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10.12.09

LA moving in right direction with pay plan proposal

Louisiana’s State Civil Service Commission couldn’t quite take the heat, but set the stage for a truly revolutionary and welcome change to personnel pay policy that will create better state government service at reduced costs.

The SCSC approved almost unanimously (the only non-gubernatorial-appointed member abstaining) to create a tiered system of pay increases that occur only when certain benchmark levels of performance are achieved in annual reviews of classified service employees. This is in contrast to the present system that allows only for an all-or-nothing four percent increase for any employee, as almost every single one has been given in the past, who receives a review scoring in one of the top three of five categories.

The advantages of the new system are legion: efficiency will be encouraged as slack performers will receive less than better ones, encouraging the former to exit and the latter to stay in state employment, and money might actually be saved along with this improved performance. Critics claim it will allow too much subjectivity and discretion in the hands of supervisors, but the same amount of discretion already exists under the present system.

However, the several parades of whining state employees (probably the ones who would end up getting lower evaluations under the proposed system and/or don’t work to their full potential knowing it’s not necessary to get the full pay raise under the current regime) that appeared at various times over the past few months in front of the SCSC apparently got to it to partially. The original plan would have allowed agencies to give up to three, four, or six percent raises, respectively, for the middle, next-highest, and highest evaluation categories; the proposal that passed made those levels mandatory unless the Commission approved an exception.

This has lead Gov. Bobby Jindal, who must approve all changes in pay plans forwarded by the Commission, to state he will refuse to approve it and return it for inclusion of the original idea. Since Jindal appoints six-sevenths of the Commission, if the current crop of commissioners wants to retain their jobs (and assuming Jindal wins, as is likely at this point, a second term in office), they will have little choice to comply. Jindal (as well as proponents in the Legislature) believes the flexibility excised from the proposal is important for the whole to work best. If left to a case-by-case basis, agencies may be reluctant having to go through the process to give lesser amounts, and would mean the Division of Administration would be less able to steer strategically resources to agencies on the basis of priority.

Perhaps as a compensatory measure, the Commission also stated it was going to tackle an even bigger problem that if not resolved largely would moot any of the proposed change: the skewed results of evaluations that assign almost all employees into the top three categories (and almost half in the top two). It is inconceivable that the state of Louisiana could acquire such a monopoly on high-performing individuals: clearly, gamesmanship to get as many employees as possible flat four percent raises on virtually an annual basis has been in play. The Commission also wisely committed to training of supervisors in their evaluating to make sure they were as objective and fair as possible.

While the plan presently going to Jindal is good, the change he stumps for will make it even better. Combine this with previously-passed rules about force reduction procedures, and anticipated legislative changes in retirement rules from defined-benefit to mandatory defined-contribution for new entrants (see here for the problems that await for a defined-benefit system) and the beginning of the 2010-11 fiscal year will mark the most exciting time for quality improvement in the history of the state’s civil service.

These kinds of matters to the larger public aren’t exciting and flashy as other policy measures, but they promise noticeable performance improvements to citizens and savings to taxpayers. The SCSC and the department it oversees have been on the right track this year and let’s hope this continues going forward.

9.12.09

Landrieu practices shell game, puts Vitter in tough spot

As bad as current Democrat-desired health care legislation may be in terms of higher costs and worse outcomes, it might end up positively toxic for Louisiana’s senators who are having to deal with it.

Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu found herself casting a vote concerning abortion that may come back to haunt her. While Landrieu always has supported the concept of legal abortion for convenience, she never had supported federal government money going to insurers that would cover elective abortions … until yesterday when she voted to reject an amendment that would not permit any insurance plan getting taxpayer dollars to offer abortion coverage, replicating language in the House version. The motion failed 54-45.

The rationale Democrats use as a pretense to say this won’t encourage or aid in private insurers in paying for abortions of convenience is that the bill as currently written would not allow federal dollars directly to be used to reimburse for the killings. This is sophistry at best, disingenuous at its immoral worst. As amendment author Democrat Sen. Ben Nelson noted, the separation of funds in the bill an accounting gimmick. “The reality is federal funds would help buy coverage that includes abortion,” he said.

True enough, as the federal government would be subsidizing coverage which will be required by the new law adjusted by community rates it also will require. Without that infusion, the insurer may not be able to afford to offer and pay for elective abortion. Thus, “private” funds get released for that that otherwise would have to be used for other purposes now to be subsidized with federal money. It’s a shell game, a point Landrieu has yet to address despite an indication she would explain the matter.

Meanwhile, something Landrieu inspired, a special provision in the bill that would steer $100 to $300 million to the state to supplement Medicaid expenses in 2011, is causing consternation for Republican Sen. David Vitter. Her “Louisiana Purchase” provision has been criticized as a form of bribery for her vote to allow debate on the entire motion to succeed, which would allow her then to vote against a final product that would pass regardless since the motion to proceed required three-fifth of the seated Senate while passage requires only a majority of those present, thus again saving political face to the unknowledgeable.

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn wishes to strike that language, and Republican Sen. John McCain has discussed taking that measure and others and proposing an amendment wiping out them all. This leaves Vitter in a quandary because he could be forced to vote to remove a measure which would help the state and, worse for his reelection prospects, be used against him as an indicator that he is insensitive to the state’s needs.

To defuse this, Vitter should file his own separate legislation – which Landrieu refuses to do – to implement the Medicaid “fix” (an artifact of the formula determining how much federal money goes to the state beginning in 2010-11 produces a significant drop in the federal share because it does not differentiate the impact of federal spending for disaster recovery of previous years). Then he can demonstrate he supports the fix and vote for wiping it out of the health care bill if the McCain amendment comes to fruition, explaining his vote on the basis of the other undesirable things needed to go.

Thus, Vitter probably can tap dance around this will little if any political damage. By contrast, Landrieu has to hope time and no additional controversy concerning this bill and her votes surrounding it dull the memory of voters if she seeks another term in five years.

8.12.09

Landrieu mayor run gambles career on uncertain outcome

It looks as if Lt. Gov. Mitch “Ahab” Landrieu formally will pick up pursuit of his great white whale known as the mayoralty of New Orleans when qualifying for the office begins tomorrow, despite a previous vow not to – even though chances are again he will find disappointment.

As noted in this space some time ago, the normal dynamics of the contest do not favor white candidate Landrieu because, if we toss the clever literary allusions, in reality a better aquatic mammalian description of New Orleans would be as a black whale. When voter registration totals show blacks about doubling up on whites, even if Landrieu could match his roughly 20 percent black support in the 2006 mayoral runoff in a similar contest against a black candidate, assuming black turnout runs only slightly behind white turnout he still would lose.

The simple fact of life in large majority-black cities in Louisiana, if not in the entire south or nation, is that for the highest office in the city, is that relatively few black voters defect from a quality black candidate against a white candidate in a runoff. It was proven in New Orleans in 2006 when the very politically-damaged current Mayor Ray Nagin defeated Landrieu, and when later that year Cedric Glover won the top job in Shreveport. In the former case, the runoff brought disproportionately more voters to Nagin who had not previously voted in the primary to extend his primary lead to victory; in the latter, Glover did the same to overcome a deficit from the primary in a city where black registration was not much more than white.

But even to get to a hypothetical black/white candidate runoff might be a stretch for Landrieu this time. In 2006, he bested other white candidates who were competitive but newcomers to politics. This time, he looks certain to face the biggest spender he’ll ever encounter, former gubernatorial candidate John Georges, and repeater from the 2006 contest Rob Couhig who probably will capture a large majority of the small (12 percent or so) Republican vote. Facing experienced and proven vote-getters and with Georges’ deep self-financed pockets magnifies the primary consequence of Landrieu’s late start after his previous discounting of running this time: his relative lack of funds. At the beginning of this year, he had only about $100,000 in his lieutenant governor’s account (which he can use) for a race where in 2006 he spent $3.6 million.

Landrieu may be counting upon the fact that the field to this point has not attracted a slew of bigger names to make up for his being behind in the money chase and that reputation alone, as evidenced in some independent polling that put him out front among hypothetical candidates, can close the gap. It’s true that the field of white candidates probably is more illustrious than those who are black, but the racial voting dynamics are such that this does not matter that much, history shows. Nagin himself was a late entry, almost afterthought when he first ran in 2002, and certainly did not run from a position of strength in 2006. As long as a quality black candidate exists – and there appears to be at least one in the unflashy state Sen. Edwin Murray – the dynamic will deliver enough votes for any such person to defeat Landrieu in a runoff.

This attempt comes with considerable political risk. A victory could position Landrieu well to make a run at the governorship in 2015, but not only does entering the contest now essentially eliminate any run he (unlikely) had in mind for 2011, a loss would again cast a pall over any attempt he may make for that higher office in the future. It would cement his reputation as a candidate who can win only the small or relatively insignificant offices because of his name, but who does not have the ability beyond that to capture a significant policy-making prize. His entrance here could place definitively a cap demarcating the upper limit of his political career – no higher than the Capitol Annex Building, not up to the fourth floor of the Capitol itself. Four months out from the election, it seems a risk at best uncertain to pay off.

7.12.09

Scorned media fail to provide helpful news analysis

While the manufactured media story related in my most recent post dealt with the non-issue of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal not heaping enough encouragement on Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu for a measure he likes in a bill he hates, the latest non-story about the episode focuses on a somewhat different angle, that Jindal has not protected enough Landrieu’s honor.

I guess I need to go through all of this again, since some slow news reporters and/or editors can’t find out enough real news about which to write: Landrieu has faced criticism that she had sold a vote that could have stopped consideration of a disastrous health care reform measure in the Senate for the chance to have as part of that bill a passage that would shovel anywhere from $100 to $300 million to fund Louisiana’s Medicaid program in 2011. Part of this criticism came from conservative media commentators, including calling her a “prostitute” for her willingness to trade a vote for political favors. Jindal said he would not criticize any delegation member and left it at that. He also said that while he disagreed with the bill, he would be thankful for whatever any delegation member could do to help with Medicaid funding, echoing a previous statement where he said criticism of her on this was unfair.

(Meanwhile, the sun rose in the east and the grass is still green ….)

But the angle the Associated Press’ Melinda Deslatte pursues in a “news analysis” (translation: an editorial by a reporter about the things she covers termed this way to try to square the circle that reporters for the sake of objectivity should not reveal their own views about them) is that Jindal didn’t go far enough by “refusing to denounce the prostitute slur against the senator …. is it too much to expect him to push for more dignity in the political discourse and to rebuke those who resort to gender-demeaning slurs?” She answers, “Apparently so,” and in leaving it at that – despite the fact she should well know the real reason why Jindal might not do Landrieu any great favors on this account because she reported on it.

During Jindal’s campaigns for governor, Democrats have used such tactics as darkening his face in campaign ads (juvenilely thinking that it would turn off potential voters who didn’t think he was “white” enough) and cherry-picking his words to assert that the Catholic Jindal was anti-Protestant or a religious weirdo. And did fellow Catholic Landrieu ever issue a statement “to denounce the racist and religious slurs against the candidate?” Or did Deslatte ever write a “news analysis” that chided Landrieu and/or other state elected Democrats for not doing so?

Those answers would be, “apparently not.” The story to the objective observer is that Landrieu, who if she was serious about the Medicaid bailout money would attach it to a noncontroversial bill or in the regular appropriation bill for that area of government, is not going to get more than a tepid defense from Jindal for criticism of her action that would make him swallow a poison policy pill because out of partisanship she never did anything to defend him from denigrating attacks – and even then he said she should not be criticized in contrast to her total silence.

But that violates Deslatte’s template that Jindal is a semi-hypocritical meanie, stoked by the fact that he has preyed upon the most potent insecurity rampant in the media – being made irrelevant by being ignored. Deslatte moans about how “Repeated efforts to get Jindal or his spokesman to answer a direct question about the prostitution comments got no response. Asked a half dozen times if the governor believes those comments were appropriate, Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin never provided a direct answer. He didn't respond to a request to speak to the governor about the issue.” To repeat, there’s no fury like the media scorned by refusal to cooperate with its agenda – especially when the agenda is to make the object not talking look bad.

So we get her waste of paper, ink, and electrons. And more of using it to line bird cages while we turn our attention elsewhere – as newspaper circulation figures show – to find genuinely informative, sophisticated analysis about politics.

6.12.09

Non-story tantrum indicative of media insecurties

“There are no slow news days, just slow news reporters,” my old collegiate adviser in my journalism days counseled. To that aphorism one can add, “Never argue with somebody who buys ink by the barrel,” and these explain the strange non-story that recently appeared in the Baton Rouge Advocate.

It expounded upon the situation that Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu was nonplussed because Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal was defending her vigorously enough against criticism that she had sold a vote that could have stopped consideration of a disastrous health care reform measure in the Senate for the chance to have as part of that bill a passage that would shovel anywhere from $100 to $300 million to fund Louisiana’s Medicaid program in 2011. Meanwhile, the sun rose in the east and the grass is still green.

That part of this criticism came from conservative media commentators including calling her a “prostitute” for her willingness to trade a vote for political favors seemed to upset some but not really Landrieu, who said she was over not receiving more explicit support on the matter from Jindal. For his part, he said he would not criticize any delegation member and left it at that. He also said that while he disagreed with the bill, he would be thankful for whatever any delegation member could do to help with Medicaid funding, echoing a previous statement where he said criticism of her on this was unfair.

So why is this news? Because the Advocate wants there to be more to it, out of pique at Jindal. This is obvious from the snide passage that Jindal “last held a news conference Nov. 4 in Baton Rouge and has not returned more than a dozen calls from reporters the past two weeks.” Translation: Jindal’s staff has been ignoring the Advocate’s reporters on this matter. Understand that more than anything else the media wish to be thought of as relevant and important, so to brush them aside like that is the greatest denigration that can be perceived by the media.

So, the little fit being thrown by the Advocate as a result that it can’t get Jindal to say anything else that would actually justify the story and make Jindal look bad and/or a cad is this story, which masquerades to some degree as a straight news story but instead directly editorializes, “Jindal initially publicly defended Landrieu, D-La., but that changed after conservative heavyweights began bashing her for money she got for Louisiana before voting on the controversial health-care bill.” Translation: Jindal’s a bad guy because after rude guys he likes got involved, he wouldn’t protect poor little Mary.

To say this conclusion is inventive is realistic. To say that it has any relation to the truth is fantasy. Jindal repeated what he had said before, so how does he suddenly become “changed” in actions? Since they couldn’t get Jindal to act the way they wanted, it became an exercise in manufacturing a story to make it seem he acted that way.

Let this be a lesson to all observers of the media: scorn them and they go off the rails playing out revenge scenarios. Which leads to the ironic conclusion that this will cause the irrelevance they desperately seek to avoid, not because policy-makers won’t give them what they crave, but because consumers – as is happening throughout the newspaper industry – will stop paying attention to them precisely because of a surplus of playing out their insecurities in public such as this self-indulgent piffle.