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26.2.09

Democrats, some pundits confused about Jindal refusal

There seems to be confusion not just in the offices of Democrat politicians, but among pundits (and in the press) in understanding just what is the impact of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s rejection of about $98 million of federal funds courtesy of the recently passed federal spending law. Proper understanding of it all is essential to judging Jindal’s intent and motive behind the refusal.

As detailed elsewhere, Jindal refused the funds he said because they could create an enduring additional claim on state funds beyond the next two years when that federal funding ran out. He has hinted elsewhere that philosophical differences about increased business taxation lay at the root of his rejecting, implying additionally a difference in the meaning of unemployment assistance (that it was a backdoor way to undo welfare reform) also was a concern. This is because in order to implement the expanded version of unemployment benefits called for under the bill, which would allow part-timers and some who voluntarily left work and could refuse to look for it to claim benefits, Louisiana law would have to change.

Proving she had not read the bill (meaning being a member of the vast majority in her party before voting for it), Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu at first said such a legal change could be accomplished by a law with a sunset provision, i.e. with a termination date that would require a new law to continue it. Then she backed away from that misstatement and her office admitted the new law forbade such state responses where a legal change was necessary, but said the state could then repeal a legal change after the money ran out. This is disingenuous; Democrats know once benefits are granted, the constituencies that receive them or who politically profit from them (in this case, liberal Democrats) make it difficult if not impossible to reverse them. Bad for them, Jindal knows it, too.

But some pundits have seized upon another portion of the law to create an erroneous impression of what could happen next. It permits the reception of funds regardless of a governor’s if within 45 days of offer a state legislature votes by concurrent resolution (a majority of each house in Louisiana) to accept it. They mistakenly believe that then the money could be spent for its intended purpose.

This shows a lack of understanding of what the grant system is and its relationship to the law. The grant system is a modified principal-agent system that can get very complicated because federal and/or state laws apply in differing areas, sometimes simultaneously. Typically, the federal government will promise states a certain amount of money if they perform a certain task over which they, not the federal government, have authority. The federal government in these instances cannot create a mandate on states to perform such an action, and this section of the new law is no exception in its language that statutory change of state law must occur for funds to be transferred to it for this purpose (in that transfer is prohibited unless state law allows for its use as intended in the federal law).

And Louisiana law prohibits this use. R.S. 23:1601 appears as the relevant statute, which instructs that benefit ineligibility occurs when someone leaves “employment from a base period or subsequent employer without good cause attributable to a substantial change made to the employment by the employer,” and except for narrowly defined situations unrelated to the new federal law, someone who does not actively seek work on a weekly basis also is ineligible. This law must be changed in order to accept the money.

Laws in Louisiana cannot be changed by concurrent resolutions. The most important distinction is that the governor must sign legislation, or if vetoed this must be overridden by a two-thirds vote of each chamber. Therefore, the legislature could pass as many concurrent resolutions as it wants on the matter, but the federal law itself prohibits the state receiving the money unless the state law itself has changed. This is known by legislators and explains why none have called for such a measure since Jindal announced his refusal.

Yet this understanding eluded the grasp of some writers, which led one who supported Jindal’s move to lament how he could be sidestepped by the Legislature, while another who has been visibly jaundiced against Jindal ever since Jindal became a force to be reckoned with Louisiana politics thundered about how Jindal was using this as a political stunt that would not accomplish anything. Besides the question of grants and the law, neither also correctly understands Jindal’s intent and motive (and further make the questionable assumption that the Legislature would pass this: such a resolution would be favored to get out of the state Senate, but the partisan and ideological composition of the House would make it a crapshoot to succeed there).

That section in the federal law would apply only in the instances where a state already may permit this kind of eligibility (or perhaps where citizen initiative could get it on the books fast enough) that could prevent a governor against the idea from formally rejecting funds if a favorable legislature will go against him. For those states that do not permit this by law, it stands as an incentive to change it. But with his veto power, Jindal’s not going to let it happen in Louisiana.

No, Jindal is not doing this to tilt at windmills and/or accrue political credit from his Republican base. He is doing it because he can and he believes in it. Thankfully, he’s done his homework on this and thereby the state will be better off for his wise decision.

24.2.09

Uninspiring Jindal delivered competent, needed message

Gov. Bobby Jindal turned in a forensically lackluster performance with his first shot at a truly nationwide audience but where mattered more he did well with a tough hand.

Tapped to give the official Republican response to Pres. Barack Obama’s first primetime nationwide speech, using mostly his own words, without the pomp of the House of Representatives chamber and contrasted to a consummate speaker whose message is echoed uncritically by the media and often unchallenged by his Jindal’s own party. It was a tall order and Jindal didn’t hit a home run by any means.

Still, the message wasn’t bad. It is difficult to introduce much in the way of deep philosophy in a span of 10 minutes with 50 minutes of Obama’s ground to cover and Jindal refrained from his usual machine-gun delivery which may have caused him to come off as uninspiring, but the text was solid. He emphasized Republican willingness to work with Democrats but when principles clashed they would not hesitate to oppose, with that principle being Democrats were more trusting of government to provide solutions to American’s problems than in Americans themselves. Empowering government, not people, was not the way to go, he reminded.

He did draw upon some Louisiana experiences such as how taxes were cut here while Obama promised to raise them (and he correctly noted it was a collective, bipartisan effort last year and did not give himself undue credit for it), and made an intriguing connection between ethics reform and the rushed spending bill that became law last week, implying that Democrats’ bludgeoning the bill through without any Republican input or even chance to review it in its entirety was an kind of ethical lapse. This shows Jindal still will rely heavily on the cachet of those reforms as a selling point for him and his party.

He also obliquely disputed some of Obama’s less credible statements, such as when Obama insisted there was no pork in the spending bill, Jindal refuted that with examples. He echoed Obama on a very few occasions, such as with charter school support.

It wasn’t an inspiring performance but was competent. And lest anyone think it would diminish his stature as a leading Republican for national influence, recall that at the 1988 Democrat convention the prime speaking slot was mangled into a dull spectacle by a young Southern governor that led some to predict he had no future on the national stage. That butcher was Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

Conservative critics of Jindal may forget larger perspective

Gov. Bobby Jindal will give the official Republican response to Pres. Barack Obama’s speech tonight, in part because he has become a favorite of conservative standard-bearers both formerly inside (ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich) and outside (talk show host Rush Limbaugh) of the GOP. But some Louisiana conservatives have grown to dislike Jindal, so it’s instructive to understand why many leading national lights of conservatism find Jindal so compelling, while some lesser but local lights of it don’t.

Jindal’s record is his record regardless of who you are, and all concerned are familiar with it over the past year:

  • His first action upon assuming the governorship was minor reductions in personnel and spending of state government. Later, critics would say this didn’t do a whole lot and that numbers of personnel employed by the state actually went up, even though the full-time equivalent number of positions over which the state spent its non-federal revenues Jindal actually did reduce in his initial budget.
  • Jindal started with ethics reform that substantially tightened regulations and also depoliticized the adjudication process. But critics argue Jindal, who put forward the recommendations, did not go far enough and they did not like the fact that enforcement standards were taken out of the hands of gubernatorial appointees, and he tolerated a change (admittedly in line with many other states) that raised the burden of proof to find violations
  • Next, Jindal pushed through a package that allocated some $1 billion of surplus money to long-term projects like coastal restoration and minor shoring of unfunded liabilities, but spent the majority on public works projects. Critics said much more could have been used to pay down debt and/or provide a one-time tax rebate. They also complained that any spending was excessive if it broke the state’s spending cap regardless of the nature of the spending.
  • Jindal also got removed a few inefficient taxes on business to the tune of about $100 million. His critics noted this was an acceleration and expansion of moves begun by former Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
  • With current state spending, Jindal produced a budget that was lower in overall size because of a large reduction in federal recovery dollars but represented a small increase in spending of state resources, in the process removing a large portion of one-time funds budgeted to recurring activities (although he did not go as far as legislative leaders wanted). Critics said he too often took credit for the overall reduction while ignoring the increase of state spending from increased state revenues, and he really should have been cutting the size of state spending over the previous year.
  • Despite saying that he hoped to cut income taxes during his term, Jindal at best initially was lukewarm to a proposal to do just that early in it. Eventually he came around but his critics said he should have led the charge from the start. They also accused him of allowing House Speaker Jim Tucker to put in a provision to force employers to withhold the new lower amount not at the beginning of 2009, but no earlier than the middle, meaning this reduced withholding would not happen automatically but would have to be requested by individuals who qualified unless they were content with waiting for it to be calculated as part of their tax settlements in 2010.

    Certainly Jindal has not been a perfect conservative on every issue. For some things he could cite extenuating circumstances, such as his hesitancy over the individual income tax cut was due to a realization that the false economic boom of the state for a couple of years after the 2005 hurricane disasters came from a massive unloading of federal money into the state and a cut would take a couple of years before the higher revenues from increased economic activity would offset the temporary decrease in revenues from the cut. Sometimes he had to cut deals with the Legislature such as preventing use of surplus monies to full fund the Budget Stabilization Fund which would have eased the state’s budgetary problems this year that Jindal then knew were on the way. In other ways he has some blind spots, such as inflating an economic development fund to attract employers that has had no successes to date and only masks the state’s economic development ills rather than cures them. And in some ways Jindal also has been underappreciated by conservatives; no governor has done more to enact school choice, for example, than Jindal.

    But simultaneously it’s obvious that Jindal’s record on the whole is conservative and that he got things done which had not been. Not even his staunchest conservative critics can credibly argue that any previous governor would have embraced and done most of the things Jindal has done. Even if it fell short of an ideal, no governor had made ethics reform a priority. Except in recessionary times, past governors seldom presented budgets to reduce government FTE positions paid by non-federal dollars. It had been almost two decades since priority was placed on matching recurring expenditures to recurring revenues. It’s unbelievable that the likes of Blanco and her predecessors would not have shot down the individual income tax cut the minute it hit committee, but Jindal was so torn between tax-cutting instincts and fiscal imperatives that he eventually went for the former that would create a bigger short-term headache for him with the latter.

    These are the actions of a conservative and represent the first real break from the populist strain that ran through the fiber of even past Republican governors, all of whom argued at least at one point for tax increases which Jindal repeatedly has rejected as a fiscal tool. If Jindal does not maximize in all areas conservative, it also is worth remembering that the most significant conservative (as well as one of the most important and outstanding historically) president of our time, Ronald Reagan, pursued some policies that were not conservative, such as hiking payroll taxes and disaplying insufficient will in cutting government domestic spending; by these metrics, Jindal would be considered the more conservative of the two.

    So why have some conservatives become such harsh critics of Jindal? It’s probably no accident that national conservatives tend to see the sum of Jindal as a whole because they are more distant from the immediacy of the political conflicts within the state. Those more on the scene are more tempted to infuse larger importance to each and every issue and make them more personal. Thus, all victories and disappointments become huge, but the latter loom larger because they fail to match an ideal that is unlikely to exist anywhere in politics in a pure form. (Jindal perhaps bears some of the blame for arousing passionate disappointments when they come because his rhetoric tends to the grandiose in describing principle when articulating policy.)

    Perhaps the major reason why conservatism presents a much more valid understanding of human beings than liberalism is it is based upon fact and logic uncluttered by emotion. When conservatives, out of passion whenever a conservative politician fails to reach their ideal, begin to lose perspective on the bigger picture encompassing the ideological credentials of such an official, while their criticisms remain valuable the quality of their judgment of that politician’s policy contributions declines.

    Maybe a good way to view this is to ask both conservative supporters and detractors of Republican Jindal whether they would trade him for Democrat Obama, or Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Democrat Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, or even to bring back Blanco to run Louisiana. Surely it’s certain none would want that. They may not even want to swap him with the likes of Republican Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour or Republican Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

    Jindal is not the Messiah (Obama seems to have taken that job in the minds of many, anyway). But neither is he unworthy of conservatives’ support, given a clear-headed analysis of his record.
  • 23.2.09

    Grade inflation report sends signal to LA policy-makers

    A new publication by the invaluable American Council for Trustees and Alumni hopefully will start a necessary debate on grading policies in Louisiana universities, especially as Gov. Bobby Jindal has indicated his desire to see university performance used as a benchmark for their funding.

    ACTA notes grade inflation increasingly is becoming a problem in universities, something I have observed anecdotally in my 22 years of college teaching. Particularly resonant is the expectation that a ‘C’ no longer is viewed as average work, but as substandard. I have seen this taken to ridiculous lengths (more than one instructor I have known regularly gave 80-90 percent of classes grades of ‘A’) but it reaches travesty when, as the report notes, one institution has to tell its instructors to give no more than 35 percent of a class ‘A’ grades (my personal average is in the 12 percent range).

    Part of the problem is attitudinal, both on the part of faculty members and students. Some of the former simply are lenient in the way they view grading, but in recent years probably more pressure has come from the latter. Particular to Louisiana, the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students that pays for in-state college tuition, one part of which is graduating with a decently-high grade point average which pressures high school teaches to inflate grades, builds up unrealistic expectations of grades for some students given their actual abilities that then carries over to college. Part of it also might be the larger creeping entitlement mentality found increasingly pervasively in the student population which dissociates performance from ability and links it to desire, which pressures college faculty members into giving higher grades.

    Attitudes of the “clients” are difficult to change in the short term, but policy change short of quotas can deal effectively with this problem. Faculty members who respect standards and understand that a fair by firm grading policy can promote more and better learning may be able to resist blandishments by students to devalue the system, but when it hits their pocketbooks it may become an entirely different matter. For example, where I teach roughly 30 to 40 percent of the evaluation of a faculty member’s performance is done solely on scores on student evaluations, and research continually reaffirms that students who think they will get higher grades rate instructors more highly. These evaluations are used to dole out pay raises (which actually don’t come very often) so every incentive is created for instructors to inflate grades to improve evaluation scores in the hopes of bigger raises.

    An example of what could be done to minimize these incentives is each discipline graduating students in a major field of study should have (where possible, and for most it is) administered a subject area test to its graduates who would be required to take it for graduation (but not have to attain any certain score on it). Then disciplines could be graded on how well prepared their graduates are and an overall university score developed for use in funding decisions. This creates rewards for rigor and excellence that the institution will want to enforce. (It also will create an extra expenditure, but those costs could be reasonably restricted by capping at five students per major test taking with those chosen by lottery.)

    Therefore, if Jindal pursues his agenda of tying college funding to things like graduation rates, which obviously increase as do grades, he will have to recognize that as long as Louisiana public universities do not address the causes of grade inflation through policies that neither encourage it nor allow for pressure to produce it, that effort will not create more and better graduates that he sees as instrumental to economic development.

    22.2.09

    Jindal shows astuteness, critics obtuseness, on spending

    In case you didn’t already know, comments made by some state elected officials about Gov. Bobby Jindal’s refusal to accept some federal dollars courtesy of the recently-passed spending package confirmed that there is no IQ test required to run for their offices, but ideological rigidity is more than welcome.

    Jindal turned back over $98 million which would have gone to paying benefits to people who quit their jobs for various reasons and to part-time workers. He said he did so for purely fiscal reasons, because the federal subsidy would halt after two years and if the state changed its laws to allow this it would then be on the hook for paying this extra amount. This legally would require a tax increase on business, which funds unemployment insurance. It also reduced the work length requirement to three months, making it much easier for people to game the system.

    What he tried to delicately avoid in this argument is there is a policy component to it all. Changing the law to alter the eligibility for these funds would connote a policy change, because unemployment insurance payment throughout its history has made no distinction about the reason for leaving a job, only if it was not instigated by a full-time, long-time worker. In other words, this part of the law (as well as many other parts) is an attempt to undo welfare reform, which over a decade ago ended the practice of lifetime supplementary benefits for those that did not earn income, and for Louisiana to change the law to fit it would endorse this unraveling. While Jindal may not want to admit that his resistance is based upon the idea that able-bodied people should not be paid not to work, that is its practical import.

    Then the dunderhead chorus piped up:
  • Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu incredulously equated the entire flawed spending bill with the interests of the state, noted Republican opposition to it, and then stated, “Those interests don’t always line up. It puts the governor at risk of sending mixed messages.… Louisiana should be very aggressive in going to get this money.”
  • State Sen. Lydia Jackson couldn’t grasp grant procedures in opining, “How do we tell Washington that we don’t want this money but that we want other sources of federal aid?”
  • State Sen. Robert Adley got confused about the entire grant philosophy when he argued, “Our issue is that it is tax money that has been sent there by the taxpayers of Louisiana and we should get our fair share.”

    Let’s deal with this ignorance one remark at a time, using Jindal’s statement on the matter as a starting point: “The federal government, Congress, it’s their right to go and say, ‘We will give you these dollars if you make these changes.’ It’s also our right to say, ‘We don’t think this change is good for Louisiana.’ ” And in this case, he is absolutely right about the undesirability of this particular change, so not only does Landrieu creates a false dichotomy when he equates the spending as in the state’s interest and only partisan considerations triggering opposition, he is exactly wrong in not admitting the long-term impact of the law will be to harm the state. There are no mixed messages here at all: rejecting much of the bill (if Jindal had been really bold he would have included other rejections like extension of unemployment benefits and increased amounts that only will delay recovery by creating incentives not to work) is in the best interests of the state and Landrieu appears entirely confused about this.

    Jackson’s comment shows, despite years in elective office, that she has no idea how all of this works. Jindal’s statement speaks equally to her denseness as well in that states legally are perfectly free to refuse federal money, an obtuseness on her part born of her liberal political ideology that demands the maximal spending of money by government because in its removal of resources from the people and redistribution by government of them it gives politicians like her more power and privilege. In other words, the statement reflects such a narrow-mindedness that she cannot consider for one moment why government should refuse spending money (unless perhaps it’s on something necessary like national defense which doesn’t transfer money to a preferred constituency).

    Adley, also a veteran legislator, shows more philosophical then procedural vapidity concerning the grant process but betrays the same liberal mentality that it is government’s primary job to take money from some and give it to others. A “fair share” exists only when it benefits all citizens equally, but that’s clearly not the case with the rejected funds which would have gone from the broader, working population that pays most taxes to a small segment that would choose not to work and thereby pay little in taxes. There is no “fairness” to that arrangement at all. Even more disturbingly, Adley seems to promote the idea that a state should accept funds regardless of their purpose without some examination of the policy behind it. For example, just because it was there would Adley accept increased federal funding devoted to abortion if the federal government mandated that it go to more killings of the unborn?

    Sadly, too many of our elected officials in Louisiana display such sub-par mental acuity in evaluating important issues of the day. Unable to think critically, they fall back upon simplistic ideology. Happily, Jindal can think for himself. He is to be applauded for making the right call, and let us hope he is as vigilant regarding all aspects of this injurious new law.