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21.11.09

Landrieu elicits lucre as salve, ploy, or electoral gimmick?

So Sen. Mary Landrieu, stating she was “proud” to have wangled at least $100 million to give to the state in extra Medicaid reimburse for one year (2011) in the monstrous health care bill sponsored in the Senate, said she would vote to override any attempt to prevent brining up the bill for action. What does this mean?

By the Democrat voting for allowing the bill that would hike costs, add to the deficit, and probably reduce the quality of care to move forward, the process stays alive as a whole if all other non-Republican senators join her. Failure to do so would not definitively have killed the effort, but at the least would have presented a challenging obstacle for Democrats trying to ram it through as quickly as possible.

Every slowing of the bill, however, is akin to weakening its chances. Polls show a majority of Americans grasp the basic facts of Democrat bills to change health care in terms of impact on costs and care, and a smaller majority opposes it. Knowledge about them only will increase in time, and thereby the majority against it. As Congressional elections loom closer, the electorate will have a greater capacity to remember them and who supported them which some Democrats wish to avoid. While the Democrat leadership has taken on a scorched-earth approach to the matter – regardless of how many seats they lose in 2010 and beyond over their kind of reform, they’ll do it because it can more securely lock liberalism into public policy in the long run – some individual Democrats want to preserve their careers and enough of them will become discouraged at supporting these kinds of bills as time passes to prevent their success.

Landrieu’s choice decreases the potential unfavorable impact of the clock ticking on the chances of these damaging changes Democrats want to make passing. At the same time, it has to be remembered that there are many hurdles to overcome where Landrieu could help defeat version of this. Her most likely points of contention would be over whether public funding of abortion would occur and if Louisiana would be forced into letting a government-run “public option” health care plan operate.

But the fact is, even without these things, it would take a horrible bill and make it only a little less horrible. For Landrieu to support something like that would be a dereliction of duty to do what is best for Louisiana and America. All the set-aside money for the state cannot obliterate this truth, illuminating the craven aspect of Landrieu which should not salve her conscience, if she really does support a slightly less obnoxious version. Let us not hope that was her motivation in being coy about the vote to proceed.

Much better would be if Landrieu played hard-to-get because she really, in the end, wishes to vote against the bill, even with the bonus. Knowing she could draw out the process to help that, her (under this assumption) bluffing could make her look better (or perhaps to assist separately or as well the future political career of brother Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu) to the state’s voters, even if with defeat the state did not get the money this way. Then she could have it both ways: demonstrating she can funnel money to the state yet voting against a bill a solid majority of Louisianans do not like.

Unfortunately, chances are the deal she made to proceed happened because she is a shrewd true believer in the stupidity behind the bill, and she will remain bought throughout the process. Selling out somebody for pieces of lucre is not new in history; let’s only hope her conscience reminds her of such before she assists in inflicting degradation and suffering on the American people.

19.11.09

Court wrongly usurps power to shift flood damage blame

Several interesting ramifications emerge from the decision by U.S. District Court Judge Stanwood Duval to award some plaintiffs damages, against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who argued improper maintenance of the now-closed Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet channel made the government liable for destructions from flooding incident to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

First, this is an exercise in raw judicial activism. By its nature, judicial activism, which mandates that judges use their own judicial philosophies in saying what the law and Constitution mean rather than confining themselves to the meanings found strictly within the laws or Constitution, places democratically unaccountable and inexpert individuals – judges – in the role of policy-makers. It ignores the possibility that more expertise in policy matters may be found among democratically elected and accountable officials than those who are not.

From this extends three implications. One, this decisions means a policy-maker without expertise is making a policy decision that requires it, making questionable the value of such a decision. So be it, but that also would apply to (most) members of Congress who are democratically accountable because they made the original policy decision to fund projects like MR-GO, so what’s the difference in making their policy-making decisions legitimate? Well, two, precisely because they are held accountable for their decisions through elections and the Constitution explicitly lists policy-making (by giving Congress sole lawmaking power) as a function of this branch of government, which it significantly withholds from the judiciary, So, third, since this really was a matter of policy, unless it can be proven Congress itself deliberately wanted to underfund the Corps in these matters, to design MR-GO intentionally to cause flooding, etc., with the intent of triggering disaster, you cannot argue, as Duval does, that this is more than just an honest policy mistake made by Congress through its implementation by the Corps. Not only that, but the court should not have the power in the first place to render such a judgment.

Second, whether this decision holds up is questionable. Specifically, Duval as a jurist has a history of creativity in his decisions that assigns government all sorts of sinister motives upon which higher courts have frowned. For example, years ago Duval ordered the state to stop its efforts to produce a “Choose Life” vanity license plate because he claimed it promoted private speech. That view eventually was rejected by both the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. In addition, judges are human and being that the case was tried in New Orleans, judges located in different areas that make up the 5th Circuit might have less emotion clouding their decisions, and certainly that would be the case at the Supreme Court level. In other words, higher courts likely are to take a less expansive view of government responsibility and with greater clarity decide the case than did Duval.

Third … that is, if the case is appealed which would pose a political problem for Pres. Barack Obama and his party leadership that controls, for now, the Democrat Congress. Obama and Democrats ran on the unsustainable notion that somehow the city and state were “neglected” by former Pres. George W. Bush and a Congress at the time of the disaster controlled by Republicans, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars that poured into the state which mostly went to the New Orleans area. If the Obama Administration challenges this decision because the federal government could be on the hook for billions of dollars at a time when Obama and Democrats are engaged in deficit spending well beyond levels in any peacetime period in the country’s history and are getting politically pounded for it, this will make him look (on yet another matter) mendacious and no different from the (mistaken) impression of the Bush Administration.

Fourth, the decision also ratifies the abrogation of personal responsibility and the socialization of risk. Chances are, none of these plaintiffs or others lined up to sue the federal government had any flood insurance. While it is unfortunate that so much suffering came as a result of the disasters, a little common sense would have helped out on the back end of it: if you live below sea level, no matter how supposedly invulnerable your levees are, you buy flood insurance (and it’s cheap, too because, guess what, taxpayers from all over the country, few of whom live in flood zones, at present heavily subsidize it). Had many people living in the areas below sea level not bought flood insurance, there would have been no need to go suing the government to collect money to rebuild. The only reason they shouldn’t be held accountable for a bad choice that they expect others to pay for was the federal government was too stupid to use common sense itself in drawing up flood maps that didn’t order most people having mortgaged property to buy it.

Fifth, even if we buy the argument that the federal government is responsible, to foist the entire blame on it ignores the historical record. The state and some local governments have more culpability in creating these conditions, yet none of that appears to be taken into consideration adequately in assigning sole responsibility to the federal government.

Finally, if the decision were to stand, how would this affect the state’s efforts in compensating for losses? Probably most of the people eligible to sue if this decision held took advantage of and got state money to rebuild. Does the award, or at least some portion of it, flow to the state to reimburse it? How much goes additionally to plaintiffs? This would create a bureaucratic and expensive nightmare, to be borne by the state in terms of aggravation and the national taxpayer in terms of administrative costs beyond their money going for compensation.

Hopefully, higher courts will have a better understanding of the issues and the judiciary’s place in our system of government and overturn this ruling. That may inconvenience some, but maintaining the integrity inherent to notions of who is accountable and responsible and which part of government is intellectually able and constitutionally authorized to make such decisions makes that worth it.

18.11.09

Panel opens up Pandora's box for Jindal hospital plans

You pay your money and you take your chances, a sentiment reaffirmed to the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration when the Commission on Streamlining Government brought up the contentious issue of whether to build a new hospital complex for the Medical Center of Louisiana-New Orleans.

The Administration’s main purpose in having the Commission, as noted, is to use it as a vehicle to build political support for its redesign of government which has as part of it some controversial matters that challenge existing power structures within state government. Having the Commission endorse Jindal’s views would make some of his desires politically possible in the face of entrenched opposition.

But the shoe got put on the foot when the Commission dove into the matter of rebuilding “Big Charity,” the public hospital now run by the Louisiana State University System that was rendered inoperable in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Original plans by former Gov. Kathleen Blanco set to create a palatial new facility, even as the area had excess hospital capacity that was only going to increase through depopulation. Jindal scaled back those plans somewhat.

However, ignored by the state was the realistic alternative of taking the old building structure and remodeling it. A study paid for by historic preservationists showed this to be a considerably cheaper option, although a study by the LSU System claimed a new building would be more cost effective. Heretofore, the state has accepted the LSU line.

Looking for ways to save the state money as forecasted budget deficits could be in the $2-3 billion range in the next two fiscal years, the Commission advocated what normally is an idea that merely puts off hard decisions, delays matters, and costs more money – do another study. Yet in this instance such a position is justified. Members were right to note that no study unconnected to advocates of one choice or the other has been completed and, if the preservationists’ numbers are the most accurate, around a quarter of billion dollars are at stake and could be saved. For that amount of money, a little more time and expense is cost effective.

Perhaps even more controversially, the motion passing that addressed this issue included review of the LSU System business plan for operating the new facility. At the time it was produced, many (including the Jindal Administration in its conclusion to build a smaller facility) questioned the assumptions behind it that appeared to justify the presence of a larger facility. If a review of the plan showed even at its reduced level too many beds would exist to serve the market and operate it without large losses, this might argue in favor of renovation – although it also could become justification for a new but even smaller Big Charity that might make that plan more cost effective relative to renovation.

After the Commission reports by Dec. 15, then it’s up to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget to carve out the relatively small amount of money in short order as the recommendation wants the study completed by the beginning of the next regular legislative session in late March. Whether that happens will indicate how much power the Jindal Administration is able or willing to exercise on the matter if it truly is closed-minded about ramming through a hospital of questionably-needed size in this era of tight budgets.

17.11.09

BESE must improve vetting of education contracts

Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy, as part of his duties being on the Commission for Streamlining Government, made a good observation about the necessity of the dollar amount of contracts being let by the state’s Department of Education. However, the situation is more complex than many realize for the possibilities of savings in this area.

Kennedy observed that since 2005 $615 million of these have gone out, with $130 million of that in the most recent year available, fiscal year 2009. (Note that 36 percent of this entire amount went to the entity that deals with standardized testing of state pupils.) One would hope that when they go out, they would go for classroom purposes, or at least for activities related to instruction and its quality, but trawling through the 2008-09 list shows not all of them seem to do so. Some that don’t meet this criterion do seem necessary, such as for paying litigation, architects, medical, etc. But of the remaining of the 1,009 listed, from their titles it appears that only 46 obvious cases totaling $773,000 existed that did not really add anything potentially to classroom performance.

(This doesn't include many which appeared related to these matters, but seem rather inefficient. Does the state really have to spend approaching $200,000 to enhance the chances of candidates “of being successful in achieving national board certification and aid in future recruiting?” Or spend over $30,000 on the “Cecil J. Picard Educator Excellence Symposium?” Or over $20,000 on presenters at the “Gifted at Center Stage: Building a World-Class Education System” conference?)

16.11.09

Supporters must keep UNO athletics at highest level

It would be tragic if the University of New Orleans had to step down in the National Collegiate Athletics Association, from NCAA Division I to Division III, given the school’s size and sports history.

Chancellor Tim Ryan last week served notice the school was looking at this possibility in the wake of continuing budget shortages as a dual consequence of the state’s rough budget picture that forces a disproportionate amount of cuts onto higher education and from the continued lingering aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The latter damaged the campus and has reduced enrollment about 30 percent for the university that in the past had about 80 percent of its student body from the metropolitan New Orleans area that still is down around 150,000 in population since then.

It has added up to a predicted annual shortfall in the athletic department of $3 million, or about half of the budget already being cut slack with utilizing a bureaucratic assist. The NCAA has allowed UNO to operate on a waiver from having it keep the 15 sports necessary to enjoy DI status, letting provide only nine. This expires in two years, with the DIII requirement being only 12 sports.

While in the past 25 years the general trend has been for schools to move up in classification, a few have moved down; in fact, Shreveport’s Centenary College is joining in the latter move to be completed in 2012. But like Centenary, most of those moving down are smaller, private schools. The last time a larger, public institution chose this course was Brooklyn College over a decade ago. As it is, UNO would be the 18th largest public university in the country at its current enrollment not to play in Division I (at its all-time high, 2004, enrollment, it would have been the sixth largest).

More galling is the fact that, in several sports, UNO regularly competes well in DI and has a recent history of success in baseball and men’s basketball. UNO’s golden era for baseball was from the early 1980s to early 1990s with a College World Series appearance, regular NCAA tournament participations, and some All-America players. In basketball, that golden era lasted from the late 1980s to late 1990s with a few NCAA tournament appearances, rankings in the Top 25, and some All-America players. While the basketball team is a dozen years removed from its last tournament appearance, as recently as last year the Privateer baseball team was in the tournament.

Even during the decade or so that UNO was a Division II school, it made a significant mark. The only national championships UNO has won at any level came courtesy of the men’s golf team, and the men’s basketball team lost a two-point heartbreaker in the 1975 DII championship. Unlike almost every other school that has moved down where lack of competitiveness was as much if not more responsible than monetary needs as the reasons, inability to compete satisfactorily has nothing to do with this. It would be a shame for a school to move down when some of its teams clearly have no problems competing at the highest level, and that has a history of some success – some more prominent schools in size or reputation never have tasted any NCAA postseason in men’s basketball or baseball.

However, the stark reality is that the state cannot save DI sports at UNO, so if it’s going to happen, supporters must step up. If alumni have money left over after donating for academics, it should go to athletics. Anybody near enough to campus with the time and resources should attend athletic events. It would be a waste for the school to be unable to live up to the record it has set and the potential it promises in finding it must compete at a level lower than which it is capable.

15.11.09

Bond rejection reminds govt to focus only on necessary

While elections always serve up information about the state of the electorate at the time of them, when they produce seeming disparate results produce the most insightful lessons.

Last Saturday, East Baton Rouge voters decisively rejected a $901 million bond package that would have been paid for by increased taxes. This came on the heels last year of the rejection of another similar package, about $100 million higher, despite the fact that the latest version had picked up many allies in the business community. The measure contained about three-fifths expense on public safety and infrastructure, and the rest on parking garages, venue improvements, but most on a recreational zone called Alive. Proponents argued that the infrastructure changes were needed, and that the other projects would enhance the quality of life in Baton Rouge.

Despite its reduced cost (even with the same 9.9 mills property and 0.5 cent sales tax increases), so-called “establishment” support of the issue, and a great spending disparity in favor of it during campaigning, 64 percent of the electorate rejected it, whereas last year’s issue lost with only 51 percent of the vote. In part this was due to more than 100,000 fewer voters participating in this stand-alone election in contrast to the presidential election held in conjunction with last year’s vote – in a parish that gave the Democrat ticket a slight majority of the vote indicating that the electorate this time compared to last was disproportionately composed of those who pay more in sales and property taxes. Also, economic conditions have gotten worse since then, with no trend to suggest things will improve any time soon.

Outspoken critics pointed to the inclusion of the Alive project as their reason to vote against. Simply, they did not want taxes to go to fund something that was more like a business venture that should be supported from the private sector which had no guarantee of success. Some on the Metropolitan Council had sensed this and wanted the Alive portion dealt with separately, but it stayed on and resisted another attempt to be sliced off after concerns about legal title to the property it was to occupy surfaced.

Another much less publicized simultaneous pair of elections confirmed this sentiment. Two parish crime-prevention districts voted, one case to establish and in the other to increase, annual fees to pay for extra patrols of their neighborhoods, the requests passing handily. This would indicate that Mayor-President Kip Holden made a tactical error insisting, for which he lobbied hard, keeping Alive as part of the package in this year – no doubt because he knew its government-as-economic-growth-engine never would pass on its own.

But neither did it pass with the other improvements driving the train under the very favorable conditions of last year, and thereby Baton Rouge continues to lack the ability to make significant infrastructure and public safety improvements and any such change to that situation now years away. With these elections lies a lesson.

Simply, especially in these more difficult economic times, people want government to focus on doing the things it is best equipped to do – build roads, drainage, public safety complexes, and provide that public safety – and not to take additional monies out of people’s pockets to do what it does badly. Enough of the citizenry recognizes Baton Rouge will improve in quality of life only when people are allowed to keep more of what they earn and utilize it in their own ways through the market to signal what they deem to enhance that – not to have government choose the means of improvement and to oversee it.

It is an enduring lesson but one that the believers in government economic intervention and their sycophants never learn. They just got a reminder of it in East Baton Rouge Parish, and it is better for that.