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20.12.07

Regional, partisan imbalance in the new Legislature?

As I mentioned previously, while it seems the ordinary citizenry couldn’t care less, the “political class” appears upset at the distribution of committee chairmen slots for the incoming Legislature. I was going to present an analysis of House picks by apparent new House Speaker Jim Tucker in addition to Senate picks as it was said he would release them today. Apparently he has not and I’ve held off this posting long enough, so I’ll just add them when I find out. Below then is an analysis only of the Senate selections made by presumed incoming president Joel Chaisson.

Perhaps most frequently expressed have been complaints about a lack of representation for North Louisiana. In the Senate, three of the 17 charimanships went to senators from north Louisiana (defined her as north of the Beauregard-Allen- Evangeline-St. Landry-Point Coupee boundaries lines), or 18 percent. Keep in mind that this part of the state has about 27 percent of the population, so any bias towards the southern part of the state is not that great. Also consider that in the Senate, of the 11 districts (29 to 39) that could be declared “northern” in geography, only five featured returnees to the chamber (plus a couple of transfers from the House and a previous house member) of which three of these – Adley, Sherri Smith Cheek, and Lydia Jackson – are among the most junior incumbents and are at odds with much of Jindal’s agenda which reduced the pool of potential chairmen.

The other major complaints have been about partisan distribution, a surrogate for the capability of incoming Gov. Bobby Jindal to pursue his conservative, reform agenda. In the Senate, only four of the 17 picked were Republicans, or 24 percent, where (now with the recent surprise partisan switch of Robert Adley to the GOP) 23 of the total membership are Republicans, or 41 percent. Keep in mind, however, that the minority Republicans always have been disproportionately underrepresented in the past, even with other GOP governors around.

Further cheer for reform forces should come from some individual selections of who got what and who didn’t. In the Senate, Adley despite his late switch was denied chairmanship of the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee because of his insufficient track record when it came to reducing the size of government and returning the people’s money to them. State Sen. Joe McPherson, a sworn enemy of meaningful health care reform that would pass power from institutions to people, was stripped of his chairmanship of the body’s Health and Welfare Committee.

So at first glance concerning the Senate, there’s a bit of an imbalance to the Senate but to some degree this can be explained. The House figures will provide more definition.

19.12.07

Blanco must halt revisionism, search for relevancy

On behalf of the state of Louisiana, I would like to make a request of lame-duck Democrat Gov. Kathleen Blanco: give us an early Christmas present and just go away quietly.

We’re tired of your inane, even mendacious, attempts to explain away your failed governorship. You blame your inadequate response to the hurricane disasters of 2005 on Republican-instigated “partisanship,” yet your own words and e-mail messages show you were the one interjecting partisanship from the very beginning into your actions which detracted from your ability to pursue better policy. In fact, despite having gone through simulated and real disasters, you still didn’t know simple intergovernmental procedures to have gotten aid faster, and you deliberately delayed to try to get partisan advantage.

You also blame partisanship on the much slower pace of recovery in Louisiana than Mississippi when in fact it was your own dithering that hampered the receipt of federal recovery dollars into the state. Then your people disregarded federal rules in the distribution of that money which tied it up bureaucratically and bankrupted the program.

18.12.07

Dead zone reveals problem of govt economic intervention

On the back of the man-made global warming fraud, many taken in by it argue society must move away from the use of hydrocarbons and increase use of renewable sources of energy. Regrettably, the federal government for years has subsidized the production of ethanol and Louisiana joined in a year ago for the future with the state requiring sellers of gasoline to sell ethanol if statewide production reaches a certain level and politicians decide it’s not really more expensive than gasoline. Now these decisions are starting to haunt us and point out yet again an enduring lesson that hubris prevents too many from realizing fully.

In the past year, production of corn has increased significantly which is the most common renewable crop used to produce ethanol. It’s not just government subsidies and federal regulations requiring its use in many metropolitan areas that now drive production, but higher oil prices. The consequence of the increased production, which is supposed to help the environment, is actually to degrade it in a way significant to Louisianans.

Corn takes more fertilizer, typically nitrogen-based, than typical crops. Unfortunately, when carried south down streams that empty through the Mississippi’s delta, the nitrogen runoff of thousands of miles away creates a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico where aquatic life can’t exist. Not only does this constitute an ecological problem, it is makes for commercial difficulties as fishing industry vessels must travel farther from port to harvest potentially less seafood, obviously negative for Louisiana’s industry.

Irony abounds in this scenario. Ethanol is supposed to help air quality and reduce “greenhouse gases” that allegedly are responsible for significant global warming. Yet in the mania to produce it, it harms not just another aspect of the environment, the ecology of the Gulf, but in pursuing this forces fishing vessels to use more energy – which is hydrocarbon-based and produces more greenhouse gases.

Thus revealing the folly of government intervention into the economy. Human history time and again has shown when there is a presumed public policy problem dealing with economic inputs and outputs, government intervention produces unintended and/or suboptimal outcomes. If government policy wasn’t forcing so much ethanol production, that production would be responding only to market forces, which would have the salutary impacts of reducing corn production (and prices for basic food on top of that) that would reduce the ecological consequences of it, and supplying greater incentives to spur technological developments such as ways to use fertilizer more efficiently and to extract and burn more efficiently petroleum products.

The environment always is best protected by market forces. If degradation becomes too much and/or a less-friendly process thereby becomes too expensive, consumers demand changes. Government fiat only interferes with outcome and, if Louisiana policy-makers want to get series about not contributing to the dead zone problem, they will repeal R.S. 3:3711 as soon as possible.

17.12.07

Merit, not parochialism, must guide offering decisions

It’s not politically correct, but it’s true what University of Louisiana System Board of Supervisors member Michael Woods says about the Louisiana Board of Regents’ hesitancy in granting Louisiana State University Shreveport even a part of a Ph.D. program – it’s territorial and could delay or excise entirely the ability of LSUS to offer a doctoral degree in its own back yard..

Add to LSUS alumnus Woods’ comments the observation about the Board's position made by LSUS Chancellor Vincent Marsala: “short-sighted.” The program would offer a Ph.D. in bioinformatics and computational biology, contemplated for and developed over years by LSUS, which fits in nicely with a collaborative effort made with the LSU Health Sciences Center-Shreveport and Louisiana Tech University. The program has even more value now that it appears more likely than not that the Air Force will base its Cyber Command Center at Barksdale AFB in Bossier Parish.

The program has received cautionary approval by the Regents who must authorize any new degree offerings in the state. The report does not at all indicate that the program should not be offered, nor that LSUS could not contribute significantly to it. Rather, it expresses reservations that LSUS ought to be a part of it, noting that the higher education master plan while not prohibiting LSUS from offering doctoral degrees does not explicitly permit such offerings.

However, the Regents chairman Pat Strong personally seems to question whether the bringing of a doctoral program will really enhance the Shreveport metropolitan economy – “a doctoral program being that important to economic development.” That might make sense if it was a Ph.D. program in political science being discussed, but it seems pretty clear with the medical industry there and Cyber Command probably coming that there are going to be economic benefits, possibly substantial ones.

And if the Regents are so wedded to the plan, perhaps it needs changing. There’s no reason why the state’s four-year comprehensive university in the state’s third-largest metropolitan area should not have the ability at least to collaborate on such a program. It already is forced to collaborate for masters degrees with outsider Louisiana Tech – a school 70 miles distant from the area.

Woods also was courageously candid about that aspect, pointing out Tech has long sought placement in the Shreveport market. This brings up an entirely different question about the overbuilt nature of Louisiana higher education but if that’s not going to be addressed, then the next best thing is to give preference to universities in their areas – and that means LSUS in Shreveport, not Louisiana Tech.

Part of the problem is, historically, the insistence of the LSU system to base as much as it could in Baton Rouge. LSUS began only 40 years ago (over a century after the modern incarnation of LSU Baton Rouge) and spent its first decade as a junior college. It’s not just Shreveport either: there was no LSU campus in New Orleans until 50 years ago, it took several years to establish its own identity, it could not offer graduate degrees until 40 years ago (even as it became the second-largest in the state in enrollment) and it wasn’t until the 1970s that doctoral degrees were allowed there. The LSU system would not even allow dormitories to be built there until several years later and until the 1990s not for LSUS (and still vastly restricts their capacity both places). (For the record, not only am I obviously an LSUS employee although not its spokesman, but I also received my Ph.D. in political science from the LSU member institution in New Orleans, the University of New Orleans.)

This lingering desire to keep system campuses outside of Baton Rouge more as adjuncts to the flagship school than as separate entities has encouraged other universities wishing to poach on the natural LSUS market, and creates another red herring argument to prevent LSUS expansion through its involvement in this degree – that it would be the smallest school that could offer a Ph.D. in the state. But, as Woods points out, why shouldn’t this be allowed given it is the third largest market in the state and facing competitive pressures from out-of-state nearby institutions? (And the LSU system is giving full support to LSUS in this matter.)

If this is point of contention, then it also is natural to ask why Louisiana Tech, in an area with a population of about 20,000, gets to offer five different doctoral degrees most of which are in areas in which LSUS offers degrees? (What makes more sense, offering a Doctorate of Business Administration in the booming, thriving commercial capital of Ruston, or in the metropolitan area that is 18 times its size? Or a Doctorate of Education in an area with 67,000 students or one with a ninth of that number?) If degrees are going to be offered where the people aren’t, shouldn’t different degrees that have economic development value be offered where they are regardless of the size of the school as long as it has the capacity to deliver that education?

Woods’ remarks demonstrate there are just no clothes on those who bring up the questions of mission or size to deny LSUS not even wanting to offer a doctorate on its own but just to do so in collaboration. Market forces and economic development considerations must take precedence over parochialism in deciding the worth of this program.

16.12.07

Forecast argues for tax cuts, spending changes

Louisiana’s Revenue Estimating Conference confirmed that revenues are slipping in the state as the infusion of federal recovery dollars begins to taper off. Once again, this fact reinforces the need for prudence in future spending commitments and for fiscal policy that will boost revenues in the future.

These realities may have been overshadowed by the fact that a healthy surplus both for the current fiscal year and predicted for the next were declared by the Conference. Focusing solely on that aspect, however, misses the larger picture if drawing the conclusion that the state now has “extra” money to spend on things which, absent changing expenditure priorities, would be the worst possible decision to make.

A retreating revenue picture demands caution with any new commitments, which are prudent only if revenues look likely to increase over time. Rather, the current scenario dictates that new spending be sparse and that reprogramming of current commitments takes place to ensure that a fairly flat revenue forecast does not strain future state resources as inflation erodes and unexpected but necessary new commitments eat into these revenues.

Policymakers must understand the surplus exists only because spending demands in some areas (obviously not in areas of recovery expenses) have declined. Bluntly, with 300,000 or so few citizens displaced by the 2005 hurricane disasters of the socio-economic class most were in, the majority absorbed more, often much more, in state resources than they contributed. It’s not that state revenues have and will continue to go up for anything to do an improved state economy or fiscal outlook, it’s that with significantly fewer people to support off of government money that programmatic, nondiscretionary spending has gone down noticeably in some areas such as education and health care.

If current practices don’t change, this means revenues will remain stagnant at best while expenditures will rise. This argues that policy must change to increase revenues, entailing alterations in both the revenue area (designed to increase the gross take) and in the spending area (reconfiguring the mix of expenditures in a way which will maximize the gross take).

An example of the former would be cutting income taxes. Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal has stated his preference of reducing if not eliminating these. Not only would this allow revenues to grow within the next few years because of the greater economic activity produced, but also the approach solves a political problem: the Constitution caps spending by the state and if Jindal wanted to spend all of the surplus he would need a two-thirds vote of both Legislative chambers to secure this. Tax reductions lower the spending levels for cap purposes.

An example of the latter would be passing legislation diverting transportation-related revenues to be spent only for transportation purposes. Under-funded transportation infrastructure has held back the state’s economic potential thus tax-generating potential of state business. The surplus dollars would cushion the amount removed from the general fund by this reform the transfer of which would boost future revenues.

Typical policy of the past in Louisiana would have this “surplus” blown on a number of new commitments, may of dubious value. Hopefully, Jindal and the new Legislature will understand the opportunity presented and take full advantage of it through tax cuts and reprogramming of spending.