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11.6.09

LA higher education must address inconvenient data

It seems like a day doesn’t go by when Louisiana higher education officials aren’t decrying the impending budget cuts that will have to be endured. As unfortunate as the results of these might be, the problem is the constant refrain that neglects certain aspects threatens the credibility of higher education in a state where its reputation already is subdued among the general population.

Of course, it helps your cause when you don’t associate yourself around idiocy and failure to do so occurred recently when the leaders of the three public Baton Rouge institutions allowed East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden to speak on their behalf. “All three institutions in Baton Rouge are facing layoffs, which weakens consumer confidence and consumer spending and ultimately impacts our sales taxes,” he wailed, which has a degree of truth. But he left out the rest of the story: if restoring funding means removing that money from the private sector, that probably would end up costing more job reductions and lowering of consumer confidence and sales tax revenues. And his idea is logically absurd: according to Holden’s view, why not drain every cent from the private sector to support these schools if that’s what it takes to preserve jobs, etc.

At least the college heads seemed more rational in their statements, adding to the chorus over the past three months about potential adverse impacts concerning the disproportionate cuts, largely dictated by the inflexible state fiscal structure in a deteriorating economy. However, the continued poor-mouthing by higher education threatens to backfire so long as certain inconvenient facts are not discussed, information that, if left unexplained by the higher education community, weakens the argument against significant cuts.

10.6.09

Politics, greed mark many representatives' smoking votes

That stench emanating from the Louisiana Capitol isn’t from tobacco, it’s that from the hypocrisy surrounding how the House is treating the issue of smoking.

As noted previously, HB 889 which raises revenue from increased tobacco taxes itself is chock full of hypocrisy. It raises money off the destructive behavior of individuals yet does not adequate guard that the money will be used only to prevent or deal with that behavior. An honest bill would dedicate all revenues derived from it to smoking cessation, prevention, treatment of diseases believed associated with it, and research of those, that also does not allow for cost shifting, meaning these new revenues would be added to existing revenues for the same purposes and the old revenues not shunted to be spent on purposes unrelated to smoking. The bill doesn’t do that, so therefore it is more about raising revenue than dealing with smoking.

For some, it also is about politics perhaps more than revenue. Test votes on parliamentary maneuvers showed it does not have enough votes to pass the House, and that it is scheduled to be debated next week means there’s not much of a chance it can pass through the Senate in time to even get to Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal prior to the session end Jun. 25 without extraordinary measures. And Jindal has promised to veto it meaning, given the timeframe, a special veto override session would have to be called to accomplish this which never before has been successful. Only a political payoff – trying to embarrass Jindal in order to hamper his political future – would justify anything more than non-public attempts by the bill’s author, Democrat party official and state Rep. Karen Peterson, to keep it going under these conditions.

But while she may be using the bill as a political cudgel, at least Peterson’s hypocrisy does not extend to the lengths of many of her colleagues. If members who support HB 889, as indicated on the test votes, truly did so not for political or revenue-raising reasons but simply because they think smoking needs to be limited if not outlawed, they also would have voted in favor of HB 844 by Rep. Gary Smith that would have restricted smoking in commercial establishments that sold food and drink to outside, except for Indian casinos. Instead, most did not (Peterson did).

It’s quite simple – for whatever reason one thinks smoking should be restricted, whether that be it is self-destructive, it is a habit that annoys others, or it is a civil liberties issue (people with pulmonary conditions not through their choice effectively are denied entrance to bars because the liberties of those who can choose whether to smoke are given precedence over theirs), this same thinking behind HB 844 support should translate into support of the HB 889. Therefore, if one did not support HB 844 – because perhaps one thought people should have the right to engage in self-destructive behavior, or they had a right to impose it upon others in public places, or their voluntary choices are considered more important than the less-fortunates’ involuntary situations, then it cannot be argued that a vote to continue HB 889 is anything but political and/or money-grubbing in nature.

This produces lists of representatives, one of those who backed not only the indoor smoking ban but also in voting to allow the tobacco tax hike to continue on motions who therefore may be doing it for political reasons but at least are consistent, and one of those who also backed every motion for the tobacco tax to continue but voted against the indoor smoking ban who therefore demonstrate they are putting greed and/or politics ahead of principle. Of the former, Republicans likely are to be principled as they would have no wish to attack Jindal, while the Democrats (and independent leaners that way) likely are injecting politics into their decision even if it comports with their principles. Of the latter, likely it is Republicans that emphasize the greed part since they should be against taxation and would not want to attack Jindal, while the Democrats may share the greed and politics motivations.

And so, the principled: Downs and Ernst.

And, the probable political maybe matching principle: Arnold, A. Badon, Baldone, Barrow, Hill, Hines, M. Jackson, Peterson, G. Smith, St. Germain, and Stiaes.

And the greedy: Carmody, Lambert, Perry, and White.

And the greedy and/or probably political as well: Abramson, Anders, Brossett, Burrell, Dixon, Doerge, Edwards, Franklin, Gisclair, Hardy, Henderson, Honey, Johnson, LaFonta, Montoucet, Norton, Richmond, Ritchie, Roy, P. Smith, and Williams.

Removing only the pair for which it seems certain voted for principle, that’s 25 names that had greed or politics at least as a factor in their decisions, and perhaps as many as 11 more of the 105 members. That’s why the stench from the first floor of the Capitol is so overwhelming.

9.6.09

Tobacco tax hike remains disingenuously political

No doubt she gave it her best shot, which was pretty good in that she got a party-line vote to go in her favor, but despite that all of the conceptual and political flaws behind HB 889 by Rep. Karen Peterson still reveals it to be more about trying to score political points than any serious, workable measure addressing the state’s fiscal structure or health care issues.

The bill would take tax increases levied on tobacco and dedicate them to a number of purposes dealing with the health care area – a tax increase Gov. Bobby Jindal said he would veto and one which looks shaky to get the two-thirds vote each in chamber (or to override his veto) in any event. It is a scaled-down version of even higher taxes proposed in her HB 75 which was defeated in the House Ways and Means Committee, and reworked to avoid certain criticisms.

One was in the amount on cigarettes which was argued to cause business around the states’ border to flee to those surrounding states with lower taxes, thus largely negating the impact. Thus, the new cigarette tax was cut in half to 50 cents a pack to make the new total 86 cents a pack. Also, the money was not specifically dedicated to health care expenditures, so in the bill four different kinds of entities – providers, clinics, researchers, and treatment entities – were specified to receive the funds with half going to general providers of health care services. This was to counter the argument that it is unwise policy to base a tax on an activity for which the tax actually tries to discourage, because it creates an unstable funding mechanism and to some degree is hypocritical and there for only revenue-generating reasons, because if government truly wants to discourage this it would restrict or ban the practice.

None of this changed Jindal’s mind which means pursuit of the bill is pointless given existing political dynamics. As a demonstration of his influence, the bill’s consideration was delayed almost a month which means any further delay will kill it given the approaching end of the session. And, if the content and debate of and vote concerning the bill in committee are indicators, continued public pursuit of it by Carter will be primarily for political reasons.

Note that elements of hypocrisy, although reduced from the other bill, still hung over the original bill. For one thing, the half of the dedications that went to activities that could be related to smoking prevention/cessation and diseases from it was ill-defined in direction, specified to certain agencies but not activities. However, state Rep. Mike Danahay called the bill on that (graciously accepted by Peterson), getting amendments that specified the money had to go to activities dealing with prevention, cessation, and/or research. While that helps make for a more honest bill, it still isn’t quite so on this measure. This is because cost-shifting still could occur. For example, money that would go for prevention can supplant funds formerly used for that purpose, which then could be shifted to other agency purposes and then the money that formerly funded these could be shifted outside of the agency for any purpose in state government. So Peterson or any other supporter of the bill is being dishonest if they assert the new monies raised by it “only” would go to health care-related items.

The other hypocritical aspect is the other 50 percent, which goes to “funding to the Department of Health and Hospitals for payments to providers in the state Medicaid program, specifically for increases in provider rates.” This has little to do with smoking unless one could argue that smoking-related ailments would cause an increase in the total amount paid to providers to be offset by the new revenue. But the bill does not do that, it addresses not serving more people more often, but rather increasing the per person, per event payment, so it does not expand coverage to address smoking’s consequences in any way. Further, the dirty secret concerning the effects associated with smoking is that it actually decreases the health care costs of government because studies show the costs of treating people with smoking ailments typically are lower because, frankly, they die faster than non-smokers whose longer lives rack up in the aggregate greater health costs to government. In respect to this half of the new revenue, there’s no moral justification at all: it simply proposes that state government raise revenue off the self-destructive behavior of some individuals.

To some degree understanding of these flaws was demonstrated in the committee vote. All Democrats present voted for it; all Republicans except two (who had been no-shows a month earlier, denying the committee a quorum and causing the delay) and independents voted against it except Chairman Hunter Greene who followed the tradition of chairman usually not voting. With eight of each party and both independents on the committee, and with two Democrats absent, the amended bill therefore passed 8-7. Opponents seemed to recognize that, no matter how many promises were made in the bill, it represented a tax increase that would allow monies to be spent on activities that had nothing to do with extra money going to ameliorating and dealing with the debilitating effects of smoking.

If in the entire House Republicans maintain the same degree of party loyalty as in committee, the bill cannot succeed given the supermajority requirement. Given a small victory, Peterson has the obligation to try to change enough minds to win the next step, but if that’s not forthcoming, greater public efforts on her part will demonstrate little more than trying to score political points, generally to make opponents look like they are “against” health care particularly for the indigent, and specifically if it can get that far to try to make Jindal look that way by forcing him to use a veto. The latter would serve the larger purpose of Democrats, of which Peterson is a party leader, to sully Jindal’s electoral future.

Despite claims the bill is about health care, it disingenuously is more about revenues and thereby lacks justification to become law. Therefore, its continued life suggests it is more than justified primarily as a political tool.

8.6.09

Writer's ideology trumps pragmatism on Jindal tax views

It always humorous to observe liberals, intentionally or otherwise, try to frame political issues in a format where following their liberal prescriptions is “pragmatic” but to practice conservatism is “ideological.” A recent opinion piece about Gov. Bobby Jindal demonstrates this attempt which, when analyzed, reminds us how the author got it exactly backwards which leads to a total misinterpretation of Jindal the politician.

To see where liberals go wrong on this, it’s helpful to understand what is meant by being “pragmatic” and “ideological.” To be “pragmatic” involves (invoking some 19th century philosophical musings) an attempt to derive philosophy from empirical experience, to set aside “idealism” in action. To be “ideological” in its political sense is to espouse and act upon a program of interrelated assertions – which does not stray far from what pragmatism tries to avoid, “idealism” which postulates there is exists a preferable end-state that is believed, but not proven, to be achievable.

This writer, Stephanie Grace, claims that because Jindal does not want two particular tax increases – one a roll-back of deductions on income that began earlier this year and another on Internet service to fund district attorney investigations – that somehow this is “ideological” because the “pragmatic” thing to do would be, in this instance of the first case, to spend the additional revenue raised on higher education, and in the latter to be used to better police sexual predation on youth. She asserts this behavior stems from a desire of Jindal to gain political support for nomination to the presidency in the future.

Of course, she entirely misses the point because she does not understand that that act of raising taxes is itself “ideological” and not “pragmatic” regardless of the uses to which the extra revenue is put. As history and empirical fact have demonstrated, taxation both infringes upon individual liberty (because it unambiguously takes property legally and morally earned by its owner) and the economic well-being of society (because it removes resources from their most productive users, their owners operating in a free market). Therefore, the appropriate level of taxation is an “ideological” question because it involves a tradeoff between a tolerance of how much infringement of liberty and damage to the economy will be permitted in the quest for a policy preference deemed to be more valuable.

Here, Grace also does some sloppy assuming/misunderstanding – she doesn’t seem to get that the retraction is of an already-existing (for 159 days now) tax reduction and any increase on Internet bills takes money out of the hands of the most productive sector of the eocnomy, she calls the revenue cuts to higher education “severe” (they aren’t, at only 15 percent of general fund allocations at most and looking to be lower than that which may be better phrased as “significant;” “severe” would be of a much higher magnitude), and that Jindal wants to be viewed as more conservative because it helps win primary votes for president (the GOP’s 2008 nominee did precisely the opposite). But it is a big government mentality that ultimately destroys her argument.

Grace appears to assume that to oppose increases for these purposes (higher education, enforcement funds) has no rational policy basis; therefore, she writes, “ideology trumps pragmatism.” In reality, there are very rational reasons for not funneling more money to government, especially in a down economy. It’s a subject about which she apparently doesn’t know much as she wrote that a governor should “focus more on the practical demands of keeping state government functioning, particularly during an acute economic downturn” – ignorant obviously that the last thing government should be doing is taking more money out of a slumping economy as this removes resources from the most productive users of it when their services are most needed.

It also doesn’t seem to occur to her that perhaps Jindal is right about Louisiana having the capacity to increase its efficiency. Is higher education really crippled for the foreseeable future by this cut (which still puts it well above where it was a few years ago with no more students than before)? Does the attorney general really need more money to perform this task or can resources be realigned from less useful areas to increase activity in this area without more money? Grace appears to have given no thought to these possibilities and just simplistically swallowed a mantra about cuts should be reduced in higher education and funding increased for the district attorney, without any understanding of the larger situation now and in the future, and perhaps playing to a bias that the higher producers of wealth in society should pay more in taxes.

Those are the kinds of views that are “ideological.” If anything, Jindal’s views are the more “pragmatic” of the lot – a refusal to stay captive to the notion that government must do more and take more to do it, an openness to the idea that government can do a better job of making priorities especially when the people have to do with less, a recognition of reality that in times of distress leaving more money in the private sector provides a better long-term solution to government fiscal woes than a short-term infusion of cash. Thus, Jindal takes what history and fact have demonstrated, and acts accordingly – pragmatically.

This is why Grace makes a completely misguided assessment of Jindal’s actions. Jindal pursues the policy end of keeping money in the economy and reducing the size of government because it simply is the superior option. Maybe it comports to any future agenda that Jindal may have, and maybe it doesn’t, but it stands apart from that consideration and needs to be analyzed as such. Captive to ideology herself, following the usual liberal misnomer about their policy preferences being “pragmatic” but conservatives’ being “ideology,” Grace is unable to do so adequately. Thus, while Grace opined for Jindal it was “ideology trumping pragmatism,” that phrase more accurately describes her attempt to make this assertion, as thinking readers recognize.

7.6.09

Myths drive politically preening senators favoring SB 335

A majority in the Louisiana Senate nearly broke their arms patting themselves on their backs, bringing a new epitome to the idea of self-congratulation when they voted for SB 335 which would roll back a tax break for people – nearly half of all taxpaying households – on deductions, some affecting the most disadvantaged in the state such as those who have high medical bills. In fact, such a vote displayed a virulent mix of disingenuousness, ignorance, irresponsibility, and self-deception that sets new standards even for that body.

From the rhetoric emanating from many in that chamber, a vote for the bill was based upon one or more, perhaps all, of the following myths:

  • That it does not change the current tax structure in Louisiana. This is a lie repeated so often by its author state Sen. Lydia Jackson that either she must be entirely brazen or uncompromisingly stupid, perhaps both. She asserts that the current standard of 65 percent of the deductions would not be changed to 100 percent as is current law but stay the same, so therefore it’s not a tax increase. But the law did in fact change 158 days ago and for tax year 2009 people already have made financial decisions with tax consequences based upon the 100 percent level already in place. Changing it back is nothing more than a bait-and-switch. It’s a tax increase obvious to anybody who can fog a mirror and rub two brain cells together.
  • That this was a “hard” vote requiring expert balancing of preferences. It was actually a very simple vote as state Sen. Buddy Shaw pointed out: vote for it and be a hypocrite, or not. It was nauseating to watch several senators try to squirm their way out of this reality, droning on about how difficult it was (Bob Kostelka challenged opponents to try to do a better job on these kind of issues than he – uh, not a smart thing to say; the line of capable people from his district who could would be longer than that of legislators with state-reserved tickets queuing to get into the Baton Rouge super-regional college baseball action), looking for all the world like ugly stepsisters cooing to glass on metal, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall ….” New flash to these ignoramuses: political preening doesn’t turn the gamesmanship (as noted below) into statesmanship.
  • That it is in response to some “lack of plan” in place to deal with significant cuts to higher education. This also is at best confused, at worst maliciously false. The governor has a plan for handling cuts: have higher education absorb them now before they get worse in the coming years. The House has a plan as well: have higher education absorb somewhat fewer of them. Just because you don’t like politically other credible and realistic plans doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
  • That it sends money to higher education. Absolutely nothing in SB 335 directs money to higher education. It merely puts the money into a fund which the bill stipulates may be used only to fund higher education. It does not appropriate the money, and that portion of the bill could be changed at any time.
  • That is it is constitutional. Besides the problem of creating a retroactive tax increase, the Louisiana Constitution’s Article III Section 16(B) puts it bluntly and unambiguously: “All bills for raising revenue or appropriating money shall originate in the House of Representatives, but the Senate may propose or concur in amendments, as in other bills.” It’s ludicrous that its Senate supporters can’t even see or admit the contradiction in their rhetoric when they say it will raise revenue for higher education, yet claim it’s a constitutional bill when it comes from the Senate with a fiscal note showing it raises revenue. It is irresponsible for the Senate to be wasting time and taxpayer resources on a matter that clearly is unconstitutional.

    That too many senators continue to believe in these myths shows either they live in a fantasy land with no connection to reality (not a new charge levied against them, to be sure) or they temperamentally are unsuited for their offices. Let a citizenry riled by this insolence judge which is what for whom.