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29.10.09

Despite legal ambiguity, added Census question needed

While it might appear that the issue of whether the 2010 Census should count separately undocumented persons is something that just came up, in fact it is a perennial issue of long history that often is not well understood. Clarity is required to assess the reasonableness of this requirement and therefore how to proceed on the issue.

Despite Sen. David Vitter’s recent taking up of this cause, it’s been around a long time and others of his colleagues have been there before. As far back as prior to the 1980 census it had become part of the public policy debate. In 1988, members of Congress wanted to pass legislation requiring a separate count on all forms (since the middle of the 20th century only the “long form” included the question, which is sent to a smaller portion of households). They also threatened to file suit, but neither went anywhere. A number of academic studies came out in the 1990s and this decade estimating the impact of illegal immigrants on apportionment. In 2006, Sen. Conrad Burns raised the issue but was rebuffed. A number of stories early in this year appeared about it.

Why Vitter and others came to start offering amendments to bills that would deny funding for Census activities at such a late stage in the game, when they might have been more effective months ago and prevented Democrat counterparts such as Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu from using as an excuse the process was too far along and would cost millions of more dollars, is a mystery. Also complicating his fight is that in all likelihood it is unconstitutional. Some argue in the context of what the earliest Congress is believed to have understood that created the operating rules for the Census could be interpreted to mean only citizens could be counted, but it is a bit convoluted of an argument. The Fourteenth Amendment seems particularly damaging to that cause, when it pretty directly mandates that all “persons” be counted.

Nevertheless, having some kind of separate question even on the short form would be beneficial. If opponents do sue over the constitutionality of the undifferentiated count and actually succeed, the data would be already in the correct format to do, or redo, Congressional reapportionment. However, such an outcome seems unlikely given on the U.S. Supreme Court the four justices who are strict constructionists – Chief Justice John Roberts, and Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas – would be hard pressed to take such an activist interpretation of the document and all they would need is one more vote from more liberal judges some of whom secretly politically probably prefer the effort to fail.

Were that the case, only a constitutional amendment would suffice. Yet that could come prior to 2020, and the data would stand ready to fit. And for the future, a law such as that proposed two decades ago should be put into place so data could be ready for changes that could trigger and intra-Census reapportionment.

It will cost money to redo, but Democrats have blown hundreds of times the figure this year alone on spending that serves no real purpose and/or does not solve public policy problems. This relatively small amount accomplishes something far greater, ensuring that a cherished feature of our system of government reflect correctly intentions behind its founding, whether updated. Opposition to it therefore remains quizzical, and makes one wonder whether opponents like Landrieu believe in maintaining the system’s integrity.

28.10.09

Many misunderstand place, purpose of streamline panel

So, Louisiana’s Commission on Streamlining Government is actually beginning to compile recommendations, which legally are due by Dec. 15. To understand what this will mean for public policy going forward over the next nine months, we must understand the purpose of its existence.

Some have invested too much importance in it. For example, the idea factory member Treasurer John Kennedy has become on it would make one think he’s running for governor in 2011 with this gig as a means of floating trial balloons for the future. This is not a bad thing, but it’s not realistic either to think the CSG was formed solely and only to ferret out novel, never-before-seen and creative ways of making state government more efficient.

At the same time, others have dismissed it without understanding its true importance. Those who say it is an exercise in hot air that seeks to substitute rhetoric for action (or to excuse inaction) in a sense also have misunderstood it by assuming its political value is diversionary. In fact, it is intended to be a complementary political tactic to build support for some inevitable proposals and in the process perhaps find some genuinely new approaches that can be added to that agenda.

This is why observing the role played by the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration in its unfolding is vital to comprehending its impact. Those testifying on the Administration’s behalf just didn’t wake up after the Commission formed and suddenly started to brainstorm on efficiency in their corners of government. The ideas they are pitching have been on the minds of Jindal and/or his key subordinates for some time, many of which challenge the existing bureaucratic system and special and political interests that support it.

Thus, the primary purpose of the Commission is to provide additional legitimacy to these propositions. Many Jindal would be bringing forward for consideration in next year’s legislative session regardless of whether such a body ever had existed. But with it in place, by getting its imprimatur on as many of the things it has discussed as possible, it makes it that more difficult for opponents to battle the forthcoming Jindal agenda. The bonus would be any new ideas Jindal likes being revealed in the process of deliberations, which he can add to that agenda.

Therefore, the valid way to understand the existence and purpose of the Commission is it’s there to increase political support for Jindal’s ideas that would be introduced next year regardless of its existence, maybe to find him new ones to add, and perhaps leading to the discard of some that the process may reveal face too much opposition. Of secondary importance is its place as an incubator of truly unknown stuff. None of this is a bad thing; airing out and vetting all these ideas contributes to the debate around the broader question for which the commission was formed.

As a result, its final decisions as far as recommendations are important only insofar as they reflect a rough estimate of political support for them. Some that get rejected nevertheless will appear in Jindal-sponsored bills next year, while others accepted will not be supported by Jindal and therefore are likely to go nowhere during the next session. Again, knowing that it is an instrument to aid certain ideas of efficiency primarily and secondarily serves as a blank slate for any such idea truly realizes its place and impact in Louisiana public policy-making in the near future.

27.10.09

Budget imperative finally threatens nursing home bonus

It took a budget crisis, not any rational reassessment, to get Louisiana at least to consider getting on the right track in regards to long-term institutional health care. Regardless of the motive, the inefficient use of taxpayer dollars biased in favor of institutions finally looks like it is going to come under review, and actually be eliminated.

The looming 2010-11 fiscal year budget deficit, as part of the Commission on Streamlining Government exercise, much of which is being caused by the state’s largest expenditure of long-term care costs for the indigent and disabled, has prompted the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals to propose the single largest, by far, cut in spending with a $232 million reduction in reimbursements for hospitals and nursing homes in care – a position long advocated in this space. It would be an across-the-board rollback of rates to the 2006-07 levels, as Louisiana in ineligible to change eligibility standards due to its acceptance of federal money courtesy of the federal spending bill passed earlier this year.

Hospitals were nonplussed at their share of over $100 million to endure, and they may have a point. With Louisiana’s stubborn insistence on maintaining charity hospitals – whose days may be numbered if Washington Democrats succeed in cramming down an unwilling public’s throat any current budget-busting, quality-harming plans that will lead to nationalization of health care – many nongovernmental hospitals will be able to shunt Medicaid patients to these, so the state will not save much at all. This should be evaluated more closely by the Commission when it makes its recommendations by Dec. 15.

26.10.09

Superintendents prefer to protect interests, not educate

As if more confirmation was needed, that Louisiana’s school superintendents are complaining about a legal change regarding school financing once again demonstrates they seem more interested in acquiring power and privilege for their agencies than in educating children.

A recent change of law now directs a proportion of locally-generated operating funds to charter schools in any of Louisiana’s 69 local school districts, away from the district. Previously, only state funds that would have gone to the district were shunted away. Of course, this has perturbed a number of these districts’ superintendent who are complaining that they now aren’t getting money for students their traditional schools aren’t educating.

If that appears somewhat farcical, get a load of the comments made by the president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, one of their own: “It’s kind of like the Boston Tea Party all over again,” said Gary Jones, superintendent of schools in Rapides Parish. “It’s taxation without representation.”

That remark leaves no doubt that Jones, if he came from the teaching ranks, never was a history or government teacher. Citizens do have representation in this matter – they voted for state legislators and the governor who made the decisions to change the law. Further, since the people’s representatives did approve of the matter, to argue there is a lack of representation suggests that the locus of the thing lacking representation in the mind of Jones is not the people, but the school districts themselves.

But Jones and the other complaining superintendents seem to forget the Louisiana Constitution in all of this. Art. VIII Sec. 1 says it is the Legislature that is to “provide for the education of the people of the state and shall establish and maintain a public educational system.” Also, Art. VIII Sec. 10 states that “parish and city school board systems … are recognized, subject to control and supervision by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the power of the legislature to enact laws affecting them.”

In other words, these districts act as agents to the state for the purposes of education. Further, any money they receive as a result of lawful revenue-producing actions by the Legislature or its agents the districts is the people’s money, not theirs. All the people care about is that education occurs; there is no mandated way that money must be apportioned among state agencies in order for it to occur beyond what the Constitution says about the matter, which is that it’s ultimately in the hands of the Legislature.

This explains why the argument about the impermissibility of charter schools getting dollars raised by a local government even when rejected as charter schools by that local government also fails. Most charter schools exist today (outside of the Recovery School District) because the state had to approve them after they were rejected at the local level – rejected usually precisely because the local districts saw them as threats to them and other special interests like unions rather than evaluated them as a different kind of and perhaps better agent besides traditional public schools to help educate children. Again, education is a state, not local, responsibility so if the state’s agent overrides a local decision where so empowered, it should have the right to redirect dollars attendant to the decision addressing the function in question.

Understand the basic dynamic going on here: districts do not like charter schools because they know these are more committed to providing quality education than are they, who put too much emphasis on keeping cozy relations with special interests like unions and in maintaining the existing bureaucratic and political structures and power relations. Their arguments on this issue merely reflect this attitude and in the end remind us of as a consequence of the actions stemming from such mindsets why public education in Louisiana remains, in both absolute and comparative senses, insufficient and subpar.

25.10.09

Spending, not revenue, problem causes Bossier deficit

One part of the cacophony emanating from Bossier City’s budget meltdown is the assertion by its Finance Director Joe Buffington that the city got into its predicament of having a $6.5 million hole in a $50.3 million operating budget because it didn’t tax its citizenry enough. Let’s see just how valid this is.

Buffington had complained shortly after the news had been “revealed” (making a very unlikely assumption that Buffington had not known about it for months) that Bossier Citiy's consistent refusal to roll forward property tax millages over the past few cycles had created this hole. When assessments of property values occur every four years, rates automatically change to compensate for the change in value; governing authorities have the option to vote to not make the adjustment, thereby increasing property taxes for payers and increasing the amount of property tax revenue coming into a jurisdiction.

“It's the same hole perpetuated for the last two years by rolling back taxes and spending down the fund balance," Buffington said. "The administration just finally put the pieces of the puzzle together.” Since then, Buffington has been muzzled by Mayor Lo Walker, who has stated he will not raise taxes to deal with the situation. The entire city administration refuses to make comments on any aspect of the budget.