthcoming – and stubbornly gave up the money. This became politically possible when Blanco ally Sen. Mary Landrieu extracted a promise from Democrats in Washington that the federal government would commit substantial aid to Blanco’s mishandled Road Home Program if the state coughed up $1 billion towards the potential $5 billion shortfall. Having cobbled together over $600 million of federal money that technically had become state funds, and a small amount of genuine state funds, Blanco realized the $225 million for the hospital could be used for this purpose as well.

This still left money short for the complex, so now the state will borrow it in future years. In essence, the state would have had to come up with the $225 million one way or another for the Road Home bailout anyway so now the only extra cost to the state will be on interest for the borrowed money (which the state could not have done for the bailout because borrowing can be done only for capital outlay). It’s a politically neat solution.

Except that, first of all, the extra beds are wasteful, either because they can be done without under an efficient new system, or because they will prop up the existing inefficient system. Second, the state’s act of defiance will not go unnoticed in another part of the government which still can cost the state plenty. All along, the assumption has been the new facility will be built next to a new Veterans Administration hospital which would share some facilities, saving both money. But the federal government has been making noises that this arrangement may no longer suit it, and the state’s decision here well may solidify a decision to go separate ways, jacking up costs to the state even more.

However, one hope remains. The Legislature classified the borrowing as future, meaning it can be altered in future capital outlay budgets and the whole amount, now believed to be $1.5 billion, is not yet in the budget. This means the next administration will have the final say – and you can bet a Gov. Bobby Jindal is not going to go along with this plan. So, just as political tides and fortunes put the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time to create this boondoggle, they may reverse to alter eventually the big mistake Blanco and her cronies are making on this issue – to the delight of the indigent and taxpayers statewide.

24.6.07

NW LA delegation has some I-49 funding explaining to do

Over the past few days, behind the scenes occurred a great example of the minute machinations with major consequences that go on with legislation in front of the Louisiana Legislature – almost totally obscured from public understanding. You want to bet that at least a few legislators involved are not going to want these events to have to be explained as they run for election this fall?

The much-discussed HB 765 which spent basically one-time funds and some federal funds refunded to Louisiana was discussed in front of the House Friday. In this bill, $150 million had been set aside for highway construction.

On the floor, Shreveport state Rep. Roy Burrell (with Shreveport Rep. Ernest Baylor) offered an amendment to direct $60 million of that to the construction of I-49 and an environmental impact study of the route of it going through Shreveport. He must have meant it to be for the proposed I-49 north route covering mostly existing U.S. 71 and may have thought the study funding request made that obvious. Without objection it was done.

But not long afterward, Bossier state Rep. Billy Montgomery (also endorsed by others including area Reps. Wayne Waddell, Jim Morris, and Jane Smith) offered another amendment that said of the $150 million, $100 million could be spent only on interstate projects on the Highway Priority Program list – which apparently didn’t include I-49. This also was adopted without objection.

Of course, there’s a conflict here. Backing out $100 million from $150 million left only $50 million for the $60 million proposal for “I-49” and the study. And apparently House rules would give precedence to the temporally later amendment when such a conflict exists. In other words, the Montgomery amendment vetoed in essence the Burrell amendment.

Then today, that got corrected in amendments 16-20 made in the Senate Finance Committee of whom its members include area state Sens. Sherri Smith Cheek and Lydia Jackson. The $100 million amount was reduced to $90 million, clearing up the conflict and it was made more specific in regards to allocating the money to I-49 north work.

This leads to some interesting questions:

  • Was Burrell’s and Baylor’s poor wording a mistake on their part?
  • If so, why wasn’t it corrected by the later amendment, or one by them?
  • Why would Montgomery et. al.’s amendment seem to sabotage something the northwest Louisiana delegation has given considerable lip service to, funding of I-49 (Smith even told a constituent that the reason she bailed out on GOP resistance to increase spending was to secure this money)?
  • Again, was this simply a mistake or was another agenda at work? (Perhaps the language was offered by the non-northwest members who signed on while the northwest members were interested in the other part of the amendment, getting state funding for a proposed Air Force cyber command consolidation at Barksdale Air Force Base – meaning they fell for a trap.)

    The crisis for I-49 north funding has passed but the questions remain. In their published comments, both Montgomery and Smith seemed unaware that the amendment had canceled the money going to “I-49,” so it seems inattentiveness on their part was to blame. (Montgomery also ripped another area legislator, Rep. Mike Powell, for not voting for the bill and, in essence, the $60 million mistake he had created.) Montgomery has been there 20 years and Smith 8 and don’t seem to have it down yet. No doubt their opponents thins fall will remind area voters of that.