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31.12.08

Jindal uses cuts to advance reform agenda sooner

Gov. Bobby Jindal swung the budget axe and largely hit some unneeded trim. More importantly, some of the cuts, triggered by a $341 million current-year deficit, began to shape things into a more fiscally sound posture that he has advertised was a priority for him in governance.

By law, Jindal could cut up to three percent of the budget with no more than three percent from any budget unit. That made up a little less than half of the projected general fund deficit (doubled in relative terms since half of the year’s spending already has occurred at the higher levels) so technically the remainder of his suggestions still wait legislative approval. However, because the total deficit exceeds 0.7 percent, he also was allowed to go beyond just the fund in deficit, the general fund of which almost three-quarters of all appropriations go to health care and higher education, and make cuts in other dedicated funds – a panoply of appropriations attached to a certain revenue source or drawn from a revenue source or to satisfy a bookkeeping or legal requirement – of up to five percent.

In doing so, since these funds go certain activities, in essence Jindal told the departments with access to the funds to perform the same functions with less, absorbing a cut in operations. Although this constituted only about seven percent of the total, it increased flexibility and the necessity for the general fund to absorb everything (not all dedicated funds got the maximum cut; some didn’t get cut at all). Jindal also targeted strategically cuts within the general fund programs that will constitute $317 million or so of them.

How he did it was instructive. By the ratios of general fund spending, $252 million should have been pared from health care and higher education, but targeting cuts put the final total at only about $173 million. Some of this could be achieved by the hiring freeze earlier instituted also allowed by law which reached all sectors of government, not just those dependent in any way upon the general fund, but the remainder of it did not follow what some had advised, across-the-board measures.

Smartly, Jindal used this power to promote his agenda, in a way getting an opportunity early to shape parameters of the kinds of reform he wants to bring to these areas. In higher education, for example, he backed up his assertion that the most important area of development was in community colleges and technical schools by leaving them out of the cuts.

In health care, he showed that efficiency was going to be injected into the system even if some interests would get a smaller portion of the pie as a result. For example, he signaled reality had arrived more quickly that thought by instituting a measure he had talked of in reference to overall reform of the Medicaid system scheduled to commence in 18 months, limiting non-vital prescriptions paid for monthly from eight to five a person. He also began to reduce incentives towards institutionalization by sensibly cutting the state’s reimbursement rate for facilities that have residents who leave for short periods, instead of paying at the full 100 percent as has been custom. (Hopefully, reductions in waiver programs that also work as incentive not to institutionalize individuals that can be cared for in the community won’t sabotage this effort.) He also placed reductions on medical provision that have been identified as inefficiently used, either by lowering rates or by changing procedures.

In other areas, he looked to eliminate what seemed to be duplicative, not needed at the current level of consumption, or where federal dollars could be eased in. There will be some retrenchment in areas some people find beneficial. For example, prisoners and the indigent who need mental health services in some places will have to suffer more inconvenience in gaining physical access to those services, and the Department of Social Services will continue its hiring freeze the remainder of the budget year as positions come open, stretching its human resources further.

As it was, Jindal created opportunity out of crisis. Those who believe that state government, which features higher spending and personnel per capita than most states, should go on a diet by eating less (by cutting taxes) and exercise (to reduce its size) should be pleased by his actions and recommendations. Additionally, those who believe in certain priorities – education continue as unmolested as possible, restructuring of health care to promote efficiency without reduction in service, downsizing or elimination of low-payoff programs, aligning demand with resources – should take heart in his chopping block list. While nobody likes to see budgetary problems, the silver lining for Jindal and supporters of this agenda is that it allows him to commence reform efforts sooner and with less opposition (driven by the imperative of the crisis), and he appears to have done so in carrying out his duty.

30.12.08

Protests designed to hide Constitutional subversion

It’s a clever tactic by supporters of legally-sanctioned homosexual relations, but if it is the will of the people of Louisiana, this agenda may be derailed.

As consumers of what passes as “news,” observers always should wonder when something becomes declared “newsworthy” by the media that doesn’t seem to have any real cause or impetus behind it. Such was this story about how a state board, after its existence of seven years, and about a year after election of socially conservative Gov. Bobby Jindal who appoints it members, suddenly has gotten worried promoters of legally-sanctioned homosexual relations.

The Commission on Marriage and Family has seldom conducted any activities, but Jindal has expressed interest in activating it and its nominal head state Sen. Sharon Weston Broome has scheduled a meeting of it. Jindal released an executive order on Aug. 22 re-establishing it. In October, he appointed its members. But only now does it seem to be drawing the alarm of some homosexual advocacy groups, which claim now it could be used as some kind of political cover for an “attack” of homosexuals adopting a child. They argue too many religious conservatives appear to be on this panel and, even though not a word has been uttered indicating any disapproval of these kinds of adoptions, that now it’s something to be worried about because the people of Arkansas in November voted to make unconstitutional such arrangements and the Commission could conceivably promote a similar policy.

This is an odd rationale. The Commission can do nothing but recommend, but somehow its opponents think a pronouncement by it on the issue would engender enough political power as to sweep the state into also making unconstitutional unmarried couples being able to adopt jointly. Yet there’s no real reason this has to happen: if enough of the people and political elites think this such a measure is good public policy, they don’t need a commission to tell them that and get them going to achieve it.

The timing of this complaint also is extremely curious. Why complain now? If these groups had stated publicly their concerns with the re-establishment in August (with the order itself extolling the virtues of marriage only between a man and woman, overwhelmingly approved by Louisianans into the Constitution years ago), or when the Commission’s composition was determined in October, or when Arkansas acted in November, that might make sense. But why go public, seemingly without warning, at the end of December?

Even more intriguing is, by law, just as same-sex marriage was ratified as unconstitutional, many years before that the Louisiana Legislature prohibited unmarried couples from adopting. Act 235 from 1991 created Article 1198 of the Children’s Code which unambiguously states that, outside of intrafamily or agency adoptions, “A single person, eighteen years or older, or a married couple jointly may petition to adopt a child through an agency.” Legally, this idea the groups see as problematic is a nonissue: the only couples that may adopt in Louisiana are married, and since same-sex couples cannot marry, such couples cannot adopt. What these groups complain about being attenuated already is banned by law, so why are they complaining? And the law still permits a single homosexual parent to adopt, so where’s the problem?

The answer lies in a little-noticed court decision made days ago. In New York, where same-sex couple adoptions are allowed, two men sued Louisiana to have the birth certificate of an adoptive child born in the state altered to put both of their names on it. Louisiana allows adoptive parents on the official birth certificate to have their name(s) and seals the original. However, R.S. 40:79 makes clear that “If the child is adopted by a married couple, the names of both parties shall be recorded as the parents …” and “If the child is adopted by a single person, the word ‘adopted’ may be written on the new birth certificate if the adopting parent requests it, otherwise no such wording shall be imprinted on the document and the name of the single adopting parent shall be recorded on the new birth certificate.” In other words, state law does not anticipate putting a non-married couple’s names on the document.

U.S. Eastern Louisiana District Judge Jay Zainey (a 2002 appointee of Pres. George W. Bush) ruled that since the adoption was legal in New York and that Louisiana allowed adoptive parents’ names on certificates, that the state would have to accommodate even though an attorney general’s opinion on the ambiguity ruled that the state did not have to put both names. This is a federal question since it involved the “full faith and credit” clause of the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, the only way it would appear that the state could prevent this would be a law or amendment that specifies that unmarried couples cannot adopt, as opposed to listing that only married couples or single individuals may do so.

And that’s what advocates of legalized homosexual unions are afraid of. With this ruling, despite the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, some privileges of marriage are being conveyed to same-sex couples. Consider: what if these two men decided to move to Louisiana? Because of this ruling, regarding the welfare of the child (the men argued in their court briefing health care benefits could be denied relative to the child) this same-sex union would have equal footing with constitutional marriage. It’s a back door way of forcing benefits associated with marriage to be granted to same sex pairs, contravening the Constitution.

Unless that is taken care of legally or constitutionally. It’s not a commission making recommendations that they fear, but that the import of an event, this decision relative to existing adoption and records law and the impact on same-sex unions, that has them worried. Thus, they went public when word of this court decision got out in order to defuse the situation and to deflect attention from this, using the Commission and the passage of the Arkansas amendment as excuses. They didn’t want anybody connecting the dots that could allow this new loophole to continue undisturbed

Such tactics should not distract those who believe public policy should grant no special privileges to people of the same sex who decide they want to live together and call themselves united in some fashion. If they can muster a majority, they need to have legislation passed or an amendment ratified to negate this end run around the Constitution.

29.12.08

New numbers empower Vitter, marginalize Melancon

The irony of it all is that as Democrats prepare to wield more power in Washington, in Louisiana the biggest loser from this will be its sole Democrat member while the biggest beneficiary will be its most high-profile Republican.

One might think Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon might be in a good position given the takeover of the White House by his party and a stronger majority in the Congress. The fabulously do-nothing 110th Congress run by Democrats, which when it tried to do something substantive typically sent extremist legislation blocked by Pres. George W. Bush’s veto, gave Congress the lowest public opinion approval ratings in history. But with him out of the way, the floodgates may open allowing Melancon and his ilk greater leeway than ever (as long as they hold on to that power which, if they serve up the same kind of legislation they have been proposing, unless it tries to structurally change electoral politics in Democrats’ favor such as by the misnamed Employee Free Choice Act, won’t be long).

But his problem is that things got too good for Democrats. Melancon often argues his affiliation with the liberal Democrats, not liked by a majority in the state (and whose presidential candidate got about 35 percent of the vote in Melancon’s Third District), is tempered by his fiscal conservatism. He will claim that it’s not a contradiction to put him into office because he can help moderate the more extremist tendencies of his party. It’s an assertion that next year he will have a much more difficult time conveying convincingly.

In the 111th Congress, the self-proclaimed fiscal conservative Democrat “blue dogs” will have about 50 of the about 257 Democrats in the House. With a majority (assuming all present) of 218 in order to win votes, for the fiscal and in every way liberal Democrat House leadership because of absences and defectors, they won’t need Melancon or his colleagues to pass legislation and therefore will not moderate it. In the 110th, their votes were sometimes crucial but that not being the case any more, their influence will go down.

At the same time, Republican Sen. David Vitter’s influence will go up, and for the opposite reason. Being in the smallest minority now than ever before, as a member of the opposition Vitter has greater freedom than ever to make a name for himself within it precisely because the opposition does not have the responsibility to govern. Utilizing the power of filibuster and cloture along with other Republicans, Vitter can publicly lambaste the harebrained schemes likely to emerge from the 111th Congress and have a visible hand in stopping them, gaining large credit back home for doing so.

Melancon, by contrast, will be tarred with every bad decision made in Congress. And to add to the irony, this will impede him as he contemplates taking on in 2010 Vitter who will be gaining strength with the same dynamics. As a result, in the next two years expect a lot of vocal opposition from Vitter, while Melancon stays as far away as possible from discussing policy desires of his party and confines his remarks mainly to how much pork he brings his district.

28.12.08

Calendar militates against Jindal 2012 White House run

As speculation flies about potential national aspirations of Gov. Bobby Jindal, one thing often left out in the equation is the electoral calendar particularly is unsuitable for getting himself elected to a second term as governor and making a stab at the presidency in 2012.

As anyone who has paid attention to national politics over the past two years can relate, running for the presidency is a full time job starting at least two years out from the election. The 2008 election had particularly two newer trends that exacerbated the problem even more. One was the abandonment of public funding by serious presidential candidates in order to raise more money than ever, which takes additional time of a candidate, and the other was the most front-loaded primary schedule ever which mandates more work earlier in a campaign.

Senators who may oversee a few dozen people at most and whose only responsibility is to cast votes have the luxury of time to campaign while on the job, and the president and vice president have huge staffs and resources to help the president out with his far more numerous tasks (the vice president hardly has any, of course). But governors are another matter, who have to run a state and largely must keep state and national issues separate which makes their time campaigning for national office at a premium. It’s no accident that since the beginning of the Depression only five sitting governors were able to get a major party nomination for the presidency and just three have won, the last being Bill Clinton in 1992.

And these governors typically have an advantage that Jindal will not – about three-quarters of them are selected in off-years for presidential elections, so that they can run for reelection and as soon as that is complete, they could pick up running for the White House. Jindal will not have that opportunity since Louisiana is joined only by Mississippi in having its statewide elections in the third year of a quadrennial presidential cycle, a year later than most. In Louisiana, Jindal could get elected in October, 2011 and then face the beginning of presidential preferences primaries less than three months later, while other Republicans will have been campaigning exclusively for the presidency for months, perhaps even years. Jindal can’t, because he cannot be seen as ignoring state issues when running for reelection.

One could argue that Jindal might have that luxury. Right now, Democrat officials are whistling into a hurricane if they think Jindal will lose in 2011. Only unless Jindal proves utterly incapable of helping to fashion a fiscal solution to the current budgetary crisis would he stand any chance of not being reelected. No Republican that could win will run against him, and Democrats have few they could put up against him with any legitimate chance to win.

(Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu would rather be mayor of New Orleans in 2010 and if he can’t get that, he’s not going to give up his safe position to go up against Jindal. Atty. Gen. Buddy Caldwell is too old and low profile to seriously contest Jindal. Rep. Charlie Melancon probably will try for Sen. David Vitter’s seat knowing he could be redistricted out of his House job, but if he can’t beat Vitter in 2010, there’s no way he’ll beat Jindal in 2011. Sen. Mary Landrieu would not want to leave the gig she has.)

But neither will Democrats give Jindal the luxury of an easy run that could allow him to think of piggybacking a presidential candidacy on a gubernatorial one. Democrat operatives at all levels know how dangerous Jindal is to them nationally and they aren’t going to give him a pass at the state level to bolster his national stature. When the most competitive Democrats pass on the election, look for the party regulars to throw a sop to blacks by backing up a black candidate who cannot win, such as what occurred in the Seventh District this past fall and at the gubernatorial level in 1999. This move serves the dual purpose of placating black Democrat officials, as the whites running the party take for granted black votes but when this becomes too obvious it results in revolts such as state Rep. Michael Jackson’s independent bid for Congress in the Sixth District this year. If state Democrats know they will lose, at least they can take the opportunity to throw some bones to that part of their neglected base.

So even if Democrats back someone with really no chance to win, Jindal still will have to work at his reelection which will obviate any presidential campaigning. In this situation, the only way for Jindal to take a shot in 2012 would be to not run for reelection. While if president-elect Barack Obama does what he campaigned on the country will be in a mess by 2012, still it would be a gamble by Jindal to give away sure reelection for a chancy run at the White House.

When Jindal tells the media he’s only focusing on his present position, he very likely means it. By retiring after a presumably successful eight years in 2015, he would be set perfectly for a 2016 run if Obama somehow wins reelection (and would quiet critics about his “job-hopping”). If a Republican does win in 2012 he could challenge Landrieu in 2014 and set himself up for 2016 or 2020. These possible futures given the electoral calendar do make it unlikely that Jindal will go for the White House in 2012.