Search This Blog

Loading...

3.9.09

Tying state pay to performance brings double benefit

Gov. Bobby Jindal and advocates of more efficient government in Louisiana can get two-for-one if the State Civil Service Commission follows through with revisions to its pay scales by the end of this year.

As the magnitude of Louisiana’s projected budget deficits for the next few years became clearer this past year, talk emerged about saving money through a more rational application of existing compensation rules. Presently, almost every classified employee receives a flat four percent raise annually if money is available because almost all are rated as satisfactory, while almost none are discharged to unsatisfactory performance. It has been recommended that pay increases be more closely correlated to gradations in performance and that evaluation be conducted utilizing more realistic standards.

This system of greater validity and flexibility might have avoided the need not to give any raises at all, as its current incarnation made it essentially an all-or-nothing proposition. Besides saving money, this debate also triggered reform proposals that would tie performance more closely to salary increases, the results of which were revealed by State Civil Service Director Sharon Templet.

Of the five, the best of them is the most complicated, where performance and market rates determine amounts. Unfortunately, its complexity likely will prove too confusing too employees and thereby reduce its motivational appeal for better output. Any of the other four plans, which would create at least three gradation and/or offer bonuses, would be an improvement over the current regime, as long as unsatisfactory performers get no raise, satisfactory-only-rated employees a very minimal one, and other gradations tied to higher evaluation levels are significantly different in their larger proportions given.

Happily, there may be another benefit to the implementation of one of these plans, which would go into effect next July 1. Frankly, a non-trivial portion of the roughly 62,000 classified employees in the state (about two-thirds of the total full-time equivalent state employees) know they will get little under the new system as for years, possibly their entire careers, they have eked out as little effort as possible to barely maintain adequacy while being assured of a fat four percent jump every year. Now that their raises, if any, would more faithfully reflect the amount of effort they are willing, or perhaps even only able, to put out, those who are advanced in their careers will not stick around – especially since they will be able to retire at nearly their entire current pay level, as potential state pensions for them are determined largely by their current salary level which wouldn’t go up much.

In short, this will encourage early retirements of the least capable employees and assist with another cost-savings idea, broached by Treasurer John Kennedy, of using attrition to cut as a goal of 5,000 jobs each over the next three years. Implement this new performance plan, and there will be no problem in meeting this aspiration. This is because the large majority of employees are in a retirement system that pays on the three consecutive designated by an employee as their base for calculation of their pension – usually their last three years prior to retirement because their pay is the almost always highest in this period. Bring on a new system, and a wave of retirements will hit the state bureaucracy cresting in June, 2011. All 15,000 would suggest a savings of around $600 million a year from then on (although it would aggravate the unfunded accrued liability situation of the pension fund.)

In the end, more rational use of fewer funds with better service will result from implementation of a new plan along the suggested lines. The Commission needs to act affirmatively on this and Jindal to approve it as soon as possible.

2.9.09

Glover's see no evil approach merits his job termination

Take Mayor Cedric Glover, subtract a hundred pounds or so, change the hair color and style, take off the glasses, and whitewash him, as because they already share the same attitude that allows corruption into Shreveport’s Department of Community Development, you wouldn’t be able to tell that former mayor Keith Hightower isn’t still in office.

Glover’s administration was stung by arrests of city employees made this week – so much so he has gone into seclusion from the media – who are accused of turning a blind eye that allowed contractors to be paid taxpayer money fraudulently, perhaps as much as $1.5 million and maybe much more. A grant program designed to pay contractors to improve residences of those on public assistance was abused by four contractors with the assistance of three city inspectors, with funds going to the four for substandard work and simply for no work performed, it is alleged.

Naturally, Glover said he hadn’t known about any of this, nor did the director of the department Bonnie Moore, until brought to their attention by investigators – despite the fact that some of the people supposed to be helped by the program realized what was going on and eventually that alerted Caddo Sheriff Steve Prator who opened the investigation. Even then, Prator described the city’s cooperation into the matter as lacking.

Regardless, this is no excuse for Glover. This department has been a chronic trouble spot, both in the area of paying out funds and inspections of property. In 2005, under Hightower and Moore, it was discovered that some associates of Hightower’s were getting what appeared to be favorable treatment on loans administered by the department. Instead of an investigation, Hightower and Moore stopped the program. Meanwhile, sloppy record keeping (also blamed for the lending controversy) in code enforcement essentially had ground that activity to a halt, costing the city millions of dollars in uncollected fines and in payment of maintenance of adjudicated property.

Glover ignored that history, retained Moore when he took over City Hall, and at least tried to beef up code enforcement and adjudication. Turns out he’s back to square zero on that, because with the arrest of the city inspectors for now there are no city employees to do any inspecting. If guilty as they are charged, one must wonder just how many other corrupt activities in this area have gone unnoticed, and for how many years.

Now there’s this. As an evidence of how badly managed the department is, some of the arrested contractors are that only in name – they have no license, which can be determined in a matter of seconds here. (Another name a couple of them have is “ex-con,” another red flag gone unnoticed.) Only the most inattentive and/or reckless management would fail to check that the contracts they are letting actually go to operators with state licenses.

If all of this happened in a place that values competence, Moore would have the sense to resign or Glover would have the gumption to fire her and either way make massive changes to the agency. Instead, among the last words he has spoken to the media he defended her. Which leads to the inevitable conclusion that, if Glover is not going to take seriously this matter, the person that’s going to get fired is him in 2010.

1.9.09

Union decries innovation, supports continued mediocrity

You can make all of the procedural and administrative changes you like to how is delivered elementary and secondary education in Louisiana, but until reform comes to personnel and local administration only incremental improvement at best can be expected, as recent comments by a union representative claiming to represent teachers demonstrate.

Louisiana appears strongly to be in the running for funding from a federal government program, one of perhaps a dozen states that will split among them $4.4 billion that go to states that adopt standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace, turn around low-performing schools, build data systems that measure student success, and recruit and reward effective teachers and principals. State Superintendant Paul Pastorek has said as many as 500 schools could benefit from the estimated $200 million the state could receive.

Some notes of caution were expressed by a spokesman for state school boards, who wondered whether this could mean institution of programs initially paid for by the state but then costs shifted onto districts. Pastorek insisted that any planning in this regard would look at this question. While it would be unfair to give districts with schools needing help a complete pass on the extra costs of improvement – after all, in the final analysis they are problems of their own makings – the state should provide a mechanism by which to heavily subsidize whatever efforts get established past the start-up phase.

But the reaction by the Louisiana Association of Educators to the possible windfall was puerile, if not infantile. ““When you really get down to it, it is the privatization of public schools using public dollars,” said Tom Tate, a lobbyist for the union. “We are just opposed to that.”

So what? Of course, it’s not even really clear what this objection is all about. Spoken in the context of state takeovers of schools, it appears this refers to the frequent practice of the state taking possession of failing local schools and converting them into charter schools. But this is not privatization; the schools still remain public, except they are contracted to non-government entities to run.

And what does that matter anyway? If this method provides a better education to students (as it appears to do), what in the world is wrong with it? That a union brays against supporting initiatives to improve education yet again speaks volumes about the central truth concerning these collectivities: they care nothing about children’s education, only about transferring as much of taxpayers’ dollars as possible to presumed teacher clients encouraged to put forth the least amount of effort in doing their jobs, aiming everything towards the lowest common denominator. They fear charter schools because of these institutions’ increased accountability mechanisms that demand more from teachers, pay more according to ability than longevity, and provide less cover for lazy and incompetent teachers.

It’s this bad attitude that is allowed to fester among the aggregate of state public school teachers (even as many individually recognize it and object to it while maintaining their own pursuits of excellence) and is most responsible for the substandard education being delivered in Louisiana. Only by instituting programs such as rigorous and frequent testing of teachers for subject area competence can accountability be established to squash this thinking. In the meantime, Pastorek and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education need to ignore these defenders of privilege and mediocrity, by pressing on to procure this federal assistance, and to employ it in whatever way necessary to achieve the opposite of their opponents’ loathsome agenda.

31.8.09

Special election outcome warns of danger to Democrats

As usual, lessons present themselves after the results of a special election in a competitive Louisiana legislative district, this time from the Senate District 20 contest necessitated by the early departure of Reggie Dupre. The district, held by Democrats since the elimination of opposition to them after the Civil War by 1900, was won by about 10 percent by Democrat Norby Chabert over Republican Brent Callais.

First, more proof came from this that Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal doesn’t have much in the way of coattails in these kinds of elections. Jindal endorsed Callais, a former Lafourche Parish councilman, but it wasn’t enough. This followed another failed candidacy of a Jindal endorsee earlier this year. Jindal is popular in the state and thereby an endorsement can’t hurt, but so far they don’t seem to help, either. This points to a difficulty in translating a statewide consensus about a politician onto a local contest.

Second, while (in percentage terms) Callais produced the second-best showing ever by a Republican in the district, at only 20 percent GOP registration, even with white Democrats an even-money bet to defect in elections, it’s a lot to overcome as a Republican. The quick-and-dirty rule of thumb that argues half of white Democrats vote for Republicans and all Republicans do would give a GOP candidate about 42 percent in that district under typical circumstances, and Callais actually beat that by a bit. That in the primary Democrat candidates got over two-thirds of the district’s vote underscores the task for a Republican.

However, it is a competitive district and one that the GOP could pick off. In my research on voting behavior in Louisiana legislative elections, I have discovered the “8:3 rule” which states that if the ratio of Democrats to Republicans in a district exceeds this ratio, a Democrat wins most of the time, but if it does not, a Republican does. The numbers put this district right at that ratio, so why did it tip the way of Democrats this time?

Well, third, while Callais tried to link Chabert to national political forces, most principally pointing to Chabert’s past support of Pres. Barack Obama, as another challenger there wasn’t much that could be used against Chabert other than this. Had he been elected to office before, other pieces of evidence demonstrating Chabert’s support of unpopular policies or people might have been available – something which may be present for a potential rematch in 2011.

Fourth, personalistic factors loom large in Louisiana local politics and perhaps nowhere more than in the bayou country. The Chabert name still carries a lot of cachet around the district, with one of them serving in the Senate from 1980-96. That Norby Chabert could ace out sitting state Rep. Damon Baldone for the Democrat vote in the primary speaks to that, as well as that Baldone may have been seen as tied more closely to national Democrats because of votes he had taken in the House.

Fifth, this being a special election may have played to the Chabert name and difficulty in connecting Chabert to national Democrats. In these less-stimulating kinds of contests, voters that show up typically are more interested and informed about politics, as well as there being fewer cues present on which to base voting behavior. Thus, more voters more likely would have recognized some distance between the rookie candidate Chabert and national Democrats, blunting the effectiveness of that strategy of Callais’, and the Chabert name would be an extra and exaggerated relevant cue received favorably by many.

In short, while national political forces favored Callais, demographics, timing, and name recognition favored Chabert. But take away the timing and name, and maybe even just the latter, and Callais may well have won. Knowledge of this gives clues to future performances and electoral tactics.

All in all, if Democrats nationally continue to self-destruct, if Louisiana Republicans can campaign starkly on their policy differences, even if Louisiana legislative Democrats intentionally cast some high-profile conservative votes in the next two years, it may not be enough to stave off the public’s recognition that if you lie down with dogs, you get fleas. State-level Democrat candidates, especially incumbents, may be such fleabags by then that enough of the public will ignore whatever attempts to present themselves as conservatives.

If so, they will lose in districts like this one. Thus, the proper way to interpret this result is that unless the policy outcomes for Democrats change in the next couple of years and Republican candidates hold them accountable for their actions and associations, contests in Louisiana that shouldn’t be close for Democrats will be, and the majority of them that typically are close are not going to go their way.