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30.4.09

Tussle over transparency bill reveals true agenda of some

What some assert was a move towards greater transparency in government became more of a vehicle for veiled attacks on Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal that ignored transparency that not only works, but does so better with really no additional taxpayer burden.

In the Louisiana House and Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday, members debated the merits of HB 243 by Democrat state Rep. Neil Abramson that would make officials in jurisdictions of over 5,000 people report on any contributions or loans above $1,000 they received from their political appointees. While this only marginally increases transparency in government (information about contributors and appointees are already public knowledge, just not together), the relative lack of effectiveness of the bill and its high cost to taxpayers were brought home in the discussion leaving it decidedly wanting, especially when a much better alternative has been introduced elsewhere.

Since the bill designates officeholders as the ones having to report, they could legitimately use state personnel to compile these reports. The governor would have the most state resources used in this task, as he appoints in the thousands of individuals and in the case of Jindal he had over 10,000 contributors to his 2007 campaign. Many hours would be spent on the taxpayer dime each year picking every appointed name and then tracking down donations, and filling out the report, precious resources that could be used elsewhere – and already is being done in the private sector such as in a recent media report about this very question, begging the question of whether this increased government is needed. It gets even more costly when considering some people donate through other entities like corporations, which are harder to track still.

As well, this measure still would not allow “hidden” kinds of contributions to be connected to an appointment. For example, governors typically get input for appointments to the more obscure boards and commissions from legislators. Somebody could contribute to a legislator who then makes the recommendation of that person to the governor who didn’t get anything from that appointee, but the connection never can be made that a contributor to a legislator use that influence to get a gubernatorial appointment (just as now).

If we are going to grow government larger to perform this marginal function, it is appropriate that it cost as little as possible, and there is a much better bill out there whose payoff still is low but whose costs are even lower and does a better job of revealing potentially obscured donations. SB 195 would make the appointees themselves in their disclosure forms report any contributions or loans over $1,000. This approach has the utility of connecting the dots by grouping officeholders by appointee instead of the reverse, will cost no taxpayer resources because the appointee will have to record at most a few names on their disclosure forms and thereby have no reason to involve state staff, and provides a hint where to begin looking for contributions through other entities.

The general ideas behind that bill were reiterated in front of the committee by the governor’s Executive Counsel Jimmy Faircloth which put Abramson on the defensive, who ultimately with no real good argument to counter was reduced to saying that he simply thought his way was better and should be an obligation of an elected official. Others on the committee, especially Democrat state Rep. Karen Peterson, remained entirely obtuse about the matter and kept stating they did not see how the SB 195 approach was superior and implying that somehow to be against this bill was to be against ethics reform while Jindal they claimed said he was for it. (In one remark, Peterson asked Faircloth if they were opposed to what she said were three “ethics” bills in front of the committee that day; his reply being the Administration was in their current forms.)

The dishonesty of their attitude is unfortunate and demonstrates that the likes of Peterson have been for ethics “reform” only insofar as it could be used as a political tactic of convenience against Jindal. This continues the broader strategy by Democrats explained previously of finding every way imaginable to sully Jindal to forestall a rise in his prominence in national Republican politics.

Transparency that works and that brings more benefits that costs is the approach in SB 195, not that of HB 243. The committee wisely recognized this and it concluded by allowing Abramson a chance to bring back the bill with amendments presumably similar to those in SB 195 in the future. Such a change does not harm, but, in what seems to be a regrettable early trend of this session for some in the Legislature, this exemplifies a theme that political agendas far removed from the merits of policy and contaminating discussion of that will look to be advanced at every occasion.

29.4.09

Proper laws put safety first on red light camera issue

Shreveport’s City Council got itself involved in some high comedy recently over a serious subject, the issue of red light cameras. Three years back, Councilman Calvin Lester proposed legalizing the use of these. They can take pictures of license plates and of drivers faces whose vehicles enter an intersection after the signal turned red. Council President Ron Webb wanted to bring up the long-tabled ordinance with the express purpose of defeating it. After a couple of weeks of debate the level of seriousness resembled slapstick, yesterday the Council finally got serious and voted to ban them.

Resolution at the state level may shape whatever comes next. Currently, legislation does not address the issue so local governments are free to regulate in any way. Competing bills have been introduced in this session of the Legislature, one to ban the use of such cameras completely, the other that would divert half the proceeds to the state. But before deciding policy in this area, the positives and negatives of these devices need consideration.

There is only one justification to have the cameras, and that is because they increase safety. Studies do show that even their presumed presence can significantly reduce incidence of one of the most dangerous accidents, the front end of a vehicle smashing into the side of another. However, the problem is they tend to increase another, less serious kind of accident, rear-ending. The studies come to a wide range of conclusions about the tradeoff between these, where some conclude on the whole there is no aggregate safety increase, but the most optimistic scenario would argue that there is a small net economic benefit in the use of the cameras when weighing the number of kinds of accidents and their severities.

But there are other costs as well to consider, principally the questionable constitutional status of their use. System can be set up in two ways, to assist in a criminal matter that would require the face of the driver and review by the state and defendant, or a civil matter where only the license plate is recorded and the car’s owner charged regardless of who was driving. In both cases, issues remain that would require laws and procedures that would make the operation of the cameras costly.

Because of the Sixth Amendment right to face accusers, defendants who are knowledgeable about their rights can force the state to turn over the photographic evidence that should clearly identify the car and/or driver, have a police officer positively identify the photo through testimony (unless in the very unlikely event an officer was monitoring the camera’s image as it was taken), show the intersection was properly marked, and prove the camera was functioning correctly at the time (they often slip out of calibration). Prosecuting such an air-tight law to safeguard this right will consume many resources if even only a handful of defendants seriously contest the charges, because they could easily beat the charges otherwise.

Worst of all, the cameras tempt jurisdictions to use them as revenue generators. This leads to local governments setting up procedures designed to deflect the accused from exercising their rights to defend themselves (such as not informing them they can take the case to trial, turning over the photo only on request, etc.) and discourages authorities from pursuing other means (such as lengthening yellow light times or redesigning intersections) that have been shown to reduce substantially (although not as much as perception of a camera’s presence) the most severe kind of accidents. In fact, the cameras, operated by for-profit entities with revenues past their contracted level going to government, sometimes are so successful they don’t pay for themselves and governments remove them – showing just how “serious” they are about the safety aspect.

If we give the safety argument the benefit of the doubt and take into account constitutional imperatives along with the primary goal being safety, not revenue, then a state law should be passed along the following lines: allowing red light cameras under the conditions (1) it is funded solely by the local authority (2) with a minimum long yellow light time set in those intersections (3) which must be posted as having a camera (4) which must take pictures both of license plates and faces (5) that must be “clearly recognizable” after review by a police officer verified by a trial judge (6) from a camera proven calibrated accurately taking only vehicle and people photos after intersection entrance during a red light not making a legal right turn (7) subject to criminal proceedings (8) where any fine resulting from a conviction is paid not to the local jurisdiction but to fund the state’s Minimum Foundation Program that supports elementary and secondary education above the existing formula.

This law will protect constitutional rights and ensure that safety is the paramount consideration behind it. Anything less shows a jurisdiction is not serious about the safety issue and/or the risk of court intervention for constitutional violations and therefore has no business in utilizing camera enforcement.

28.4.09

Democrat tax push designed to embarrass Jindal

The preliminary stare-down went to Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. But the first round begins today, and we’ll see whether his opponents can win what appears to be a fight with ramifications beyond the state that will go the distance this regular session of the Louisiana Legislature.

Such dramatic terms entirely are appropriate for what’s coming, despite the comity expressed in Jindal’s opening address to the body yesterday. Comments such as House Speaker Pro Tem’s Karen Peterson’s “We differ in opinions on how to fix problems” and state Rep. Juan LaFonta’s “we don’t remedy the budget just by speaking generalities” and in conveying a picture of harmony, both Democrats signal a coming storm not just over the more specific picture of policy in the state, but over the more general question of Jindal’s threat to the power and privilege of these individuals and those like them across the country.

LaFonta errs when he claims some budget “remedy” is needed; Jindal already has provided one. What he really means is he doesn’t like this particular remedy and apparently would like one that raises taxes as he signed on with Peterson to co-author HB 75 which would raise taxes on tobacco and pledges (but does not mandate) that the money raised go to indigent health care expenditures which in absolute terms display the largest cuts under the Jindal proposed budget.

Here is where it can get interesting. Jindal already picked up a bit of a win in the name of reform when yesterday the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to endorse reforms that would introduce more efficiency into and reduce the amount of politics attached to local governance of education. On the heels of that in his speech he spoke of using dollars in this area more efficiently, where presumably the two items, procedural changes and more fastidious use of resources, would provide better education at less cost. It is the approach that Jindal has taken to the difficulties of significantly declining state revenues.

HB 75, heading to committee hearings today, would undercut that effort. Besides it being a tax increase which regardless of intent always depresses economic activity and therefore future government revenues, it would try to subvert the advantages of smaller government brought onto the state by the present situation. Jindal has preached such virtues although his record is mixed in producing them in policy, but now the moment has arrived for him to demonstrate full embracement of them.

Jindal has said a bill like HB 75 would draw his veto, and perhaps concerning most past governors that would be enough to have the bill shunted aside in committee. But the larger picture is that Jindal also is a rising power in national Republican politics which will activate state Democrats to create situations detracting from Jindal reaching his potential on this account.

So look for a concerted effort by Democrats to push HB 75 as far as they can, with the ultimate goal being to get it to Jindal’s desk. If they can do that, they can expand state spending by the amount projected to be generated by it. This means not only would Jindal be forced to cast a veto against HB 75 and be criticized for cutting off a source of revenue from a dubious activity, but also then he would have to issue line item vetoes for that amount in the budget thereby making him look villainous. And in the very unlikely chance Jindal would sign it that also would damage him politically as his supporters against tax increases would feel let down.

In short, the backers of HB 75 know this bill has next to no chance of becoming law, as there is no way they have they votes for a veto override, but they will push hard for it regardless of the divisiveness it causes because it is a weapon in the long-term war to snuff Jindal’s national political career before he becomes a threat to national Democrat interests. Absent this desire they could take a more responsible course in creating a budget that does more with less, but that’s not the way they play the game. Let the title fight begin.

27.4.09

Cautious speech allows Jindal to scrape B- grade

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s State of the State speech to open the 2009 regular session of the Louisiana Legislature was not quite night-and-day compared to last year, but the differences were palpable.

In his inaugural address and well as in a couple of other addresses prior to sessions regular and special, Jindal gave fairly detailed synopses of where he wanted the state to go from a prepared text aimed really at the public. This time around, Jindal spoke without notes revealing little detail about his preferred initiatives and those from legislators he favored in a shorter address pitched more at legislators themselves, of which perhaps half was an (arguably rosy) overview of what he saw as signal accomplishments from state government in the previous year.

Yes, there’s been more in-migration than out- in the past couple of years, but formerly displaced citizens from the hurricane disasters of 2005 returning might have something more to do with that than some marginal tax cuts and the beginning of workforce development changes and ethics reform. True, Louisiana’s job picture is comparatively speaking brighter than anywhere else at this moment in the country, but that also probably is largely a byproduct of the displaced tide surging back in, and it must be noted a significant number of those jobs created came in government. Still, in structural terms, it cannot seriously be argued that the state is not better off than it was 15 months ago.

But that’s obviously not the case in fiscal terms. Jindal only spent a small portion and the only real specificity of the speech outlining five spending reforms, after warning of the budget problem ahead and how much worse it can be in the next two years. This explains the rehash of past laurels but vague pronouncements going forward: Jindal knows some of what will come out of this session in budgetary impact will not be liked and if he puts too big of a stamp on it that may transfer onto him. Many of his successes last year were fairly low risk and/or low profile; this year, political returns are going to be low and great risk will have to be taken for any big payoffs – which could turn into big disasters as well.

So look for Jindal to play things pretty safe this session, letting others grab headlines. That doesn’t mean he can’t be quite effective, but also it hopefully does not mean he won’t be bold when he needs to be (such as in Medicaid spending reform which, as he noted, could jump hundreds of millions of dollars next year even as revenues change little). It’s in these tougher times when real leadership is needed, regardless how visible, and Jindal’s speech implies he wishes to retain flexibility and not tie himself to too many and/or controversial things in order to provide it.

So for his grade, Jindal as a decent thesis overall, just not well supported. More ambitious talk about more good measures that could help their chances of passing would have been better, if politically riskier. I’ll be generous in this borderline case and give him a B-.

26.4.09

Nursing home gravy train imperils LA health care spending

Last week a day of testimony in front of the Louisiana Legislature’s House Appropriations Committee concerning the budget was dominated by how the state’s revenue woes would impact deeply individual-based community services. It came on the heels of a discussion a week prior that got the attention of inattentive legislators which might finally get them to understand the single best solution to these budgetary problems.

As previously noted, the necessity of budget cuts is endangering the state’s judicial mandate to move the elderly and disabled into the most appropriate, least costly means of care for those qualifying through Medicaid, because the cuts could reduce the ability of agencies contracted by the state to hire enough employees to provide enough hours to cover those designated for service reception. Since there is an overall revenue problem, to prevent this from happening, revenues must be shifted from elsewhere.

Fortunately, that other source exists – nursing homes, with the revelation in testimony in the middle of April that an average of 8,500 beds were empty annually costing $20 million to the state. This seemed to shock committee members, but for those who had any legislative service prior to this term it shouldn’t have been – they approved of this matter tacitly for nearly 20 years and did so legislatively in 2006. That was when both chambers unanimously approved what would become Act 848, putting into law an administrative formula setting up state payments for empty beds for an industry already with overcapacity. The industry had argued it needed this to stabilize revenues to homes and increase their creditworthiness. Presumably, this would encourage owners to make upgrades to their facilities. However, a substantial component of the reimbursement formula funded capital improvements, so the additional incentive should not have been necessary. Since then, overcapacity has continued to increase.