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6.3.08

Water privatization may undo NW LA politicians' folly

During Christmas, people think about getting gifts in their stockings. A week afterwards, both Shreveport and Bossier City gave their citizens lumps of coals with water rate hikes that, with enlightened leadership, could have been avoided.

In Shreveport, the increases are just the latest in a series designed to fix the crumbling infrastructure of the water and sewerage system, and they will continue in the coming years. Of course, had the city not blown approaching $200 million combined on a convention center that continues to underperform and a hotel that hasn’t even yet met paying the interest on its debt, much less the principle, these problems already could have been addressed without pumping more money out of water users. (Although almost none of the decision-makers that perpetrated these white elephants onto Shreveporters continue in office to deal with them today.)

In Bossier City, the issue is different but the folly remains identical. About $77 million is going to expand the system – almost the exact cost of a money-losing arena courtesy of a previous set of council members and, with a few changes its composition and the promotion to his present office of Mayor Lo Walker, that of a parking garage for the Louisiana Boardwalk that the developer would have paid for. “It's always tough to raise rates. But we're poised for huge economic growth. It's imperative we build the infrastructure we need,” said member David Montgomery which begs the question why he wasn’t thinking like this years ago when he and his free-spending compatriots on the council voted to give away $21 million for the garage.

5.3.08

Unions criticize Jindal, defend poor educational outcomes

The most controversial aspect of the upcoming special session of the Louisiana Legislature is (by relative standards) a paltry $20 million on allowing a 50 percent tax deduction for up to $5,000 in private school tuition parents pay per child. Predictably, it has drawn opposition from the biggest impediments from improving education in the state, teachers’ unions.

One the on hand, you can’t blame these troglodytes for reacting predictably according to their essences. Teachers’ unions don’t care about educating children and they don’t care how well it’s done, because all they do care about is transferring as much taxpayer money to their members as possible while making their members’ jobs as easy as possible, regardless of the damage they do to the educational system.

But on the other hand, far too much is at stake to allow these antediluvian attitudes to drive public policy. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s idea breaks from them, even in just a minor way, by making more likely the one thing these organizations fear: actual competition. By making it easier for families to send children (or to home school them) outside of the public school monopoly, the marketplace will force improvement on public schools in order for them to continue to receive the lavish government largesse they currently get.

This is idea that there will have to be more competence coming from teachers provokes two reactions from unions. One is hysteria: Jindal’s plan is just a small, diluted step in the direction of greater competition. Think about it: at the ceiling and maximum state tax rate the amount of benefit to a family is only $150 per child which does not provide a whole lot of incentive to abandon public schools. Nor does it in any way, as one wild-eyed union head alleged, shift focus away from public to private schools: no extra money is going to non-public schools, while public schools are getting funded at record levels – and Jindal is even proposing a raise which (naturally) unions say is too little.

Yet unions react as if this is doomsday because they know it inevitably will lead to more comprehensive measures to set up competition, and they know two things then must happen: either teachers (and their schools) will have to do a more competent job of teaching, meaning better preparation and greater effort on their part, or private schools, who have the better teachers precisely because of competition, will begin to suck away students and cost public school teachers their jobs.

This leads to the second reaction, disavowal that the problem exists in the first place of lower quality instruction which could be improved through competition. Union bosses sniff that poor student achievement in Louisiana is not a result of that, when in fact statistics from an anti-voucher organization show otherwise.

Among the categories in its “Quality Counts” annual survey, Education Week magazine, which put Louisiana 47th among the states in student achievement, lists standards and accountability on which the state ranks second, the teaching profession (state efforts to attract, develop, and deploy talent in education) on which the state ranks fifth, and school finance which ranks in the middle at 25th. So it seems Louisiana is near the top in terms of structures to bring success, and at least is adequately funded. So if the elements for success are there already provided by the state yet achievement is so low, a big part of the problem is inability to take those resources and creating student achievement – in other words, the schools and the teachers themselves. (Because it does well in some categories, overall the magazine ranks Louisiana 21st.)

Ironically, not only should public schools welcome this initiative, they ought to demand things way beyond this like full-blown vouchers. One facile complaint the educational establishment often makes is that more talented students have better access to private schools, leaving disproportionately worse students in public schools which gets reflected in ratings and spreads resources thinner. But if a voucher system was implemented, poorer families who tend to have lower-achieving children would have improved access to private schools, thus correcting the “imbalance” the educational establishment claims exists.

Apparently, more than sufficient resources and pretty good pay aren’t lighting a fire under Louisiana public schools to do a better job. There’s no way the introduction of competition can make the situation worse, regardless what defenders of a broken system bleat.

4.3.08

Jindal takes risks in surplus special session call

The call for the 2008 Second Extraordinary Session of the Louisiana Legislature as issued by Gov. Bobby Jindal contains some great ideas, but also some risks for the governor as he tries to do what’s right for the state and build some political capital for the most difficult battles to come.

The call contains two types of items. One deals with the distribution of a $1.088 billion surplus from past budget years into items that are pretty uncontroversial and will end up largely the way he desires them. The remainder, exclusive of a few business tax reductions with popular support, contains a couple of riskier items that, if he does not succeed, might impair his ability to make bigger changes during the regular session.

One is stating legislation will be forthcoming dedicating vehicle sales taxes to transportation capital expenditures. The call allows from legislation shifting nay transportation-related revenues from the general fund to only transportation-related capital outlays. At “only” $30 million, it is less than tenth of the overall revenues collected from transportation-related revenues, but appears to be the advance guard of an all-out effort to shift all of them over. The Jindal Administration may be figuring that it has to get the Legislature to swallow a small portion of the shift, which will mean reduced revenues for spending on other recurring expenditures in state government, before it will take the whole package. But a failure on this now might imperil a move involving everything later.

The other is even riskier, opening up the session to deal with a surplus of recurring revenues of nearly $1 billion that Jindal already has said will be used for many other purposes, in order to deal with, besides the business tax breaks, a specific piece of legislation for “individual income tax deduction for tuition associated with attendance at elementary and secondary schools and for qualified educational expenses for parents of home-schooled students.” This is an attempt to provide tax credits for students schooled in private schools or at home, and while a good reform to improve education in the state, will be bitterly resisted by teachers unions and others who are vested in promoting their members interests rather than better education.

This part of the call also could open the door to a number of other proposals to spend funds on recurring items, but Jindal no doubt will inform legislators vetoes will come the way of bills of this kind that do not match his philosophy. Still, if the specific item for which the call addresses does not pass, again this could diminish Jindal’s power to get bigger things through in the regular session.

The absolute safe play would have been to restrict the session only to the non-recurring revenues. Opening it up to more shows Jindal is willing to play a little bigger in the hopes of winning bigger down the road. But it also potentially means bigger losses if he can’t pull these off before the end of the month.

3.3.08

Unexciting, but needed LA accountability reforms wait

Reform runs strongly in the veins of the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration, as its efforts on ethics and budgeting already reveal. So there’s no need not to extend its reach into a couple of procedural areas of legislative business that will increase the accountability of state government.

One involves a minor step taken during the recently-concluded ethics special session that provided a kind of brake on the practice of vote changing in the Louisiana House of Representatives. Past rules allowed a member to change his vote on a matter if notifying the body prior to the end of the legislative day and it did not change the outcome of the vote. This permitted members to vote tactically to please both sides of arguments, attempting to create conditions where they got the outcome they wanted but for the record casting a vote for the opposite, blurring accountability.

House Speaker Jim Tucker, with Jindal’s blessing, pushed through a rule to minimize this, but the rule will not stop it completely because it makes the motion to change debatable and still permitted automatically if nobody asks for debate. Why not go with the Senate rule which completely forbids the motion? Surely a reform-minded chamber such as the House demonstrated itself to be should approve of this in the regular session.

Of much greater monetary concern and one applying to both chambers is the capital budgeting process. The state’s Constitution by statute caps the amount of money the state may spend on capital outlays utilizing tax supported debt. But the Legislature routinely loads up its capital outlay bill far in excess of that amount, thereby defaulting a final decision on what gets approved by what gets put forward to the State Bond Commission which in practical terms means the governor has the final say given the presence of his allies appointed by him or from elsewhere on the Commission. This invites the political proclivities of the governor to have disproportionate determination of the final budget.

This is not to say that politics isn’t involved in budgeting: quite the contrary, governmental budgeting is entirely a political exercise. The problem comes in the blurring of lines of accountability, because legislators can claim they voted for and got put into the budget certain items to enhance their reelection prospects, yet substantively the real party responsible for budgeting in large part then becomes the governor.

A simple reform would be in legally dictating that only a certain proportion of funds reflecting the maximum allowed new debt can be parceled out, with perhaps a smaller fraction available as a “bullpen” of projects that could be funded if a successful line-item veto or Bond Commission refusal opens up money to be spent. This would take away the governor’s opportunity to favor some projects over others, but still allow him to remove projects he found obnoxious (provided there is no line-item veto override over them, which in fact never has happened).

In practical terms, that would remove some political power from the hands of Jindal. But his commitment to more rational government reflecting priorities of the whole rather than of special interests ought to encourage his backing of such a reform, similar ones of which have been proposed in the past on more than one occasion.

While not as flashy as some other reforms that draw more publicity, nonetheless these are a pair that should be pursued by Jindal and his legislative leaders.