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27.3.08

Legislature must reaffirm commitment to cable choice

Cox Cable sure picked some good timing to announce a rate increase, just days before the Louisiana Legislature opens its regular session with a couple of bills on tap to break the near-monopoly cable companies have on the provision of cable services.

HB 869 by state Rep. Jeff Arnold and SB 422 by Sen. Ann Duplessis would allow the granting of cable franchises through the state and bypass most obligations and obstinacy heaped upon competitors to cable companies by local governments. By reserving the power to grant franchises to local governments, it has discouraged competition because of the start-up costs a local government can impose including fees that simply transfer money from cable consumers into the accounts of local governments for no other reason that local governments can do that. Having the state franchise providers can prevent discriminatory costs that have the effect of allowing cable companies to monopolize the service.

A similar bill was attempted in 2006 and passed the Legislature. But among her most stupid moves, former Gov. Kathleen Blanco vetoed the bill. Election year 2007 seemed to stymie the bill’s chances, but it’s no surprise that New Orleans-area legislators Arnold and Duplessis are leading the charge in 2008 because New Orleans suffered a 43 percent increase in cable rates (courtesy of Cox Cable) over the past eight years, well past the rate of inflation.

Cable companies may respond that such rate increases have come as a result of expansion of service to individual household, i.e. more channels. But the most prominent point about these bills would be they would encourage other providers (as already are able to in many states) to come and provide on-demand service, where instead of being locked into a limited set of packages which is the cable company strategy, consumers can pick and choose which specific channels they want to have without having to pay for many they don’t want.

These bills can expect severe resistance from cable companies and local governments – both extreme hypocrites on this matter. Cable companies successfully fought for providing phone service at the state level, yet they want to prevent phone (and other companies) from doing the same with cable. Further, they are aided and abetted by local government who can refuse to grant franchises to any other competitors and do so unless huge concessions are involved, because they see allowing cable companies to be monopoly providers as a conduit to pass money from consumers to their own treasuries.

If not for Blanco’s stupidity, consumers already would have been enjoying lower prices and better quality. It’s imperative that one of these bills in pretty much the form they currently exist be passed and sent to a pro-competition Gov. Bobby Jindal finally to help out Louisiana telecommunications consumers.

26.3.08

Hesitation welcome signal for health care redesign

Health care redesign into an efficient, sensible system for indigent care finally may be on the way in Louisiana, signaled by the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration’s desire to review specifications for a new Medical Center of Louisiana – New Orleans (temporarily renamed “LSU Interim Hospital”) rebuilt hospital.

During his gubernatorial campaign last fall, one of the more prominent themes involved delivering health care in a more efficient manner – a crucial task since indigent health care costs are at about a billion dollars a year so better use of these resources could provide crucial cost savings as a predicted period of leaner state budgets loom. Yet barely a peep has been issued from Jindal concerning this issue since – until his Secretary of Health and Hospitals Alan Levine testified in front of a Senate panel yesterday.

Levine indicated skepticism at former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s plan to build a grandiose new “Big Charity” in his refusal to move forward immediately with that plan. Blanco had envisioned this replacement facility for the one damaged by Hurricane Katrina and was one of the cornerstones for the plan that essentially retained Louisiana’s inefficient indigent care system, unique among the states, that primarily funnels to a handful of large, state-run institutions money for this care. This contrasts with the approach gaining acceptance in the rest of the country, where public money follows the person who then, guided by program rules, seeks out appropriate care at any eligible institution, private or public.

This approach, favored by the federal government, was rejected by the state which led to the federal government balking at providing $225 million for costs towards the hospital. Blanco then found a way to leverage other federal dollars into allowing the state to put up this money itself. But in doing so, she left the expenditure of it up to her successor Jindal who favors the alternative approach.

Blanco and her allies ideologically prefer the existing charity hospital approach because it keeps money in the hands of state government, as they believe big government knows best how to make health care decisions for individuals plus this arrangement provides more jobs to distribute. By building as big as possible a new Big Charity, it would commit the state to continue with this system in order to make sure its beds would be filled. The most enthusiastic partner in this attempt is the Louisiana State University system which runs the charity hospital system and thereby gains the resources and patronage opportunities from it.

Levine’s statement that a review may take a couple of months probably indicates the Jindal Administration is going to reject the palatial version of Big Charity, opening the gates for a money-follows-the-person system to be instituted. Since the indigent won’t be herded into state-run hospitals for care, there would be less need for large facilities. Reformers have argued that the LSU-run hospitals should really be focusing more on teaching in a more centralized fashion, and LSU’s dream of a huge facility was dealt a blow when its longtime partner in providing charity services Tulane University stated it believed a smaller hospital was more justified with current medical practice trends.

Jindal has not moved aggressively on health care reform simply because it may be the single most daunting task on his docket, requiring intermediate steps such as scaling down the hospital request. In the short run the transition also will cost money, and with an anticipated budgetary crunch ahead, he may be thinking a second term would be the time to start it. But aligning the hospital size with such a plan would create impetus for reform down the road, just as Blanco tried to do the same to prevent reform. Expect Levine near the end of the session in June to announce the Administration wants to move in the direction of a smaller, more sensible, facility.

25.3.08

Plenty of reasons why Jindal wouldn't take VP nod

Enough already with the “Jindal for Vice President” talk. Political liberals and unthinking desperate conservatives may wish it to happen, but Lousiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is too smart and too caught up in his present job to make it a reality this election cycle.

Jindal’s 36 and been governor for a little more than two months. While he’s gotten a lot out of two special sessions, and there are risks in not striking while the iron is hot, he must know his upside his far higher to be wasted on a quest which politically will bring him little.

Some conservatives stump for him on a ticket with waiting GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain because he is an archetypical and young conservative contrasted with McCain’s moderate sympathies and McCain would be the oldest ever inaugurated to a first term as president. It also might counterbalance with a member on the Republican slate of an ethnic minority group (even as Jindal himself never advertises that fact) a Democratic ticket that could have such a person, or a female, or both on it.

But taking a vice presidential nomination not only has no upside now for Jindal, it damages his long-term political potential. If the GOP wins, Jindal is relegated to at least four years of nothing. He’ll have little opportunity to display governing skills while other conservative politicians will rack up these credentials. If the GOP loses, he will be criticized for being too ambitious and not enough of a “savior” for the party, and immediately make him a target of others who share future national ambitions – even if he outshines McCain during the campaign.

Additionally, Jindal running now would be like uprooting a productive plant before it reaches maturity. With at least four years as governor, Jindal has ample opportunity to demonstrate governing skill and the superiority of conservative ideology through the actions he takes if he implements a conservative agenda. This is why liberals already are working overtime with unconvincing arguments to discredit him precisely because he can effectively demonstrate the bankruptcy of their ideas.

Add to this that Jindal seems passionately involved in turning around Louisiana – which promises a massive amount of political capital if he has some measurable success – that will be a longer-term project in any event, and there’s just no way Jindal is going to assent to such a placement. Finally, the few individuals who used successfully the vice presidency to get to the White House were themselves distinguished politicians of extended service, so if Jindal has higher ambitions he knows that spot now really does him no political good.

It would be flattering, and Jindal’s governorship could go sour which could mean he’d never get such a chance again, but Jindal won’t go for this plan. So people are just wasting their breath bringing it up.

24.3.08

Capital outlay reform may come at cost of bad priorities

It’s good to see that Louisiana elected officials concur with my assessment about an unglamorous, but very necessary reform of its capital budgeting process. Several, almost identical, bills have been introduced for the regular session to do so, but it’s the almost imperceptible differences that will make for interesting confrontations, may signal a transformation of power relations in state government, and could test the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration’s views on the role of the governor and Legislature and in policy.

In brief, the current process allows for many more projects than for which funding exists for them, because it allows legislators to claim they got goodies for their districts into the capital outlay budget and can blame the governor for not letting them through if they don’t get funding. This is because the governor may veto a very few, but if that doesn’t bring down the overall spending to the authorized spending, the administration working with the State Bond Commission technically decides what gets funded, with a majority of the composition of the latter normally controlled by the governor.

So the administration has three areas in which it may, in essence, veto requests. But it also has a way to forward requests, because the process by law begins with requests from the administration in the enabling legislation. Legislators then add to it but generally do not reject the governor’s initial requests. What is eventually decided on for funding gets money, and everything else goes back into limbo in part or in whole subject to the whims of the next annual capital budget process.

Bills HB 582, by House Speaker Jim Tucker, and SB 1, by state Sen. Robert Adley, among others seek to change this process so that enough gets funded for one year, and other items that miss the cut legally get put into a waiting list of one to four years, or perhaps could be funded in the present year if there’s a combination of gubernatorial line item vetoes or disapproval of the Commission. Tucker, of course, is a Jindal ally and floor leader, so we can assume his bill pasts muster with the administration.

Adley has been trying to get a version of his bill through for a couple of years now and when asked about it, Jindal’s lead official in his administration Commissioner of Administration AngĂ©le Davis said “I think there are some components in Adley's bill that make sense,” she demonstrated an incredible mastery of understatement, for the bills are virtually identical in wording and differ in only one major respect: Adley’s is a constitutional amendment while Tucker’s is statutory.

In both cases, a funding plan must be established for all periods which would be binding, thereby limiting the governor’s choices without legislative intervention to pick and choose. However, it goes into effect only after this session.

Jindal’s apparent acquiescence shows he is willing to put his money where his mouth is in terms of reform. Whether legislators will go along with it is another matter and it may all come down to a fight over the official current capital priorities. Under present law, Jindal can change these by Apr. 7 and part of the deal may be to keep largely intact old priorities (already approved by reelected legislators and benefiting their districts) in order to get their support on the new process. (This implies Tucker’s approach, requiring only a simple majority, may work better than Adley’s, needing two-thirds votes and then citizen approval.)

This could lead to an interesting battle, given that the priorities under previous Gov. Kathleen Blanco leave something to be desired, such as an over-built new charity hospital for New Orleans. It may create a bad situation for Jindal aiming for reform but having to countenance bad policy to achieve it.

23.3.08

Decision protects Louisiana blanket primary system

Louisiana’s election system for state and local elections dodged a bullet when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Washington state’s similar system did not violate political parties’ right of association.

Washington had tried to implement a system that differed from Louisiana’s in two ways, that even if a primary election occurred where candidates regardless of party affiliation all ran together it was not said to “nominate” candidates, and that a general election would be conducted even if one candidate secured an absolute majority of the vote. Last fall during oral arguments, some justices expressed skepticism that any difference between this and a nomination was cosmetic, thereby validating political parties’ arguments that the law infringed upon their ability to control their own nominations.

But the Court ruled, drawing conclusions that might make political scientists wince, that voters were smart enough to understand a nomination as not intended and could readily distinguish between a stated partisan preference and the issue preferences of a candidate. Therefore, if it was the will of the people not to allow parties to make nomination in essence, there was nothing constitutionally wrong with the law and the Court was very reluctant to overturn the popular will on this important matter.

This definitively provides constitutional cover for Louisiana’s nonpartisan blanket primary system. In essence, the court has said that the presence of party labels does not automatically mean a nomination is taking place, a point on which it had been unclear.

Unfortunately, this system muddles political choice because the vast majority of voters do not care to distinguish issue preferences from other aspects about a candidate, often conflating partisanship and ideology. This reduces accountability of elected officials and obscures responsibility in advancing a program. Nevertheless, absent some great groundswell of popular revulsion of it, it looks like it’s here to stay.