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20.6.08

Excuses for big pay raise reveal moronic legislators

By reviewing comments made by northeast Louisiana legislators concerning the pay raise they voted themselves recently, we can draw only one conclusion from this sample: that the majority of these elected officials are, for varying reasons, idiots.

Just try to follow the blather from these anointed. First up, we have the ignorant, represented by state Rep. Frank Hoffman, who voted for it and will take it, who proclaims, “There has not been a pay raise since 1980. There are very few people who make the same salary now that they made in 1980 in the jobs their [sic, on the reporting newspaper’s part] in.”

For one thing, if Hoffman were in the same job as he was 28 years ago, I’d say he wasn’t a very capable person – you’d think he would have gotten a promotion or two or since moved on to better jobs unless he really liked where he was. That aside, Hoffman seems blissfully ignorant that this was designed to be a part-time job (it was even reaffirmed as that in the Constitution a dozen years ago). Also, as I have noted elsewhere, already in terms of actual pay currently Louisiana ranks in the top three among Southern states in absolute terms, in per capita terms, and in proportion of pay to per capita individual income. After this raise, they all go the top of the lists without any other state being close.

19.6.08

Revised hospital plan on target for better health system

While most of Louisiana that cares about state policy has been focused on hot issues in and around the Legislature, resolution of one of the biggest single items in monetary terms largely has gone unnoticed, the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration’s review of the need for a new Medical Center of Louisiana – New Orleans, better know as “Big Charity” in the past and now as “LSU Interim Hospital.” The results of the study give some insight into the future of indigent medical care and policy in the state.

As former Gov. Kathleen Blanco left office, her administration was plumping for a huge, 484-bed facility that dovetailed with existing policy which sent money to institutions, mostly state-owned, for indigent care, rather than following the path all other states were taking in reshaping their health care system along a money-follows-the-person format. This would mean such a large facility was unnecessary, but Blanco insisted that it was a cheaper alternative to continue the traditional charity system even if some cosmetic efforts at efficiency were introduced.

Not long after taking office, Jindal initiated a review of the Blanco plan (buttressed by a self-serving study which said it could pay for itself) and the product was unveiled yesterday. It faulted the Blanco assumptions in several areas and showed Jindal planned to move away from the charity model.

Given macro-financial changes the cost of the project remains about the same, but with a smaller facility – 52 medical/surgical beds and 8 fewer psychiatric beds, as a result of shorter stay lengths, increased population over what had been forecast in Orleans but, most crucially, that the proportion of uninsured in the area served by the new facility would drop from 84.1 percent to 73 percent and the total number of uninsured would drop as well by almost 1,000 to be made up for by increases in Medicare/commercial and Medicaid payers. The significance of this in overall indigent care policy is that the total uninsured would decline and, of those remaining, fewer would head to the new Big Charity because of policy changes to get them insured and to have non-government providers pick up more of them, suggesting a shift to money-follows-the-person.

In addition, the report recognizes an inherent fault in the Blanco proposal, that an ever-increasing size would attract more non-state money to finance its operations, principally through the federal Disproportionate Share Hospitals funds which cannot be used for certain things and get capped. At a potential low of $189 million a year for this particular facility, contrary to the report created at the behest of Blanco the state could not break even and would have to subsidize its operation averaging $41 million a year for its first few years. It also noted the unrealistically low medical inflation assumptions of the previous study and used a 4 percent figure twice as high.

This presented a second point of significance, that for the state even to expect the subsidization figure to remain this low a 20 percent increase in efficiency would have to be realized. Therefore, the operating Louisiana State University system is compelled to demonstrate how this increase in efficiency is to occur as well as how to attract more non-indigent patients to it (since they bring more revenue). The prior report blandly assumed the novelty of the new enterprise itself alone could do this, although this report retains the assumption that the proportion of Medicare/commercial payers would double with the new facility from 2.6 to 5.2 percent of the area’s population in that category.

It therefore is possible that unless a strategic plan by LSU can be formulated to match this requirement, it may be back to the drawing board again or continued reliance on the interim facility (which this study showed costing more in subsidization than the projection of the new facility) or even retrofitting the old facility (not mentioned). Hopefully, this requirement will be taken seriously and is not thrown in for show with a preordained plan rigged to show these goals can be achieved, and hints that it will not be a pro forma exercise came in the caution that the continued reform of the system including reduction of the numbers of uninsured was needed and that the costs of planning and implementation failure were substantial.

In the end, Jindal did come up with a more realistic survey that will require a relatively reduced state commitment and one that does not seem designed to prop up the existing, less efficient money-goes-to-the-institution system. It should satisfy the federal government who wishes to combine forces with a Veterans Affairs hospital next to it, and take at least initial steps towards the redesign of indigent care in Louisiana, perhaps the next big item on the Jindal agenda starting next year.

18.6.08

Jindal takes least political damage with pay raise veto

If Gov. Bobby Jindal threatened the Louisiana Legislature with excising some of their own funds and projects, it didn’t work as SB 672, which would more than double legislators’ salaries almost immediately for no good reason, has gone to his desk. What options exist for him now?

Regarding political capital (much less state need) the worst is to let it go into law. Jindal cannot seriously think observers will absolve him for not signing the bill to distinguish from an actual endorsement. They will only care that he had the means to try to stop it, and he didn’t try with maximal effort. He has put himself between a rock and a hard place, pledging non-interference apparently because key pieces of legislation of his were threatened (such as his workforce development plans, or in cuts to some budgetary proposals which now seem to be restored).

The problem is, he also promised on this issue during his campaign that he would not promote this kind of pay increase unless it took effect after the next election, as well as he would with this allow an obnoxious nationally-first-of-its-kind indexed annual raise. So either he breaks a promise to voters or to legislators. While the latter can make it hard to get his program enacted in the future, many of them have a stake in it too and he won’t be in a position to stump for more of his agenda if he isn’t in office after early 2012 which accepting this bill will compromise his chances of being in office for that (as well as any ambitions for higher office later). More long term damage would come from breaking a pact with voters rather than legislators. Nevertheless, the fact remains he must break his word no matter what.

There’s only one scenario where he might not have to choose. Article X section 29.1 of the state Constitution explicitly defines legislative work as part-time. Thus, he may hope that if it does become law it can be challenged judicially and ruled unconstitutional on the basis that a nearly $50,000 a year salary is indicative of full-time work. But that’s way too uncertain to pin all hopes of a reversal on and he would receive no credit for such a backdoor maneuver unless it succeeded, so, again, Jindal must reconcile himself to breaking his word to somebody.

It should be with legislators. He can sandbag the Legislature past the end of the session by saying he’s not going to veto, and then do it before Jul. 6. This will enrage some legislators but they are unlikely to reverse it since the margins of passage were narrow and an override not only would require a two-thirds vote but prior to it a majority vote to even have a session, never in history called in the state, would be required to be able to do it. Public pressure against both will be such that even secret sympathizers in the Legislature will be hesitant to switch to support.

As a result, next year and perhaps beyond they will act negatively on many on some of his agenda. But with many who ran on that same agenda, they will politically damage themselves by opposition. Further, Jindal will pick up popular support with his veto of SB 672 which is the ultimate antidote to a hostile legislature and he still will have the full range of gubernatorial powers handy even if he must abandon his principle of legislative independence in using them by which to minimize damage to his future agenda hopes. Finally, if dire budget predictions come true, Jindal’s hand will be strengthened relative to legislators as they will become more dependent upon his choices in a constrained funding environment.

Unlike his dithering on SB 87 which will cut income taxes for many Louisiana households, this is an issue on which he cannot jump on the bandwagon to avoid a self-inflicted wound that will not heal. (Ads have gone on radio crediting Jindal for the tax cut mentioning that details may be found at the pro-Jindal Believe in Louisiana, but they have yet to surface on the site.) Jindal boxed himself into taking a hit no matter what happens, but the damage is minimized by his veto. That way he will win the game of chicken he forced himself into playing even as, to this point, he has been losing it by default, and thereby to conserve the most political capital.

17.6.08

Legislators con no one with poor pay raise arguments

The big argument used by the only two speakers in favor of SB 672 in the past week is that with higher paid legislators, you’ll get a broader array of less-harried legislators. Too bad statistics show that’s not true and that, in fact Louisiana legislators already are overpaid and underperform under current standards.

In House debate, Speaker Jim Tucker who set the final parameters of the bill which would jack pay from $16,800 annually to $37,500 per year (retaining the current $143 per diem) and tie it to changes in consumer inflation, said current levels allowed only wealthy individuals to serve and that this level “hampers democracy.” This, of course, is an entire non-sequitur: the point is to get quality individuals in regardless of their background. Further, if that really were the purpose of the bill, to get new blood in, it should have taken effect in 2012, after the next round of elections.

(Tucker also was disingenuous about the source of $37,500 level, saying it came from the state’s Compensation Review Commission. In fact, that 2003 recommendation would scrap the $6,000 annual expense allowance; this bill does not.)

In Senate debate, author Sen. Ann Duplessis (she who enjoys driving a Mercedes-Benz) could not contain her joy when the House version passed her chamber, letting out a cry of victory. She said criticism was misguided and the public did not really understand the amount of work legislators did.

Perhaps not every citizen does, but whether the “work” done is needed or is quality is another matter. Looking at statistics, the latter certainly is not true.

Taking Louisiana along with Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, comparison can be made. First, using their monthly salaries plus per diems to create an annual, relatively speaking one can compare how Louisiana is doing under current and SB 672 standards, noting three things: (1) absolute levels of pay, (2) how much pay there is per capita, and (3) the relationship between per capita income and legislator pay. The argument for increase pay would be buttressed if it could be shown Louisiana legislators were being paid relatively lowly absolutely, adjusted per capita, and relative to their citizens’ earnings.

The table at the top tells it all. (I was generous to all other states: with Mississippi I took their fourth year session-length which is longer than the other three which increases pay; with North Carolina which has no constitutionally-set meeting dates I took the average session length for the past two years; and for Virginia I used Senate pay which is slightly higher than Delegate pay.)

Currently, Louisiana trails only Florida in pay; obviously the new level would put typical Louisiana legislator pay at over $11,000 more a year. In pay per capita, Louisiana currently ranks third trailing only the two states with lower populations Arkansas and Mississippi; the new level would far exceed any of these states and be almost 40 percent higher than Arkansas’. Louisiana now also trails only Florida in pay percent of per capita income where Florida lawmakers make 107 percent of the average resident’s income and Louisiana is at 93 percent, with the increase putting Louisiana’s legislators’ pay at a whopping 160 percent of per capita income – for a job constitutionally defined as part time. And under the bill it will likely increase every year.

That Louisiana already is one of the most generous states already with its legislative pay among its peers should blare warning claxons that no raise is needed. The idea becomes beyond absurd when one considers the return on investment for the current level. One look at hyper-critic C.B. Forgotston’s “Misery Index” with the vast majority of its good categories having Louisiana in the bottom ten states and of its bad categories having the state in the top ten also tells it all: there’s little bang for the buck from the Legislature currently, so why throw good money after bad, especially when peer states for less money are doing far better?

The arguments presented for these raises fail by every metric and therefore legislators making them have as much credibility as Bratney Spears would if she were an underwear saleswoman. The public need not be conned by the self-serving hucksters who voted for SB 672.

16.6.08

Reactions to voter roll changes bring suspicion on Orleans

In the use of statistics, when gathering cases to study some phenomenon, if a case appears to deviate from the pattern observed with other cases, one calls this an “outlier” and, if an isolated incident, one writes it off as dues to some idiosyncratic factor unlikely to be repeated in other observations. But if it happens again, you begin to wonder if there isn’t another factor involved causing it to deviate from the others. By this account, citizens interested in the integrity of elections in Louisiana should begin to wonder about how the Orleans Parish Registrar’s office does it job.

Recently, a Democrat-affiliated interest group called Voting is Power has flooded parish registrars with materials for new and changed registrations, although most have been concentrated in four parishes in neighborhoods that are disproportionately black: Jefferson, East Baton Rouge, Orleans, and Caddo. The group’s strategy appears to be two-fold: get as many names on the voting rolls as possible who are likely Democrat voters regardless of the legality of the registrations or, failing that, to overwhelm certain registrars hoping that they become more likely to allow questionable registrations through.

Even if the group denies this, those excuses ring hollow because of the extraordinary proportion of bad registration cards turned in to Jefferson, East Baton Rouge, and Caddo. The group even claims it pays canvassers by the hour, not by the card, reducing temptations to make up phony cards. These registrars estimate anywhere from a third to two-thirds were invalid and only some could possible be certified through obtaining follow-up information. Many were clearly fraudulent, such as having the same name at different addresses with almost identical information on each.

But the exception was Orleans, where the registrar there Sandra L. Wilson insisted few forms were bad and was approving most of them. So maybe Orleans just got much better canvassers (or more honest ones) working there for VIP and created far fewer problems so it’s just an outlier …

… except this isn’t the first time we’ve see the Orleans Registrar coming up with registration results far different from the rest of the state’s parishes. Last year, Secretary of State Jay Dardenne went through his legally-required exercise of purging voters who appeared to be registered in another state. When presenting all parishes with the names of a little less than 20,000 voters who appeared to be dually-registered, of the around 13,000 names outside of Orleans, efforts of registrars elsewhere found few people that could be reinstated.

But in Orleans, it was exactly the opposite. Of the roughly 7,000 names in Orleans, Wilson ended up disqualifying only 124 – and keep in mind that if there was any parish where you would have expected to see the vast majority of dual registrations hold up, it would be Orleans given that, except for St. Bernard (which reinstated almost no names), a higher proportion of its population got displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 than any where else with many of them going out of state.

Consider the situation: in a matter where parishes have the option of reinstating to vote names vetted by the Secretary of State, for other parishes almost no names are put back on their rolls except in Orleans where almost every name is. And in the matter where parishes are asked to add names from a questionable source, in other parishes many are disqualified while almost none are in Orleans. To a social scientist, discovering this would lead one to suspect there is another dynamic at play that would have to explain the radically different philosophies that seem to be present in letting people on voting rolls. To the layman, these differences exhibited by Orleans smell fishy.

From a statewide perspective, the apparently questionable integrity of the Orleans rolls, whether by design or accident, could have an unfortunate impact in at least one fall election. While it is highly unlikely that it would affect an expected easy win for Sen. John McCain for presidential electoral votes, probable nominees Sen. Mary Landrieu and Treasurer John Kennedy for Senate for the Democrats and Republicans, respectively, are expected to be locked in a close battle. It would be a shame if numerous names of questionable status in Orleans are allowed to determine the outcome of this election, much like many believed happened in 1996 when Landrieu narrowly was elected initially.