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1.2.08

Jindal ethics plan good enough to encounter some trouble

Much anticipated, the call for the special session promised for months by Gov. Bobby Jindal is here and, as he had argued he wanted a “gold standard” of ethics laws, that’s what he produced, and he may get it out of the Legislature.

However, he didn’t ask for a titanium standard. That would have meant an outright ban on lobbyist gifts to and elected or appointed policy-maker and applying financial disclosure requirements to all without exclusions for jurisdictions of fewer than 5,000 (who under Jindal’s request will file general affidavits of fidelity). Still, gold is very good and denotes the top rank in things as varied as the Olympics and beer-tasting competitions.

The question now shifts to how much of it will find it way into law. Jindal set the session at three weeks – realistically 15 days given weekends unless that last Saturday gets requisitioned – which shows there’s a lot to do and there will be some controversy. Some items have come up before with varying degrees of progress – a ban on free tickets to events involving sports (in the past almost all) and culture (and barely any instances), offering a constitutional amendment to have forfeited taxpayer-paid portions of pensions if an official is convicted of a crime related to public service, and prohibition of legislators from changing votes made on the floor after disposition of a bill (still practiced in the House of Representatives). Of course, none ever succeeded in getting made into law or rule.

Now, these all ought to go through. Of the first two, with so many new legislators in the House having no exposure to the benefits of free tickets and (most of them) not having acquired any vesting towards a state pension, House majorities on these should be sufficient to put too much pressure on the more-veteran senators who will be more resistant. As for the third, the veteran nature of the Senate probably would lead to its defeat – except the rule already is present in the Senate, and the many new House members never having taken advantage of a switch have little loyalty to the existing rule allowing them to do that.

Also expect the request to extend reporting requirements to candidates for office to get enacted. These legislators will take the attitude that if they have to follow more stringent requirements as elected officials, so ought their future opponents – maybe discouraging some quality challengers to them. And they’ll fall over themselves trying to put into law the item preventing all statewide and legislative candidates, not just those presently in those offices as is current law, from conducting fundraising during legislative sessions.

Where Jindal might find his requests the most endangered are those dealing with the ability of legislators, spouses, siblings, parents, and companies in which they have any “interest” (what portion of ownership of an entity is an “interest” is left undefined, but Jindal may mean any ownership whatsoever) for any retail contract over $2,500. This has been a gravy train for some legislators (does state Sen. Francis and brother Michael Thompson ring a bell here?) as has legislators acting as “consultants,” another item set to stop this, so these could be fought tooth-and-nail especially in the veteran Senate. Also in this category would be the requiring of nongovernmental who get money grooved to them by legislators to turn in for public inspection details about them; such earmarks have been popular with a significant number of legislators.

Of course, the success of the package will depend upon details, like what is an “interest” in an entity, or what details are requested of the entities that get earmarks, or what and how many ranges are used with the disclosure forms. If Jindal can get all of this passed without much watering-down in these details, Louisiana will have a very good ethics code and Jindal will have delivered successfully on a major campaign promise.

31.1.08

GOP favorite to retain special election House seats

Qualifying for the two special elections for U.S. House in Louisiana are over, and conservative Republicans are immediate favorites to take both seats.

That’s not such a bold statement concerning the First District. Vacated by Gov. Bobby Jindal who won overwhelmingly both times out, the winner of the Republican primary in March or April would have to become incapacitated prior to the April or May general election in order for a Democrat to win. The three major Republicans – state Sen. Steve Scalise, state Rep. Tim Burns, and Slidell Mayor Ben Morris – are very likely to pursue conservative policies in the House.

Scalise would be favored among the three. Not only has he served in elective office longest but he has been the most high profile of the three and has picked up some heavyweight endorsements. Further aiding him is that Burns and Morris are northshore candidates, splitting that vote potentially and leaving the southshore entirely to Scalise. It’s not likely Scalise can win without a runoff with Burns being the more likely opponent, but he should be able to get past his former state House colleague in April.

The Sixth District in contrast might have been more competitive but the dynamics in the Democrat primary may hand the election to the Republicans. Louis “Woody” Jenkins would be the favorite on the GOP side because of much more name recognition and past campaign acumen. Many still recall how he beat more prominent Republicans to come within a few thousand votes of winning the U.S. Senate seat still held by Mary Landrieu (and most won’t remember how he waged a futile protracted battle to overturn the decision which cost him support in his failed run to win the old elections commissioner job in 1999.)

It will be difficult for his two other major opponents to outdistance a longtime fixture on the Baton Rouge and state media and politics scenes with an impeccably conservative reputation. Jenkins could win without a runoff.

Despite knowing that demographics make it impossible for a non-conservative black candidate to win this district, two quality black candidates signed up to run on the Democrat side of the ledger along with two major white candidates. Jason Decuir came within double digits in votes of knocking off prominent former state House member state Sen. Yvonne Dorsey last fall, an impressive showing for a first-timer despite that power broker former state Sen. Cleo Fields supported Dorsey. The other black Democrat isn’t chopped liver, state Rep. Michael Jackson, but whether he can beat DeCuir depends upon how much animus Fields and his political machine feels towards DeCuir and whether that means Fields will actively support Jackson.

Major white candidates are state Rep. Don Cazayoux and former government official under the previous two governors Andy Kopplin. Between these two, Cazayoux has the edge because of his lengthy and relatively uncontroversial legislative service while Kopplin will be associated with the negatives of both the Kathleen Blanco and Mike Foster Administrations which will outweigh any praise from his work on recovery issues, even if he can more easily draw upon votes from the urban parts of the district than Cazayoux from New Roads.

But since all four are running together, really interesting dynamics could occur. Given extant campaign organizations, the propensity for whites to cross over racially to vote for black candidates at higher rates than blacks for whites, and that many white Democrats will not vote because they would prefer to vote in the Republican primary but cannot, it is not inconceivable that both black candidates will make the runoff, retaining the district for sure for the GOP. Even if a white candidate emerges to contest the general election, the ferocity and drain of resources of his getting there might preclude him from winning. This is the kind of district where everything has to go right for a Democrat to win, and the candidate lineup doesn’t make it look like that will happen.

These are early speculations, mind you, and much still can happen. But the most likely scenario is two GOP retentions.

30.1.08

Savoie requests show resistance to Jindal agenda

Just what kind of game are Louisiana higher education systems playing in regard to the hiring freeze implemented by Gov. Bobby Jindal? The executive order mandates that state agencies obtain exemption to hire in any open position, since Jan. 15, from Commissioner of Administration Angèle Davis.

While the Louisiana State University system won approval for the one blanket exemption, to hire direct providers of health care in the charity hospital system that it runs, Davis has rejected two other requests from Commissioner of Higher Education (soon to parachute into the presidency of the University of Louisiana- Lafayette) Joseph Savoie, first a blanket exemption for any university hiring, then one adjudged by university heads not Davis just turned down by Davis.

While all of this jockeying from higher education has gone on, other agencies have been dutifully compiling the data and getting exemptions – one of them being Savoie’s employer, the Board of Regents itself. In the meantime, Savoie has been complaining about having universities do the same – and not always recounting his case for blanket exemptions in an accurate way.

In a letter to Davis the day after the inauguration, Savoie wrote “More importantly perhaps, it would send a signal throughout the entire academic community that Louisiana is not a state upon which faculty, researchers and top-flight administrators can depend for good faith recruitment efforts.” If he believes this, it shows that despite his dozen years in his position and almost two decades in higher education prior to that, Savoie hasn’t learned a whole lot about faculty hiring in higher education. Position freezes are not at all uncommon for job applicants to deal with and they are not seen as unusual nor automatic disqualifiers of a prospective employer precisely because they are so common.

Later, Savoie argued that the freeze would affect hiring for adjunct positions. Adjuncts instructors are hired on a course-by-course basis to fill in gaps not able to be covered by the full-time faculty members. But unless I have totally missed something in the wording of the order, the freeze doesn’t apply to adjunct positions because they are temporary and part-time.

We also have to understand to context of the complaints Savoie is making. Remember that Jindal knows full well how higher education works, having led the University of Louisiana system. He probably knows that, in fact, the process of re-justifying new faculty positions is probably easier than what most other agencies face. In academia, new faculty jobs are created at the behest of academic departments who provide evidence of the need of the position – burgeoning enrollments, for example – which then must be approved by a chain of command all the way to the system level before any hiring can begin. This means most of the work Davis is requesting already has been done.

In other words, if Savoie would just give the order to system presidents, universities could take out their old documentation, maybe update them slightly (if they would need to at all), and then send them up the chain eventually to Davis. It’s just not that difficult to do. And, while I’m at the very bottom of the academic food chain, I’ve heard nothing come from the Regents or the system level at my university to do this while Savoie pursues this quixotic quest. Why can’t both, blanket requests and specific requests, be done at once?

So why is Savoie digging in his heels so much? The answer comes from Jindal’s oft-stated goal of making universities in the state more outcome-oriented, focusing not so much on inputs (money, students attending, etc.) but on outputs (degrees awarded, graduation rates, and the like). The very first step in implementing this sea change in philosophy is to align human resources with desired outcomes – and Savoie, not just as outgoing leader of higher education but also as incoming university head, fears this larger agenda (as probably does his employer the Regents and the university system boards they oversee).

Davis has publicly stated that she would give great deference to university hiring, and I’m willing to predict that over 90 percent of such requests she’ll end up approving. However, she will make approvals with the realigning agenda in mind focusing on “critical” needs. And the university administrative culture, for the most part insulated in its own world, is such that it disdains any interference and resists change. The easiest way to accomplish this goal facing this crisis is to ask for a blanket exemption to help blunt realignment. So that’s why Savoie would rather throw up artificial barriers than get down to business like other state agencies have that would aid Jindal in his initial effort to imprint his agenda on Louisiana higher education.

29.1.08

"Article VI" good to see before casting primary vote

An interesting addition to the political landscape that connects to politics in Louisiana is the documentary film “Article VI” co-directed by Bryan Hall and co-produced by former Shreveporter Reed Dickens the statewide premier of which occurred Monday at LSUS. It raises provocative questions that, among others around the country, Louisiana voters will have to grapple with over the upcoming days as votes are cast in the presidential preference primary.

Its timing and content contributes to the debate about the next occupant of the White House (the goal of the film, Hall and Dickens say, to make people think about how religious belief affects these choices) because the 2008 presidential election seems to be producing the most specific questioning of particular religious beliefs of candidates in recent memory. To be simplistic if not crass, major candidates include one whose religion just over a century ago practiced polygamy, another who has preached Bible inerrancy, a third who was in his youth educated in schools whose religious backers maintain the acceptability of holy war, and a fourth whose religious leaders forbid him to receive Communion.

Perhaps the central point made by the film through the vehicle of asking people, usually with some prominence in the political, academic, or religious sectors, about the intersection of religion and politics (its title refers to that section of the Constitution which states “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”) is that, while the Constitution does not demand a religious test, some people do supply one when they evaluate candidates. Related to this, it then begs the question whether a myopic view of the specific religious beliefs of individuals would, in the minds of some, disqualify candidates who in most every other respect would gain that particular person’s vote.

By way of example, Pres. Ronald Reagan was divorced (only the second president ever) and, until latter in life, only an occasional attendee of Presbyterian services (he seldom attended services during his presidency because of the public complications and distractions involved). Yet Reagan, who would describe himself as “born-again,” was well-known for forcefully championing a number of issue preferences that Christians, particularly evangelicals, liked and in his private life placed much emphasis on basing his own actions on religious belief.

In contrast, Pres. Bill and his wife, now presidential candidate and Sen. Hillary Clinton were regular attendees of (a very liberal) church in Washington (although they had attended a Baptist church in Arkansas). Yet many faithful questioned not only Clinton’s issue preferences that did not seem very Godly to them, but also acts in his personal life as president as well.

It’s this question about how voters consider the translation of the political beliefs of candidates into actual policy that looms as presidential party nominees are decided. To cite just one example, on issues that matter to Christians one prominent pro-evangelical organization gives high praise to former Gov. Mitt Romney even as it asserts Romney “admitted” his Mormonism was not a “Christian” religion – an inference the Romney campaign says is not accurate. Even if the organization appears to be reticent to appear as granting approval of Romney’s specific religious beliefs, it has no such hesitation concerning his campaign.

Especially for Republican voters in a state which on the one hand is a fertile ground for Protestant evangelical beliefs but on the other hand displays a fair degree of religious tolerance because of the presence of a substantial Catholic population, Louisiana will serve as one of the more interesting laboratories of how people’s perceptions of the prominence of a candidate’s specific religious beliefs play out in their vote decisions. In fact, on the GOP side it may make the difference in who wins the most delegates – especially if things work out so convention delegates a week after the primary end up making that apportionment. “Article VI” would make some good watching for them as they pondered that decision.

28.1.08

Hypocritical BR Advocate chides Jindal for what it does

Lest one think the Shreveport Times has the only hypocritical editorialists of newspapers in the state, the Baton Rouge Advocate showed it doesn’t want to be left out when discussing media that says one thing and then does another.

The Advocate, joining the head of the state’s Democrats, took a shot at Gov. Bobby Jindal and his campaign staff that, by all accounts, made an inadvertent, incorrect entry on campaign finance documents. The state GOP spent money on the campaign’s behalf in June but campaign operatives overlooked to note it on the next filing due in June. In August, they were alerted to it and amended their previous form in September. However, this was too late to escape a fine which will be levied in the next few months.

Democrat Chairman Chris Whittington, with so little for his party to crow about last fall, took the opportunity to ask that Jindal’s chief of staff Timmy Teepell resign over the matter, prompting Jindal’s communications director Melissa Sellers to describe the request as “silly” and that the process that led to the complaint was a “political stunt.”