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4.4.09

Endorsement mistake continues erosion of Jindal capital

Largely of his own making, April special elections turned out to this point to be an embarrassing political setback for Gov. Bobby Jindal, answering one question yet creating another.

The outcome of the runoff for the District 16 Senate contest answered the question why Jindal took the low-payoff, high-risk strategy of announcing an endorsement before the primary election of eventual losing candidate Lee Domingue over the eventual general election runoff winner Dan Claitor in a contest that wasn’t even close. It must have been because the Domingue campaign sensed a few days prior to the primary that Domingue was in trouble, and it was believed a Jindal endorsement could salvage his chances. That it didn’t speaks volumes.

Jindal had little to gain politically by favoring one Republican over another and with Claitor’s victory now has created a legislator who will be somewhat less than gung-ho about his agenda even if they largely share policy preferences. Still undetermined is why Jindal would prefer Domingue so much to go so far out on a limb for him.

The question now remains and intensifies why Jindal, who is quite bright, continues to make political mistakes that seem easier and easier to avoid. This questionable endorsement now joins his initial resistance to last year’s individual income tax cut when it had so much enthusiasm, allowing a pay raise that would have made legislators full-time to put him in the awkward position of going back on his word with a veto, and most recently pledging state money to aid in plucking chickens but balking at cushioning sharp cuts in health care and higher education spending. These blunders have come on increasingly easy issues to avoid. The tax cut hesitation was understandable given the looming budget crisis now being realized, but there was no reason he could not have cut off the pay issue before it got any momentum, and the state bailing out a failing private sector concern instead of public matters that threaten a far wider range of people is baffling.

This needless defeat reduces Jindal’s political capital even more and if he desires to enact an agenda more challenging than last year’s in this and future years, he is going to find as a result of this and these other things a less pliant Legislature that becomes more able to make him do things he does not want to do. And when that happens, he will disappoint supporters who have stuck with him and lose even more capital.

Unless this mystifying decision-making trend ends soon, Jindal need not worry about political aspirations beyond the state as he will court the termination of them right here in Louisiana.

2.4.09

Jindal staff desperately, poorly try to justify bribery fund

The hastily-announced plans that the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration has for the Mega-Project Fund must be recognized as an exercise in political expediency to obscure the failure of the ideology behind its creation, and which is threatening to derail seriously the Administration itself.

This week in budget hearings prior to the regular legislative session the Jindal Administration outlined plans to spend around $260 million of this fund, created to bribe large employment initiatives to come to the state, on projects that were announced long ago and/or do not qualify under law to receive money from it. Of the four, the half which did qualify were supposed to be paid for by debt issuance, while the other pair (one of which goes to the firm of which a significant portion of ownership lays in the hands of a highly-speculated Democrat candidate for U.S. Senate against incumbent and fellow Republican Sen. David Vitter, the other a bailout of a failed poultry concern) would require the Legislature to alter the law to permit use of the fund for those purposes.

Why suddenly did minds change about debt issuance, even though the state ran a huge surplus from last year’s budget that could be spent on capital projects like this rather than through a non-debt issuance from the Fund, and in trying to squeeze in these non-qualifying projects? Because some justification of the fund’s existence had to be made given the Legislature’s interest in excising from the fund its bounty to use for other purposes since it never had been drawn upon in two years (and last year the Legislature did withdraw a relatively small amount of funds to pay for bonuses for education employees.)

It’s a crude gesture that the Legislature needs to brush aside with the understanding that the use of this money will not promote any genuine economic development in the state. It would be spent better on cushioning blows received in steep budget cuts to health care and higher education. This does not mean that either area or others in government must not eliminate low priority, non-essential activities, but at the same time it is a greater waste to let this money sit in the hopes of funding unproductive economic activities than to spend it on needed government functions.

It remains a mystery why Jindal is enthralled with the snake oil peddled by the likes of Department of Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret, who, like his predecessor, cannot understand that basic economics that tell us the way economic growth gets produced is by lowering the cost of doing business in the state, not by handing out money to do business in the state. It’s the difference between letting the marketplace, which gains its input from the wisdom derived from the decisions of millions, if not billions, of individuals interacting as part of it, and a handful of incredibly overpaid functionaries who think they are smarter than the market, make crucial decisions regarding taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars.

If Jindal cannot realize this on his own, the Legislature must help him do it. Whether it will is another matter, but it should be worrisome to Jindal that ideological opponents of his, who would love nothing more than to increase the size of government and its control over people’s lives, are skewering him on this issue, taking the ideological high road in wondering whether government ought to be in the business of chicken gutting (even as they approve federal government versions of what Jindal is countenancing, such as taking possession of automakers and insurers). This blind spot of Jindal’s threatens to do more harm to his ideas of remaking state government – or to any political career past that which he may envision – than he seems to realize.

1.4.09

Drug testing bill can create good policy, jurisprudence

He wasn’t quite making it with his idea to solicit voluntary sterilization of welfare recipients last year, but this year state Rep. John LaBruzzo scores with an initiative that will have some special interests quaking in fear and advocates of wise government spending and personal responsibility cheering.

LaBruzzo prefiled HB 137 in advance of the legislative session beginning later this month that would require medical drug testing of applicants for and recipients of Temporary Aid to Needy Families (often called “welfare”) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (often called “food stamps”) assistance. Currently, applicants fill out forms that can indicate the possibility of drug use and can be maneuvered into an actual medical test. They also are “retested” at yearly intervals.

Two considerations, one practical and one legal, have produced this efficient but not comprehensive regime. Practically, testing every applicant can be expensive. LaBruzzo’s idea is to give an inexpensive test for just a few dollars that if a positive is revealed then can be followed up with a more complete test that may cost hundreds of dollars, and dispense with the $4.1 million a year spent on the current regime. While a fiscal note hasn’t been formulated yet, even with giving an occasional $400 wide-ranging test, that would be paid back over just two or three months for the typical TANF recipient not receiving money because of failing the test, so if regulations said one could not reapply for another year after a failure, a false-positive rate of no higher than 75 percent still would pay for the program.

Legally, the concern comes from a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 2003 that declared a Michigan law to give random medical drug tests to applicants and recipients unconstitutional. While liberal civil liberties mandarins hold this out as a kind of definitive declaration that would scuttle the bill, they are far more scared of bills like LaBruzzo’s (so far in 10 other states and counting) than they let on.

First, this ruling is from just one of the 12 circuits and in any of the other 11 the courts there could find the opposite. Second, the crucial decision (after a series of maneuvers) ended on a tie vote and upheld a lower court overturning only because this was Sixth Circuit precedence, ties upholding. In other words, there was considerable disagreement over this. Third, the most devastating argument against the unconstitutionality position never has been used: since citizens are not entitled to government benefits of this nature (a statement of legislative intent from the federal 1996 act creating TANF), application and usage of such is voluntary. In other words, those who object to the testing procedures because it could constitute an unwarranted search are free not to apply for the benefits or to withdraw from their reception. Application and reception of them imply consent to a search for the use of illegal drugs.

Opponents are fearful that another circuit court, like Louisiana’s Fifth, will get a challenged law like this and rule in favor of its constitutionality. In that case, that almost assures that the Supreme Court will take up the matter, and they fear it is likely that the current court would rule in favor of constitutionality as well. This is why they want to try to cut these measures off at the pass, if not being able to prevent their introduction as bills, then to amend them into ineffectiveness or to defeat these using the scare tactic that these will not pass constitutional muster.

LaBruzzo should stick to his guns on this and not allow changing of the essential substance of the bill during the legislative, and work hard for its passage. It will benefit not only taxpayers, but also those whose drug dependencies are revealed by implementation of the law who then have a chance to get the help they need – to end their addictions, not in the form of cash given out by taxpayers for any purpose as is currently possible.

31.3.09

Efficiency, not politics, drives LA civil service reform

Some legislators have suggested some additional reforms of Louisiana’s civil service system (after some were completed internally recently), prompting at least one observer to call into question the impact of the changes. A review of the existing system demonstrates the merit of the changes.

One alteration advocated was reducing the role of seniority in layoff situations, such as what the state faces now. Rule 17 Section 2 of the Civil Service Code governs layoff procedures of permanent employees (that is, those who are not appointees who may be fired for any reason or those in the probationary period who have much fewer protections). It dictates that a plan be formulated subject to director approval or the entire State Civil Service Commission.

Current standards, however, are exceedingly generous. Three options are presented under a plan, two of which require that layoffs of non-problem employees be done on the basis of experience largely invariant to overall rating. There are five designations used to rate – “outstanding,” “exceeds requirements,” “meets requirements,” “needs improvement,” “or “poor.” As long as one of the two most recent ratings of an employee is from the first three designations, that employee has displacement rights under the first two options which means if layoffs then they occur solely in order of seniority (after the exhaustion of other options to layoffs, if any).

In other words, seniority would allow somebody with one subpar review in the past two years nevertheless to be retained when somebody with far higher ratings but less time on the job to be laid off. It also would permit lower-ranked adequate individuals to be retained if they had more seniority than higher-ranked adequate individuals. Also worth noting is that if personnel go “unrated” – for example, somebody is hired, passes the one-year probationary period and then six months later a layoff situation erupts before the annual review so this person is considered “unrated” for their current year’s performance – this is treated as “meeting requirements” and thus protected. (This situation also could occur, under special circumstances or by sheer laziness or incompetence by superiors that left people unrated, to far more senior personnel.

Only the third option, where seniority is given a back seat to merit – meaning the most protected from layoffs are “outstanding” employees, followed by “exceeds requirements” and finally “meets requirements” with seniority determining order only within these ranks – introduces more than just the most basic merit considerations into layoff decisions. But units are not required to follow this option and in fact are prohibited from using it if more than 10 percent of their personnel are “unrated.”

At the very least, civil service rules could be changed to require the third option be used except in the case of too many unrated personnel. At present, seniority protects the demonstrably inferior performers at the expense of better performers who have not served as long in the case of layoffs.

Further, the system is geared to give adequate grades to almost all classified employees. On average, over the past three years from agencies that supplied data (higher education in particular appeared notoriously lax in reporting), excluding the unrated and involuntary (for rules violations among other things) and probational separations, fewer than 20 per year or a microscopic 0.035 percent of all employees were given a “poor” rating and only 0.65 percent or an average of 368 a year got “needs improvement” ratings. This means an incredible 99.3 percent of the state of Louisiana’s rated classified employees that did not get separated are at least adequate in their jobs. This result argues that either the system is too lenient or the highest quality workforce by far among all workers in the state has been corralled by the state.

And it’s not like the state detaches its few problem employees on a regular basis. In the last fiscal year, out of a full-time equivalent classified workforce of nearly 64,111 (which understates the actual count by several thousand), only about 300 were dismissed or resigned to avoid dismissal – not even a half of a percent. (Over 1,700 did not survive in employment in their probationary period, about 2.5 percent, still a suspiciously low figure but illustrating the far greater protection one gets after making probation).

What all this points to is that the state probably retains too many low performers, and then protects them from layoffs on the basis on seniority. (In fact, over the past three years the plurality of employees have been rated “exceeds requirements,” a staggering 46.6 percent.) This also gets to the heart of another issue, that annual pay raises go to all adequate employees – again, over 99 percent of the classified workforce. A more realistic evaluation system would end up giving out fewer annual raises and thereby serve as greater motivational tool to produce quality work.

So when talk about how such reforms may be attempts to politicize the system, this reveals an ignorance about the true nature of the system and misunderstands the merit of the ideas behind the changes.

30.3.09

Term limits for all LA elected officials needs enactment

What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, meaning that an effort to place term limits on all Louisiana elected officials deserves enactment into the state’s Constitution.

HB 84 prefiled by state Rep. Simone Champagne would put three-term limits on every elective office, state and local, across the state, except for those offices already with shorter limits (at the state level applying only to the governor). It would not change the length of terms, meaning, for example, that a state Supreme Court justice could serve as many as 30 years (if mandatory retirement doesn’t stop a sitting justice prior to running for another term), and it would be only on consecutive terms.

Term limitation has been a part of Louisiana’s office-holding environment throughout its history under the 1974 (current) Constitution (and the preceding 1921 one as well). The governor always faced the two-consecutive-term limit, legislators were added in beginning in 1996, and last year members of many boards including those elected to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and Public Service commissioners were included. Additionally, hundreds of local offices scattered around the state also have limitations.

29.3.09

Strategic considerations lead to crossover endorsement

Coincidence in timing is an unusual thing in the world of electoral politics, and it helps to explain the endorsement by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of Democrat state Sen. Rob Marionneaux to become the executive secretary of the Louisiana Public Service Commission.

Marionneaux’s name appeared on the list of eight applicants for the position, which makes no policy but can have some influence in the information it collates and presents to the five commissioners. He has no special qualifications for the job and in fact may have fewer than other applicants, such as the executive administrator for a current commissioner. Yet Jindal endorsed him creating surprise not so much because of political differences, but that Jindal would involve himself in such a trivial matter.

That Jindal would endorse him at all may seem curious given their political backgrounds and relations with each other. Marionneaux is not Jindal’s biggest critic and they do sympathize on a few issues like tax cuts, tuition tax credits, and ethics reform. But Marionneaux is a partisan Democrat economic populist who believes in the constipated view that, somehow, the system is rigged in favor of the wealthy, even though in his legislative career he has argued for power and privilege for legislators including perquisites and against press accessibility to report on the same. He also was one of the most vocal supporters of the full-time pay raise for part-time legislators last year that Jindal vetoed.

But perhaps his actual full-time job of trial lawyer doesn’t pay enough bills for him because of his expressed interest in this job that pays in the low six figures. And also because only days earlier he had also dropped a hint that he was looking at a slightly higher-paying post, that of U.S. Senator if he could challenge successfully incumbent Republican David Vitter.

Do not think that the two revelations are in accidental proximity, for they added perhaps a clinching reason for Jindal’s move. Marionneaux sliding into this job would remove an obstacle to Jindal’s larger agendas in the areas of health care reform and general reform of spending on social services, one who has a big axe to grind as a result of the pay raise fiasco. His departure also would open up a Democrat seat for potential Republican takeover for although the district’s registration demographics favor Democrats with a 4:1 edge over Republicans and about 30 percent being blacks, early indications are that actions of Democrats controlling both majoritarian branches of the federal government are beginning to leave a bad taste in voters’ mouths.

However, if Marionneaux also held himself out as a potential challenger to Vitter, even if the odds weren’t good for him knocking off Vitter, still, not taking on Vitter automatically reduces those odds to zero and makes Vitter that little bit safer to retain his seat. This may have been part of Jindal’s calculus in contacting two of the three elected Republicans on the Commission, as well as its Democrat chairman (he did not converse with his recent appointee who potentially will be replaced in a special election next week or with Foster Campbell whose employee former reporter Bill Robertson also is applying).

It may also have been part of Marionneaux’s calculus to secure the job, by floating the idea of a Senate run to add one more point of pressure to prompt a Jindal choice. Pres. Abraham Lincoln was smart enough to make appointees of political enemies where they could do no harm to his agenda; Jindal may be thinking of the same.