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30.12.10

An eternal lesson: keep close watch on all govts

As 2011 approaches and observing that Bossier Parish seems to have no difficulty, even in trying economic times, in finding money to service road construction, as well as reviewing the past year and digesting the renewed enthusiasm that the people have acquired courtesy of over-reaching national government to monitor the activities of government, it makes me think back some years ago about an object lesson concerning how government operates. The specific example is Bossier Parish's, and the apparent whimsy of situation might amuse save for the unsettling consequences implied had things turned out differently.

Perhaps somebody remembers in the days leading up to the 2006 fall elections that a sign touting an affirmative vote for Bossier Parish raising property taxes essentially threefold, at what was then the southern end of the Arthur Ray Teague Parkway, was moved a short distance away only a few days before that election. Blame me for the consternation.

I first noticed the sign on Sep. 21 and became simultaneously curious and concerned. It didn’t state who sponsored it, and it was in a spot I thought might be part of the public right-of-way, and certainly was on public property (Bossier City’s). Obviously it was an attempt to encourage passage of the measure which should bring pause to anyone who believes in fairness by government: Bossier City was permitting a pro-vote sign, supporting a Bossier Parish measure which would enrich the parish coffers by $2 million a year, to be placed on its property, regardless of whether its citizens supported such a measure.

29.12.10

Change, merge before expanding LA higher education

The call for increasing the capacity of Louisiana’s community college system underscores the mistakes of the past, and illuminates the pitfalls of the future regarding the state’s overbuilt system of higher education. From these observations, we can learn how to go about creating a more efficient system.

State Sen. Ben Nevers recently bemoaned that fact that the Florida Parishes area and central Louisiana had a paucity of community college choices. What he neglected to add was it had more than enough in terms of higher education and technical schools, the former condition a result of political machinations.

Long ago, in the former Gov. Huey Long era, smack in the middle of the Northshore area Southeastern Louisiana University was promoted from junior college status despite its fairly light area population and being only 50 miles away from the flagship school Louisiana State University Baton Rouge. In part this was as a result of the animosity of Longite forces towards New Orleans, considered the hotbed of anti-Long sentiment, in order to continue to deny the placement of a state university in New Orleans. In fact, that did not transpire until the 1950s and only about 50 years ago did New Orleans, through today’s University of New Orleans, gain an independent baccalaureate-and-above public institution.

28.12.10

Landrieu earmark defense illogical, disingenuous

While earmarks are just a relatively small contributor to the massive debt being rung up by the Pres. Barack Obama and (former in the House) Democrat leadership in Congress that threatens meaningful economic growth, their elimination by the new Republican House of Representatives leadership provides some savings and larger symbolic signaling. Yet at least one Louisiana federally-elected official continues to support the concept by framing in it in terms of a false dichotomy.

Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu contends that eliminating earmarks, or the process of federal spending targeted to a specific agency and/or area of the country inserted at the request of a Member of Congress to spending bills not recommended by the president, would give the executive branch all of the power of spending designated to the Congress (and is not shy about promoting this view). This view also to some degree Republican Rep. Rodney Alexander supported although he now is on the record as opposing them (with reluctance), and present lobbyist but former Rep. Bob Livingston has said the same.

Couching the argument in terms of constitutional powers makes for a good argument, but sloppily reasons that the only alternative to having Congress have no input in spending decisions is to have earmarks. This thinking is decidedly uninformed and disingenuous. At least two alternative approaches commend themselves for Congressional input.

Recall that one kind of earmark essentially asks that federal taxpayers foot the bill for a purpose that benefits only a geographically narrowly-defined range of individuals that, as a concept, to some degree runs afoul of the Constitution’s “general welfare” clause just as the Democrats’ health care provisions changes do. Others of them reflect agencies trying to make end runs around the White House to rectify what they consider unsatisfactory budgetary outcomes. This is what makes earmarks controversial in the first place and why they are thrown in all together into giant spending bills, to facilitate logrolling. That is, Members count on each other to vote for everybody else’s earmarks so everybody gets a piece of the action.

So the solution is to require that any line-item amendments to a presidential budget, either in insertion or removal or earmarks, be subject to a separate vote during floor debate and not be dealt with as a package at the committee level. Then, instead of everybody rubbing each other’s backs, each project will have to stand on its own merits. The time this will take and the publicity from the exposure will ensure few and only very worthy projects that have at least some national purpose will get added. The particularly would happen with the more local kinds of earmarks, where every Member who votes for a use of their constituents’ funds for another’s state or district would have to defend that vote.

As for projects that really only benefit specific areas of the country, if Congress wishes to provide more discretion to state and local governments in the use of federal money, there already exists an entire, if inefficient, grant structure replete with fairly unrestricted block grants. It can shovel more money to these, allowing states and local jurisdictions to apply on behalf of more projects. The earmark process as it has existed only subverts this and makes it work even more poorly.

These are extremely workable avenues by which Congress may impose its will on the spending choices of the federal government. To assert as Landrieu does that earmarks are the only method by which Congress may do so is a red herring designed to obscure rather than to clarify the debate, besides exhibiting a lack of critical thinking skills important to have in our policy-makers.

27.12.10

Proper spending priorities needed, mill saga reminds

As Louisiana grubs for money in what seems to be an approaching difficult budgetary year, a past mistake continues to haunt taxpayers and may be become worse next year, providing a harsh lesson.

As part of his multi-decade reign of error, former Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom conned the state into fronting $45 million for a processing plant in Lacassine to take sugar cane and extract it into syrup, arguing against the evidence that it would provide a needed service to farmers that would enable the state to pay for it. To make matters worse, he backed it by taking money intended to go for boll weevil protection (and also apportioned it to other capital projects) and then on top of all that brokered an $11 million unsecured loan for facility equipment.

Naturally, the wrong economics ensured the facility never has produced this syrup that would cover costs, and currently produces none because of that. In addition, Odom tried to get an ethanol plant built next to it to take cane refuse instead of paying to deal with it and offered a tremendous sweetheart deal to a company with no expertise in the field, Andino Energy, majority owner of the enterprise known as Louisiana Green Fuels, to own the existing facility and to build the other plant, after a deal to see to the Lake Charles Cane Cooperative fell through although the farming group has stayed in as a 20-percent owner. The Colombian-based majority owner has had to make minimal payments in the early years to the state, which for its part must take up the slack if the company can’t make full payments as the racetrack-generated revenue stream does not back the loan.

23.12.10

Numbers show coming clash of LA redistricting plans

Now confirmed that Louisiana will lose a seat in the House of Representatives beginning in 2013, the redistricting issue involved that did not seem so unclear may get much murkier when the results get released in February, 2011.

Conventional wisdom would assert that today’s Third District, with freshly-minted Republican Rep.-elect Jeff Landry to take the helm within a couple of weeks, would be the odd man out. The Second District, currently just the black-dominated areas of Orleans and Jefferson Parishes, will have to stay majority-minority to satisfy legal requirements but, because of population loss, also expand. It can’t head north across Lake Pontchartrain because geographically boxed-in First District is mostly there, except for grabbing white dominated areas of Orleans and Jefferson Parishes, the latter particularly important because its incumbent Republican Rep. Steve Scalise resides in Metairie.

So, only two real choices exist. One would be for the Second to head south and west, taking in parts of the Third. The Seventh would move east as it would be shaved from the north by the Fourth and Fifth reaching down. The latter also would impact the Sixth which would expand all but to the north, in fact being pushed down from there, also impacting the Third. Dismantling the Third also seems likely because of Landry’s freshman status where all other members of the unprotected districts, Republicans like him, have at least a term’s seniority on him and presumably more clout with state policy-makers making the reapportionment decision.

Using 2009 estimates, with six seats each district equiproportionately would have about 747,000 residents, and using the White v. Weiser standard (even as the judiciary has never laid down a single, determinate formula that signifies malapportionment) with a population variance of ±4 percent from that, except for splitting Jefferson along the lines it is presently, the other 63 parishes can be fit into six districts meeting this qualification and this plan (as well as the judicial standards of compactness and contiguity). But from the perspective of some legislators, the problem may be that the Second, which also would have all of Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Lafourche, St, James, and St. John the Baptist Parishes, would have a black majority of only about 21,000. Despite it being a very friendly district to Democrats with a 9:2 ratio of them to Republicans, some black politicians may think this is cutting it too close to ensure that a black politician wins, especially after outgoing Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao managed to win (under admittedly special circumstances) prevented that with even less favorable numbers.

Perhaps in response, one of these black Democrats, House and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Rick Gallot, who will be one of the most important figures in redistricting, suggested an alternative which would create, in essence, a north Louisiana district and a coastal district although the reason he cited was along the lines of another judicial standard, “community interests.” He argued the present Fourth would have to gulp in Calcasieu and Cameron, while the Fifth would reach to the borders of East Baton Rouge. The former isn’t necessarily the case – it can be done without those two parishes but with Jefferson Davis – but he’s basically correct on the latter, which would curve around and take in Point Coupee and the Felicianas. The question here becomes whether Jefferson Davis has all that much in common with Caddo and Bossier, as opposed to Calcasieu, and whether the Felicianas do with Ouachita relative to East Baton Rouge or Livingston.

Gallot hints that maybe a more tortuous Second, snaking up the Mississippi River, might work. This would then require a coastal district because then St. Bernard, Plaquemines, and Lafourche must be accounted for, and also a snaking (presently) Sixth District as well. This would end up creating a sprawling district in the middle of the state with potentially huge community of interest questions – do any of Jackson, Tensas, St. Helena, and Jefferson Davis have that much in common?

It’s much more complicated than this because of side deals – trading support for a Congressional plan in exchange for it for one dealing with legislative districts, for example – but, all things equal, this sets up the potential conflict. If the path of least resistance is followed, the ending of the Third as far as plans go creates more contiguous and compact districts and fits the community of interest stricture at least as well as the alternative. Whether interests such as black or southern state legislators agree is another matter.

22.12.10

Resignation may complete GOP legislative takeover

When waiting upon the switching of parties didn’t prove to be fast enough, perhaps Gov. Bobby Jindal thought he might accelerate the process of a Republican takeover of the Louisiana Legislature by dangling appointments in front of sitting senators who were not Republicans.

First, Troy Hebert got tabbed for state government, although his exit merely got expedited as he had said he would not run for reelection. But with the announcement by state Sen. Nick Gautreaux that he would head out to take over the Office of Motor Vehicles, this removes a Democrat who previously had given no indication he would resign or not run for reelection anytime soon.

Still, that Gautreaux was rumored to be a switch possibility gave a hint that another Democrat domino was to fall in the Senate which his departure now sets up a probable 19-all tie between the two major parties in the upper house early next year as long as the seat remains unfilled (if there are no more switches). This comes on the heels of the latest, most opportunistic switch that gave the GOP the lower house majority of 53 (versus 48 Democrats and four independents).

It does come off as dramatic and Machiavellian that Jindal might orchestrate the GOP takeover opportunity by dangling appointments in front of senators who not labeling themselves Republicans. Yet it’s a good strategy if that really is the intent. The appointees realize that if Jindal as expected wins reelection they have at least five years on the job if as expected Jindal finishes his second term. But even if a Democrat emerges as the next governor at some point they, as former Democrat senators, might be expected to keep their jobs. Even a GOP replacement for Jindal may not want them out. And, from Jindal’s perspective, the strategy works if the people elect Republicans to replace them.

In the case of Hebert’s 22nd District, that seems to be the case. When qualifying closed last week for that Jan. 22 contest, only Republicans and no-party individuals qualified. The two major ones from the GOP, state Rep. Simone Champagne who switched parties in June and state Rep. Fred Mills who switched only days ago, are the heavy favorites to win. (Whether whoever wins will have a successor from his or her district also with the GOP is another matter as both districts have a large plurality of white Democrats with almost equal representation of black Democrat and Republican registrants in Champagne’s 49th and a 3:2 black Democrat-Republican ratio in Mills’ 46th.)

And that also may be true for Gautreaux’s 26th District. Both are below 20 percent in Republican registration, and it could be argued that the 22nd actually would have been the more difficult of the two for the GOP to pick off given its proportion of black Democrats registered is about twice that of the 26th. But if the GOP can get the 22nd, there doesn’t seem to be any reason it couldn’t grab the 26th.

Some politicking could have resulted in trying to fill the 22nd upon Hebert’s resignation. Democrat and Sen. Pres. Joel Chaisson, realizing which way the winds blew, might have tried to hold up on that election to prevent his party’s majority from falling. But with another special election needed in the House, if he had thought this way too much momentum existed to piggyback the elections on cost and fairness considerations. Delaying the special election for the 26th seems even less possible since both scheduled special elections look likely to go to a runoff on Feb. 19, so if Chaisson very soon calls for the election on that date, qualifying for it can begin in early January.

And this means even if a runoff were necessary if the GOP scores here as well that by the time the special redistricting session launches the party would control both chambers with pluralities if not outright majorities, for the first time in the post-Reconstruction era. This will enable only greater protection of Republican gains through redistricting, and the 2011 election then may confirm that Chaisson will be the last Democrat to lead a chamber courtesy of his party’s majority for a long time. Regardless of whether Jindal primed the process, the historic transformation one way or the other seems about to be complete.

21.12.10

Switch highlights need for vigilance by conservatives

The latest party switch that gives the GOP an official majority in the Louisiana House of Representatives brings a lot of irony for the nakedness of the ambition behind it that contradicts the ideological realignment behind why the majority coalesced.

State Rep. Noble Ellington made it official by calling himself the 53rd Republican in the House, but the irony is that policy views appeared to play a minor consideration in the decision. Over the past three years, using the ideology/reformism index from the Louisiana Legislature Log, Ellington scored 50, well below the average Republican House score of 71.96 and not too much more moderate than the House Democrat average of 44.10. (However, Ellington is the chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is composed of state legislators who back principles of free enterprise, limited government, and federalism.)

Compared to all the party switchers since the end of this year’s session still in the Legislature, Ellington is the only one who was not at or above the chamber’s average Republican score, so theirs could be argued as the correction of a misalignment in identity to label. Yet this clearly is not the case with Ellington, even as it gained him laurels from the state Republican Party’s Chairman Roger Villere who hailed the switch – again, with irony since Villere did not aggressively welcome most of the other switchers as, while they did not make a majority, they have behaved more consistently (at least in the last three years) with the party’s platform.

Rather, ambition appears as Ellington’s main goal as he has spent about three decades in elective office with plenty of opportunity to build support. He tried for the Speaker Pro-Tempore spot this spring and lost narrowly to Joel Robideaux who was backed by Speaker Jim Tucker. With Tucker facing term limits at the end of next year, Ellington has proclaimed he’s like to take that job.

Robideaux, an independent (in yet another irony, because of internecine Lafayette politics ran under that label instead of as a Republican initially and has stuck with it), if reelected probably has a better chance of getting Tucker’s spot if, as trends suggest, even more and more conservative Republicans get elected next fall who will view his conservative/reformist three-year current score of 80 much more to their liking. But with personalistic politics still playing a significant role in these kinds of decisions within the Legislature, and with a good-old-boy grandmaster like Ellington tacking with the political winds better than winners of the America’s Cup with the real thing, who knows how it will turn out?

Symbolically speaking, the confirmation of Republican House rule coming from a marginal believer pursuing opportunism may not feel satisfactory to those who see the Louisiana Republican Party as the best hope for superior public policy, and suggests the possibility that Republicans-in-Name-Only may see switching as the more viable option to exert power than sticking with Democrats. It’s up conservative/reform voters and like-minded Republican candidates to ensure these infiltrators do not dilute the promise of the conservative/reform agenda in Louisiana.

20.12.10

With reform action, Jindal assures himself of reelection

It’ a good question – as we head into 2011, can Gov. Bobby Jindal not win reelection?

Of course, because anything can happen. But as far as anything likely to happen to derail Jindal, the pickings are far and few between. At 55 percent approval in the latest nonpartisan poll, that’s tough to beat, especially when he had at the beginning of this year over $7 million bankrolled for a run. In 2009 he netted over $4 million and his pace only has increased in 2010, meaning $12 million is not out of the question by the end of 2010, which would exceed his entire spending for his successful 2007 run.

Popular politicians can be brought down by scandal, but one look at Jindal and you have to laugh that one off. Does anybody seriously think he’s going to be caught with a live boy or a dead girl? Or that this guy is going to shake you down or sell decisions to the highest bidder?

Natural disaster response took a shaky Gov. Kathleen Blanco and blew her right out of any hopes to repeat. But that’s one of Jindal’s strengths the public learned early on when faced with his own set of potential hurricane disasters.

Really only one thing can damage Jindal to the point that he is vulnerable, and that is the constitutional fact that the burden on cost reduction in government in times of budgetary stress falls upon him. The straitjacketed state fiscal structure forces him to order cuts largely confined to the areas of higher education and health care. Even though it is just as much, if not more, the Legislature’s fault that a large deficit approaches for fiscal year 2011-12, because the Constitution makes him point man not just for budgeting but also in reductions to avoid deficit, Jindal is personified as the one responsible. Even though the state spends too much relative to its actual needs, negating any need for a tax increase, the Constitution and law prevents cutting in many areas lower priority area and thus the disproportionate cuts in the few permissible areas begin to hit higher priority elements.

After his State of the State address earlier this year, I noted here and elsewhere that Jindal needed to act with a certain amount of boldness in addressing the looming fiscal crisis, as, unfairly or otherwise, he would be held responsible. He backed some good legislation but, whether as a result of the oil spill crisis that exploded onto the scene three weeks into the session, he never really followed through in trying to get passed measures that would have enabled more options in response to budgetary difficulties or with negotiating a budget that better positioned the state to deal with this upcoming tough year.

Human nature makes frustrated people want to blame somebody, and their first inclination leads them to the most visible target, in this case Jindal. However, Jindal can deflect that by putting the onus on the Legislature to create the conditions by which to soften the blow, by his support of legislation, some of which would lead to constitutional amendments, to create additional flexibility that would permit better priorities being pursued.

This strategy would require a special session that Jindal could have dictated to make the Legislature act (or not) on the matter. Instead, he defaulted to the Legislature itself and it has called for its own special session. This doesn’t mean that the matter wouldn’t be taken up, but it certainly won’t be unless Jindal applies some pressure.

And perhaps that’s part of the plan, as the session, ostensibly planned for redistricting, is to last three weeks which caught some attention as far as its length. Maybe Jindal and/or the likes of House Speaker Jim Tucker got more time in there to leave room to take care of agenda items such as this. Even if the matter did not get onto the agenda, this does not mean that Jindal’s reelection is imperiled.

Yet if Jindal really wants to seal the deal, if he wants to state definitively to the voting public that he wants to address the crisis, by pushing for these changes essentially he thrusts responsibility onto the Legislature and the public itself. By doing so, he can argue that any negative perceptions from a sharp reduction in spending emanate from the inaction of the Legislature or the public’s own rejection of the solution (which seems unlikely; the main problem is in getting legislators to buck special interests who prefer unmolested funding of their pet services regardless how low priority they may be). He will have demonstrated he had the answer, only to be thwarted, and blame must be apportioned accordingly.

In making the attempt, Jindal can deflect the only potential criticism that does not make his reelection a slam dunk.

16.12.10

Obama panel voices sour grapes at Jindal berm success

Hindsight is 20/20, but politics always is in focus and dominating the behavior of the Pres. Barack Obama Administration, as Louisiana politicians have discovered.

Obama’s commission to investigate the oil spill that dominated the political environment in Louisiana for three months earlier this year, despite being packed with those sympathetic to special interests normally allied with Obama, has been an uneven tool for the president in his quest to cast blame upon everybody but his administration for the slow resolution of it (such as in its revelations that the Obama Administration politicized the drilling moratorium response). A report issued yesterday by the body reinforces this theme, making an attempt to dish out criticism of critics of Obama during this time period but doing so in a way that also in passing denigrates Obama’s leadership skills.

Most pertinent in the exercise, the panel concludes, lead by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal Democrat Obama apparently got bludgeoned into supporting the Jindal-backed idea of building sand berms to catch oil. Critics derided the idea because they were overly concerned about the environmental impact and thought the money, being supplied completely by well-owner BP, could be spent on what they asserted were more productive enterprises – even as many including the federal government thought the berms then could be very effective.

Yet Jindal argued all along that even if, after all was said and done the berms didn’t catch much oil, that the possibility that a lot could be coming onshore outweighed other considerations – that is, the harm potentially would be so catastrophic that an uncertain protective measure such as this was justified, a point lost among almost all of the critics. Nobody apparently knows how many barrels got caught, at least several hundred and if that were all then as the sole use of this money it would have been deemed cost-effective only if the potential harm had not been so great – but that was not the situation at the time.

The commission frames the series of events as Jindal and others pressuring the federal government which seemed skeptical on his plan, but then Obama himself seemed to cave into the pressure and bureaucrats followed. Interestingly, the report leaves out one crucial determinant of the decision-making process – that between the time Louisiana officials cranked up the lobbying intensity and the decision being made to go with the berm idea, the initial “Top Kill” strategy to close the leak – which would go on for two more months – failed. Thus, likely in the minds of all involved including Obama and scientists, a tidal wave of oil very realistically could have hit the Louisiana coast where Jindal and the others argued for the berms to be built.

In that respect, the commission failed to understand the gravity and uncertainty of the situation – after all, if someone is being ravaged with cancer, typically doctors go for the most aggressive treatment possible even if its cost is tremendous, it may not be effective, and even if so treatment of much reduced severity and cost may have worked just as well. If the choice was an ecological disaster or not constructing berms, at least the berms had some chance of stopping some oil whereas not building them would give no chance of that outcome, regardless of how much oil might make it to that part of the shoreline. That the report claimed the use of funds for building berms “is not a compelling cost-benefit tradeoff” is absurd on its face in any realistic assessment of the threats at the time the decision.

That enormous risk alone made the building of the berms – at no expense to the taxpayer – justifiable, which the report grudgingly acknowledges in its admission that this review is hindsight. However, for the nation as a whole and especially for Louisiana taxpayers the berm building ended up being a masterstroke by Jindal, because they were built from the beginning in mind as the initial foray into a coastal restoration project. Craftily, Jindal leveraged an emergency protection measure into one that promises long-term protection against coastal erosion, putting the state light years ahead of where it otherwise would be on this priority in these cash-strapped times.

American taxpayers and, in particular, Louisianans should be grateful at the foresight Jindal and his team had on this issue, but the report barely makes reference to this in its haste to try to make Obama look better by criticizing those who carped about his lack of leadership on the issue. And with Jindal hanging around as a burgeoning national figure that can send liberalism and Democrats further into retreat no doubt added to the myopic bluster of this exercise.

Another switch confirms homing in for political advantage

As more elected state Democrats leave the sinking ship, understand the motivations aren’t really because of changing views or that their former party has suddenly lurched even more to the left, but of cool, political calculation to do what’s best for their careers.

What began as a trickle, with state Rep. Simone Champagne taking the plunge just after the end of the 2010 session of the Legislature, became a cannonball competition after the midterm election wipeout for national Democrats. State Rep. Walker Hines jumped next, followed by state Sens. John Smith and John Alario, and now state Rep. Fred Mills has joined them. But were we to compare their actual voting behavior over the past three years with their new identification we would conclude it’s simply a case of them coming home.

Using the Louisiana Legislature Log’s ideology/reformism scorecard, from 2008 we can calculate each legislator’s average score (where 100 means conservative/reform votes on all issues, weighed proportionally, used in the index) and compare it to the average Republican and Democrat score in each chamber. Doing so presents the following rank ordering, House members first:

Champagne: 76.67

Hines: 75.00

Republican House Avg.: 71.96

Mills: 71.67

Democrat House Avg.: 44.10

Smith: 71.67

Alario: 67.33

Republican Senate Avg.: 61.13

Democrat Senate Avg. 43.83

As shown, only Mills even is a trace below the typical Republican, and all score far more conservative/reform than their Democrat colleagues. If anything, with their switches they have brought their identities into conformity with their expressed beliefs. Yet the larger question is why switch now and the answer is politics. In the past they maintained identifications aberrant with their views because of the electoral and political advantages conveyed. For three reasons, for these politicians those have eroded.

Consider that, because of the blanket primary system that provides no incentive for registered voters to align their own identifications with beliefs, the historical hangover of Democratic registration advantage continues to exist in many legislative districts. Only a handful of legislative districts, by the numbers, even have a Republican plurality. And even if weakened by the perverse incentives of the blanket primary system, party identification still is a meaningful cue for many voters. (It’s no accident that all but one of these switches have occurred from the West Bank west through Acadiana, where the state’s greatest divergence is seen between districts’ national contest voting behavior and overall identifications.)

However, the imperative is dramatically empowered in the case of black voters. Conditioned by elites that, for whatever reason, they trust, many black voters won’t consider voting for anybody but a Democrat. This gave a tactical advantage to candidates who voted more conservative/reform than not who would call themselves Democrats as these votes would disappear had they labeled themselves otherwise – especially as they did not have to compete in a closed primary system where the incongruence between identification and belief would catch them out competing in a Democrat primary consisting of a much more liberal/populist electorate.

So, part of the motivation is that they now figure they can overcome the disadvantage they are going to give themselves among black voters relative to where they are now, and a much smaller one among non-blacks, with at least some additional Republican voters. But also regarding the timing is that they see (dramatically borne out by the Democrat midterm fiasco) within the year Republicans will control, perhaps comfortably, both chambers of the Legislature. Party is not as important in the distribution of power in the Louisiana Legislature as it is in Congress, but it matters for things like committee and leadership assignments which are of strategic importance to legislators in their careers and in providing material to stay in office or to advance to others.

Finally, with redistricting approaching and it becoming increasingly clear that Republicans will control the process, jumping on the winning team will enhance the chance that their districts get drawn favorably for reelection purposes. (As a public service announcement, Louisiana redistricting will be a topic of discussion at the Southern Political Science Association 2011 Annual Meeting in New Orleans at 4:45 PM Friday, Jan. 7, where I and other political scientists will take up the matter. Inquiries may be made here.)

Therefore, these switches represent not rank, obvious opportunism against (at least recent) type, but, rather, subtle moves to continue to follow a tide they largely have been riding with for some time – even as you should not be fooled by generic explanations about “how the Democrats left me” as their voting behaviors show they left that party some time ago.

15.12.10

Jackpot justice exposes unwanted sunlight on Caldwell

It appears that sunlight isn’t to Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s liking. A tersely-worded, if not somewhat misleading, statement from his office was the only comment upon national attention being focused on jackpot justice being sponsored under Caldwell’s auspices.

Caldwell and some contracted lawyers of his department’s got the unwelcome attention when the American Tort Reform Association publicized the actions of a Caldwell lawsuit in its annual report on jurisdictions which had issued unwarranted and outrageous decisions on lawsuits. This dealt with an October decision in St. Landry Parish, where lawyers hired by Caldwell using taxpayer dollars got a jury to fine Johnson and Johnson $257.7 million dollars for sending out letters and making sales calls.

The issue dealt with the anti-psychotic drug Risperdal which the jury, joining federal regulators, decided had been misleadingly marketed. It had nothing to do with any effects from taking the drug. As Caldwell deemed this a violation of the state’s Medical Assistance Programs Integrity Law, he had lawyers ask for the maximum $10,000 per incident, with over 35,000 of them. The jury went with $7,250.

14.12.10

Jindal view may hold legally, will succeed politically

The intricacies and arcane nature of state government rulemaking has brought the Louisiana Legislature and Gov. Bobby Jindal into conflict – each having some plausible claim that the law supports their conflicted actions. However, one seems on more solid ground legally, even as the other has the means politically to impose its solution and likely triumphs in the court of public opinion.

The tussle comes over rules promulgated by the Department of Health and Hospitals over funding changes, mainly reimbursement reductions, made to stave off deficit in medical assistance programs. R.S. 49:953 specifically grants DHH the power to make these through issuance of emergency rules which bypass the normal review procedure. Instead, they go into effect immediately upon publication in the Louisiana Register, so these rules went into effect on Nov. 20 (starting on page 2463).

The statute then says they may be reviewed by appropriate legislative committees, designated in R.S. 49:968 as the House and Senate Health and Welfare Committees. Last Friday, the committees did so and, as R.S. 49:953 allows, issued an adverse report which then according to that statute means the rule must cease being enforced.

But the Jindal Administration said it could reject that report, citing R.S. 49:968(G). This statute does not differentiate between “regular” and “emergency” rules in giving the governor the power of veto of an adverse report, even as it presumes throughout the regular procedure is being followed, which means review occurs prior to rule issuance but after promulgation. Further eroding the claim that the governor can veto is that in the promulgations specific reference was made to R.S. 49:953 as the authority which identifies the committees’ decisions as final.

Still, even as the preponderance of evidence accrues to the non-veto interpretation to resolve this ambiguity, another factor is that constitutionally the state cannot remain in deficit. Theoretically, continual committee rejection of agency rules could produce that situation, so the Jindal Administration has a point when it says by necessity the veto power should exist across all rules, even as one statute implies that it does while another states it does not. As such, while the argument that the governor can’t veto probably has more weight, by no means is it definitive (and even the document prepared for legislators to explain aspects of state government is ambiguous on the question).

Politically, the advantage rests with Jindal. The law makes no recourse to a disputed interpretation, so presumably the next stop would be the 19th District Court. The Administration would continue with its adjustments designed to save $13 million and it’s unlikely even if a suit were filed that the Court would see such irreparable harm that it would expedite the case, assuming it even sees merit in the plaintiff position to grant injunctive relief. Meanwhile, the regular process already probably is being followed by DHH which means at most the process would take 90 days. By the time the court decides the proper interpretation, using the regular rule process the rule as desired by DHH will have been long in place. At worst, down the road the state may have to pay out extra money during the period after promulgation of the emergency rule and prior to enactment of the regular rule.

Yet even if it bulldozes its interpretation through, Jindal does run a risk that if there is a case, and if the court finds with plaintiffs, it will do him some public relations damage. Even if a case developed and the court sided with the Administration, in the upcoming session an easy way to make money would be to bet that a bill will go through resolving the ambiguity in favor of the Legislature, with criticism of Jindal throughout the process, setting up a situation where if he signs it he’s made to look like he did initially go against the intent of the Legislature, or his veto would bring a new round of disparagement and accusations of gubernatorial power run amok.

Thus, the real contest here is really political, not legal. On balance, the Jindal Administration wins here by arguing the easily-understood proposition that it upheld the Constitution, against the confusing minutiae of the Administrative Procedure Act claimed by opponents to the move.

13.12.10

Jindal threatens long run reform by his near-term timidity

Suggestions by Gov. Bobby Jindal for short-term revenue boosts to compensate for a forecasted upcoming large deficit in the 2011-2012 fiscal year indicate that Jindal’s go-slow remaking of state government may need some boldness and alacrity now for long-term success later.

Proposed last week, Jindal’s food for thought can provide some immediate savings, but not a whole lot. The obvious idea is to sell surplus state government property, netting an estimated nonrecurring $13 million. Also good is the contracting out of the current state worker health care plan, joining several other plans for state employees already operated in this fashion for a recurring savings of $100 million annually.

But other ideas are of limited merit. Going from contracting out to leasing from after a sale of prisons, which would net an nonrecurring estimated $13 million, only should be undertaken if a significant decline in the state’s prisoner rolls seems likely, because then a lack of flexibility could hamper correctional plans; for example, other states may pay more to house their prisoners and remove that space for use by Louisiana. Doing the same with state-owned office buildings poses reduced risk as downsizing of state government might create additional flexibility, but some space still will be needed and there must be a reasonable assurance that market rates wouldn’t go up dramatically to eliminate nonrecurring savings of $400 million. And while securitizing future lottery payments for a one-time estimated bonus of $250 million, much as the state did with the tobacco settlement of the 1990s that gave the state money then from a buyer that will have the state give its annuity payment to it for years to come, this creates a riskier difference here in that the state must make the money itself every year through the lottery and so any revenue below forecast could force the state to dip into operating funds to pay for it.

Even should these turn out cost effective, because all but the contracting of the health plan involves nonrecurring funds, the state’s Constitution would require that a quarter of that amount must go into the Budget Stabilization Fund. Then the remaining estimated $507 million only could be spent on non-recurring items, only one of which could translate into current revenues: paying down of debt, freeing up what would have been paid off in interest. On this sum of money, it might be $25 million. So, in reality, this strategy beyond the health care contracting part will yield little.

There would be additional recurring savings, such as personnel reductions for managing and maintaining buildings, but they won’t add up to a relatively large amount. Given these factors, why would Jindal even look at these four items with their gaudy numbers out front that after analysis and realistic appraisal of what could be shed might be less than the cost of a statewide election? Because Jindal, the cautious reformer, needs to buy time.

Jindal knows that if his initiatives come through – general privatization, Medicaid reform, civil service changes, and the like – Louisiana state government will work with increased efficiency, saving hundreds of millions of dollars yearly, maybe even higher. But it will take years for these to be fully realized and Jindal doesn’t have that luxury of time for the impending crisis.

This challenges Jindal as a leader as the past three years have demonstrated that Jindal has conservative reform instincts, but seems uncomfortable with spearheading bold, potentially difficult reform. Easy stuff like ethics he’ll pick off, but he has been hesitant to pursue vigorously when his agenda runs into stiffer opposition. Civil service changes to promote more efficient use of pay as an input and resource into better performance is a good example: he had an excellent idea here but he stalled out facing protracted resistance from political forces (and passed on a less-complete reform plan).

Jindal appears more comfortable when he sets up situations that force underlings to take dramatic steps. Thus he maneuvered higher education officials into finding their own sources of revenue, which as a strategy makes some sense as those closer to the actual service provision may have a better idea of what to do to close deficits. Yet for the broader budget the mostly marginal suggestions he gives for next year seem half-hearted, as if he wanted to provide evidence that he had some revenue ideas for the short-term. Still, the fact is that, as has been so obvious for so long, Louisiana has a spending, not revenue, problem, so the real solutions must come from the spending side. And that means taking on some powerful, entrenched interests, which is difficult.

The most helpful tactic Jindal could pursue would be amending the Constitution to take the state out of the straitjacket of dedicated funds that forces revenues to lower-priority areas at the expense of more important functions. However, this would require a special session of the Legislature and some considerable lobbying against the special interests that benefit from the dedications. So far, Jindal does not show he has the stomach for this fight. Nor does he seem inclined to get rid of big giveaways that cost taxpayers far more than they earn such as paying for empty beds in nursing homes and giving away money to make movies.

Jindal has great potential for producing fundamental, beneficial, and lasting reform of Louisiana state government. Whether such necessary transformation can come only from tinkering to make government work better is the risk he continues to run until he asserts bold leadership.

12.12.10

Jindal Administration must promote LA Medicaid reform

The good news for the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration in dealing with looming budgetary problems is it is doing a lot of the right things in the most expensive part of state spending for the long term. The bad news is that it has to deal with the near term as well where it has had difficulty in communicating the wisdom of its approach with the heat on to deal with the fallout from the forecast shortfall, which may sabotage all efforts.

Led by Department of Health and Hospital Secretary Bruce Greenstein, his approach to Medicaid reform in the state exemplifies the good. The current system rewards quantity over quality in caring for the indigent not just for private sector involvement, but also in that the state as direct provider plays a major roles in this provision which is the least effective means by which to encourage efficiency. Jindal has made this a priority to change since entering in office but has had to fight tremendous inertia throughout, leading to few realized benefits to date.

Epitomizing the difficulty in engineering positive change is the resistance being put up by some providers who are the biggest beneficiaries of the current system. The reform plan now piloted by Greenstein would move away from the fee-for-service system that almost every state has shelved in favor of one where the private sector would compete for business for health care dollars given to recipients to buy into insurance-like plans. This would reduce revenues going to many current providers so instead these interests have argued to modify the fee-for-service system along the lines of a government-managed regime that depends upon pushing more people into the system that would end up costing more overall (even if on a per-client basis it would be less), because they would raise more revenue that way.

To their credit, not only have Jindal and Greenstein resisted this, but Greenstein has shown flexibility to continue to improve on reform ideas. The biggest problem seen in a similar system in Florida has been confusion by clients over plans and services, so Greenstein wisely made modifications by capping the number of managers to run plans to reduce that. Originally, any certified manager could offer a plan; now, they will have to outbid others for a few slots. He also revised an idea from the competing model favored by some providers based upon a current practice in Louisiana to pay providers for overseeing care by introducing performance standards rather than scrapping it.

But opponents of changes have demonstrated the bad in doing their best to try to frame the debate as a reduction of care provision in order to save money. Some, usually among providers, don’t like that their margins will be lower, or that they’ll have to work harder without a guaranteed reimbursement for anything they do for any reason. Others, among politicians and special interests such as some media outlets, simply object the Jindal’s philosophy that government should be less the direct provider and more the facilitator in provision because it means smaller government. That constitutionally and statutorily the state’s fiscal structure disproportionately punishes health care in this period of budget retrenchment above all else has given them a perfect avenue by which to criticize the drive for efficiency as a reduction in care rather than an improvement in it to do more and better with less.

Only having recently taken his position, Greenstein now appears to be making an effort to prevent opponents of both the particular and the general from monopolizing the debate. For the past few weeks he has hosted public forums and sat down with policy agenda-setters to explain the wisdom of the long-term approach. Those without a vested interest in the system seem to come out of these supportive of the reform ideas.

That short-term budget difficulties exist creates both an advantage and disadvantage to this reform effort. The money shortage makes it easier to force changes in practices where having no sense of urgency could sap political will to do so. However, it also distracts from communicating the long-term benefits of the reform by introducing the noise of short-term of cries of pain real and fabricated – some of it because managing planned change usually turns out smoother than being compelled to do it. A campaign of demonstrating the current system’s inefficiencies, how reform will improve things, and that its opponents’ dire predictions are overblown, even as that would require great skill in explaining a very complex system, would assist Greenstein in overcoming this resistance.

Jindal also can help out his subordinate by spending some time and political capital by explaining that the downsizing discomfort being felt is a product of both an inefficient system and straitjacketed fiscal structure that also needs reform and is not a product of the reform effort, emphasizing that his reforms and changes to the state’s constitution and laws could create a better situation. Failure to do so allows the linking of his reforms with budget cutting for cutting’s sake, a mischaracterization that could discredit the larger, desirable goal of right-sizing a Louisiana state government too big to serve the state well.

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9.12.10

Layoff setback reminds Jindal to push for pay reform

Earlier this year, Gov. Bobby Jindal swung for the fences with civil service reform. He missed, lost his taste for it in the immediate future, and took the easy route out, but now it has come back to haunt him, at least temporarily – giving him even more incentive to return to finish the job.

For classified employees of the state, in a reduction-in-force situation, any plan must be approved by the State Civil Service Commission, comprised of six gubernatorial appointees (from selections made by state private university presidents) of fixed terms and one elected representative. For his own Division of Administration, Jindal had permitted forwarding a layoff plan (one of several) compelled by the state’s necessity of meeting a tremendous projected budget deficit, as his office is one of the few that does not have statutory or constitutional protection from reductions during the budget year. The CSC rejected part of it.

The rationale given was in the plan “meets requirements” employees would be laid off as the sole criterion. Employees are rated by their supervisors into any of five categories, where the bottom two are considered unsatisfactory and continued performance at those levels can lead to discharge, and the highest three are deemed at least adequate performance. “Meets requirements” is the lowest of these three. Rule 17.15 of the Civil Service Rules states that in a layoff situation people in the two lowest categories are first out the door, but after that they “shall be laid off on the basis of the least years of service as determined by adjusted service date.” The presumed sin of the Jindal Administration was to try to lay off the middle category individuals of greater service credit before those rated higher. Only a year-and-a-half prior, changed due to reforms, seniority had held a near-absolute privileged position for any layoff plan.

Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater lamented the development, noting that differentiations among the highest categories of performers ought to mean something for both pay and layoff matters. One commissioner said that wouldn’t be a good idea because of the varied way in which supervisors may rate individuals and in how jobs differ.

Note the lack of logic in that assertion. If those kinds of issues cloud the validity in distinguishing among the three highest levels, would they also not invalidate distinctions between them and the lowest two categories, and between the two lowest categories? Yet the CSC traditionally has felt this way about the categories because they’ve been a joke for decades.

This is because of the ridiculously skewed distribution of ratings, where annually not even one percent of employees rated fall into the lowest categories, and the second-highest category (“exceeds requirements”) is the modal position where about half of employees end up. This clearly is unrealistic to think the state has cornered the market on fabulous employees and points to supervisors padding performance reviews because the prevailing practice for decades has been to give annual “merit” pay raises of the same size (four percent) to anybody in the top three categories regardless in which of those three categories they scored. That essentially rendered them meaningless.

The Jindal Administration correctly recognized this had evolved into a kind of cost-of-living increase in practical terms and wanted to put an end to this by giving agencies greater autonomy in giving raises differentiated by scoring without any guaranteed minimum raises. Twice in the last year it tried to steer the Department of State Civil Service (which recommends actions on state personnel to the CSC) into creating a plan to do so, and twice the DSCS came up short. Jindal then abandoned the effort. Instead, for two years now, he simply denied in the budget money for any of these so-called merit raises.

Forcing such a plan through (not only by turning off the money for raises but also by threatening the CSC appointive members with non-reappointment) would have helped even out the skew as agencies would see value in distinguishing among employees, so a lack of will on the Administration’s part bears some blame for failure to do so. But what would have done more would have been for the CSC to follow through on a pledge made a year ago to improve training of supervisors in their evaluation capacity to forestall the possibility of invalid reviews and that probably would correct for the skewing. By the commissioner’s remark made above, clearly it did not keep its commitment. Together, these initiatives would have given much more meaning to scoring in different categories and improve Rainwater’s argument that, among adequate performers, they should mean something and be employed in reduction-in-force situations.

Rainwater has said he would like the CSC to revisit that layoff rule. However, if Jindal was serious about correcting for that and the disconnection between pay and performance, he would revive his efforts to remake totally the system, being insistent this time that his preferred plan go through and something be done about the skewed distribution. The terms of three members of the CSC end tomorrow; Jindal should tell them in no uncertain terms that he will not reappoint them if by the March meeting the DSCS director (their appointee) does not forward his plan to them and they approve it. If they balk, if he acts expeditiously he can get replacements that agree with him in place in time to enact such a plan for the next fiscal year.

It may be easiest to just keep withholding money for raises until the system forces itself to reform under existing rules, but it would happen quicker and with a greater chance of permanent beneficial change that would increase efficiency and service for Louisiana taxpayers if Jindal moves goes for the grand slam on this one. Election-year politics could distract him from this mundane but valuable attempt, yet the conditions will never be better for him finally to fix the morass that has interfered with effective use of taxpayer dollars.

8.12.10

Landrieu prefers class warfare over good policymaking

Somebody should tell Sen. Mary Landrieu that ignorance is unbecoming, especially in a U.S. senator, but her latest statements seem to reveal that she doesn’t mind coming off as a political and economic illiterate more interested in a petty agenda.

Landrieu, who appears to be a millionaire and whose spouse does well in law and real estate, spared little vituperative enthusiasm in criticizing the deal made between Pres. Barack Obama and Democrat and Republican congressional leaders that would extend for a couple of years tax cuts for all income-producing Americans. Her anger came over giving those who make a million or more bucks a year the same break, who constitute less than one percent of all filers and who pay around a fifth of all income taxes – more than about the bottom 80 percent of filers.

Why she has such acrimony over fair treatment of those who foot her salary in great disproportion can be inferred from statements such as to her deal meant to “borrow $46 billion from the poor, from the middle class, from businesses of all sizes” and that to relieve the crushing burden on these million-dollar earners was “moral corruptness.” The sheer hypocrisy and vapidity of these remarks deserve further scrutiny.

It would appear that the “borrow” phrase to her means that would be the initial estimated forgone revenue as a result of not raising income taxes on million-dollar earners beginning next year. How she thinks this can be “borrowed” from the poor is gibberish as they, by definition, don’t have those funds, how the federal government would “borrow” from the others is unclear, and she seems unaware that many in small business are precisely those earners she would prefer to punish. Perhaps she means it would be money that could be spent on them in the form of government programs and benefits; in others words, the government would have to borrow $46 billion more without the projected initial revenue.

But since when has Landrieu cared at all about federal government debt? She gleefully has voted for record- and back-breaking Democrat/Obama federal deficits, and even before then went along with the milder (but, before Obama, record) Pres. George W. Bush deficit spending. To object now to a conjured figure that represents less than 6 percent of the 2009 spending bill Landrieu supported that did next to nothing to aid in economic growth is the height of hypocrisy.

Add to that Landrieu’s lack of understanding basic economics. As empirically confirmed, tax reductions have the most salutary effect on economic growth for all in an economy, with a multiplier of anywhere from three to five times in economic output. Thus, it should not be long before the $46 billion figure assumed from a static analysis of tax revenues disappears through the reality of dynamism that typifies free markets and free individuals’ decision-making processes, mainly because the wealthiest filers themselves pay for most of it.

That’s because this multiplicative effect of tax cutting also has the interesting effect of increasing the proportion of taxes paid by the wealthiest earners. For example, in 2001 before the Bush tax cuts the highest one percent of filers paid about 34 percent of all federal income taxes while by 2008 they paid 38 percent, compared to the lowest 50 percent who paid four percent in 2001 which fell to below three percent by 2008. The same is true in share of adjusted gross income paid in taxes; from 2001 to 2008, while the proportion of adjusted gross income paid in taxes by the highest one percent of filers fell 15 percent, that proportion fell 63 percent for the lowest half.

The historical record clearly demonstrates that, in the long term, across-the-board tax cuts increase the total contribution made by the wealthiest while relieving the burden most the lowest-income filers. Simultaneously, it is the fairest treatment especially to the small group that pays incredibly disproportionately highly to allow so many that pay little or nothing to receive their transferred wealth. If Landrieu regards this as “morally corrupt,” one wonders just what her morals are.

In the final analysis, these statements demonstrate that Landrieu prefers conducting class warfare over pursuing good policy.

7.12.10

LA disabled cost savings plan good if done carefully

In efforts simultaneously to create a more efficient delivery system for health care for the developmentally disabled that also would tackle burgeoning costs for Louisiana, the state has taken a better approach but one that cannot be undertaken haphazardly

Through the last decade, Louisiana has seen a steady expansion of its provision of home-based care for the developmentally disabled (people with a significant mental and/or physical disability). This was as a consequence of judicial actions that determined the state was not providing legally-obligated care in the least restrictive environment. Until then, nearly all such people were forced to live in large institutions in order to receive state assistance, which also had the effect in many cases of being more expensive, that also prevented some clients from being able to be employed, or if cared for at home without state assistance took family caregivers out of the workforce.

Unfortunately, the program grew quickly and without adequate matching of needs and state resources, creating another potential legal situation based on the federal mandate that home- and community-based care’s costs could not exceed on average institutional care. At the same time, the budget crisis began impacting the state and its peculiar fiscal structure thrust the bulk of spending reductions on health care. The state, by now led by Gov. Bobby Jindal, responded to these twin imperatives of cost cutting by instituting a Resource Access Model (RAM) which worked well in many cases but had flaws in administration and in adapting to extreme cases.

These problems became exposed in a situation where a client would have received a cut in hours served, even if at the 64 weekly maximum now allowed, that created a medically questionable situation where the state eventually entered into an agreement to permit more. While this was going on, in response to the budgetary crisis, without any legal imperative as motivation, reimbursement rates to providers of these services (all are contracted to the private sector) were diminished in a series of rounds.

Now using the same procedure, the state wants to implement completely hours reductions where indicated, as well as move to the next part of the reform which is to take home-care clients whose needs are conducive to the strategy of putting them into small group residences, where this will cost less. These have been announced as substitutes for the tactic to continue to cut reimbursement rates because those cuts were making it difficult for providers to continue to operate. Again, no legal imperative exists to choose this approach but it is driven by budgetary facts of life.

Some argue this could lead to additional dangerous situations. Others maintain this could violate the legal least-restrictive standard. One interest is planning legal action on the basis of the administration of the RAM.

Thus, the state has to be careful in pursuing this course to make sure lives and rights are protected. Assessments need reviewing and if any seem questionable, they need redoing. Extreme cases where home care costs still would be less than institutionalization costs even if they exceed the maximum hours must be granted. The move into group homes for those affected must be carefully vetted so that no significant changes in autonomy occur for them.

The state does have the law on its side – no recipient is guaranteed services at home nor, if granted, can their costs exceed institutional costs. More efficient service provision that also will save taxpayers’ dollars is possible with this plan, but it is imperative that the state does it correctly.