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28.8.09

With Vitter's race to lose, Melancon needs luck again

In the end, Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon asked himself two questions, his answers to which would make him choose to exit his House spot and would propel him into a long-shot contest for Republican Sen. David Vitter’s seat.

The first dealt with whether he would have the money to compete. At this time, he has only about a third of the $3.2 million that Vitter has on hand. However, with the GOP having to defend more seats than Democrats in 2010, he probably got a commitment from the national party to help as its resources won’t be spread as thinly as they could be, which could keep him competitive with Vitter.

But therein lies the problem. It is highly unlikely, given Vitter’s past demonstrated abilities in fundraising and his present pace concerning it, that Melancon will be able to stay with Vitter, much less pass him on the money front. History is very unkind to Senate challengers against incumbents by whom they get outspent, as they rarely win – and some of those few wins are because the victorious candidate poured in large sums of his own wealth.

The reason why is that fundraising ability serves as a proxy of candidate strength, since the majority of donors to campaigns are economically rational. Like investors, they don’t want to throw away their money on causes that don’t have a reasonable chance of success. If Vitter were more than marginally vulnerable courtesy of alleged martial infidelities almost a decade ago, he would not have raised and would be unable to raise the sums of money he has and looks likely to receive. Therefore, Melancon chose to enter this contest as a decided underdog, not only from the historical perspective of resources and their use as an indicator of the relative security of Vitter’s position, but also with polls showing Vitter maintaining a healthy lead on him.

Then why do it, especially when he had the alternative of running for reelection to the House? The second question’s answer operated here. Melancon’s position since the beginning of the year politically in his district has deteriorated badly. With the coming of the Democrat Pres. Barack Obama administration, his strategy of acting left but sounding right has become impossible to pursue as increasingly constituents views all his actions from a prism of Obama and the president’s decidedly unpopular liberalism there, which demand just too many visible positions that Melancon cannot duck in their taking. It also hasn’t helped that other blunders, such as revelation of his expensive southern hemisphere tour, have manifested.

Had he sought reelection, he would not have been considered the man to beat by challengers, he may not even have been favored among all candidates. Plus, because of looming constitutionally-mandate redistricting, of the various scenarios the most likely outcome would eliminate his current district by 2012 with no office that year to which to try to parachute. And so the question became very simple: do you run for reelection that is chancy in a district that might soon disappear that gave only about 35 percent of its vote to Obama, or do you run as a challenger in a (statewide) permanent district with dicey prospects where Obama got around 40 percent of the vote? Given the reasonable expectation of enough money to be competitive existed, the latter became obvious.

This analysis underscores the key dynamic of the race as it has unfolded: as pointed out before, Melancon made the move out of weakness, not from strength. If he wanted a continued congressional career, this was the least unlikely alternative for him to maintain it. More to the point, he has entered a contest that he cannot win by his own campaign efforts. Given the already low Democrat tide in the state, Vitter’s slightly reduced but formidable strength, and an evolving political landscape that chances are will not only get worse for Democrats nationally, but significantly worse over the next 14 months, if only facing Melancon, this is Vitter’s contest to lose. There is nothing Melancon can do to win this race, except …

get lucky one more time? Good fortune has marked Melancon’s national electoral career. He was able to take the open seat in 2004 only because of infighting among Republicans left a defeated GOP candidate attacking Melancon’s opponent. In 2006, that attacking defeated candidate emerged as Melancon’s primary challenger but his previous tactics discredited him among enough of the electorate, and in experiencing a good year for Democrats nationally were keys in allowing Melancon to manage reelection. Really bad tides for the GOP in 2008 permitted him to run unopposed. It could happen again in some unforeseen way … or maybe he’s more than used up his quota of good fortune.

Depending on luck as your main asset in a campaign doesn’t make you more than hoping you can beat the odds. But for now, it’s the best that can be said about Melancon’s Senate chances as his best hope to stay in national office past 2010 and his party’s to get the seat at all.

27.8.09

Roads ideas divorced from new Jindal budget direction

Bad ideas disproportionately remain in currency, and thus it seems the idea of raising gasoline taxes and others of extracting additional revenues from the public do not go away when it comes to considering funding for roads construction in Louisiana, both for the existing but especially contemplated ones.

Frustrated this past session when he could not get his idea to index the cost of living to gasoline taxes enacted into law, state Rep. Hollis Downs got the Legislature to pass a resolution to study the issue. Naturally, at the top of his list was this idea, accompanied by establishment of toll roads and, the only suggestion which may not cost taxpayers more, public/private partnerships in operation.

But conspicuously absent from the roll was the idea on which existing legislation already is based, designed to bring hundreds of million of extra dollars annually for road building. Currently, funds collected from taxes and fees directly related to transportation such as 80 percent of the state’s 20 cent per gallon retail gasoline tax are supposed to go only to the actual building of transportation projects. Until that became law last year, those hundreds of millions could be used for any purpose and they were outside of these kinds of projects. These proceeds would amply eat into the estimated $12.6 billion backlog of roads projects.

Unfortunately, an amendment was put into place on that bill to allow the redirection in times of projected budgetary deficits to other uses. Well, that’s where the state is now and likely will be for at least a couple of more years, hence the whining that led to this study. However, this new search dodges the obvious solution.

That is, simply spend less in state government. When economic times are harder causing overall revenue to falter, government needs to retrench in areas of reduced importance. And the idea behind the law is that the “hole” created by removing transportation-generated revenues from being used generally should have been treated as a one-time reduction of state government, establishing a lower baseline that could change on its typical path in future years and not even needing further cuts

Actually, the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration has talked more ambitiously than this incrementalist approach and these words need to be heeded by these legislators. Its new envisioned budget regime would reduce the inflexibility of the current system, especially straitjacketed by hundreds of dedicated funds, allowing reduced spending as low priority, largely if not totally unnecessary items are dropped from being a state function. This would include how much money would be directed to transportation, so if it is a true priority, its funding will increase.

Furthermore, it is fatuous for the most part to start talking about new projects that would increase the demand for money. After all, the state is losing population, so why must there be new roads except in a handful of instances such as I-49 (north; south can get along with the existing U.S. highways that it uses) and perhaps a few isolated (because it’s not happening much) places of good population growth in the state? If these are high priorities, then the projected new budgeting plan should get money to them. And, one must wonder about the economic acumen of those who propose to excise more money from the people when a recession already is hurting them economically. (Note also that a recent legislative attempt to redirect funds by giving local government more authority over use of project funds, which might have improved prioritization, was defeated.)

So, the obvious solution is this: adopt budgeting reforms suggested by the Jindal Administration that would cause redirection of existing revenues to roads, and no revenue enhancements are necessary. While blatant, despite that this escapes the cognizance of many legislators simply because they appear genetically programmed to want to increase the size of government, and thus its (and their) power over the people. This study’s current agenda underscores the difficulty the Jindal Administration will have in getting the new budgeting idea through, and exposes the mentality that continues to hold back the state’s ability to spur growth and economic development.

26.8.09

Shreveport correct not to socialize gas leasing risk

While much attention has deservedly gone to Pres. Barack Obama’s various attempts to socialize risk at the federal level, that issue has broken out at the local level in Shreveport as well.

At this time last year, the frenzy that accompanied mineral rights leasing reached its apogee as natural gas prices hovered at their highest levels ever, dramatically higher than two years previous. Northwest Louisiana got caught in the perfect good storm because just months earlier came confirmation of a huge gas discovery known as the Haynesville Shale. Residents, businesses, nonprofits, and governments suddenly discovered they had a marketable commodity, potentially a lot of it, in the middle of the greatest boom for it ever.

Some were agile and took immediate advantage. On the government side, DeSoto Parish was the nimblest, deciding quickly to use the traditional route of going through the state’s Mineral Board and cashed in near the peak that by doing so will provide benefits for its citizenry (if with wise governance) for years to come. Others, like Bossier Parish, hemmed and hawed and/or tried to do it themselves and eventually were unable to do anything but wait on forced unitization directed by the state. Shreveport moved cumbersomely, in part hampered by already-leased land at next-to-nothing at the instigation of former Mayor Keith Hightower, and hadn’t reaped anything but searched to do so

Individuals apparently fared the same. While some just dove in and got deals of varying worth, a few hired expertise to help them. Others took to the Internet, neighborhood fora (sometimes convened by the leasing companies themselves), and other inexpensive resources to educate themselves on what made for a reasonable lease and negotiated. Some informally banded together or talked among themselves to determine a good set of conditions. These strategies paid off for many such as in south Bossier, where a number of landowners individually negotiated and signed with one of the two big forces in the scramble, Petrohawk, in the $20-25,000 range per acre with a quarter royalty, by the end of summer.

But others gambled with time and organization, principally those with already-existing neighborhood associations. In Shreveport, many eventually coalesced into one group and the associations began to solicit their residents to sign letters of intent to allow the specific association, or in Shreveport’s case the group of them known as the ShreveCenter Coalition, to negotiate on their behalf. The thinking was akin to that used by labor unions in negotiations with managements: the larger the pool of the represented, the more coercive power they had that theoretically would make for a better deal.

The only problem was, the gamble failed. The record prices did not sustain and leasing activity – and return for rights holders – plummeted. So by the time these organizations got it together enough to be in a position to bargain from what they thought was strength, likely those individuals involved had forgone better opportunities if undertaken separately in the past than what they could get now and in the future collectively, in many cases substantially so.

The other major force in local leasing, Twin Cities, which works on behalf of Chesapeake Energy, now dealing with a buyer’s rather than seller’s market decided to forgo negotiating with the associations. That is their right, but it was not taken kindly by the associations which began to implore Mayor Cedric Glover to withhold approving leasing of Shreveport public lands desired by Chesapeake until they would work through the associations. Glover appeared to agree when he made critical remarks about the City Council’s unanimous vote to lease 740 city acres to Twin Cities, and threatened a veto.

For whatever reason, Glover let it go. Politically, a veto would have been disastrous. There are three kinds of potential voters out there, those agitating for him to have the city assist their efforts, those who have leased or who are negotiating that didn’t or wouldn’t get any help from that strategy, and those who have nothing to lease. The latter two groups are larger than the first and they would question why the city is depriving itself of money to support a special interest.

In the final analysis, tying leasing of city properties to negotiating with some collectives is nothing more than a socialization of risk to compensate for bad decisions made by a select few on behalf of less-involved others. Why should the entirety of Shreveport suffer with the loss of potential revenues just to shore up opportunity costs to what appears to be a tactic that went sour – and not even a guaranteed benefit to them because there’s no guarantee associations could bring in a better deal even if they are dealt with in the process. Plenty of other citizens on their own got what they considered good terms, so why should the Shreveporters in these neighborhoods be any exception?

25.8.09

Budgeting reform needs eyes on implementation to work

It’s a great time to be student of public administration in Louisiana as every politician, appointee, and former official who left their offices both voluntarily and otherwise spout one or the other of every trendy budgeting reform of the past three decades, in order to address large projected state deficits in the near future. But what we don’t hear any specifics about is how it’s going to be done.

We heard a current treasurer advocate a hiring a freeze, a former governor (somewhat contrary to what he actually did in office) stump for zero-based budgeting, a former legislative staffer suggest the derivative of assessing need and then construct revenue packages to match, and the current commissioner of administration expand upon (and thereby connect to its recent outcome-based budgeting initiative) the current (presumed) performance-based budgeting regime. All told, together they covered almost all of the reform ideas that emanated from the academy in the 1960 and 1970s.

But only Commissioner AngĂ©le Davis seemed to grasp the essential truth of the situation when she lamented how the current performance-based system (tying appropriations to performance measured by ability to achieve assessed priorities) was not working well because of a disconnection between actual appropriations and achievement. Instead, the old incrementalist approach – take last year’s budget as a baseline, and then try to increase it from there except in tough times when tactics try to avoid as much decrease as possible – holds sway throughout state government, she asserted.

The point is, you can take a much more rational approach to budgeting that will improve both efficiency and effectiveness in government, but successful implementation of that approach must occur or nothing changes. Therefore, the will to do so must be present, both as the policy-making level and implementation level.

The scope of the crisis may have galvanized the political will, a rare feat in Louisiana’s history. However, as Davis noted, change must happen among those carrying out the new procedures and, believe it or not, that may be still even more difficult to accomplish. Civil servants in the classified service have protection from political personnel decisions built into their jobs which, unfortunately, also serve as great insulation from managerial maneuvers designed to make them behave in a certain way. They will be heavily resistant to any changes in budgeting because the current method is easy and helps protect their jobs.

But, fortuitously, at the prodding of the Davis’ organization, the State Civil Service Commission already has laid the groundwork to push reluctant bureaucrats in the direction of necessary reform. This summer, its decisions to incorporate more merit into reductions in force and more stringent reporting requirements showing the role of merit in pay raises (which may lead to actual merit being used in giving out raises) now give additional valuable tools to prompt performance congruent to reform goals. The word needs to go out that genuine participation in budgeting practices envisioned by Davis and other reformers will count in reviews of higher-level managers for salary increases, and therefore must be expected of their subordinates as well. Further, the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration beyond the idea of targeted hiring freezes and say a few layoffs will occur as well, where fidelity to the new budgeting regime will play a role in determining who must be let go.

These tactics will encourage more coherency and sense into the present budgeting process within agencies, and will pave the way for reform. The ideas being brought forward on the budgeting process are entirely sound. But it is their implementation, which will require a sharp break with past public administration in Louisiana, that will make all the difference whether they succeed in bringing greater efficiency and effectiveness in state spending.

24.8.09

Landrieu playing well her hand on health care debate

In contrast to the grave difficulties that Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon is having in trying to pull off the balancing act of supporting liberalism in the face of a conservative constituency, his co-partisan Sen. Mary Landrieu has weathered the buffeting of the radical attempted overhaul of U.S. health care policy politically much better.

Landrieu solidly has provided support for liberal initiatives in her dozen years in office, yet has been able to spread the perception that she is moderate enough for conservative Louisiana. Melancon has tried to do the same thing but has gotten caught out because he has not been as politically astute as Landrieu (who does have the advantage of being a senator and whose greater seniority amidst these fewer competitors allows her to carve out attention) in finding a presumed moderate approach on a signature issue.

She struck gold with her stumping for the Wyden-Bennett “Healthy Americans” version of health policy reform. While still very liberal in that it would reduce competition through forced standardization and increase government oversight of health insurance that it makes it worse than the present regime, it is the least radical of all the Democrat plans being floated about. She has gotten great traction out of this since she signed on to it prior to Pres. Barack Obama’s taking office and subsequent Democrat attempts to stuff more radical plans down the American peoples’ throats.

If when all the dust settles the plan now supported by Landrieu is close to what gets enacted into law, if anything does, she’ll get that electoral gold mine. No matter what liberal votes she casts over the next six years, she will be able to claim she stopped radical health care reform and did something about the issue at the same time. Even though her preferred solution is on the liberal side, it is the contrast with what might have been that will benefit her, and it is something that will stick in people’s minds and override within most voters’ cognitions any number of liberal votes she makes.

Even if liberals blame her for scuttling truly radical changes, they will be placated by her other liberal votes. And, where else can they turn? She’ll get their support because the nature of liberalism first and foremost emphasizes the acquisition and use of power, and they’ll therefore always place politics over principle.

Of course, if somehow radical Democrats in the White House and Congress get a more radical plan to a vote, then it will be tougher on her. But she’ll probably think six years will be enough time to try to make people forget about her vote for that and she’ll take that route. All in all, she has positioned herself well politically on this issue.

This is why Landrieu is willing to brave genuine public appearances while Melancon will not, and why now Melancon’s political career is becoming jeopardized while hers seems untroubled.

23.8.09

Too busy spending, traveling, Melancon dodges citizens

As he inches closer to a desperate U.S. Senate run, the belief that persists with Rep. Charlie Melancon that he can sidestep and fool the Louisiana electorate will not serve him well in that or any future contest.

The latest confirmation of this worldview of his comes from his comments on why he is refusing to meet with large groups of constituents whose presence and statements he can’t control. He claims it is because of a few isolated incidences at these occasions where liberal Democrats have been excoriated by plainspoken yet knowledgeable people motivated only by their genuine concerns about, in the main, a stealth federal government takeover and rationing of the sixth of the U.S. economy that comprises health care. Rather than listen to them, he asserts these actions don’t represent “honest questions.”

Instead, he says he will learn more by listening to presumed constituents handpicked by his organization who will tell him what he wants to hear. This is his version of the schoolyard tactic of shutting his eyes, covering his ears, and, to ensure he can’t hear anything that he doesn’t want to, by shouting loudly and repeatedly, “I don’t see you, I can’t hear you, you’re not here, go away!”

Particularly ironic about his lame rejoinder is that, by his own statements, he should have nothing to worry about since he voted against in committee a version of the Democrats’ health care plans which has the objectionable elements feared by a majority of the public. However, that’s because he fears they will ask him why he voted for a procedural move that allowed an amendment to the bill for taxpayer money potentially to fund elective abortions, in order to set things up so that later enough Democrats would be available to pass the whole thing despite his vote against.

And any meeting could allow the opportunity for questioners to publicize others of his brazen acts of misdirection as well. He foams at the mouth trying to get people to believe he is a rabid “Blue Dog,” i.e. Democrat who believes in fiscal constraint. Instead, he votes for the biggest increase in the federal budget deficit in history and then uses historical ignorance to try to defend himself. Also, he sticks taxpayers with hundreds of thousands of dollars in travelling expenses ostensibly to study “global warming” when he could have learned as much or more without gallivanting around and thereby not contributed to the production of greenhouse gases caused by his jet-setting.

This current excuse only represents yet another episode where Melancon says one thing that tries to distract the public from what he means which is another thing entirely, joining other recent demonstration of his constituents’ inability to trust him. Con Man Melancon doesn’t want to hear from you but he wants you to only hear what he’s trying to peddle – and it’s not the truth. Melancon doesn’t care about what you want, only what he wants, and that’s to get elected to some federal office somewhere so he can keep careening around the world on useless junkets and to lick lovingly the faces of liberal Democrats like the lap dog that he is. You’re just a thing to be used in this cosmology of his. As such, the silence he tries to impose surrounding the performance of his job in reality speaks volumes about his con game he employs in carrying it out.