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13.11.08

LA PSC needs to focus on reforms that really matter

At its last meeting, the Louisiana Public Service Commission had a motion to slightly tighten its requirements concerning permissible lobbyist expenditures on its members behalf. It wasn’t a bad idea, but was far from what is necessary to address negative concerns raised by the most recent Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s report on the agency.

Released last month, the audit was critical on several grounds. It did recommend that instead of following state statute that public servants accept only as much as $50 worth of free food and drink per day to have a total ban on acceptance by commissioners and staff. It also pointed out several areas in which internal procedures were unclear or undocumented, and also noted that even when procedures in areas such as rate review and auditing of those charges they were not being consistently followed.

In response to the former, Commissioner Lambert Bossiere III introduced an order that would have implemented this ban on commissioners. He got fellow Democrat Foster Campbell to go along with him but the three Republican commissioners voted it down. (Incidentally, these two had the least amount of free chow given to them or their families over the 2002-mid-2006 period, although Bossiere did not assume office until 2004; Campbell was a model of economy accepting a whopping $8 worth.)

This was not a bad idea, but not only did it not include all staff members of the LPSC, it didn’t really address the most significant shortcoming of the audit – inconsistent application of rate review procedures both before and after implementation. That is, requests for rate changes and determining whether approved rates were being charged accurately in the opinion of the auditor were being handled too sketchily to ensure comprehensive information was available for setting rates and that once set these rates were actually the ones being utilized in billing.

While the Commission staff disputed many of the discoveries, a common theme concerning its admissions of shortcomings appeared to be lack of resources. These are a matter of legislative appropriation and therefore, if it is not a problem of inefficiency in their use, it is incumbent on the commissioners themselves to lobby the Legislature for more than the roughly $10 million it receives to regulate over $1 billion in utility revenues.

But the commissioners have not made any public crusade for increased funding to hire more staff to more adequately address the rate setting and monitoring tasks. Instead, this year they quietly backed a two-thirds increase of their $45,000 salaries, which Gov. Bobby Jindal wisely vetoed.

Tinkering with the minor detail of commissioner acceptance of culinary gifts is fine, but if the Commission really is serious about improving its performance, the commissioners themselves must take the lead in changing procedures and procuring necessary resources to accomplish meaningful improvement.

12.11.08

Jindal doing, saying right things for future national run

Gov. Bobby Jindal showed some great political instincts when he turned down an offer to be considered running mate to Sen. John McCain’s recently unsuccessful Republican bid for the presidency. If he is interested in further national political advancement, he’ll have to keep up his perspicacity in a different way over the next few years.

Certainly it’s correct to muse that one or more of the next great political leaders will come from the party’s gubernatorial ranks. The chances of the party retaining the White House went nearly to zero with the nomination of McCain, and also reclaiming control of Congress when GOP Congressional leaders continued to be more concerned with power than popular policy, with Jindal accurately diagnosing the problem: drifting away from its “roots” of conservative principles and limited government, allowing big government to become their focus which spawned the temptation for corrupt behavior. The party became perceived more of an ill-defined echo than a real choice compared to the empty vessel/hidden agenda strategy of the Democrats.

New leadership more conservative and less enamored with big government for the party finally looks to be emerging in Congress, but it will take time for these figures to develop national electoral constituencies and they must fight getting steamrolled by the new Democrat majority. In the meantime, governors have the stages and opportunity to display their mettle to the public. And, as has been discussed elsewhere, Jindal will have plenty of opportunity (unlikely by choice) to show his abilities.

In retrospect, Jindal accurately seems to have gauged the impact of being on the McCain ticket if he brought any political criteria into that calculus. Losing vice presidential candidates usually don’t have much of a future on the national stage, and in this case he would have been tied onto someone whose electoral philosophy was the opposite of that needed to defeat a weak opponent trying to ride favorable political tides. Now all this baggage belongs to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, although she deftly used the opportunity to demonstrate she did have the correct philosophy for victory in these times and did prove she could withstand everything the Democrats and media allies could throw at her.

But whether these strengths would be enough for her to overcome the stigma of the McCain candidacy is another matter. Her presumed frontrunner status over Jindal may have become too impugned by this association and the job the media did on her. Jindal to some degree is better positioned to withstand a media assault, having done so to a lesser extent in his gubernatorial run in an environment larger and less isolated than Alaska which itself spawned some national coverage. The Democrats with complicit media largely have missed their chance to define Jindal negatively already and this may make him preferred by Republicans over Palin in a hypothetical presidential campaign.

Jindal also showed in his comments that he is politically astute enough to acquire and use the vacuous staple of the Democrats’ main campaign theme this year, “bipartisan change.” Of course, this crops up somewhat at odds with his diagnosis of Republican Party ills, because to Democrats “bipartisan” means the GOP acquiescing to whatever Democrats want and “change” occurs by pursuing policy fundamentally philosophically different than that of the majority of the American people, featuring big government interfering more extensively in people’s lives and liberty. Perhaps if Jindal becomes more serious about pursuing national office, he may begin to speak more accurately of a conservative “restoration” of smaller government and greater individual autonomy. But for now, he seems content to borrow these phrasings.

Jindal insists he wishes to remain governor if afforded that chance by Louisiana’s electorate. But should he change his mind to aspire to higher office, so far he has done everything necessary to make him a leading, if not the leading, contender.

11.11.08

College funding plan must not subvert its own goals

The idea that Gov. Bobby Jindal has to reward colleges on the basis of results which in part can be measured by graduations is a good one. But if not done correctly and in isolation of other considerations, this reform not only will not produce better-educated students, but may produce the opposite.

Presently, the financing formula for state universities inputs the number of students. This creates incentives to get students enrolled, but does not address their successful completion of degree programs. While any education is good, the credentialing afforded by a degree makes it most desirable to have students complete them, and to emphasize to universities’ efforts to facilitate this.

But at the same time, graduation rate is an inexact measure that can punish some universities and degrade the nature of collegiate education if done improperly. It must be recognized that many students start their academic careers at one institution and finish at another and incorporate the realities of placement choices. This especially is true for the state’s urban universities of Southern University – New Orleans, the University of New Orleans, and Louisiana State University Shreveport all of which are not the flagship universities in their systems. For example, only 26.3 percent of the student cohort that started at LSUS in Fall, 2002 graduated with a baccalaureate from any state school by 2007, with about a quarter dropping out after their first year.

10.11.08

Tough times may give Jindal chance to stand out

No doubt governors would prefer to be in the shoes of Alaska’s Sarah Palin, with a budgetary state surplus especially in these times where a slowing economy that, if they do what they say, will be slowed even further by Democrat control of the federal majoritarian branches which in turn will reduce federal largesse to states. Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal does not have this luxury – which may turn out to elevate his chances for higher political office.

The long-warned bubble economy infused with recovery dollars is coming to an end in Louisiana which will test Jindal’s governing ability. Already its looming has forced Jindal into tough decisions, the highest profile of which was his hesitancy to embrace this year’s income tax cut which will only start to come to fruition next year. Many more appear to be on the way.

But if he can get the Legislature to handle it with a minimum of pain to the state, he sets himself up as a devastatingly strong candidate for the presidential ticket in 2012 as the worst nightmare for a White House incumbent of Barack Obama. If Obama and Congressional Democrat leaders do what they promised they will do, the country will be in its worst economic shape since the 1970s with a daunting “misery index” and deficits as a percentage of gross domestic product the highest since World War II. Guiding Louisiana to a better economic picture will stand in stark contrast to that.

This is where Jindal would have the edge on today’s leading Republican for the 2012 national ticket, Palin, who has show she can govern in good times for her state but not yet the bad ones. Further, to some degree the Democrats aided by the media (who treated the first female vice presidential candidate from a major party Geraldine Ferraro with skepticism, but added outright hostility to coverage of Palin) demonized Palin aided by a narrow time frame which may have created enough of a negative lasting first impression to voters that also could give Jindal the edge.

Of course, Jindal must succeed, which means producing a balanced budget that also shifts priorities to areas that appear both necessary and popular despite an environment of increasing costs in some areas and decreasing revenues. But if he does, the fear he has struck into Democrats ever since he began his political career will become their painful reality.

9.11.08

Ideas, not skin color, matter most to most LA white voters

In their enthusiasm to validate certain agendas, some observers are (again) using Louisianans’ voting behavior as a means by which to attempt to do this. Thus, it is imperative to set the record straight.

Upon observing that, according to exit polls, Sen. Barack Obama improved upon his proportion of white voters in many parts of the country but not in some deep South states such as Louisiana, some argue it was Obama’s race (officially mulatto but thought of as black) that primarily explained this. That is, vestiges of racism remained in some white Louisianans who otherwise would have voted for Obama on the basis of other qualities, according to this view.

While such a hypothesis might support a larger ideological view that racism is thereby still too ingrained in American society and therefore would justify activist government to “correct” for it, one obviously very ignored and blatant piece of evidence cannot be admitted by these advocates for it to stand: last year, an overwhelming proportion of white voters in the state touched the screen for a very dark-skinned Gov. Bobby Jindal, even when there were plenty of white alternative candidates.

This points us to the real reason behind much greater white enthusiasm for Jindal than Obama – ideology. Jindal’s Republican identification and rhetoric made clear his conservative credentials, and although Obama intentionally muddied his liberalism with generic bromides, this and his Democrat label clarified to all but the most causal voter that he was liberal. White voters in the state are overwhelmingly conservative (exit polling shows of all voters 42 percent call themselves conservative and only 16 percent liberal; half of the latter figure is probably nonwhites) and these elections have shown that they will respond accordingly if given at least minimal amounts of cues about candidates.

While undoubtedly a few whites will harbor racial prejudice in their voting behavior, the notion that it is widespread or generally significant to an election outcome cannot be sustained by the facts (as I demonstrated elsewhere), at least in Louisiana. Give Obama Jindal’s rhetoric and not only would he have done much better in the state, he would have won; paint Obama paler and little would have changed. Until analysts understand this basic truism, their conjectures on voting behavior in the Pelican State largely will be useless.