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21.2.08

Legislators whiff trying to reach ethics gold standard

Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal wanted to go for the gold rather than titanium standard as far as ethics changes were concerned for state elected, appointed, and other public officials, perhaps as a bow to political reality. He certainly won’t get the titanium standard, and he may not even get the gold standard.

Louisiana’s legislators reared their obstinate heads yesterday and today in refusing to ban allowing family members on payrolls of political campaigns, in continuing to permit free tickets to be given to them by non-lobbyists for non-sporting events, passing on forbidding any expenditures for food and drink for state and local employees by setting the limit at $50 per occasion, and declining to outlaw contingency fees for lobbyists. Adding to that refusal to make campaign finance records collect data on donations from employees of corporate entities makes the silver standard the only certain achievable award to be given for this effort.

How fast government service can alter one’s thinking and priorities was shown through remarks by Republican freshman state Rep. Patrick Connick, who railed against the prohibition on family member employment by a campaign. He averred it was no business for the law to tell him on whom to spend his campaign money and said the voters could dun him if they didn’t like any potential employment of his relatives – conveniently forgetting that most expenditures made within the last 30 days of a campaigning do not get revealed until after the election, meaning voters might not find out about employment of a family member until after an election.

20.2.08

No delay needed for pension removal amendment

Not getting much attention as more far-reaching matters traverse the legislative course in this special session of the Louisiana Legislature is SB 17, which would enable the Legislature constitutionally to strip pension benefits from corrupt public servants. The main contention comes over how to deal impact on spouses and dependents and whether to act on it now.

The latter question popped up when it appeared the language of the special session call did not appear to allow for the enabling legislation to put this into practice to be discussed in the session. Some have argued the enabling legislation ought to be dealt with in tandem with the constitutional amendment, at least bringing it to the floor of either chamber (versions are in both) and taking their chances with a ruling from the presiding officer in terms of germaneness (which, if past declarations reveal anything, are fairly loosely-constructed). That option seems to have been rejected.

This affects the former consideration, since other arguments against SB 17 (and similar bills) are that, given the complexity of the issue, before voters who would have to approve the amendment get their chance on the item at the voting booth, they should have full information about the kind of law that would get passed relative to the entire question.

While most states already have laws mandating forfeiture of the state portion of a pension that also impacts the miscreants’ families, each state’s laws are different and measures have to be carefully designed tailored to each. For example, being that Louisiana is a community property state and exempts state employees from paying into Social Security unlike most states means ramifications of the change must be studied thoroughly.

Given the short term of the session, it might have been a good idea to leave the enabling legislation to the regular session in any event for a thorough vetting. Still, there’s no reason why a proposed constitutional amendment should not be approved now by the Legislature, especially since a vote on the amendment would not occur until this fall, after the Legislature has a chance to act on the enabling legislation during the regular session.

There are the usual suspect naysayers about the subject of yanking a pension from a felonious government employee with money vested in one of 13 state retirement systems, such as teachers’ unions who couldn’t care less about the children or taxpayers as long as they can transfer as much money as possible from the public to teachers. But the fact is, corrupt activities in government are carefully plotted and any measure to deter them that sticks in the minds of potential felons like loss of their government benefits will reduce incidence of this behavior and sustains the public good. SB 17 needs to come before the voters.

19.2.08

Legislators show feet of clay dragged by ethics reform

Legislators’ cowardice remained on full display yesterday as they made strenuous attempts to water down ethics legislation regarding removing the acceptance of up to $500 a year of free tickets from influence-seekers and in limiting meals to $50 per “occasion.”

These protestations both slowed the progress of such legislation and revealed the amazingly insular world in which some legislators apparently live, even as they argued in the case of the tickets which they often use to attend various events in their districts assisted them in actually meeting real constituents. And this isn’t even a total ban – it’s just tickets from those who wish to advocate something.

Perhaps that’s why Democrat Speaker Pro-Tem Karen Carter Peterson expressed that the legislation, SB 3, if not worded precisely, could threaten the amount of freebies she gets which she claimed would take her entire legislative base salary of $16,800 a year to pay for the tickets herself. Now, unless I’m missing the mark and underestimate the newlywed Peterson’s wit, charm, and good looks, my guess she wouldn’t get a fraction, or even any, of that value in free tickets if she weren’t in the legislature as second-in-command of the House. (Actually, as the new Speaker Pro-Tem, she’ll find her salary has about doubled.)

Isn’t this a problem, when a legislator basically matches her compensation through unregulated gifts even if they aren’t coming from the taxpayer? And while the donors of such tickets mostly never will be in a position of desiring influence, surely some will after the event in question which is not in and of itself unethical but the fact is none of this is regulated at this time – only when it involves an entity with a reasonable chance to wish to obtain influence.

In a world where legislators had courage, all free tickets, period, would be prohibited. But courageousness seldom defines the doings of the Louisiana Legislature and the present situation is no exception, so now there’s all this haggling over definitions to allow the free ticket ride, excepting influencers, to continue.

At least some over in the Senate do have some courage, as demonstrated by the approval of SB 19 by Democrat Sen. Ben Nevers that would not allow any lobbyist-paid meals, period, in contrast to the $50 standard, SB 8, being pushed by the leadership and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration. But even that $50 is subject to carping by spoiled legislators. As Democrat state Rep. Charmaine Marchand’s impoverished district struggles to recover from Hurricane Katrina, its legislator appears to be living high off the hog when she complains that the $50 limit would force her to eat fast food on lobbyists’ tabs. The stupidity of this assertion was noted by Democrat state Rep. Rick Gallot, who noted that this amount would be a night out for a family of four in the environs of Ruston (and, in fact, a big night out I can vouch from personal experience).

The ticket measure finally got out of committee today, even as legislators still were griping about how their legislative lives would become so crimped in not being able to take freebies and talking of altering the bill on the floor. When are these dunces going to learn that you don’t have to pop up at every glad-handing event to serve their constituents well? Or if that seems such an imperative, they can pay for the ducats themselves. Although perhaps a novel idea to some is that they could converse with constituents without having it tied into some extraneous event requiring tickets.

While the silver lining is these imperfect measures continue to move along the legislative process into law, the dark cloud is their doing so exposes ugly truths about the attitudes of too many legislators. Service to the public, not to themselves, too often gets forgotten by some.

18.2.08

Landrieu, others may decide fate of presidential election

In a contest looking to end up so close, every delegate counts and thus the spotlight is thrust upon Louisiana Democrat “superdelegates” in the decisions whether the national party choose Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama. And, just as many argue in the Republican case, the ultimate distinguishing issue between the two may come down to electability.

This is why Sen. John McCain apparently will carry the day in obtaining the GOP nomination, as several speakers exhorted during the party’s convention this weekend in Baton Rouge, despite being the candidate that on the whole deviated the most from conservatism and the wishes of the party base. This strategy also directly contradicts the party’s successful strategy in 2004: running relentlessly conservative messages (even as the candidate wasn’t completely conservative) designed to activate conservative voters in the belief that conservatives outnumber liberals.

That was correct and it worked. The problem with a McCain candidacy is the electability argument is but a half-truth. There simply are too many conservative activists out there only tenuously connected to the Republican Party who will look at McCain’s policies and past, understand he will deliver too frequently for liberals rather than conservatives, and decide that even as a Democrat president’s policies will bring needless harm and suffering to Americans, to a somewhat lesser extent so would McCain’s. They will figure this would discredit the only vehicle they have to bring conservatism into government, the GOP, so it would be better to allow a Democrat to come into the White House and tar that party for a generation as did Pres. Jimmy Carter in the hopes a refreshed conservatism and conservatives candidates like Pres. Ronald Reagan will emerge to create future conservative victories.

There’s only one thing that will change their minds, and that is to scare them with Clinton. Her veniality, core liberalism, but occasional penchant to sell out her principles for personal and political gain and long history demonstrating these things will make many consistent conservatives swallow hard and vote for McCain just because the destruction she could visit on Americans is so potentially great. Thus, McCain can beat Clinton thanks to enough conservatives voting not for him but against her.

But the same dynamic doesn’t exist in regards to Obama. Not only does he have little history with which to scare people (he in fact is more liberal than Clinton but has had just four years in the national spotlight to demonstrate it) he capitalizes on this as a reverse to Reagan: while Reagan had a gift for taking the complex verities of naturally-abstract conservatism and communicating them into concrete and identifiable policy prescriptions understood and supported by the majority, Obama has a gift of transforming the intellectually bankrupt, simplistic and half-baked musing of liberalism into vague, meaningless gibberish that inspires those who do not understand the human condition and/or who don’t deeply think at all.

It makes Obama appear messianic, or at the least non-threatening and this will fool enough people to give him the edge on McCain. It will dupe enough of the less-abstract-thinking conservatives, those who have grasped that conservatism properly understands the human condition but can’t explain why in great detail – exactly those Reagan was able to activate – into deferring from voting out of antipathy to McCain and feeling that Obama is not the threat that Clinton is.

Thus, the smart move for Democrats is to go with Obama, as longtime Clinton supporter Sen. Mary Landrieu seems to suggest when she argues the superdelegates from the state – who have nothing binding their commitments – should collectively vote in a way to reflect the state’s primary won by Obama. (This may also play into Landrieu’s spotty reelection chances, potentially presaging her vote in favor of Obama so she can be identified with him as he is more popular in the state among Democrats than Clinton.) Whether that can happen is another matter.

Just as Clinton’s long history creates the disadvantage of her seeming much more of a threat, it gives her the advantage of having an awful lot of chits to call in to get the superdelegates to support her. This is why she still has the advantage. Unless there is a decisive turn against her in the polls over the next month, she will win the nomination. As long as she runs no worse than parity with Obama, she’ll still be convincing that she has enough clout to call in these markers ands they will be the difference.

When the state Democrats meet on May 3, the situation should be enough resolved that it will be clear whether Clinton retained control of the party. Committed apportionments of delegates will be made there and the superdelegates (politically, not legally) will have to start committing. Especially among Landrieu and her kind, these should prove very interesting times.