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7.5.09

Inane argument doesn't detract from civil service reform

I will be charitable – Louisiana’s state bureaucracy does not have the greatest reputation for quality of service or efficiency, and a reason for that perhaps was revealed by the number of civil service employees or their representatives that whined in front of the State Civil Service Commission recently about changes to introduce more merit considerations into their jobs.

The Commission is contemplating rules changes in part under pressure from Gov. Bobby Jindal and Legislature who says they’ll otherwise do it for them. While several changes are in the offing, the one generating the lion’s share of controversy is one that would alter the regulations regarding reductions in force (RIF) and other matters when layoff must occur at an agency. Presently seniority is the paramount consideration under two of three plans and is widely used on those occasions while the proposed alteration would make categorical grading of a few years of job evaluations primary and mandatory (there is a five-category scale of which the top three are considered to constitute acceptable performance).

This sounds perfectly reasonable, if not standard practice in other states. At the federal level, for example, four factors are used for RIF of which seniority is just one of equals. But in addition to this, performance scores at the federal level actually are used to add in extra RIF service credit that add seniority. In other words, better performance adds seniority, a feature not present in Louisiana’s civil service. Conceptually, there is little difference between what the SCSC proposes as its sole policy and the guiding philosophy behind RIF regulations at the federal level.

Yet in its hearing on the proposals, you would have thought from the rhetoric of some employees plus that of the usual suspects such as labor unions representatives and lawyers specializing in defending disciplinary and discharge actions against civil servants – and even the employee-elected member of the SCSC Angola Warden Burl Cain – that the change was going to gut the entire concept of a protected civil service. The main impetus behind the creation of these systems is to promote merit and reduce the amount of politics in the public personnel process. (Reduce, not eliminate – as, first, a degree holder of and, then, a teacher of public administration, and as a state employee in different systems for nearly a quarter century, I can rattle off all sorts of strategies to get around merit considerations.) These critics asserted the whole system would be subverted by an infusion of politics from the change.

It’s difficult to begin to dismantle such piffle, not because it is so lacking in logic and fact, but because sheer scope of its inanity. As near as can be gleaned from such unsophisticated ranting, allowing merit to be used in RIF situations rather than the merit-less concept of seniority constitutes political interference that will detract from merit. The shifting sand on which this argument appears to be based is that the categorical evaluation gradations now used can somehow be manipulated so thoroughly that managers will, as the primary concern in the performance reviews they conduct, be looking forward to potential RIF situations down the road and using evaluations as a tool to get rid of politically undesirable employees. Does this really need any further explanation of its lack of credibility?

Making the contention even more ludicrous is these same reviews are now part of the process of determining seniority. After the probationary period, a series of bad reviews can result in discharge or other disciplinary measures. What’s to prevent the use of them at present in a political fashion, to give adequate reviews to those politically favored, or to punish those with unacceptable reviews who are out of political favor? If you are going to argue the tools to determine quality of employees can be used politically in a future scenario, you must argue the same in the present.

And to add to the sheer stupidity of the argument, the current third plan than can be used for layoffs already puts merit as the primary consideration, so nothing new is being suggested here. Why haven’t there been and aren’t now complaints about this option being writhen with politics, if the opponents truly believed in or even had a serious argument? If this inability to critically think is widespread in Louisiana’s civil service, we are in a lot more trouble than I suspected.

What they should be complaining about, then, is the current process. But they don’t because these few bad apples’ motives are to maintain a structure that allows for a maximum of compensation and job security for a minimum of effort, an insult to taxpayers who deserve a system that promotes quality and efficiency. The present system provides incentive to slide on through, knowing that seniority alone insulates from job performance in times of RIF, and the disincentive for productivity growing every day that passes.

The many quality employees in Louisiana’s civil service should applaud this new standard. Now, their superior performances will be rewarded with more job security, instead of them living with the threat of worse-performing colleagues but who managed to get hired first given preference in RIF situations. And taxpayers specifically and citizens in general also should be pleased, for service will improve and taxes spent more efficiently as greater incentive for better performance is created.

Hopefully, the majority of the SCSC will give the credit that is due to this nonsense opposition and approve this and other changes to the regulations at its next meeting. Louisiana deserves it.

6.5.09

Procedural bill gets politicized by policy provocateurs

The extreme irony of the situation is that those who were not trying to make it a policy issue were accused by those making it a policy issue of exactly that.

This center of contention was HB 60 by state Rep. Jonathan Perry which was clarifying state law concerning who may be listed on a birth certificate as parents of an adoptive child. The bill would make it a legal obligation that state practice follows the Louisiana Constitution’s designation of the kinds of married couples that may adopt, and therefore be listed on the certificate, which is a man and a woman.

A case making its way through the judicial system prompted the bill to clarify state procedure. Two males who by New York law may jointly be considered adoptive parents requested a birth certificate for their child born in Louisiana. The Constitution prohibited listing an all-male couple on the certificate but does permit the listing of a single individual since single individuals may adopt in the state. The males sued to have both names placed on it and a lower federal court agreed that brought an appeal from the state.

Proponents of the bill pointed out it merely was a procedural nicety to allow enforcement of the U.S. Constitution’s “full faith and credit clause.” Otherwise, since the procedures of issuing a birth certificate are not stated specifically in the law, just that the law says adoption is accomplished with a “married” couple and a “married” couple cannot be of the same sex by the Constitution, the transitive principle seems not to apply and New York’s interest would override Louisiana’s. But by having the explicit clarification that birth certificates are issued only listing names consistent with Louisiana law, as defined by the Constitution, Louisiana can successfully resist other states’ defining what constitutes a legal adopting couple in Louisiana.

But what is to its proponents a case of defending Louisiana’s rights relative to other states is to opponents a way to block their political agenda. These groups, which support the concept of same sex marriage prohibited in the Louisiana Constitution, found this case to be a means to chip away at this defeat. But defeated both politically and intellectually, the only avenue left for them were emotive and disingenuous arguments that were on full display at the House’s Health and Welfare Committee’s hearing on the bill.

One testified the bill would target children, “depriving” them of the “right” to have multiple parents listed on a birth certificate because Louisiana “didn’t like” their parents, and that the certificate was needed to access many services where either “parent” could be present to help access those services. Another claimed to not put both names, even if the pair had no legal relationship in the state, was “fraudulent,” and said the real motive was to “beat up on gays.” These fantastic charges were never evident in the rhetoric of the bill’s supporters and actually exist only in the victimhood-addled minds of these people that equate anybody who opposes their agenda as wanting to “beat up” on those who practice homosexuality.

As well, they were entirely disingenuous. Opposition witnesses had legal backgrounds so they surely know that custody rulings and powers of attorneys in every state would permit somebody who is not listed as a parent on a birth certificate to make any decision on behalf of a child where a birth certificate was required, no matter what state they were in physically. As shameful was the tactic of trying to argue the bill somehow was against children, because the bill had nothing to do with restricting a child’s rights in any way. This whole tactic, just as the actual court case itself, reprehensibly used children as political pawns – the old strategy of accusing your opponents of doing what you are to draw attention away from that – and mirrored the larger grand strategy of politicizing the issue by asserting your opponents of doing exactly that.

In the end, few on the committee bought this and the bill passed it, with the process revealing that in fact opponents treated the occasion as an opportunity to leave intact an attempt to change policy to their liking through judicial fiat. Thanks to the committee majority, rule by law, not by political power, got a little boost and hopefully the entire Legislature and governor will emulate that.

5.5.09

Landrieu's silly statements serve his electoral purposes

Perhaps it’s out of spite for an attempt to cut some aspects of his budget severely, or maybe because his big sister got herself reelected for another six years so he can speak freely without negatively impacting her chances, or it could be the siren song of the only office he’s really cared about is calling him again less than a year from its settlement, but regardless of the motivation for his remarks about the budget submitted by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, the content of them shows Democrat Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu can sound like a dunce yet simultaneously win over a preferred constituency.

Last month Landrieu, who has no constitutional authority over the state’s spending process, inserted himself into the budgetary debate by opining that it strategy of cuts was unwise. From his testimony, it appeared somebody had prepared some briefing for him, even if some of the assumptions and assertions were ludicrous. But after some remarks yesterday, it would appear on the surface that this preparation never happened, or Landrieu forgot what he read, or he has made a conscious decision to be as disingenuous and oblivious as possible.

Landrieu again took up the budget topic, declaring that the Jindal budget in the process of being tweaked by the Legislature featured across-the-board cuts. Landrieu might want to read, or have summarized for him, that very budget because in it the Jindal Administration went to some lengths to target cuts, focusing on priorities subject to existing constitutional and legal strictures. In no sense did Jindal decide to cut indiscriminately, so Landrieu either is ignorant about this or spreading false information.

He also criticized that the cuts fell disproportionately on health care and higher education (and, he didn’t directly add, on the few state government functions he oversees) – but given the strictures, that can’t be helped. And that’s probably a problem Landrieu himself helped to create while serving in the Legislature. It would be interesting to review how many times Landrieu voted for eventual statutory and constitutional funds dedications, or for the laws that set up the process for handling projected budget deficits. It’s a sleight-of-hand – create the problem and then blame others for not handling it the way you would like on the terms you imposed – of which observers should note.

It seems that Landrieu also is clueless about state needs, which he claims the state has many that are unmet. That ignores the obvious that for many years they have developed not from revenue difficulties, but from stupid spending decisions, on things like reservoirs, sports teams, rounds of golf, slush funds, and the like. Again, it would be interesting to go back to Landrieu’s voting record in the Legislature and to discover whether he approved of spending tens of million of dollars to dig holes in the ground and fill them with water, to give the governor a fund to let legislators dole out money to privileged interest groups, etc. The stench of hypocrisy might by overwhelming.

Finally, Landrieu gave a full demonstration with just how out of touch with reality he is. He asserts that cuts in services will anger many “voters,” and that the Jindal budget typifies a mistaken strategy that “the outcome is not just to make expenditures meet revenues.” Thus, he supports repealing for three years the income tax cuts passed last year, and lauds governors like California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger who earlier this year won approval of a $14 billion tax increase to cover in part his state’s $42 billion deficit – a telling example as California repeatedly has raised taxes so that they now are the highest in the nation, yet the state still has hemorrhaged money for years in part because of an every-escalating tax burden that discourages economic development coupled with large spending increases.

Note the assumptions made here by Landrieu, the most prominent of which being that state spending is not deserving of being cut. It would be interesting, if not unprecedented, for Landrieu to justify all the spending presently going on in state government and saying we need tax increases to support it. (This could provide comic relief he if took the same approach as when defending his own department.) Here he continues to depend also on the fiction that the Jindal budget was put together haphazardly with only an eye on cutting spending to the exclusion of all else. I will now type this slowly so that even Landrieu can keep up – the Jindal budget made careful weighing of priorities inclusive of the idea that tax increases would do more harm to the state’s revenue situation over time; just because you don’t like them does not negate that fact, and to therefore say the cuts were without thought betrays either political gamesmanship on your part, or outright stupidity.

And there is a reason why cuts of this nature fall so disproportionately on these areas – because the dedications that constrain deficit reduction came about because their constituencies were relatively less able to make compelling cases to prevent their exclusion. Perhaps no state, measured both in quantitative terms regarding the proportion of its citizenry who attended college and in qualitative terms given prevailing attitudes about the value of higher education, treasures less higher education than does Louisiana, and the vast majority of health care expenditures on which the state must fund being for the indigent were shaped more for political interests than for the indigent. So any service cuts to those areas at best will rile distinct minorities (the higher education establishment and institutional health care providers), not the public at large that has little contact with either, so Landrieu’s prediction of voter anger has little chance of coming to pass.

However, these kinds of statements he needed to say to appeal not to the state as a whole, but rather to his narrow constituency – the New Orleans electorate, its majority comprised of people who pay little or no income taxes anyway and who disproportionately utilize government benefits that are scheduled for reduction. While Landrieu may have demonstrably silly ideas about the Jindal budget, do not mistake this lightweight posture masks a calculating politician. More than anything else, Landrieu wants to be mayor of New Orleans (having failed twice already), but recognizes his white face presents challenges with a majority-black electorate. He may spout nonsense, but it is based on the worldview widely believed in New Orleans and responsible for the city’s steep decline over the past decades.

In the final analysis, while Landrieu’s commentary on the budget seems entirely puerile, do not forget that with them his real objective is not to add compelling substance to the debate, but to position himself for his next electoral aspiration.

4.5.09

Dumb down bills' idea betrays lack of understanding

From the content of the bills they support and the rhetoric they promulgate on them, it is clear that the proponents of bills that would significantly remove and/or downgrade requirements for graduation from Louisiana high schools either do not understand the purpose of education and/or are trying to hide their true motives.

Bills HB 612 by state Rep. Jim Fannin and SB 259 by state Sen. Bob Kostelka would mandate three fewer classes in core subjects being taken and five in classes demanding reduced competency in basic concepts than with the present Core Curriculum. They also would have these curriculum completers take an exit exam based upon these lowered expectations than the present Graduate Exit Exam in order to matriculate.

It has been explained elsewhere that this tactic is the last thing to do in the present situation as American students begin to lag many worldwide, especially in the areas of math and sciences. This contradicts the trend of a world becoming increasingly ever more complicated where even the most menial jobs are requiring more native critical thinking and communication abilities of out individuals. There also already is a Basic Curriculum less than two years old that students may take that slightly alters the core requirements and structures electives to a vocational area, although they must pass the same GEE.

The idea behind the bills seems to be this approach is not enough, that some students need to be put into a track that emphasizes not so much how to think, but how to do. By all means, let the Americans diagnosing automobile difficulties, for example, learn in high school the basic principles of running the machines to do that, while it’s the Chinese, Indian, Russian, etc. children who learn the principles that allow them to program the machines. And then who must Americans depend upon when they need to recalibrate or improve the machines ….

What these advocates who bristle at the suggestion they are dumbing down the curriculum don’t understand is that you get much more out of education and the capacity of a human being by making this backward-chaining rather than forward-chaining. That is, once you learn advanced concepts, it is much easier to apply them to a wider range of situations and to do it better, including to those that require less critical appraisal. For example, the current requirements for math make it possible for students to both continue to move forward in its use in college, such as for engineering, architecture, etc., and backwards, such as how to calculate loan interest, principle, etc. In the case of the latter, why not teach the general theoretical concepts that can be used to understand the calculations rather than limit understanding to a mechanical computational function that does not reveal how to get there in the first place? The former approach will create an employee better able to handle novel and deviant situations with enhanced ability to expand their responsibilities and contributions.

Worse, one gets the suspicion that enthusiasm for this new curriculum is as much generated by dismal dropout statistics of about a third of high-school-aged children, so by changing the curriculum you artificially reduce the rate. This constipated view, however, tries to cure the disease by redefining the symptoms. The real reason why the dropout rate is so high is a combination of failure to demand more accountability from teachers, lack of commitment to discipline, and a culture within many schools that does not focus sufficiently on achievement. Political considerations therefore threaten to sabotage essential policy that has brought slow but steady improvement to Louisiana education.

The state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education gave a cautious endorsement of these bills, although the more sensible members of it successfully pushed for changes that may or may not solve the essential fault of these bills that they allow students to be less prepared for the realities of the world. Regardless, the current rules which scarcely have been tried seem more than adequate to address the increased flexibility to provide vocation education. Therefore, there is no need for either of these bills in any form.

3.5.09

Downs' rant shows both thinking and leadership failures

Last week, HB 456 by state Rep. Hollis Downs met a chilly committee reception, so much so that its author yanked the bill before a sure defeat was headed its way. After his withdrawal of the bill that would have tied increases in the gasoline tax to the Consumer Price Index, Downs ranted about how he saw Gov. Bobby Jindal administration’s view on this: “We offer no solutions but are opposed to taxes … I call on leadership to step forward and be leaders, not just philosophers, and find a way to address this issue.”

Obviously, Downs hasn’t been paying attention because he missed the preference issued by Jindal on this long ago that is addressing this issue: cut government spending and lives within government’s means. More than ever this is sage advice as raising taxes in a recession is about the most reliable way to lengthen and deepen an economic downturn. Of course, Downs not only has a history of appearing unable to understand the fundamental rule that government which does least does best, but also his demonstrated shrillness is favor of finding more roads has been contradicted by past action.

Concerning his penchant for approving of big government, last year Downs not only voted for a self-serving pay raise for himself, but also for Public Service Commissioners, both vetoed by Jindal. In past years he has voted for bills to add fees to driver’s licenses (presumably to combat litter), to support grandiose spending on a new hospital in New Orleans, to go over the state’s spending cap for no good reason, to continue to fund vacant positions in state government rather than shed them, to increase the minimum wage for lower-wage state employees, to force the sale of ethanol fuel, to allow a sweetheart deal for legislators’ benefits, to put minimum price controls on gasoline, and to add a “sick tax” that would raise health care prices. And if Downs was so keen on getting money to whittle down the roads construction backlog, then why did he vote in 2006 to allow more money to be poured into one of the great boondoggles of recent state history, the Poverty Point Reservoir?

The fact is, Downs doesn’t see “leadership” because the leadership being provided fundamentally disagrees with his desire for big government. (This preference by Downs is demonstrated by his scores over the last four years on my Louisiana Legislature Log’s voting scorecard, which assigns higher scores to legislators who prefer smaller government. His scores from 2005 through 2008 of 58, 39, 30, and 40 show that in aggregate he is more likely to favor the opposite and are well below the averages of his Republican colleagues.) It is indicative of simpleton thinking to be unable to follow the translation of philosophical advocacy – no new taxes needed because government can live within it means – to the practical of cutting government spending without tax hikes.

Downs is free to preach a gospel of higher taxes to match his past practice of higher spending preferences. But when his ideas are defeated, it’s not because there is a lack of anything coming from his opposition, and to accuse as such is more reflective of his own inability to understand the fundamental philosophy of the majority that in and of itself indicates a lack of ability to lead on his part.