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16.2.08

Some using reform against itself and its backers

Some bills wending their ways through the legislative process give us insight into the agendas of the good-old-boys and others who try to smile through clenched teeth at the efforts of reformers led by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal to steer the state away from its populist/liberal past. Bills sponsored by one of those forcing a smile on his face, Democrat state Sen. Ben Nevers, are instructive in this regard.

In practice, his SB 19 is great. It goes beyond already-approved legislation that would allow $50 only per consumption opportunity for legislators by setting it to zero (which is the standard in several states). He’s right when he argues its better than the $50 limit in that it would reduce paperwork with no necessity to report expenditures to show they were under the limit. And there’s no reason lobbyists can’t conduct business outside of a restaurant or bar.

But when viewing other legislation of his, one wonders whether he really means this bill as a poison pill – getting his bill passed out of the Senate instead of the other set to $50 and then give the House the chance to rebel against going from all to nothing thus by rejecting his leaving the standard at any amount goes. This is because other bills of his seem designed to get back at reformers in the name of reform while exacting a terrible price on political rights.

His SB 23 originally was to prevent anybody who contributed to a campaign of an elected official, of any amount, from being appointed to a position in government. This bill was bad enough, forcing people who wish to serve in government to abrogate their free speech rights. In various ways government is permitted to limit free speech rights such as by capping amounts of donations or by prohibiting them entirely if the entity of concern is in certain regulated enterprises, but there simply is no compelling governmental interest in putting such limitations on the exercise of peoples’ political rights.

(The uninformed try to argue that contributions “buy” an office, but in fact not only does research show that simply is not the case, but intuitively such an assertion is illogical – the vast majority of large donors don’t get appointments, and many non-donors do. This doesn’t mean donations can’t be factor, but that their influence is so modest to nonexistent that curtailment of free speech rights simply cannot be justified.)

However, amendments he permitted to it really show where his true interests lie. The most current version of the bill passed out of committee places the stricture only on donors (and their family members, and principles of corporations in which they have an interest except for those publicly traded) who give at least $2,500 in an election cycle.

So, that implies that if you give $2,499.99 or less somehow this doesn’t taint your donation, but add a cent and suddenly it means you’re trying to buy an appointment? It should be equally as “bad” whether it’s one cent or $5,000, if there’s any principle at all involved here. And note that by law this now restricts the officials to which it would apply – unless it is exactly $2,500, it would apply only to “major” offices, basically statewide elected officials and those elected to state boards.

This points to the real agenda of supporters of the bill – to get back at Jindal for making government less of a potential gravy train for public officials. And given the disingenuousness of the backers of SB 23, it then brings to question their motives about SB 19 if they, like obviously Nevers, back the bill, too. Hopefully, reformers will see what SB 23 really is and defeat it, while foiling the poison pill strategy by passing SB 19.

14.2.08

Process to, not nominee, shapes Landrieu's chances

It’s refreshing to see that the media and other interested political observers finally have caught on to what I observed many months ago – that Sen. Mary Landrieu’s reelection chances are going to be significantly reduced if Sen. Hillary Clinton gets the Democrats’ nomination for president.

Simply, given the dynamics of Louisiana’s political scene – and now especially since a serious challenger in the form of Republican state Treasurer John Kennedy has committed to the contest – Landrieu is on thin ice to get reelected with Clinton at the top of the ticket. When somebody has about half the American public not wanting to vote for her under any circumstances, it’s bound to trickle down and harm under-ballot candidates across the country.

Whether Sen. Barack Obama was the party’s nominee would help Landrieu is another matter, at best marginally. While Obama would do better than Clinton in a matchup against presumptive GOP nominee Sen. John McCain because he is the “magic Negro” prepared to give some white voters a chance to assuage their “white guilt,” that also is unlikely to trickle down very much to assist her since that magic will be contained mostly to perceptions about him.

Still, the fact is that McCain on his own will not activate conservatives to show up at the polls to vote for him and for other Republican nominees. Obama won’t do much to activate them against himself no matter how well publicized his liberal voting record is, but Clinton could get them riled to vote against her. For that reason, Landrieu should prefer that Obama carry the flag for the party in November even if his extreme liberalism will not limit much the losses sustained compared to Clinton as the nominee.

While the hypothesis that black voters, a voting base for Landrieu, would be activated by an Obama candidacy, is credible it can be overstated. If Clinton wraps up the nomination prior to the convention, she will rack up a similar number of black voters in the fall as would have Obama. But if it turns into an open convention with a floor fight for the Democrat nomination, the bitterness of a potential Obama defeat might discourage black voters from going to the polls and once there supporting Landrieu in November. Otherwise, expect a similar black turnout for either candidate, which Landrieu hopes is as high as can be.

So while it’s too simplistic to argue that one or the other Democrat presidential nominee will hurt Landrieu’s chances more, more pertinent is that either nominee is going to hurt Landrieu’s chances, and how much damage done will depend upon how bitter the nomination struggle is for the Democrats’ nominee for the presidency.

13.2.08

Whining legislators remind of need for LA ethics reform

Just as some opponents of Gov. Bobby Jindal have been using scare tactics to try to paint the governor as a hypocrite on the issue of ethics reform, as the special session devoted to the issue moves along, some legislators are beginning to scare people to dilute the whole effort surrounding reform.

While some (careful) carping has come from obvious suspects, such as state Sen. Joe McPherson who earns much of his livelihood from government, other complaints have registered from lawmakers who typically have shown a much better grasp of what is the real purpose of government and the role of elected officials within it. For example, state Sen. Mike Walsworth rapidly seems to be earning a solid reputation of speaking out of both sides of his mouth on the issue thereby demonstrating he doesn’t seem very connected to the typical citizen.

In one venue, we hear Walsworth saying of the ethics package “I think most of what I've seen is common sense,” and “I think the elected officials want it, too. We want to get this monkey off our backs.” But when it comes to the actual debate over the package, Walsworth’s rhetoric has illustrated one of the secondary goals the package seeks to accomplish, bringing elected officials back to reality and in touch with the people.

We witness Walsworth whining that the proposal to eliminate free tickets for officials to anything will hurt his ability to be a legislator and “I don’t want to get so far into ethics that we can’t do our jobs.” Next, in what appears to be a poison pill strategy to water down provisions against legislators he laments that another proposal that would limit spending on a public employee to $50 an occasion will mean a “mom and dad couldn't take their child's teacher out to say 'thank you' if her bill comes to over $50,” no doubt knowing that there’s no way a workable law can be created that would impose that limit on some government employees and not on others.

My advice to Walsworth is that he just suck it up and learn to live like the rest of us, both those or are or are not employed by government in some capacity. Does Walsworth seriously think it’s part of his job to get offered free passes to every baseball game, car and boat show, boudin festival, and back-slapping, flesh-pressing event? You know, if he really wants to attend these, if they are really so crucial to his being a legislator, he could just buy a ticket like everybody else. And if that’s too much of a strain on his bank account (which is what he implies), I’d recommend he find another way to serve the public.

And is Walsworth so dense that he doesn’t understand you can show appreciation to a public servant without on the behalf of the celebrant ordering every course at Don’s, Ruth’s Chris, or Commander’s Palace? During testimony on that bill, Sen. Pres. Joel Chaisson put in their places Walsworth and those who think a $50 limit is an intolerable burden by which to limit government employees by remarking “Legislators were going out and buying $100 to $150 bottles of wine. Unlimited expense is simply not acceptable.”

While the ethics package will have the very obvious and salutary effect of reducing opportunities for corruption, it also will have the benefit of reminding officials that government service isn’t about getting perks. And that’s why we can expect to hear more trivial sniping about it from some legislators over the next couple of weeks.

11.2.08

Ethics enforcement change criticism part of larger agenda

As the Louisiana Legislature dives into the ethics special session summoned by Gov. Bobby Jindal, a clever if not disingenuous sort of opposition has emerged against him piggybacked onto that very issue of ethics. It represents the opening salvo of anti-Jindal opponents attempting to diminish his political power.

Very overtly has been the issue of a campaign finance report oversight by Jindal’s campaign. Jindal’s adversaries in both the media and Democrat Party jumped on that in a rush to try to tarnish Jindal’s reputation on ethics. Mind you, the campaign received no assistance illegally, it just failed to report an expense on its behalf and corrected it but tardily, bending over backwards not to contest it and to pay the fine as quickly as possible. (And ironically, the Democrat who made the biggest fuss about it, Chairman Chris Whittington, a month later looks to be out of a job since he lost election to the party’s state central committee last weekend.)

More covertly has been criticism about one special session item call which would revamp the procedures involved in judging and enforcing ethics violations. This item would separate the investigatory and enforcement aspects, with the state’s Ethics Board essentially pressing charges, and then impartial administrative law judges hearing the case and deciding a sentence if guilt is established.

This is a fairer system, used already in 10 states. Not only would it put the eventual decision in the hands of individuals hired for their expertise through the merit-based civil service who cannot be pressured politically in their decision-making, but it takes it out of the hands of inexpert political appointees who act as investigator, judge, and jury. In short, it is an improvement over the current arrangement.

For example, a hearing may be conducted by somebody in a state civil service job who is appointed by merit and in all likelihood will possess a law degree (something in short supply on the current Ethics Board). Going up the administrative line (according to the relevant bill, HB 41 vesting the judges in the Department of State Civil Service’s Division of Administrative Law), this person’s boss would be a gubernatorial appointee (with Senate confirmation) of a fixed six-year term independent of the governor’s who cannot be fired by the governor. Part of the director’s job is to assign judges to cases. Overall, it is a system that promotes expertise and leaves little room for politics.

Yet in almost Orwellian fashion, some have gone on the record asserting the reform actually will make matters worse, regardless of the fact that it works elsewhere, that it increases expertise, and decreases politicization of the process. Amazingly – indicating either ignorance of the alternative or revealing their true motives are simply to oppose Jindal whenever and wherever on whatever – some of these critics have long lambasted the current Ethics Board yet when an obvious improvement in the ethics administration process comes about they somehow argue it is a step backwards. What’s it going to be, either political consideration plays too much of a role already, or it doesn’t and this change will?

As surrealistically, current chairman of the Ethics Board Hank Perret has joined in his criticism saying the DAL director, thus by extension the governor, can influence the process – as if the current board isn’t composed of political appointees such as himself who have much more influence over the current process with much less insulation from politics and personal agendas. Fear of loss of power and prestige, rather than a genuine desire to improve the process, seems a better explanation for his opinion.

As noted previously, much of the conflict that will occur during the ethics session outside issues of monetary and power enrichment by legislators will concern how the session’s outcomes will impact the power Jindal can use to fulfill an agenda which he promised would radically change the state’s philosophy regarding the size and priorities of government. Many opponents of that think that a little cut here trying to paint Jindal as insincere on ethics reform combined with other little cuts elsewhere will bring his overall overhaul efforts to a bloody halt. It is just the first of many tests Jindal can expect to receive.

10.2.08

More than ethics at stake for Jindal at special session

Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal gave a pep talk to the troops hankering for ethics reform as well as a plea, and challenge, to the legislators who have to make it happen at the opening of the 2008 First Extraordinary Session of the Legislature. Despite strong support from many quarters, meaningful ethics reform in politics is by no means a “slam dunk” for Jindal and its proponents because of two forces that don’t want to see much in the way of changes – those for whom the changes would cramp their style, and those who don’t want to see Jindal off to a good start.

While those who would not like tougher standards are far fewer than those who do, those who don’t have disproportionate power in the process, for the most part legislators themselves and special interests whose machinations are aided by reduced transparency. Some of what Jindal calls the “squealing hogs” merely voice code- and carefully worded opposition, while others take more active measures to try to make the attempt look farcical.

For a specific example for the former, when Democrat maiden state Rep. Rosalind Jones – whose father in the Legislature drew 11 ethics rebukes – complains that legislators who hold contractual relationships that could be outlawed under these reforms should be grandfathered in, it’s a veiled jab at the entire idea, but one she knows is probably too popular for her to defeat. For a general example, we can views Democrat state Sen. Joe McPherson’s whining that “It’s the oddest call I’ve ever seen as far as the specificity of it. This is another governor who says, ‘It’s my way or the highway’” – a sentiment directly contradicted by other legislators such as Republican House leader state Rep. Jane Smith who said the administration’s willingness to work with the Legislature is one reason she believes Jindal’s package will pass.

The latter group is represented by the likes of Democrat state Sen. Ben Nevers, who has offered legislation (SB 20) that would prevent elected officials from running from another elective office and another (SB 23) that would prohibit the governor from appointing anybody to anything who contributed to his campaign. The former serves absolutely no ethical purpose and the latter is a deliberate attempt to discourage exercise of free speech rights. These will go nowhere, and then some of the hogs will create a straw man criticism that governor either isn’t serious enough about reform, or that their extreme bills are the logical extensions of his ideas and that such extremism of ideas should be defeated.

Looking towards a global perspective, there are those who want to make sure Jindal politically gains little luster from the session because they want to reduce his power for the future. Strategically, Jindal’s move to have the session is crafty. He picked a subject area with widespread popular support as the first opportunity to legislate for many, especially in the House with rookies comprising over half of it, many of whom evoked ethics in their campaigns – and who have not seen the temptations that lax ethics standards could entice them into opposition. If Jindal can get at least half of the agenda the way he wants and the other half in a semblance of the way he wants, his power will magnify for the next contemplated special session on economics and the regular session, which will feature the slaughtering of a lot of sacred cows for which he’ll need all the power he can get.

So there will be a struggle only partially related to the specific content of the ethical reforms. By design, a larger conflict will play out with ethics as the battlefield – but the place of conflict chosen by Jindal, which will give him an advantage in the long term. As long as the majority of Jindal’s agenda is not defeated or is diluted into near-vapidity, he wins this battle and gains advantage in the larger conflicts ahead. Otherwise, he may have trouble living up to high expectations that have formed around his governorship.