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6.8.09

School cell phone ban needs wider implementation

In a move that ought to be emulated statewide, the Lafayette Parish School Board outlawed the possession of cell phones on their high school campuses, outside of cars in parking lots, for students during the regular school day, complementing a ban for junior highs and elementary schools. Why this hasn’t been done before and in more places is the real mystery.

Cell phones bring nothing but distraction, if not outright unethical or illegal behavior, to the learning experience. Texting, picture-taking, and even outright calls taken or made in classrooms only interfere with the educative mission. And these are the least concerns. Increasingly, schools are reporting the photographic features of phones are being used to take and then texting/mailing features employed to send inappropriate images that may be illegal. Also, these same tactics can be used to cheat on exams, and, as phones have gotten increasingly sophisticated, phones’ storage and applications can be used to do the same.

Yet some apparently insecure parents resist the idea, citing safety concerns such as notification of them in emergency situations, or for convenience sake. One wonders how these adults of today functioned when they were in school, when their parents (without cell phones themselves) would be notified by the school office phones when necessary. It seemed to work well then, and there’s no reason it can’t work well now.

This policy also may help combat this weird co-dependency increasingly observed among those moving into adulthood and their parents. Some parents act like their children are possessions that can be stolen from them at any time, so they must be in touch with them constantly, going to extreme lengths such as equipping them with homing devices so they can track their every move (not just toddlers which might actually be justifiable, but older children as well). Others have to have intermittent streams of verbal contact by phone. For their part, these attitudes discourage the children from learning independence, self-reliance, and taking responsibility onto their own shoulders. Maybe the real world can be threatening some times, but children have to learn how they can deal with it on their own if they want to function as normal adults in it.

Most students don’t engage in these kinds of behavior, and most parents don’t facilitate an unusual tendency to cling to the apron strings but, as usual, a few rotten apples have come together to spoil things for the responsible users of this technology in the schools. But it is a reasonable burden for them to bear with this kind of policy, given the removal of the drawbacks associated with continuing the ways things were. Other districts would be wise to copy Lafayette.

5.8.09

Yes we can shrink LA govt with little pain, results show

A lot of moaning was heard from advocates of big government, often state legislators, about how the budget reductions forced upon the state for this fiscal year would be so harmful, and how those who were against raising taxes to supply more revenues (at least temporarily) needed to come up with some “plan” to deal with shrinking government. By contrast, with hardly a peep from them comes a refreshing story about how two senior officials in state government didn’t complain, they just did it.

Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Mike Strain, through hiring freezes and voluntary (but with incentives) retirements, took his department’s work force level down 156 positions in the 19 months he’s been on the elected job, a drop of over 20 percent. Deputy Secretary of Insurance Shirley Bowler (appointed by the top, elected, official in the department) reports using the same strategy they have 62 fewer authorized positions, nearly a 20 percent drop in the past year.

From what they are saying, it appears there won’t be much of an impact on service provision even scaled back in personnel significantly. No doubt in some more specific areas some isolated clients might find fairly reduced service levels, and the general public may have to be more inconvenienced at times, but overall the savings of millions of dollars (even after paying out one-time retirement bonuses) will far exceed what little will be lost in terms of service as a whole.

These stories confirm what has been known about Louisiana government (reiterated recently by Treasurer John Kennedy) – comparatively speaking, it is overstaffed for its population. Too many things are being done too inefficiently or should not be done, and squeezing excess employment out of the system will induce more efficiency and shed the essentially unnecessary tasks to save taxpayer dollars.

So to naysayers about how government needs more money or less reduction in size, these signal it can be done, and can be done across the entirety of state government (matching genuine need to available resources, and using such resources smartly). As we head into another fiscally strained year next year, this reality needs to guide policy-makers’ decision-making.

4.8.09

Jindal must push to reform wasteful long-term care sytem

Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals finally has promulgated new rules in response to budget cuts that started this fiscal year. They address the symptoms but largely miss the disease, an approach that produces inefficiency that Gov. Bobby Jindal has targeted for elimination.

Cuts include reimbursement rates to hospitals, physicians, and home- and community-based providers. These will serve to reduce supply of medical services, of which some may not have been necessary or inefficiently performed which now may become more efficient by this new imperative, but the needed remainder now will be parceled out involving more inefficient use of resources (such as in waiting times) or not at all.

But note one tremendous (roughly 85 percent of their revenues) user of state government money was not affected at all – nursing homes. This is tragic, not only because they perhaps utilize the least efficiently health care dollars yet suffer no penalty for that in hard times, but also because the state largely has set itself up to remove this option from being a solution for tight budgetary times.

For decades, Louisiana has placed way too much reliance on these institutions, culminating in a disastrous law passed in 2006 that locks in a formula that rewards the system some $20 million a year for overcapacity. A Legislative Auditor’s report of 2004 showed that if other rules that determined rates were altered to standards used typically by other states, the state could save almost $100 million a year. Put these two figures together, and that’s half of the $240 million reduction faced by DHH this fiscal year.

At the end of 2008, Jindal made some changes at the margins to slightly improve the situation, but more needs to be both administratively and legislative to correct the imbalance that is needlessly costing the state money. Addressing the former, the state must begin applying its new resource allocation model to nursing homes, as it is doing for other manners of care. Using this, it can identify which patients are improperly institutionalized, i.e. need less intensive services that can be provided in a community home or in their own homes, and move them out to these less expensive yet more appropriate environments.

This would entail transferring money from nursing homes to these other programs – which will make institution operators scream because they deliberately overexpanded to take advantage of the warehousing ethos and now they won’t be getting their payoff. As a safeguard against this, the 2006 law locks in reimbursement for them. Thus, to rectify the situation and to get people into their proper environment of care, this law must be undone. It will take political will – a will that, as a whole, the Legislature may be lacking because of the political clout and donations the nursing home industry can bring.

So it may be up to Jindal. With a huge donor base, he may be the only one to be able to push for this change along the lines of the recommendation of the 2004 report without being held hostage politically by the industry. If this budget situation has made anything clear, it’s that the system must be reformed, Jindal has said he wants to reform it, so now is as good as any time for him to put his money where his mouth is.

3.8.09

Melancon con game continues with scripted votes

Last week we got another example of why his job title might be “Member of the House of Representatives,” but a better description going by what Rep. Charlie Melancon actually does is “con man.” (Con Man Melancon, has nice ring to it, huh?)

Melancon has built his congressional career on trying to appear as one thing to his constituents, but actually behaving as another. The greatest disconnect between his desired image and actions is his self-appointed status as a “Blue Dog,” supposedly fiscally conservative Democrats. Yet to date he has been a total Lap Dog when it comes to approving of trillions in budget-busting, deficit-escalating spending at the behest of liberals, his boss Speaker Nancy Pelosi and overlord Pres. Barack Obama.

Yet another chapter got added to his continuing deception when dealing with H.R. 3200, Obama’s attempt to nationalize health care by creating a subsidized public option that would drive the private sector out of the business. Part of that at this point includes an option to publicly fund elective abortions, an idea resisted by a healthy majority of Melancon’s constituents. (It leaves the option for the plan to do so, which no doubt under Obama would occur, and would require the same for federally subsidized private plans to do so.) And Melancon greased the skids for it to happen.

This happened because, at first, an amendment was offered and succeeded in Melancon’s House Energy and Commerce Committee that would have amended the bill to ban, as is current practice, federal dollars to going to fund abortions directly or indirectly. Apparently, committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman realized at that time he lacked the numbers to stop it. While Democrats have a solid majority on the committee, several term themselves as “Blue Dogs” and were skeptical about public funding of abortion and of the high cost of the bill as a whole.

Forced to have a vote, Waxman voted for the amendment which, while passing it, allowed him to bring it up for reconsideration later. Melancon voted for this, also. As the committee moved on, a Democrat against it who had been absent showed up and another claimed he had “accidentally” voted the wrong way and wanted reconsideration. Waxman asked for it and got a majority, including Melancon, to vote for that. This time, with three new votes, two, flipping, against the bill, what had been a four-vote victory for it turned into a one vote defeat, with Melancon again voting for it. Later, the entire bill passed, again with Melancon and several other Democrats voting against it but with more than enough others to pass the entire thing.

Translation: Waxman gave orders to all committee Democrats that an exact few, including Melancon, could vote for the amendment and against the bill, just few enough so the bill would pass. Regardless whether the first vote was for show or because of miscalculation, had everybody who on that vote kept their next vote the same, reconsideration never would have occurred successfully. But Waxman ordered Melancon to support reconsideration, and like the lap dog that he is, he did along with others.

The flim-flam from Melancon comes from his trumpeting to the world about how he voted against the bill not only because of its cost, but because of the abortion provision. But if he was being honest and meant what he said, he would not have voted for reconsideration – he knew what would happen. Either that, or he is a stupid man (not that big of a stretch to consider given some of his past statements) after having been in the House for over four years to not to know what he was doing. Stupid, disingenuous, or both are not traits we want to see in our Congressmen, yet Melancon certainly fit the bill on one or both with these antics.

So this is how Melancon tries to have his cake and eat it, too – do something symbolic to spin enough to please his constituents and to salve his conscience (if he is actually telling the truth about his beliefs, which, again unless he’s stupid, don’t square with his actions) yet allow his masters that he slavishly serves to succeed with their agenda with his help. This does wrong by his constituents, the real objects that he should be serving.

This incident leaves Melancon wide open to charges of hypocrisy and incompetence. Hopefully, future electoral opponents of his will take note of this, explain the situation to potential voters, and not allow him to create a false picture of himself to the public. Thus the Melancon con game continues.

2.8.09

Scorecards' effect overblown, but nonetheless interesting

I don’t know what’s taking so long for some groups to put together and publicize their scorecards for the 2009 regular session of the Louisiana Legislature – the Louisiana Legislature Log’s that judges the degree of conservatism/reformism of legislators and the governor was published almost a month ago – but in most instances they are more something that political insiders concern themselves with than does the mass public.

Scorecards take a range of votes cast on bill passages or amendments and measures how a legislator performs on these matters of interest to groups. One end of the scale is perfect agreement with the group (usually made into 100 on a 100-point scale), and the other exactly the inverse. Often (commonly at the level of Congress, less so when dealing with state legislatures), groups will inform legislators prior to an important vote that the outcome will make their scorecard.

They do this, or at least generally publicize the fact some kind of scorecard on some varieties of issues will be compiled, as a subtle form of pressure. Implicitly, they argue that, for some purpose, the group will publicize the results that will make a legislator look more or less flatteringly as a result of this intervention. However, the audience almost always is a set of interests connected to the group, not voters.

Few groups in Louisiana – in fact, perhaps the only being the Louisiana Family Forum – have the ability to create mass dissemination of their scores and to activate enough interested individuals to which scores might actually mean something for an election. For this kind of group, the scorecards can be voter education tools where vote choices actually may be influenced by them in future elections. Yet for almost all other groups (and particularly those who don’t publicize theirs), they serve as instruments by which the group chooses whether to support officeholders in upcoming elections. This includes principally donation decisions or other less tangible means of electoral assistance such as endorsements. They also may be used as lobbying tools. They can identify more or less friendly legislators to the group’s agenda and allow resource allocation to be accomplished more strategically in persuasion process.

If one in hundred potential voters could name their own legislator’s score for one group on even just their own representative or senator, it would be amazing. But that’s not really the intent, measure for posterity (unlike my aforementioned Log), for almost every group doing these. Rather, they are devices before a vote before it’s even taken to persuade, with the implicit threat of bad publicity and/or lack of future support if the legislator votes the “wrong” way, and after the fact to make decisions about that future support.

Political science research on these scorecards has covered without exception the national level and generally concludes that, in terms of voting behavior, rarely does the publicity make a difference in a legislative career. For intermediary aspects such as donations and endorsements, on some occasions there may be a marginal electoral effect. In both cases, they tend to occur only for extreme cases. (In my years of doing the Log, only once has a legislator even asked about it.) Still, scorecards are an interesting tool by which to understand who is what.