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28.6.08

Legislative careers depend on Jindal's pay raise choice

As the legislative pay raise fiasco continues to evolve, political careers come under threat, and it’s interesting to see the different reactions, signaling career implications, lawmakers exhibit in the face of a changing political landscape many obviously didn’t predict and apparently didn’t understand.

First, there are those who don’t care what their constituents think because long ago they anointed themselves as a special political class they see as above their employers, the people. An example is state Rep. Juan LaFonta who whines that recently he has spent little time in his law practice and much more on legislative affairs so he needs more compensation for a “full time” job.

Why he feels this way, at first, is somewhat of a mystery because his district at best has partially recovered from the 2005 hurricane disasters, so there aren’t exactly a lot of constituents at this point for him to be worried about. But therein also lies the answer, among other reasons.

With fewer constituents around, LaFonta has less reason to worry about backlash from them over the raise. In addition, his constituents, judged by their lower turnout (less that 23 percent in 2007) typically in elections, are less likely to be engaged in politics and care about what happens. (These statistics are similar to most majority-black districts in the state and only four of the 29 black legislators votes against the raise. Race of legislator also affects the regional distribution of the vote – remove black legislators from the votes and disproportionately it was the Baton Rouge and New Orleans whites who voted for the raise.)

Also, as an individual he has taken on the leadership of the Legislative Black Caucus which wasn’t necessary, nor, given what government really should be about and doing, should it have that much to do anyway. (Instead, it is expanding.) Finally, LaFonta typically introduces and supports legislation which tries to expand unneeded government interference into people’s lives, which serves to expand the nature of the legislator’s job.

These point out the two obvious fallacies in LaFonta’s complaint. For one, if he spends so much time on the job, it’s because he doesn’t know the real scope and purpose of government and insists on expanding it beyond its legitimate role not because it’s necessary, but because he likes it that way and wants you to pay for him to do what he wants. Additionally, if he doesn’t like the legislative salary, he is perfectly free to spend more time on his law practice to the point of resigning his seat (as did former Rep. Mike Powell when faced with a similar situation). Nobody is forcing him to be a state legislator, and he ought not to be forcing taxpayers to pay for his hobby.

Such legislators feel no remorse nor pressure and their careers are largely unaffected by this issue. But some legislators are not in the position to ignore their constituents, and a few who voted for the raise now think their careers are in jeopardy. Two, state Reps. Frank Hoffman and John LaBruzzo, publicly have repudiated their votes and, after not turning in a request not to accept the raises by the original Jun. 17 deadline, claim they have taken advantage of an extension of that deadline to refuse the raises (even as they lack evidence to substantiate this disavowal). While they may not admit their actions are based upon electoral considerations, that they both initially defended wholly the raises and then turned against them not because they inherently were bad ideas but because of public reaction speaks volumes as to their true rationales.

State Rep. Tim Burns also joins the late refusniks for the same hidden reason but from a different position. He migrated from the camp of the likes of House Speaker Jim Tucker who voted for the raise but said he would donate it to charity, scholarships, district projects, and the like. Note that this is an entirely unprincipled reaction to the issue that is little more than a con job to make people think the legislator isn’t arrogant and greedy. All it does it creates an extra pot of money for Tucker to use legally to entice votes in the future. Scarcely little more moral authority accrues to lawmakers who have adopted this position but who originally voted against the raise like Sen. Mike Walsworth; if he really meant opposition to the raise, he would refuse it and not use it to further his political career.

To date, 23 of 142 have rejected the raise. While some of that group voted for it, many did not and they – state Reps. Chris Hazel, Tony Ligi, Nick Lorusso, Dee Richard, Clif Richardson, Karen St. Germain, Kirk Talbot, and Don Trahan, and state Sens. Jody Amedee, Bill Cassidy; Don Cravins, Jack Donahue, and Neil Riser (A.G. Crowe voted against it only on the second opportunity, keeping it alive with his first vote) -- have the most moral authority and least electoral worries. Judging from current events, those who voted against and have accepted the raise appear unthreatened electorally.

The most interesting category is the remainder, unapologetic legislators who voted for it and are accepting it from district who have a politically active, involved citizenry. Three – state Reps. Franklin Foil, Joe Lopinto, and Steve Pugh – already have been hit by recall petitions and it will be interesting to see whether they respond as have the late refusniks and even take the step of repudiation. All three are from urban areas and had at least 47 percent turnout in their elections. (Tucker also got an inevitable petition up against him, as he is widely seen as the leader of the raise movement.)

Yet this is a political risk, to repent in turning the raise down late and especially in repudiating a previous affirmative vote. It may not mollify angered constituents who will complain these guys should have (literally) put their money then where their mouths are now and not have voted for the raise. Again, it smacks of political convenience and, if the raise gets vetoed, they are not even left with a higher salary for their trouble.

Which is why these guys need to go to Jindal to talk him into bailing them out, as only LaBruzzo now joined by Hoffman has done (there is evidence that at least some legislators have done or are doing this). A veto means they lose nothing and gain enough respect from the citizenry that their seats probably will not be challenged on that basis.

As Jindal prepares to hurl himself off a political cliff through inaction, legislative careers remain on the line and may also be affected by his ultimate decision.

26.6.08

Why Jindal won't veto pay raise becomes deeper mystery

More valuable than figuring out the Haynesville Shale play is discovering what’s going on in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s head regarding the legislative pay raise. As reasons principled and political scream at him to veto it, statements from he and his administration serve to keep digging deeper the political hole in which he finds himself on this issue.

One option that Jindal, who has stated he thought he can forget about legislative cooperation if he vetoed the bill and said he would not even as he promised during the campaign to not support this kind of raise concurrent with present terms in office, has which would fulfill both promises is to let the bill become law but then challenge it in court presumably for violating the state Constitution that defines legislators as “part-time public servants.” This is an uncertain therefore risky strategy, but one that could pay off big if successful.

Yet his executive counsel Jimmy Faircloth was trotted out to give remarks that implied that Jindal wasn’t thinking about this option and showed little enthusiasm for this interpretation of the Constitution. Even if for political purposes Jindal did not want to show public support for an effort he was backing behind the scenes, it would be odd that his chief legal officer would make such deflating comments about the enterprise. It certainly gives no ammunition for a veto, on the basis of unconstitutionality, that could justify a reneged promise not to veto.

Even more curious is the reason why this maneuver would make sense – trying to have an outcome pleasing to both supporters (not to veto) and opponents (not to have a raise) – seems by the statement of an assumed party involved to be irrelevant. For it to make sense we must presume that the non-veto promise by him was made to the Legislature in response to his avoiding some penalty. Many times Jindal has said things akin to his most recent metaphor, that he didn’t want legislators “to throw sand in the gears” of what he calls his reform package. In all, the implication is that down the road Jindal would be politically punished for an action taken now, the veto.

But House Speaker Jim Tucker released a noncommittal statement that implied he would not act vindictively in any way as a result of the disposition of the bill. It would make no sense that Tucker would have changed his tune on this, previously threatening but now accommodating, because he would lose everything by allowing a veto if he could stop it through threats of holding up future legislation – he wouldn’t get the raise and would face the wrath of constituents (who have gotten up a recall petition on him) and voters for the rest of his political career for his hand in passing the raise measure.

So what is Jindal afraid of? In light of recent comments, it seems the only thing could be breaking a deal of putting through legislation already approved. Does he not want the public to know he had to promise inaction in order to get things passed like ethics reforms, an income tax cut he accepted as fiscally prudent, workforce development legislation, a school scholarship/voucher program, and the like? Even if he did, breaking that to veto will make him more politically powerful, not less.

These revelations make an imponderable mystery to date only more obscure in explanation. And the longer he continues to baffle the public on this issue, the more difficult he makes it to deflect probing questions whose presence will make it even more difficult to reverse course. Meanwhile, capital continues to be withdrawn from his political bank account.

25.6.08

Jindal's imprudence on pay raise imperils his agenda

Like zombies they seem to awake from the torpor of extended isolation (109 out of the last 135 days in session) in an artificial environment that bears no relationship to reality (the Capitol building, Pentagon Barracks, and a few Baton Rouge watering holes). But the one that hunkers down on the fourth floor who matters the most apparently still hasn’t cleared his head.

State Rep. John LaBruzzo has now recanted his support for the pay raise for legislators sitting on Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk, adding to the printed pledge of state Rep. Frank Hoffman. Assuming no other changes that leaves just two votes over the minimum to have passed the bill in the House (and a single Senate defection would lose the majority in that chamber) and provides increased justification for a Jindal veto.

Yet Jindal repeated he will not veto it because he thinks it would endanger his future program. This goes to show Jindal continues to have a serious blind spot on some matters leading him to misjudge the political consequences of some of his decisions. We know this because we’ve seen it before – Jindal was way slow getting onboard the Stelly income tax reversal train and it nearly ran him over.

Jindal himself even is starting grasp this, indicated when he told an audience that next year he would keep closer watch over the Legislature. But this cannot help him in the near term in resolving this issue. And there seem to be a fantastic disconnection in his head if on the one hand he says he has "learned my lesson" but on the other is doing nothing tto stop what he has called consistently bad legislation. Why would he deliberately want to inflict bad policy on the state when he has the power to stop it?

What Jindal fails to realize is reminders about a failure to act are going to keep coming at least over the next couple of weeks, and maybe several months now that one conservative activist has said he will challenge the measure if it becomes law on the basis that Art. X Sec. 29.1 of the Louisiana Constitution defines legislators as “part-time public servants.” Meanwhile, he seems to underestimate the penalties by not vetoing and to overestimate the costs of vetoing.

He has to recognize that the greatest strength he can bring to bear to favor his program is public opinion. No matter how many muscles legislative leaders may try to flex, they cannot hold back a wildly popular governor, and that’s what he will return to if he vetoes. So when Jindal states that popularity is at loggerheads with his ability to pass his program, it reveals a shocking ignorance about how the political world works.

Added to the strength conveyed by popularity are a good minority of legislators who will back him on this whose numbers seem to be growing as they better detect the public’s revulsion at the size and scope of the raise – many of whom also support his ideas. His only cost is to break one promise to leaders at the expense of another he made to voters not to support a raise concurrent with the existing term in office, which this one does. And, he should make no mistake, not vetoing will be seen by the public as tacit support no matter how many times he says he really is against it.

Not vetoing destroys this public legitimacy he could have earned by keeping a promise and doing what was popular to voters, and forfeits support he could derive from opponents of the raise in the Legislature. Many in the Legislature may like him as a result but whether this would aid his agenda is debatable. He will be seen as a weakling and treated as such by them and, unless he can get it all through in the next three years, at this point it is uncertain whether he’ll be allowed by the voters to have four more years to finish, perhaps primarily because of a failure to veto. Penalties don’t get much higher than that.

The potentially fatal political miscalculations Jindal is making are he does not understand the ability to push his program is unlikely to be significantly improved by letting the bill go into law whereas his agenda likely will be by vetoing it. Why he does not get that he will come out weaker without a veto may be explained only either by some misguided belief in the absolute good of legislative independence, or just sheer ineptitude maybe hoisted on his own petard by keeping himself too insulated during this legislative session.

Perhaps the most difficult thing for a political figure to learn is prudence, figuring out when a minor retreat in upholding a lesser principle will lead to greater gains in implementing policy based on greater principles. If Jindal has not figured this out, his administration will go down in flames, and deservedly so.

24.6.08

Focus now on Jindal to see whether he makes gutsy call

The line in the sand over legislative pay raises got drawn and became inerasable when the Louisiana Legislature adjourned sine die yesterday. Now it’s solely up to Gov. Bobby Jindal to deal with the issue, and whatever options he chooses can make or break his political career. And they are, in order of expected positive accumulation of political capital for Jindal:

  • Veto it with help. As mentioned previously, Jindal has plenty of ammunition by which to justify a veto – a campaign promise not to allow legislators to accept a raise concurrent with their terms, that it is the first in American state history to allow for automatic raises (and using a metric based on inflation rather than on economic health), or simply that it is excessive. But, he would really have a case if he could get some members of the Legislature to help him out.

    Besides accusations that his legislation was held hostage to the bill, Jindal said he wished not to interfere with the Legislature and would respect its ability to manage its own affairs. But if just a few legislators begin to recant their support, he could claim that, before the Jul. 8 decision about signing it, vetoing it, or letting it become law without his signature, the actual will of the legislature had changed so he could add to the list above that he would felt compelled to assist the expression of this new majority will by issuing a veto. This is something Jindal could encourage by hinting at a few line-item or regular veto threats on certain appropriations or other matters to certain legislators known to be having second thoughts.

    If he got some public recantations and issued the veto, while legislative leaders might be angered, he probably would be supported by at least a large minority of legislators who he could get to rein in any drastic paybacks the leaders might try to arrange in the future. If so, he actually gains political capital out of this near-fiasco.
  • Veto it. If he can’t swing a few repented legislative sinners, he still would make a wildly popular decision to veto it anyway, citing the above reasons. This would create a very rocky situation for him with the Legislature, however, and he likely would end up losing political capital with all the potential mischief that could be done to his agenda over the next three years.
  • Don’t veto it, but arrange for a legal challenge. Art. X Sec. 29.1 of the Louisiana Constitution, in reference to elected officials among others including explicitly state legislators and their abilities to earn credit in state retirement programs by their legislative service, explicitly defines them as “part-time public servants.” (Ironically, because there is a grandfather clause in this allowing anyone who served before Jan. 1, 1997 to be exempt from the prohibition, practically all of these veteran legislators who qualify to stay in a retirement system voted for the raise because it will dramatically increase their retirement earnings.)

    In background, Jindal could be encouraging, if not arranging for a court challenge to the raise after he would let it slip into law on Jul. 8 on the basis that the suggested salary should be indicative of a full-time job and thus violates the Constitution. This is the last thing legislators would want, more publicity about the matter dragged on for months, if not years. It would allow Jindal to keep his promise to legislators yet maybe defeat the bill.

    It would make Jindal appear to be champion of the people and generate positive headlines if he actually sued or joined a suit, but at the same time it is a highly uncertain strategy that Jindal cannot control, whereas he could control everything with a veto. Further, it still wouldn’t absolve Jindal of his broken promise to be against a pay raise concurrent which could be reminded of throughout the case’s disposition. Finally, it would embitter legislators who are raise supporters. It’s a highly risky strategy that might minimize the loss of political capital but, if it comes to naught, might really cause damage to his political career. In other words, if this is Jindal’s real strategy, he’s a bigger gambler than former Gov. Edwin Edwards ever was.
  • Don’t veto it. This is the worst option. Jindal would appear weak and untrustworthy to voters. It might make for the smoothest relations with the Legislature and he may hope that translates into policy home runs down the road, but he has to consider it would give the Legislature that much more incentive to push him around so these victories may never manifest. Plus, no matter how many policy victories he might score in the next three years, this issue will not go away and he will permanently lose some part of his base over it. While he might survive that to win reelection, all the flak he is catching over the incident may finish any aspirations for higher office.
    He didn’t have to be in this position but he put himself in it. These are his options, and the one certainty is the gutsier call he makes on it, probably the better off he’ll be.

  • 23.6.08

    Legislators need to turn words into pay raise veto action

    Maybe it was this excoriation exposing the utter lack of merit of his arguments for voting for and in accepting a pay raise, but something has changed the mind of state Rep. Frank Hoffman on this issue. A public apology has been issued by him expressing regret for the vote, now refusing the hike, and pledging to regain his constituents’ confidence. It’s not enough.

    Whether his regret is sincere is debatable. For one thing, he can’t refuse the raise now. That deadline passed about a week ago so he will have to pursue a strategy similar to that of his colleague state Sen. Mike Walsworth such as giving charitable donation or to district projects if he intends not to have the raise stay in his own pocket. For another, he still maintains the mistaken beliefs that the increase was both deserved and consistent with the imperative that these jobs by nature are part time.

    Regardless, anybody can say he is sorry but it’s repentance and a sincere attempt to undo the wrong that measures the true merit of the individual and his worthiness to serve as an elected official. Thus, Hoffman can and must prove his statement is more than words designed to pander by seeking to redress his sin.

    While Hoffman’s public apology is the only one which I am aware, privately some regrets seem to be circulating around the capital and others have expressed misgivings at one of the two very obnoxious provisions part of the measure (the other being that it takes effect almost immediately), that, unprecedented in U.S. history, a state legislature now will have automatic raises go to its members. This awakening begs the question of how attentive these legislators really are if they didn’t take one, maybe two minutes during the days the legislation was debated among the public to think about how quickly their salaries would rise under the standards or whether it was even logical to tie their salaries to inflation rather than a measure of economic health such as changes in personal per capita income, but at least some of them seem to have briefly breached the cocoon that seems to envelop many legislators from the people once elected to grasp this shortcoming.

    If Hoffman is serious, he will seek out at least three other House members and a Senator and with himself get them to sign a document acknowledging that their votes were mistakes and begging Gov. Bobby Jindal to veto the legislation – at least these numbers because they would drive below a passing majority the 56-43 vote in favor in the House, and 20-18 in the Senate, but is always better. Then, he should forward the document to Jindal with a note explaining these signatures in effect rescind a majority vote for the bill, and ask for Jindal’s assistance therefore in expressing the will of the legislative majority by use of his veto on the measure.

    Given his spectacular misjudgment on the issue, a mere statement by Hoffman – or by any others – insufficiently restores confidence among the people. Only by taking action to head off the bill becoming law – as Jindal has gutlessly said he will let it become law if it is the will of the Legislature – can he and others show that, at least partially and finally, they seem to get it and deserve to be public servants.

    22.6.08

    Corporate welfare film tax break needs to sunset

    Last summer, Shreveport Mayor Cedric Glover led a caravan to Baton Rouge, to lobby for legislation relevant to the movie-making industry that has proliferated in the past couple of years in the city. That he felt the trip necessary seems a testament to a lack on his part of planning or influence, or perhaps both, but, more importantly, as a protest against larger trends.

    The journey came about because one of the legal incentives that has done so much to boost the Shreveport metropolitan area’s filmmaking by law expires at the end of the year and area political and industry figures are concerned. The law allows a tax break that repays 40 percent, or up to $25 million, for movie industry building and renovation projects. More recently, a legislative panel heard testimony about controversial implementation aspects of the law.

    Glover and others only publicly became concerned about this only in the spring, when they concluded that the non-fiscal nature of this year's legislative session precluded legislation directly renewing the credit. It will expire before the Legislature meets next year for its fiscal session. Thus, the only real way to get the law reenacted they figured would be through a special session and that was part of the purpose of the trip, besides trying to raise general awareness of the law and more broadly the movie industry in northwest Louisiana.

    But Louisiana already has had two special sessions this year, memorably before the just-ended regular session, so why didn’t Glover (a former legislator who voted on these breaks originally) and members of the delegation contact Gov. Bobby Jindal and ask him to slip in the item particularly for the second of those sessions, on the expenditure of surplus funds? Others were able to get some of their special items included in that call. In fact, with the exception of state Rep. Patrick Williams, members of the area delegation have shown little public enthusiasm for the renewal idea.

    This could mean that Glover et al. simply dropped the ball, realizing this credit was due to expire too soon for their liking only until it was too late. However, more likely the idea falters as it gets only a lukewarm reception from the rest of the state. The infrastructure portion of the credit potentially affects only a few areas of Louisiana, the metropolitan areas (the other part of the credit applies to non-structural aspects of a movie production and can be spread about more easily). There’s no separate statistics for facilities and production but together in 2006-07 they accounted for payouts of about $23.5 million in income tax returns and around $77.5 million in credits.

    In essence, the rest of the state transfers tens of millions of dollars annually to a handful of facilities located almost exclusively in the greater New Orleans area and the Shreveport and Baton Rouge metropolitan areas (although Lafayette is starting to make a run for this), permanent structures that will pad the state’s tax coffers as a whole but much more disproportionately that area’s and they may not be so keen on subsidizing that. Compounding the reluctance is that by the end of this year, it is estimated that the credit may have outlived its usefulness.

    A 2006 report for the state noted that by then the amount of expected production facilities in the state would meet or exceed the predicted need for them. While only a projection, policy-makers may fear that the continued subsidization of these may be a poor return on taxpayers dollars if underutilized facilities result.

    After all, what the credits do is with taxpayers’ money stimulate an industry that otherwise probably would not come here. Perhaps it’s sour grapes, but the remark of the head of Austin’s Film Commission has uncomfortable truth to it, even as in terms of costs and convenience many producers find filming around Shreveport attractive: “My old line is that there's a reason they pay you to film in Shreveport, which is: It's Shreveport. It's easier to get talent to come to Austin or Texas. Do you want to spend six months in Bossier City or six months in Austin?”

    Executive producers may issue veiled warnings about how they may be willing to offer some money to build studios in Shreveport but will withhold bigger commitments unless the infrastructure credit stays on the books, but in the end it’s just corporate welfare and handouts courtesy of taxpayer largesse forecast to cause saturation of the market. It’s particularly trenchant when benefits of whoever survives that kind of shakeout largely will be confined to a few areas. From the perspective of most of the state, and even from that of the individual Louisiana taxpayer anywhere looking for wise use of his hard-earned bucks, these credits need to disappear to allow markets without interference to decide.