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20.3.08

Capital punishment prohibition would cost LA lives

Young and energetic state Rep.Walker Hines has a good idea in HB 432 which would limit lobbyist emoluments for food and rink for legislators to $50 a day from the present (presumably) $150 per day. If only his HB 323 which would outlaw capital punishment was as well-substantiated and as clearly considered.

Democrat Hines thinks that the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent. "We have to err on the side of life," he says, and is also anti-abortion. But clearly he does not know the research involving the death penalty because to err on the side of life, you must favor capital punishment simply because study after study for 40 years has shown it does deter murders at rate exceeding rate of commission of the sentence.

By definition, first-degree murder is a premeditated crime (leaving out the other two instances allowed under Louisiana law for imposition of capital punishment, aggravated rape of a child 13 or younger, and treason even though both also appear to assume premeditation). Human beings are assumed to be behaving rationally in premeditation is proven, so for that reason they respond to incentives and disincentives. Knowledge that plotting and executing a murder can cost you your life simply will deter some people, as these studies have demonstrated as many as 18 lives per execution.

19.3.08

Sessions downplayed coming clash of governing ideas

One observer muses how it was that Gov. Bobby Jindal experienced a good (not great) deal of success in getting through the agendas of his recent special sessions, wondering whether it was a good-natured granting of a “honeymoon” or fear of a popular mandate for Jindal and thereby his policies. The answer, as the upcoming regular session might show, is more the latter but the real lesson of the sessions’ results was legislative forces opposed to Jindal used the opportunity to conserve resources for future battles even as he did the possible and collected power potentially to oppose them down the line.

The relative ease of success by Jindal might tempt one, very mistakenly, to think his agenda, reform built along the lines of reducing the size of government and shifting its spending priorities to more productive, less redistributive purposes is shared by a majority of the Legislature. Even with conservative gains in last year’s elections, liberals and populists still have a majority in the Legislature as a whole, particularly in the Senate.

This is why Jindal picked his spots carefully and why ethics reform was made into a special session and first. After all, who is against cleaner government? In truth some, a few powerful, legislators are, but with the spotlight directly on the issue, with many new legislators sharing Jindal’s ideas on this, and with Jindal having shaped his campaign around this issue more than any other which was easy for the populace to understand, the regressive forces in the Legislature knew the best they could do was water down (which they did) such reform. But Jindal got enough victories to build on his political capital even as the regressive forces conserved theirs for battles down the road they have a chance to win.

Concerning his next opportunity, Jindal had gotten a bit lucky then having budget surpluses courtesy of federal government largesse in recovery spending. There were two types, nonrecurring that the Constitution limited in kinds of spending, and recurring. Craftily but also taking some risks, his administration got legislative leaders (who in part owed their positions to Jindal) to allow just two kinds of bills.

One was using the Constitution as cover for the nonrecurring expenses. Here, regressive forces had no option constitutionally but to follow in the broad parameters; politics as usual emerged only in dividing spending within the specified categories and really only in the case of capital expenditures. The other dealing with recurring funds was to take three measures already approved in the past in various forms – transference of transportation revenues to those kinds of capital projects, elimination of certain business taxes, and favorable tax treatment of some non-public school expenses by families – all of which had been watered down or foundered because of threats and vetoes by previous Gov. Kathleen Blanco, and to try to get them through.

In the first instance, legislators like spending so Jindal only suffered minor setbacks by reallocations of it. In the second, he had more compromises forced on him but the fact many veteran legislators had passed similar measures and new solons generally were more than less favorable in attitude towards them made it hard for them to outright oppose these measures. Clever planning again meant Jindal got most of what he wanted and in doing so preserved political capital.

Of course, the tactical defeats suffered by regressive forces were minor and simply that, tactical in nature. Nor will they be challenged that much in the regular session, at least according to Jindal’s budget, this acquiescence of which in part is by the administration’s design. One thing to date it has not done that good of a job on is explaining just what a fiscal mess Blanco left behind, and to a large degree this inherited situation hamstrings him in implementation of his agenda.

As a result there’s no reduction in government (although it doesn’t have to be left at this) and only minor shifting of priorities with just one contentious issue there, merit pay for teachers. For an example of this budget that features more reprogramming than a rethink, more money will be poured into workforce development, to which there is little opposition, but no broad-based tax relief which might face fierce opposition especially in the Senate.

Thus the real questions that remain to be answered are, is Jindal correct in being cautious initially rather than pushing ahead his agenda more aggressively, or is it that will Jindal offer any fundamental philosophical change in governing at all or will he just tinker at the margins with different spending priorities but no real reduction of government? Given the looming large deficits on the horizon, the cautious approach seems warranted but at the risk of missing an opportunity to drive home fundamental fiscal reform while his political capital his high and regressive forces, even if still potent, are on the defensive.

If so, the clash will come in the future, not this regular session. Unless it’s that Jindal loses or already has lost his taste for this fundamental reform, but it looks as if we won’t know that for sure until next year’s session.

18.3.08

Senate contest still impacts NW LA political scene

Ripple effects from the state Senate District 37 contest in northwest Louisiana in the latter part of last year continue to impact the political environment.

A ghost of the region’s political past – a recent specter – arose a little too unexpectedly for some Bossier Parish Police Jury members when it was discovered that, very quietly, Parish Administrator and member Bill Altimus had hired former state Rep. Billy Montgomery to work on special projects for the parish.

This is perfectly within Altimus’ purview, even though the scope of Montgomery’s duties are unimpressive and altogether probably do not merit much of salary or even a full-time job. Even as juror Rick Avery argued it was a job that needed filling for two years, it begged the question – which got delivered by juror Brad Cummings – why suddenly the job got filled when Montgomery became available, or as Cummings astutely observed, “If Billy Wayne would have won the Senate race we would not be talking about this today.”

Maybe Montgomery would be an excellent front man to shake some hands at ceremonial occasions, to look at some financial statements once a year, to shuffle some paperwork on various parish initiatives, and to hang around a few meetings where seldom does anything happen where the parish needs quick notification if at all. But it’s unlikely whatever he’s getting paid is worth it to the parish taxpayer considering the alternative uses of those funds and who else in parish government or how else and at what cost it could perform those tasks. (Although not long after his hiring Montgomery suffered a health setback, so regardless of whether he is on the parish taxpayers' dime hopefully he'll soon recover.)

Regardless that the sheepish Jury mainly fell in line and agreed with Altimus’ decision, this make-work patronage payoff smacks more of politics than of good sense – something voters need to remember when the jury and especially if Altimus runs for reelection in 2011. Maybe Republicans already have made a statement; in the election last month, Altimus was the only candidate to the Republican Parish Executive Committee not to be elected, narrowly – one wonders whether enough GOP voters knew of this hire and decided to withhold their vote from him because of it.

That dynamic of knowing something disappointing about a candidate also may have been in play regarding another candidate from that Senate contest of last fall. Running for the third time in four years for a legislative office, Barrow Peacock came much closer this time but still missed out by almost 400 votes to former Shreveport City Councilman Thomas Carmody in the special election to fill the state House District 6 vacancy.

There wasn’t a whole lot of difference between the two Republicans in terms of issue preferences, although Carmody was the more experienced in office compared to the never-elected Peacock. This lack of ideological distinguishing may have made Peacock’s behavior during the general election runoff phase of his previous election a decisive factor.

Peacock’s hopes there died in the primary, leaving the longtime liberal Democrat but new Republican Montgomery up against now-state Sen. B.L. “Buddy” Shaw, a conservative Republican former member of the state House. As a response, another defeated conservative Republican candidate Jay Murrell not only immediately publicly endorsed Shaw, but also sent around a note to backers urging them to vote for Shaw in the runoff.

Murrell, returning to private life, had nothing to gain except seeing a man who paralleled his beliefs win. But Peacock curiously made no endorsement. Shaw clearly was the more conservative of the two candidates, and at age 74 he may well not return to the Senate after this term. A Peacock endorsement and work on Shaw’s behalf would have set up the man younger by half excellently to run in 2011 as the older’s heir apparent and he quite legitimately could have gained great credit for helping Shaw in his ultimate win.

Instead, the impression Peacock gave by his remaining mum was he was putting aside principle by angling for Montgomery’s support by not opposing him in the hopes of winning Montgomery’s support for a political bid some years later. If so, he made two costly errors in assumption – that Montgomery would win and that if he didn’t that the more informed voters who understood he hadn’t endorsed Shaw would be forgetful or forgiving by the time Peacock was to run again.

But Shaw won no thanks to Peacock and then he ran again just a couple of months later. This makes Peacock now a three-time loser after spending more personal funds than perhaps any candidate in state history who did not win a legislative seat. It really has taken a lot of luster off his electability to area conservatives and Republicans and threatens to turn him into a white, male, Republican, bigger-campaign-spending version of state Rep. Barbara Norton.

However, she did win an office on her seventh try. Peacock only can hope, if he tries yet again, that his luck is even as good.

17.3.08

LA Democrats whistle in wind to obscure racial strife

As the contest for the 6th Congressional District continues into its next phase, the main question about it isn’t so much whether Democrats can win it, but how much of a rift its outcome will cause within the party.

National Democrats have wanted to assist state Rep. Don Cazayoux because, according to their official story and code word, he is a “moderate.” That isn’t really the case, as the legislative scorecards from the Louisiana Legislature Log shows with Cazayoux scoring (lower scores indicating more liberal/populist leanings) in 2005 a 44, in 2006 a 30, and in 2007 a 10, so he’s definitely a mainstream liberal. What national Democrats really mean is that Cazayoux, unlike his runoff opponent state Rep. Michael Jackson, is white and therefore has the potential to fool enough white voters, typically conservative in that district, into thinking he’s not ideologically liberal.

Once again, this attitude exposes the ugly racist secret of Democrats. If you’re black, they love to have your votes, but you need not apply to hold office unless there are too many black voters in your district to prevent it. This is because, unfortunately, most of the time being a black Democrat candidate makes it impossible to hide the fact you also are a political liberal, and Democrat leaders know they cannot win elections in Louisiana and much of the rest of the country if they are honest about what policies they prefer. So by putting a white face on their candidate and then obscuring his record, they hope to put one over on enough of a district’s voters.

This also explains why the party decided to open its primaries for federal offices to no party (independent) registrants as well whereas Republicans made theirs a true closed primary (only registered Republicans can participate in theirs). Using the 6th District as an example, whites now have only a plurality in registration among Democrats, leading blacks by about 2,000. But among other party registrants (the vast majority of which are independents), whites outnumber blacks three to one. If closed entirely, using the rough standard that white candidates get 80 percent of the white vote, black candidates get 90 percent of the vote, and blacks vote at 90 percent of the rate of whites, black candidates win Democrat nominations in that district, all else held equal. But throw in some portion of independent voters and a white candidate may have the upper hand.

But Louisiana’s black Democrats are getting restless on their party’s plantation. One such indicator came by the challenge by Opelousas Mayor Don Cravins, who felt slighted by the party when he ran competitively for the 7th District seat four years ago, for the state party’s chairmanship this weekend. He lost both times, but in doing so served notice that blacks were not going to want to remain second-class citizens among Democrats. And powerbroker Cleo Fields in the 6th also had made veiled comments that if national Democrats came in trying to assist successfully Cazayoux to the nomination, that his political machine would discourage black participation in the general election.

This strife only can help the chances of presumptive GOP nominee Louis “Woody” Jenkins, regardless of who he faces from the Democrats. So the talk from Democrats that they could win the district actually is more to paper over the turmoil within the party, in the hopes they can jawbone their way to placating blacks and getting their preferred white candidate into the fall election, than a true summary of any Democrat’s chances in that election.

16.3.08

Jindal must alter present budget to create future tax cuts

Job done for Gov. Bobby Jindal with the 2008 Second Extraordinary Session of the Louisiana Legislature, which disposed in its entirety $1.088 billion in nonrecurring surplus funds, and about $23 million of surplus recurring funds. When he argued he “batted 1.000” for this session he called he wasn’t far off from the truth.

It wasn’t quite that high because Jindal did have to swallow an extra $3 million or so of recurring spending on tax breaks for school uniforms and books for any student to get his $20 million break on private school tuition and home schooling expenses, he had to accept that money from transportation revenues could be diverted from transportation infrastructure expenses in time of budgetary need, and put up with a minor redirection of one-time expenditures to lower-priority rural roads from pressing unfunded accrued liabilities needs, but overall he got most of what he wanted.

With that settled, it’s time for Jindal to revisit the biggest weakness of his contemplated 2008-09 budget since apparently the only tax cuts coming were three enacted during this special session, all aimed at business. None are forthcoming for anybody in the regular session, but that’s understandable given the Gov. Kathleen Blanco Administration created budgetary problems in overspending and finding ways to shift funds around essentially allowing one-time revenues to back commitments to permanent expenditures.

Still, Jindal must do a better job is setting the stage for future tax cuts. The biggest problem his administration faces is the trickling away of federal disaster recovery expenditure begins after this year and this will cause, it predicts, in the state’s general fund deficits over the next four years in the $1.2 to $1.9 billion range. Dedicated funds and other revenues such as from the federal government can make a dent in this but it a good chuck of change even by government standards. While the shift of priorities in the Jindal plan will spur some revenue growth, it’s not going to be enough with those numbers to offer any tax relief.

Thus, Jindal needs to set up now conditions that could allow for at least some in his final year in office, and the best way to do so is to pump up the cushion know as the Budget Stabilization Fund, or colloquially the “Rainy Day Fund.” The state may pull a third of the balance from it every other year if a continuing operations deficit is forecast. After the special session that deposited a little more into it, the funds has around three-quarters of a billion dollars.

But more can be added, up to four percent of total state revenue receipts for the previous year, which would indicate about $1.2 billion or adding around $450 million. And as it is, Jindal’s budget would seem to have around $437 million available, about $307 million designated for a fund, already containing $140 million, to attract large employers which would be better used to improve conditions for all through tax relief, another $60 million to fund nursing homes already blessed with an overgenerous payment scheme, and about $70 million to give yet another raise to teachers whose performance simply does not merit any pay increase.

If Jindal would commit that to the Fund, with interest it would be over $1.2 billion for next fiscal year, meaning he could shave off over $400 billion to close out a deficit. Perhaps by the next year, his third, his restructuring may have closed the deficit gap considerably, and by his fourth he could offer a tax cut to further stimulate revenues going forward.

Simply, the three planned expenditures above are not needed and certainly if those funds could be used to create a tax cut three years from now that is a far superior use of them. The Jindal Administration needs to revisit these decisions and do a better job in this budget to set up a tax cut during this term.