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Diversity, focus on education needed for new appointees

A graduate of Louisiana State University – Baton Rouge has written an interesting editorial that, if nothing else, provides a perfect demonstration of the parochialism that has held back higher education in Louisiana for so long.

The column concerns recent Gov. Bobby Jindal appointments to the LSU Board of Supervisors, the body that controls the Louisiana State University system comprising of LSUBR, the University of New Orleans, LSU Shreveport (my employer, who has nothing to do with this posting), LSU Alexandria, LSU Eunice, the law school, the agricultural school, two medical schools (New Orleans and Shreveport), the Health Care Services Division (the other “charity” hospitals), and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center. It makes two points, that recent Jindal appointments may have served to tilt power in the system more to him and away from system President John Lombardi, and that given one appointee is a University of Louisiana – Monroe graduate, in the words of the writer, “And there exist[sic] an opinion or two among LSU alumnus[sic] – myself included – who feel every member of the LSU Board of Supervisors should have graduated from LSU or the university's law school or its medical school.”

Concerning speculation about the impact of the appointments relevant to Lombardi, it’s true that Lombardi didn’t quite understand on which side the bread was buttered early in his tenure as he made public statements at odds with Jindal initiatives. Jindal modified them somewhat but forged ahead successfully anyway and Lombardi has grown much quieter since. The biggest battle, however, looms ahead – getting the LSU system out of the hospital business with the loss of resources, power, and prestige that comes with that in order to institute a more efficient and effective money-follows-the-person system of indigent health care. Here, it bears understanding that Lombardi merely is hired at the pleasure of the Board and will do what it wants, so if Jindal is putting people on the Board amenable to getting the state’s flagship educational system out of managing health care, Lombardi will bend in that direction.


Democrat's own money can't buy win over Scalise

When analyzing contests for the U.S. House of Representatives, casual observers easily can get confused by two things. One is that few people have a chance to win these contests without sufficient resources, and the second is it matters from where these resources come relative to other candidates. An announced 1st District candidate provides an object lesson concerning these points as they first day of qualification for federal elections commences.

One Jim Harlan announced that he is running as a Democrat (despite only until recently being registered as no party) for this spot against new incumbent Republican Rep. Steve Scalise. Further, Harlan reports $554,378 as of the end of June in his campaign account, while Scalise has less than a quarter of that in his. On the surface, this might indicate that Scalise has a tough reelection campaign ahead.

Go beneath and the reality is different. The modern rule of thumb is that, in order to be a competitive rather than novelty candidate, one must raise at least $500,000 for this kind of race. Harlan has achieved this and thus can compete and theoretically could win.

But having a realistic chance of winning is another matter, and the clearest indicator of the chances of success is how dispersed are contributions. That is, the more contributors a candidate has, the greater his chances are of winning, because contributing is the strongest sign of desire in a voter to see a candidate win and at least 95 percent of contributors to someone will end up voting for that candidate.

Checking the campaign finance reports shows Harlan largely has self-financed his effort. That half a million-plus may get him to 40 percent of the vote in a general election against Scalise, but he will need a lot more in the way of personal shows of support through others contributing to his campaign in order to get that last 10 percent-plus of the vote.

As an incumbent with a long history of support, Scalise will have enough money to win this race even if he gets outspent. The facet about campaign politics that creates the most misperception, often manifested in cries about regulating money raised and spent in campaigns, is the belief that money attracts votes and therefore causes wins. To think this reverses completely the way it actually works: money does not create quality in a candidate, but instead the quality of the candidate attracts money. Note that the quality candidate may not even have to spend a good portion of this money in order to win because he’ll win on the basis of his quality, not from votes getting “bought” by campaign spending.

Scalise is a high-quality candidate who in his short time has demonstrated high popularity in his conservative district and is receiving national attention. Harlan could spend much more of his own money and still, barring some weird, unforeseen event, have little chance of winning. Unless he starts receiving a lot more in donations from others, showing a critical mass of people think he is quality enough to have a chance against Scalise, he will end up just an annoyance to Scalise as the latter cruises to reelection.


Jindal political recovery starting but needs more action

Great out of the gate but stumbling more recently, is Gov. Bobby Jindal getting back on track to enhance his ability to lead Louisiana in the nearer term, and perhaps to take aim at loftier political ambitions?

After two successful special sessions called at his behest, during the regular session Jindal encountered difficulty with two items in particular due to apparent inattentiveness. First, he failed to get behind a needed income tax cut – in fact resisting it at first – until the very end, and since has tried clumsily to take credit for it. Second, he allowed legislators to vote themselves a hefty pay raise that put him in the awkward position of reneging on a promise to them, not to veto it, in order to fulfill a promise to voters to oppose a massive increase, taking on political damage needlessly and perhaps making more difficult getting his future agenda adopted.

But since his veto of the legislator pay raise, he seems to have gathered momentum. He cast some good line item vetoes, keeping a promise that only projects that were documented and of statewide necessity would get his assent (although it seems only the most egregious local projects were slashed by him). He also vetoed a far less publicized but just as odious pay raise for Public Service Commissioners and, living up to another campaign pledge, vetoed an attempted expansion of gambling in Iberville Parish. He generally has held the line on weakening ethics reforms such as by vetoing a bill that would have prohibited the use of anonymous information in an ethics investigation (although some exceptions have slipped by with their attachment to other pieces of legislation Jindal found laudable enough to sign).

These actions have reinforced some national predictions for Jindal to go far and succeed within conservative and Republican ranks. But success for Jindal in Louisiana, a prerequisite for any national political aspirations, will depend upon his consideration of the issues left over from this year’s sessions, addressed, manufactured, and looming.

First, Jindal must realize that the Legislature, even as he may find its independence desirable in theory, if in practice is allowed to govern without his reformist supervision that it will not veer in the policy direction he supports and hoped would happen. By now the evidence seems clear (such as by ethics backtracking and the temerity of the raise) that reformist impulses within the Legislature are insufficient to actually produce positive change without somewhat heavy-handed involvement on his part. Jindal may have thought the influx of new legislators, many of whom ran on similar reform ideas as he, would prevent this from happening, but obviously it did not. However, enough of the new with some of the old have not fallen for the siren song of power so that he can make common cause with them to help overcome distrust engendered from the pay raise handling fiasco to pass his programs.

Second, Jindal must realize his credentials for smaller government have been damaged by his late-boarding-yet-credit-taking for the tax cut. The only way to restore them to health is by his finding another such cut to enact before the end of his term, perhaps targeting this time corporate rates (more broadly than his recent pronouncement of merely looking at the usefulness of tax credits). Another thing he could do to enhance this is be even more ruthless with line item vetoes concerning the state’s appropriation bill than he was with the vetoes within the aforementioned supplemental bill.

Third, Jindal must tackle – as he has given reason to believe in recent statements – the issue area that promises the most to gain from efficiency, restructuring health care. As state revenues are predicted to slack off, hundreds of millions of dollars of spending reductions without lowering the amount or quality of service can be achieved simply by moving the state from its absurd over-reliance on institutional-based care towards money following the person meaning more community- and individual-based solutions.

His first four months in office were stellar, the next two troubled, but in his seventh month Jindal seems to be regaining his footing and following these policy paths will ensure that momentum will continue for the next year.


NW LA legislators make good, bad, and ugly choices

We’re safe again: the Louisiana Legislature has gone out of regular session for another year. But not before leaving us with some moments for pondering concerning actions of northwest Louisiana legislators (House districts 1 through 9, and Senate districts 36 through 39). So here it goes, for them the good, bad and the ugly of the 2008 session:

THE GOOD: In contrast to last year when northwest legislators produced not much of positive consequence, one of the most monumental pieces of legislation of the entire session came from state Sen. B.L. “Buddy” Shaw in the form of SB 87 which will reduce many taxpayers’ individual income taxes by as much as $500 to $1,000 a year beginning in 2009. It wasn’t easy as a lot of political intrigue surrounded the issue.

As it was, only a handful of legislators truly supported the idea behind the bill and Gov. Bobby Jindal initially opposed it. But it gained momentum when a number of legislators hostile to tax cuts seized upon and helped pass an amendment that would wipe out all individual income taxes as a poison pill to force Jindal to veto the bill given it would too quickly wrench too much revenue from state government, in order to embarrass him. Shaw, however, stuck to his guns, with help got Jindal to come on board the original concept, and got it through only delaying its implementation.

The bill provided an interesting exclamation point to Shaw’s victory in his Senate race last fall where he was massively outspent in the most expensive contest in state history. His opponents who had no Legislature experience (Shaw had served in the House) who agreed with it probably could not have steered the bill through, and his runoff opponent former state Rep. Billy Montgomery never would have brought a bill like this forward. While Shaw, who represents perhaps the most conservative district in the state, made more than one vote (most disappointingly, opposing school vouchers that would allow Orleans Parish students to enroll in any participating public or private school there which would serve to improve the quality of education parish-wide) against that sentiment in the district, his success with SB 87 well more than made up for those.

THE BAD: It wasn’t any particular bill by area legislators that really stank up the joint, it was the vote of a few on SB 672 that was bad and could have large electoral consequences for some. For the record, voting for this more-than-doubling pay raise of legislator salaries to a full-time level for Constitutionally-designated part-timers were Democrat state Reps. Roy Burrell, Barbara Norton, Patrick Williams, and Republican state Reps. Thomas Carmody and Richard Burford, Democrat state Sen. Lydia Jackson and Republican state Sen. Robert Adley. Republican state Reps. Wayne Waddell, Jane Smith, and Henry Burns voted against, while Republican state Sens. Shaw and Sherri Smith Cheek did likewise (Republican state Rep. Jim Morris was absent for the crucial vote, which for its purposes counted as a “nay.”) None subsequently declined the raise when given the option.

The Democrats should not suffer for their votes in favor of the highly unpopular bill that Jindal vetoed. Their philosophies favor bigger, more powerful government so a self-aggrandizing vote is not unusual, especially since they represent constituencies that are, judging by their voting turnouts, less attentive to and active in determining and overseeing their legislators.

But Burford, Carmody, and Adley might face major constituent problems. Carmody won a very close special election for his position and his affirmation gave major fodder to any future conservative opponent (and not helping his cause was a voting record during the session that, according to the Louisiana Legislature Log, was more on the liberal/populist side than conservative/reform) that might make him a less-than-one-term legislator.

Adley also created problems for himself by assenting on the vote, and not only because it was part of a voting record that was the most liberal/populist of any other Senate Republican save one who scored the same and that only two Democrats were more liberal/populist than Adley who represents a more conservative district. The vote made Adley look, given the firm he controls already receives hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in a no-bid contract from an association of local governments, even more eager to live off of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars.

THE UGLY: As if he needed more unfavorable publicity, Adley also captured the ugly designation with his SB 459 which would have allowed children who failed grades to participate in some interscholastic sports even though they would be overaged, brought on behalf by him for one particular constituent despite education administrators’ opposition. While the idea was that this might encourage low-performing students to stay in school, it failed completely the commonsense test that participation in athletics was to be a reward and privilege enjoyed by those who performed at least adequately (in reality, barely above miserable as the state only requires a 1.5 GPA for athletic participation) in school, not as a palliative for underachievers, and could be abused by schools to keep older players eligible longer. It’s one on which he should have passed.

That’s it for 2008; we’ll have to see what they come up with next year.