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9.4.09

Council must avoid committing Shreveport to program

I want to thank readers enthralled, or angered enough, with the pieces that have appeared in this space now into its fifth year for nominating this blog as one of the "Best State Political Blogs" (under Louisiana, obviously), selected as such by the Washington Post's "The Fix" column. Whatever it is that's turning your crank, I'll try to keep it up.

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There’s no free lunch in politics, a lesson heretofore not learned by Shreveport’s Mayor Cedric Glover that imposes additional burdens on taxpayers. Let’s hope the City Council is not as oblivious.

Sandwiched within the addition of $2,600 in debt for each man, woman, and child in the U.S. courtesy of Pres. Barack Obama’s no government left behind spending package is a giveaway of much smaller proportions but with notorious history. The Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Hiring Recovering Program resuscitates a similar philosophy that operated for about a decade starting in the mid-1990s, one that started out with high hopes by its backers but instead turned into a giant government giveaway that produced far less of what it promised at a massive cost hidden from taxpayers.

8.4.09

Global Strike win likely means Cyber Command loss

It may be Global Strike for Barksdale Air Force Base, but it is almost certainly strike out for the gamble Bossier City and Parish made for the service’s Cyber Command.

Last week it was announced that Barksdale would get this new command, meant to consolidate the service’s nuclear component and bringing with it the likelihood of up to a thousand personnel. U.S Rep. John Fleming lauded the decision as the Air Force knowing “by far Barksdale was the best candidate.”

But internal documents of the decision scoring process in fact showed Barksdale was just runner-up, considerably, to Offutt AFB in Bellevue, NE, longtime home of the Strategic Air Command. Nonetheless, Barksdale won out and the reason was perhaps the presence of SAC at Offutt, as the Air Force typically does not like to group major commands when possible.

While this preference may have brought Global Strike to Barksdale, it may now cost it Cyber Command since it appears to have the former. Frankly, given the resources locally in the realm of technology it would be surprising that Barksdale would be at the top or even runner-up against almost two dozen other installations (although the Air Force has talked about parceling out pieces of Cyber Command so even if it doesn’t land the command it may get a piece of the action).

If so, the gamble that the state and local governments took in shoveling $108 million of taxpayers’ heard-earned wealth towards the building of the Cyber Innovation Center near the base has become even less likely to pay off. Cyber Command was talked of as a kind of anchor tenant to attract other firms and without it chances are noticeably reduced that any significant presence of them will coalesce there, leaving a microscopic return on a huge investment that could have been better utilized in other ways.

As recent election results showed, so far Bossier City’s citizenry remain unperturbed in large enough number to make city politicians pay for this crapshoot with the people’s money. After an official announcement of Cyber Command’s placement comes in about a month, those reelected may be thankful the electoral calendar works as it does, and Bossier Parish police jurors may start to sweat quite a bit with 2010 elections looming.

7.4.09

Govt support of art: let welfare recipients produce it

The stereotype of an “artist” is somebody who enjoys expressing something about himself in some medium disconnected to some degree from the world. If so, the lack of awareness and logic in comments emanating from the arts community concerning the small in size but proportionately large state budget cuts to artistic endeavor do nothing to dispel that view.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has recommended slashing better than half, about $4 million, of state direct support to artistic funding. On the one hand, it’s incredible that a cut of little more than 0.035 percent of the state’s budget should provoke so much outcry (and get so much media coverage). But on the other hand, it’s no so surprising because a phenomenon long noted in the area of policy studies is that the more intensely involved (including funding) a group is to an area of policy, the more intense is its reaction to even small changes it sees as negative, because it is disproportionately affected.

Let’s face it, the reason why such a notable cry is coming about this is that a number of those in the arts community can do their thing not because there’s any particular demand for it, not because it makes any significant impact on the vast majority of people’s lives, but because they live off these resources of taxpayers. Overwhelmingly, in this area state tax dollars subsidize the activities of a few for a few to consume. And one winces in pain when hearing defenses of this spending because those making them seem not to realize just how weak, if not self-defeating, and out of touch their arguments are.

For instance, take recent remarks uttered by Derek Gordon, chief executive of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, who apparently views the loss of $4 million statewide as an absolute Armageddon. It would “destroy the fabric of our arts community” and “both our economic and cultural identities will be in peril,” asserts someone whose organization, if not his job, largely get funded from taxpayers’ toil.

These statements deserve analysis beyond their sheer, unsupported hyperbole. If the reduction of state subsidies could prove catastrophic, by definition it means the “arts community” and the state’s “economic and cultural identities” are weaklings being propped up artificially. In the case of the latter, such a remark strays way into the territory of irrationality: it is utter nonsense to suggest that removing $4 million from the system will have anything beyond a negligible impact in terms of the kinds of music, which the state probably is best known for, or other artistic creations emanating from Louisiana.

As for the former, the narrowness and bias of it is telling. Interestingly in this debate, no one has mentioned that the state already provides huge subsidies in a couple of areas of artistic endeavor and proposes expanding them in a way that should far surpass a total of $4 million – the motion picture and digital recording industries where huge tax credits are to be had for their production, costing the state in the hundreds of millions of dollars. But I suppose in the eyes of the “arts community,” whatever that is, this isn’t “art” because those involved are actually producing products for which there is public demand and they can live off those proceeds. So let’s be clear about what is “imperiled” by these cuts: a very small segment of the community that vastly and disproportionately gets government assistance for creating products that are little demanded, little noticed, and contribute insignificantly to the life of the community as a whole.

That last point may be challenged by a statistic Gordon parroted about how every buck that goes into the “art” six come back. Fine; just as I did with Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu on the issue of tourism, I now challenge those who argue this to show me a valid and reliable study that verifies this figure – and then they may wish to engage in a struggle with Landrieu because he claims he gets $17 back on each tourism dollar so it would appear he should have first claim on the $4 million. Regardless, in both cases repeated assertion does not constitute actual proof of the claim.

And to suggest the $4 million is so crucial to the “arts community” also implies that its incredible weakness is not something that can be rectified by cash infusions diverted from taxpayers. Whose fault is it that the “arts,” such as they are, are so dependent upon this largesse? Is it perhaps because they contribute so little meaningfully to the community? Because if their contributions were greater, individuals and entities would donate more of their time and money to these enterprises, instead of small numbers of individuals relying on the power of the state to siphon money from the people to support the lifestyles they choose to lead. Few people are so spoiled to be in a position to have the public forced into subsidizing vocational whims that make little if any impact on the community as a whole, and the lack of self-awareness on this issue is telling.

However, we might get another argument from the likes of Gordon on the actual impact, who testifies there are tangible benefits to the wider community such as students who participate in arts programs score higher on standardized tests and are less likely to drop out of school. Putting aside again the apples v. oranges nature of this comparison – almost all students in this situation have access to the arts through state-paid educational initiatives in elementary, secondary, and tertiary education which far exceed the few millions doled out in direct grants by the state – thinking this also exposes a fundamental flaw in the logic behind cause and effect. It’s not that the “arts” cause students to do better and stay in school, it’s that the attitudes of students that compel them to stay in school and achieve also make them more likely to participate in the arts. It’s the difference between a casual and an associated relationship (or, to use an example I present in teaching research methods, Gordon’s argument here is like that of saying if we know that the bigger a fire is the more firemen show up to it, then does that necessarily mean that firemen, a la Fahrenheit 451, start and build these fires?)

Nor does a patronizing comparison of the state subsidizing chicken plucking to arts funding strengthen the case for the latter; if anything, it becomes weaker as a result. Regardless of the fact that the state ought not be supporting a money-losing purpose that has nothing to do with the true functions of government, it remains that the benefit to society of providing more jobs and food to people far outweighs the contribution made by a few more cases of indulging presumed artistic endeavors.

“I don’t think that careful consideration was given to the impact of these cuts,” Gordon said. “It doesn’t make sense.” To the contrary, they make perfect sense because the job of government is to do necessary things that otherwise lack incentives for voluntary organization to achieve. I don’t see how taking money from people of whom few will encounter publicly-subsidized public art and of whom fewer still would voluntarily tender those resources just to permit more opportunities for a select few to express themselves thereby meets this definition in any way – especially given the support from outside government the arts typically inspire. This non-public generosity, of course, is never enough for those who have their hands out for this money.

If those complaining about reduced government subsidies for art were serious about how they value the arts, they would petition government to create programs to involve those idle receiving other forms of public assistance to engage in artistic endeavors. Why not organize those on unemployment to perform plays, create pottery, produce sculpture and other visual representations? Is this not all art to satisfy the presumed need for it? Does it not enhance these individuals’ lives and community? Or is “art” according to these folks that should be funded out of taxpayers’ hard-earned resources and the presumed benefits it brings only the province of a self-designated elite who want others to pay them for the privilege of expressing themselves?

6.4.09

Apathy ruining chances for better govt in Bossier City

When incumbents not only win reelections but also without any opposition, it signals that one of two or both things are happening. And in the case of Bossier City’s municipal elections, it’s more of a bad sign than good.

The statistics certainly are discouraging. After the bloodletting of 2001, in 2005 the seven spots for Bossier City’s Council attracted eight candidates, while the only open contest of the bunch, mayor, attracted two one of which was the city’s then Chief Administrative Officer Lo Walker. In 2009, with the only open contest being a council seat, for the seven slots 10 candidates are running, with the only challenge to an incumbent being for one of the two at-large positions which did not succeed. Walker faced no opposition.

So why the quiescence in the past two cycles? Political science research offers one explanation in the form of a public relatively satisfied with the performance of its officeholders. And it’s true that Bossier City is not suffering any fiscal stress unlike Shreveport, thanks largely to the good fortune of having a trust fund throw off cash collected from gambling operations, and being mostly a bedroom/retail community beyond the casinos and Barskdale Air Force Base putting less strain on city services. Particularly in comparison to its larger neighbor, things can look good.
But even if this provides some explanation, other factors probably account for the greater part of this quietude. They take on a negative aura because they stem from low levels of citizen involvement which typically is considered a sign of disease in a political system, and in Bossier City’s case this may stem from several sources.

First, Bossier City’s population is much more transient or recent in its origins. Because of Barksdale, thousands of voting-eligible residents at any given time are within a couple of years of arriving and leaving, and therefore most have little stake in the local political system other than schools if they have children. Further, the continuing population growth means a larger proportion than typical of newcomers who are not yet invested into the local political scene comprise the pool of possible electors. All in all, this produces reduced political interest as a whole. (It’s reflected in registration statistics, which are about 10 percent below average.)

Second, the electoral calendar dampens political involvement. Unlike most jurisdictions in the state, Bossier City elections being right after quadrennial presidential races without any other regularly-scheduled contests on the ballot creates little incentive for attention to be paid and subsequent turnout. In 2005, turnout was miserably just below 10 percent and even in the high-stimulus 2001 contest it did not even reach 20 percent. Only months earlier in 2004, over two-thirds turned out for federal elections.

Third, politics in Bossier Parish are insular and small-town in nature. In recent decades, almost all elected city officials either come from families that have resided in Bossier City for decades, or are Air Force retirees, or both. They often intermingle for decades through schooling and business arrangements and have as tight of a good-old-boy network as anywhere. This makes it difficult for outsiders to come in and to override enough the social networks to get money to run and votes to win, bringing substantial disincentives to challengers to this tight system absent contentious issues.

And there isn’t really such an issue out there in 2009. True, Bossier City government, backed by the trust fund, has become a notorious spendthrift where the city’s fiscal liberals that run its government could show Pres. Barack Obama a thing or two about wasteful, big spending on unneeded arenas, parking garages for private developers, and pie-in-the-sky business incubators that have cost city taxpayers about $112 million, taking $1,600 from the pocket of every man, woman, and child in the city for monuments to themselves. (Not to mention the huge increase in city spending over the past decade, far beyond the inflation or population growth rates.)

However, while this may not escape notice of the politically attentive (at least those who are not on the receiving end of this transfer of wealth), given the dynamics noted above few in Bossier City watch much over city politics. It’s a lot easier to miss observing lost opportunities (think how much lower taxes/fees and/or debt payments could be with $112 million earning or not having to pay off interest) than events like placing an arena next to neighborhoods that didn’t want it and its costs escalating way beyond initial projections. So the apathetic critical mass promises little punishment for these mistakes.

While these policy blunders are the fault of these spendaholics and their imperious attitudes (such as Walker’s recent pronouncement to opponents of another bloated budget that can like it or lump it until these elections, or one of the incumbents defeated in 2001 referring to the citizens sneeringly as the “little people”), Bossier Citians also must blame themselves because they not only keep these annoyances in office, most hardly even resist come election time. We have met the enemies of sound Bossier City governance, and they are us.

5.4.09

Lackey Landrieu promotes partisanship over policy debate

Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu may be tucked away in a do-little office, but as he showed last week that doesn’t mean he hasn’t the ability to serve as a Democrat partisan hack.

As the Legislature’s House Appropriations Committee continued its runup to the regular session by gathering initial information on the budget submitted by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, Landrieu was called to testify on behalf of the agency he nominally leads, the Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism. Given the chance, Landrieu launched into a political diatribe about how the significant cuts, about 35 percent in state funds, would cost $300 million in potential lost revenues coming into the state. He seemed particularly perturbed when his former sidekick who was the actual secretary of the Department and ran it, now Commissioner of Administration AngĂ©le Davis, revealed Landrieu initially wanted to close 17 state parks (he claims it was just six) in an exercise to create an unrealistic budget scenario to scare legislators into reducing the size of the cuts.

Landrieu asserted he used a “performance-based” calculus to determine how reductions should be made. Apparently, these criteria are built on assumptions like every tourism dollar spent brings in 17 more (which partially explains how a reduction in advertising of $24 to $21 million could create a $76.5 million loss to the economy) and explained why spending on the arts – asked by Davis to be reduced overall a little more than half of its current $7.3 million – should be cut perhaps 10 percent and at least a half-dozen parks closed.

But anybody with any common sense and a little knowledge about the situation can realize that Landrieu is full of more hot air than the occasional balloon festival the state subsidizes. At that 17:1 ratio, we ought to blow the whole Budget Stabilization Fund on tourism advertising and reap $14 billion-plus in economic impact the sales and hotel taxes on which would throw the budget into balance. And why not close all the state parks, which only plunked a shade under $600,000 into state coffers, which would save the state $30 million in its own funds, and fully fund arts grants, which generated $24,000 on their own costing the state in funds about $11 million?

Simply, this extension of the suppositions behind Landrieu’s thinking is garbage in, garbage out. There’s no reason as much if not more tourism can be generated – particularly in a recessionary climate where Americans will want to travel more domestically – by smarter use of $21 million as compared to $24 million. And park resources can be managed more efficiently – closing during slack times and opening during peak times, for example – to make that two percent return on investment grow while sacrificing a 0.2 percent return on the small amount of arts subsidies by the state which were inflated by one-time recovery spending in any event and, frankly, if it was wanted by the public, would be donated and paid for directly by the public instead of being squeezed out of taxpayers.

This is the kind of policy discussion Landrieu did not want because that was not one of his main objectives in his testimony, which were to poormouth the situation as much as possible (in reality, in terms of overall reduction it is only about 30 percent and backing out all one-time monies puts it at 17 percent) in order to gain more sympathy and therefore more resources, and also to make Jindal look heartless, unwise, etc. Landrieu wished to avoid an exacting examination of his numbers and assumptions to make him look put upon and Jindal bad, with the latter being an important political objective as nationally Democrats wish to nip in the bud a Jindal challenge to their orthodoxy before he gets too powerful. No doubt Landrieu was all too glad to serve as a lackey in this latter task.

Unfortunately for him, Davis knew too much about him and his department and opened the lid on his true motivations. To prove differently, Landrieu needs to make public his original plan and explain the theoretical and empirical justifications for his 17:1 ratio (and another oft-cited conjecture, that spending on the art produces a 6:1 return, a claim even the mainstream media finds dubious). Then there can be reasoned discussion concerning what government should and should not do instead of finger-pointing and insinuation. Failure to do so indicates Landrieu operates as another Democrat stooge willing to put partisan considerations over a true policy debate about priorities in Louisiana.