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17.1.08

Lombardi's argument disappoints intellectually, politically

Recently I heard my new boss of bosses Louisiana State University President John Lombardi give the commencement speech at LSUS and was pretty good as far as those things go -- brief, to the point, and actually of some use to a graduate. If only he had brought comparable ability to his criticism of the idea of utilizing transportation-related revenues to fund only transportation-building expenses – both in the exposition of his argument and in its political consequences.

The idea initially broached previous to last year’s legislative session was projected to shift somewhere between $300-350 million from the state’s general fund (which represented about $8 billion in revenues this past budget year) to transportation needs – about the rate of one year growth of the general fund. Because of higher gas prices, the most recent estimate puts the amount at over $450 million.

Lombardi is perturbed at this idea of dedication of funds, which if accomplished would eat away at the $14 billion backlog in transportation needs in about 30 years, because he thinks it would take away funds from higher education. He notes that discretionary spending from the general fund (almost half of it) would bear all of the “reduction” and with education as a whole making up about half of that, higher education would lose a significant portion of funding.

Of course, he makes a telling assumption here – that necessarily all of the diverted money, pumped up by high oil prices, necessarily must be spent on the same items and in the same proportion as they have been in the past. In other words, Lombardi is unwilling to take a fresh look at the real needs and priorities of this state and maybe conclude not all of this money need go to these items. He just simplistically wants higher education’s “cut” without making real effort to determine actual priorities.

He also mistakenly makes a zero-sum game of it all. Lombardi seems to think rigidly that cuts cannot be made in other parts of discretionary general fund spending and/or in low priority areas. Former university system president and current Gov. Bobby Jindal set him right when, told of Lombardi’s complaint, said “My bottom line is you don’t have to choose between good schools and good roads. I think it’s a false choice.”

Jindal grasps that there are many areas of cost savings in Louisiana government regarding items in and out of the general fund; just to name some courtesy of decisions made last session, by redacting such foolish choices as the state giving income tax “refunds” to people who don’t pay any income taxes, funding redundant positions in an already-bloated state bureaucracy, and then giving these vacant positions raises. But there are two specific items under his purview that Lombardi himself could support that together would save money for the state that could make up, in whole or part, a “shortfall” with higher priority being given to roads.

First, in recent years attempts have been made to reduce the burgeoning unfunded accrued liabilities owed present and future state employee retirees the size of which almost equals the road maintenance backlog total. Proposals to reduce the size of the problem, among others things, have been made to cut back for future hires the current extremely generous benefits to just be generous, but this has been opposed by, among others, university systems. We haven’t heard a peep out of Lombardi supporting these measures to rein in these costs.

Second, the LSU system has fought tooth-and-nail to prevent meaningful reform of indigent health care, from the current money-goes-to-the-institution to a money-follows-the-person system that would provide better quality care for more people ultimately at reduced cost – because LSU runs the charity hospitals in the state and prefers the additional resources and prestige that comes from this arrangement. We have heard from Lombardi on this one – essentially defending the wasteful current system (and in such an uninformed way that he denies the empirically demonstrated fact that outcomes in the charity hospitals are worse and performed less efficiently).

(And there's another option -- for the Baton Rouge campus as recently suggested, tuition could be raised with the Legislature's approval. But this also would cost taxpayers more money since a good portion of LSU students' tuition already is being paid for by the TOPS program.)

If this does not make Lombardi a hypocrite in his opposition of the transportation plan, it does suggest him to be a turf-protecting, rigid bureaucrat who lacks the creativity and critical thinking necessary to provide inspired leadership for the state’s flagship university system. And perhaps not very politically astute, either – Jindal already has indicated he intends to push a form of the roads plan and to alter the underachieving indigent health care system in the state, so Lombardi is doing the LSU system no favors by bucking the wishes of the state’s incoming top official.

It may be that Lombardi is being forced by his employers, the LSU Board of Supervisors, into these kinds of statements, but to go along with such enthusiasm to this prodding, if that what it is, is short-sighted. As governor, Jindal soon will start appointing supervisors not likely to be such fanatical defenders of the established order, and, if Lombardi now is acting only as a mouthpiece for the Board, he would have to pirouette on these issues in order to become a yes-man to the new board.

Either way, it’s not what we hoped for when Lombardi ascended to the job a few months back, and it's not going to help his standing with Jindal. He's already apparently engineered the departure of LSU Chancellor Sean O'Keefe (again, probably pushed by the Board) but tangling with Jindal is another matter. Lombardi got a curveball thrown to him by Jindal when a state hiring freeze was put into place: Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis likely would lift such an order for faculty hiring but justification has to be made so now Lombardi will have to coordinate that effort in the LSU system which as an ancillary effect will reduce the potential for Lombardi using resources to bucking Jindal.

I know the opinions expressed in this column (which obviously don’t reflect those of LSUS or the LSU System) are going to deliver a few more black marks from some of my academic superiors into my already heavily-stained personnel file, but from the politicians that matter Lombardi may be picking up even more of them.

16.1.08

Ethics proposals good start, but Jindal should go for more

Although Gov. Bobby Jindal called the report released by his ethics advisory panel a “good start” and that it was not “set in stone,” he should give serious consideration to pushing legislation that is at least as stringent as the recommendations, if not more so.

Especially valuable is the extension of disclosure requirements to all state Cabinet appointees and elected officials even at the local level (except for offices of municipalities of fewer that 5,000). The prevailing philosophy seems to be if you are elected or have a full-time state appointive job at the highest level you should be subject to annual disclosure requirements of income divided into five categories.

But it would be better to go a little further. All administrative (but not those solely designated as policy-making assistants) appointed full-time employees at the state level should be included. Legislation also should empower local governments to apply those same standards to their full-time, appointive administrative personnel.

Having such standards at the state level will be controversial but given the attention to the issue and that a large portion of the new Legislature committed to a similar agenda through Blueprint Louisiana’s pre-election efforts, if Jindal accepts these recommendations they ought to go through. Much more controversial is the extension to local officials, on which Jindal did not specifically campaign and was the reason a combined bill despite overwhelming legislative majorities got sidetracked last session.

Jindal has indicated he would support a separate local bill which makes political sense in that objections to it would not derail automatically a statewide version. Of course, that means it makes it easier to defeat a bill addressing local officials. When about a couple of dozen other states already have such laws covering local officials there’s no reason Louisiana shouldn’t as well, especially with the 5,000 population exception, and hopefully Jindal will push as strongly for this as for a law dealing with state offices.

Entering into state contracts by legislators and their families also will provoke serious opposition among some lawmakers. Some will argue it would discourage quality potential legislators from wanting to run, and might especially be constraining regarding lightly-populated areas where few providers of a service exist to contract with the state.

However a law like this already exists, dealing with hurricane recovery contracts and its presence hasn’t seemed to have damaged the state. Moreover, Jindal has justified a ban of this nature with a very compelling argument: elected office to serve the people is a privilege, not a right, and so one must choose whether to gain access to it by meeting certain requirements. If you want to serve but you have a potential conflict under such a law, you either must decline the opportunity, or change your career and/or job to do so. Nobody is being forced to run for public office at the expense of his ability to earn a living. This point Jindal must drive home again and again to overcome resistance.

Recommending reporting transactions electronically is long overdue. In today’s world of technology, there’s no reason a candidate or lobbyist cannot download simple software from the state, take a few minutes here and there to update transactions, and through the Internet send the report to the state. Under the option to report by paper still available, it is difficult and cumbersome to find out information about campaigns, contributors, and lobbying. Jindal has preached transparency will prevail under his administration: he needs to put great effort into getting this kind of legislation passed.

The board did not recommend a total ban on lobbyist-provided victuals, but that also is worth pursuing. Many other states do it, and there’s no real reason for lobbyists to be able to pay for these things. Why must lobbyists be able to buy meals and the like for officials? Do they have to lobby over the lunch hour? Why can’t they transact business during business hours and leave legislators in peace to eat?

Along with the other recommendations made, adopting these as well will maximize transparency and minimize the potential for corruption. These items must find their way onto Jindal’s special session call coming up within the next couple of weeks.

15.1.08

Jindal puts money where mouth is, at least as a start

The right way to do things by executive fiat Gov. Bobby Jindal delivered today in executive orders that force beginning next year from Louisiana cabinet members financial disclosure and compels their resignation henceforth if indicted, public listing by state website of what entities get state contracts and grants and for what purposes, and freezing hiring in most parts of Louisiana government (excepting essentially the Legislature and judiciary) and requiring the responsible officers to demonstrate the savings achieved (but also allowing them to ask for exceptions to be made) at risk of losing their salaries.

Hopefully, these actions will begin to put to rest the fiction, embraced by some in the state despite so much overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that we don’t know what Jindal is going to do as governor and/or he’s being too vague with his agenda. As of his first full day in office, he’s doing exactly the specific things he generally promised way before, during, and after his campaign – bringing more transparency and efficiency to government.

Now it is only the first day, these aren’t that far-reaching of policy changes, and the true cynics included in the deluded described above will say they are for show. But the fact is he did these things that could have been done just as easily by the likes of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Yet she chose not to take even these easy, elementary steps while Jindal delivered.

The wrong way to do things by executive power, by great contrast, comes as a suggestion from former Gov. Dave Treen – to commute the sentence of felon ex-Gov. Edwin Edwards. To do so would signal that if you are slick enough to avoid being caught until and/or commit felonies in your later years against the people of the state from a position of their trust, you’ll get a reduced sentence. That’s a message hopefully Pres. George W. Bush will not want to send despite pleadings potentially from his father and Treen. Unlike Jindal’s approach, that won’t reduce the temptation for public officials to do mischief in the state.

Jindal’s off to a good start that, especially with the contracts and grants order that will show exactly what organizations are getting what, will anger members of the existing power structure in the state who have shuttled in the shadows money to certain beneficiaries of these contracts and grants. Let’s hope he keeps it up.

14.1.08

New LA Gov. Jindal means business in several ways

At 12:07 PM today, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal took the oath of office. At 12:08, the website for that office had changed. The guy means business.

It wasn’t the only indicator of change to come, at least according to Jindal’s inaugural address. I lost count after a dozen of the times the word “change” or a conjugation of it was used. Other new governors have said it before. But Jindal, the first ethnic minority and first lifelong Republican elected to the office, had a bite in his rhetoric concerning its invocation.

Jindal did not just say he wanted to make government work more efficiently, but that “incompetence is not a synonym for government.” He didn’t just say he would work to see honesty prevail in government, but that the state needed to “win a war on corruption.” Government, he said, needed to alter the way it does things in order to catch up with the state’s hard-working people. These were a declaration of war relative to some of the good old boy politicians and their allies who have a vested interest precisely in not seeing such change occur.

He also made clear big changes in economic development policy were forthcoming. He briefly mentioned realigning curricula to meet a 21st century economy, and of a government efficient enough to help but knows “when to get out of the way” – another direct challenge to the good old boys who are more interested in using government to redistribute power and wealth to themselves and their political clients.

To the opponents who camouflage their ill will towards this agenda by asking for detailed plans about how he wants to do all of this stuff yesterday so they start planning how to stop it, he did give a small preview of coming attractions – the promised ethics special session will start Feb. 10 (somebody in the press was asleep and not thinking when it reported the session would be on the 5th – Mardi Gras). And he closed in a way demonstrating a sense of urgency, remarking “We can, we must, and we will change.”

When almost a dozen years ago I began to see Jindal’s name bandied about and how he was discussed as some sort of boy wonder, followed by his rapid administrative rise in state and federal government, I was amused by reaction to him the tone of coverage about him was on the order of “Bobby Jindal is here to save us all in Louisiana.” In a small way, Jindal in a related sense believes that, but only to the extent that he sees himself as the most important cog in a gear made up of the entire state to lead the revolution he and many want that he without their help can’t do: “Join us in our cause. Make everything not just a job but a cause.”

That rhetoric is really going to make some existing power brokers in this state nervous. Let the Jindal era begin.

13.1.08

Jindal not letting opponents goad him into miscues

Tomorrow Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal assumes that position, and in a couple of weeks he will reveal his call for the first special session of the Legislature he has promised. But this hasn’t been soon enough for a skeptical political class and his political opponents who keep pestering anybody who’ll listen how they think Jindal’s ideas about what he’ll do are too vague/not specific enough.

This befuddlement is caused by equal parts of their reluctance to accept that Jindal promises revolutionary developments because these run counter to their worldview concerning politics, and confusion over the difference between what Jindal says he’s going to try to do and how he’s going to try to do it. The former is crystal clear and already as a public service to these lost individuals already I have spelled out what Jindal has said on this. And in his latest interview on the subject, once again Jindal reiterated what he wants to do.

About the latter, I don’t know. And we’re not going to find out during his inaugural address tomorrow, and we won’t probably until the call itself actually comes out for the first presumed session on ethics and the second on spending issues. In fact, probably nobody except Jindal himself really knows these things and only he and his closest advisors will know prior to the calls and not long prior to the regular session – by design.

What Jindal does not want to happen by releasing a lot of details early is to allow opposition to form early with plenty of opportunity to resist his proposed policies – because there will be strident opposition to some of them. The more far-reaching elements of ethics reform (such as prohibitions on legislators and their families doing business with the state, lobbyist interactions, and the scope of coverage to local offices), the idea of tying all transportation-related revenues to transportation spending only, and changing the philosophy of the health care system from money-goes-to-the-institution to money-follows-the-person among others will generate significant resistance from the retrograde politicians and interests who like the state the way it is.

It’s no sign that Jindal is not “inclusive” enough – rest assured he’ll be looking to form winning coalitions in the new Legislature once he announced specific intended course of action, although that never will be “inclusive” enough to those who lose these public policy battles to him, and they will bray long and loud about that. It does indicate that Jindal knows he’s the one that can call the tune and he’ll call it at the point he thinks will maximize support and minimize the ability of opponents to counter.

By not being goaded into releasing policy details too early, already Jindal is showing he has the potential to push his agenda effectively. Opponents resent this, and supporters on this account must realize patience is a virtue.