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25.3.10

Tucker's independence to stop unneeded Fund change

That Democrat Sen. Pres. Joel Chaisson’s bills to change the way the Budget Stabilization Fund works appear lifeless even before the session’s start on Monday both shows that Republican Speaker Jim Tucker gets it and any presumed fealty of his to fellow Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal is more a product of association and not correlation.


Chaisson’s SB 1 and SB 2 would amend the Constitution to allow the fund, the state’s savings account, to be tapped if a revenue shortfall occurs as a result of a reduction in federal funds coming into the state that puts a forecasted state budget into a predicted deficit. Currently, a deficit for these purposes may occur only because state-generated revenues independent of any federal contributions do not keep up with state spending independent of federal-supplied funds outgoing. It is an approach with which Jindal may well agree, as his administration has stated the current system doesn’t function .


But Tucker does not agree with Chaisson’s approach, arguing it would be easier to “raid” the fund. While Chaisson notes it would require a supermajority of the Legislature to do so, Tucker is correct at the theoretical level. The Fund concept at its inception was aimed at only state dollars estimates of which must go through a formal process whose amounts are constrained by policy decisions made by the state’s majoritarian branches.


By contrast, decisions about federal funds inflows to the state are out of the hands of state policy-makers, being made in Washington that would depend upon the determination of amounts from Washington sources and which could change without warning and vary considerably year to year. Practically speaking, this means the security of the Fund is much reduced – many more invitations to tap it would open up, and the invitations themselves would be less likely to be genuine and more likely to be influenced by ephemeral whims of federal policy-making.


The point is not that a supermajority procedure makes it more difficult for legislators avoiding hard choices to use it, but that it was designed as an instrument to shape state policy-making through use of state revenue-raising means and spending decisions, not as a tool to respond to federal government decisions over which state government has no control. Chaisson is mistaken to focus on the procedures to justify the change, rather than recognizing the change transforms the fundamental nature of the Fund, which is why that must be resisted.


Tucker realizes this at a certain level and thus, because he is Speaker, only an overwhelming revolt by his representatives or a full-court press by Jindal can hope to get the bills through his chamber. This goes to demonstrate that Tucker relishes independence from Jindal, a reality some mistakenly overlook.


Jindal and Tucker do often agree on policy, but that’s more fortuitous accident than typifying Tucker’s relationship to Jindal, as one observer put it, as “whose loyalty to the governor would normally put a poodle to shame.” As his reaction over legislative pay raises and abolishing the lieutenant governor’s office shows, even if ideological comrades- in-arms, if he feels (whether it actually is) something is beneficial enough to the House and members’ place in governance, if Jindal opposes he will cross swords with him.


Of course, Tucker was wrong on the issue of paying part-time legislators full-time dough and Jindal made him pay politically with a veto, and Tucker is wrong about following his members on retaining the lieutenant governor’s office as well. But he is correct on this issue, and these bills should go nowhere.

24.3.10

LA policy-makers need guts to pursue college reform

Perhaps a new phase has been entered into regarding the way Louisiana conceptualizes the delivery of higher education, one that has been long coming and vitally overdue that is going to need cooperation and courage of both elected officials and academicians to manifest in a way that strengthens that delivery.


Yesterday, legislators on the House Appropriations Committee bluntly told academic leaders that, given the disappearance of nearly $300 million in federal spending bill money starting the beginning of fiscal year 2011-12, substantial changes had to be forthcoming in higher education. This does not even include further monies that could go away because of state revenue-raising difficulties.


By the end of the 2010-11 fiscal year, maybe the latter will be under control. A myriad of bills/proposed constitutional amendments ready for this upcoming legislative session could solidify funding mechanisms for higher education that, under the present regime, has suffered $250 million or so in cuts over the past 15 months. Even more immediate problems might become resolved by fortune or perhaps a little assistance from the Budget Stabilization Fund. Still, these do nothing to offset that federal dollar loss.


One of the unfortunate things about academia – take it from an insider who has spent now almost a quarter century as an employee in it – is that it can be rather tone deaf when it comes to understanding its relationship to the real world (with one of these inabilities to hear being that it is, in fact, a world very distinct and divorced from what goes on outside of it that in many ways bears little resemblance to the outside). In some academicians, it leads to an unfortunate attitude marked by being dismissive about those outside it trying to set parameters for its operation, a haughtiness that maintains that elected officials are (I hear from time to time this word bandied about by those in higher education) “idiots,” and an insistence that things must be done a certain way without understanding the privileges afforded in their jobs that most in the real world lack.


To some degree, the prevalence of this attitude within Louisiana higher education has been part of the problem. At the same time, having been an observer of Louisiana politics for this quarter century and witnessing what I have, it’s hard to argue against the view that politicians do some extraordinarily dumb things in their policy-making. So, when legislators argue that higher education is not doing necessary things to change, that’s not really accurate. Over the past year, individual campuses have been making some significant changes to improve efficiency.

But at the same time, our leaders in higher education to date have seemed unwilling to face certain facts which are nothing new to readers of this space, that call for action in the face of certain questions:


  • Why, in per capita dollar terms, is Louisiana in the top ten among states in spending on higher education, yet has some of the lowest graduation rates and, frankly, in the aggregate, lower quality education?
  • Why does Louisiana rank in the top ten states in terms of number of institutions (75) yet is about midway both in terms of college-age population and total population (which leads to one of the lowest ratios of people-to-institutions)?
  • Why should tuition rates increase dramatically when Louisiana already is in the upper two-thirds of rates being charged?


Bluntly, resources going into higher education in Louisiana are not being used nearly as efficiently as they should be, and higher education bears a good chunk of the blame for that. Elected officials do, too – after all, for example, who let higher education create so many campuses – but when these officials, as they did yesterday, sit there and tell academic leaders there had better be so significant changes forthcoming, to have those leaders whine (with, no doubt, a number of their employees throughout their systems nodding their heads in agreement) about how so many cuts have occurred and higher education has done so much to accommodate them, this signals that these people need to wake up, smell the coffee, see reality for what it is, and get with the program.


And what is the program? While to date mostly changes have occurred at the campus level and some still need to happen, many specific ones remain:


1. Simply, there are too many institutions at both the baccalaureate and above and below levels. There need to be mergers of four-year-and-above campuses, maybe turning some baccalaureate institutions into two-year schools, and a strategic plan to whittle down the number of technical schools yet which also will make sure areas of growing population and demand see increases in resources.


2. Much of the problem with low graduation rates comes from misallocation of resources to an appropriate level of student instruction. Too many students who start out at a baccalaureate-and-above institution need to be eased into their courses of study through going to community colleges first. A review of admissions standards of these schools across the state shows many are virtually open admissions universities. For example, at my institution all you have to do is be 25 or older and have a high school diploma or equivalency and you’re in. And even for those younger, the standards are minimal. There needs to be a significant increase in admissions standards across all of these kinds of universities to make sure only students that are ready for the rigor end up at them. For those who aren’t, open admissions policies at community colleges whose college missions are geared specifically to teaching the less-prepared can accommodate them to get them up to speed for transfer to finish their four-year degrees.


3. Also part of this problem is that the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships aren’t “scholarships” in the classic sense because they demand little demonstrated achievement to have a high school graduate be awarded one. Their presence encourages unmotivated students to go to college whereby they flunk out or leave school wasting taxpayer resources both in funding TOPS and in resources used in the universities. Raising standards here as well would ensure those not ready to commit themselves to advanced education don’t cause this problem, as well as would motivate more achievement in high school in order to earn these and thus better prepare for the rigors of college, and for those who don’t succeed would give them extra motivation to complete school since they will be using their own resources. It’s a waste to allow some teenagers to “find themselves” on the public’s back.


4. Having the charity hospital system as part of its mission distracts and saps resources from the Louisiana State University System. The system wants to hang onto these facilities for dear life because they bring more power, prestige, and resources into the system, but the outmoded regime should have been folded up long ago and the system should never have been the one to administer them. With the ruinous health care law newly enacted that will raise premiums and costs and lower the quality of care, it has no place for this kind of regime so this should be the impetus to dismantle the system over the next few years, leaving perhaps only the New Orleans (which should be pared down given the new reality) and Shreveport hospitals open and under LSU management for purposes of medical education.


5. Faculty teaching loads must be reviewed with changes made to increase some. Many faculty members in the state at the baccalaureate level teach as many as four or even five courses a semester (eight to ten a year) But some who don’t otherwise have additional departmental administrative duties teach far fewer. This is justified on the basis that they are conducting research or running some kind of special program. But what must be emphasized particularly in times of severe budgetary stress is all institutions in the state are first and foremost there for instruction and research secondarily. Thus, downloads of teaching loads not for departmental administrative reasons should be curtailed at least partially, with the goal of having every undergraduate instructor teaching at least three courses a semester, and every instructor who teaches only graduate/professional students teach at least two courses a semester (or maybe something like five a year if doing both), in order to make resources go further.


6. Across the higher education landscape a number of programs, even a few entire departments, end up adding little meaningful substance to the overall academic experience or environment. Some exist as little more than vanity projects tailored to the tastes of a handful or even of a single faculty member. These need to be reviewed with an eye towards their consolidation into other units or in reshaping them in a way that makes a larger contribution to the basic teaching mission of universities, to produce better utilization of resources.


7. Bureaucratic reforms should not be confined just to the parts of government that are mainly stocked with members of the classified civil service. Almost half of state employees work in higher education and of them the majority are unclassified, almost all faculty members. Review of organizational structures needs accomplishing along the lines of what other agencies in Louisiana currently are pursuing – eliminating middle and upper management posts, both on the academic and administrative sides. Especially this needs to be done at the system level with the combining of the five separate boards that provide some form of governance into no more than two. If states similar to Louisiana can run higher education that way, there’s no reason this one couldn’t do so also.


Notable among these are that only some can be implemented at the campus level or below. Indeed, the majority of increased efficiency would be realized through actions at the highest administrative levels of higher education, some of it accomplishable only by policy made in tandem with elected officials. This involves hard political choices that the politicians inside and outside of academia often seem reluctant to make. For example, when a state legislator claims closing and merging campuses won’t bring cost savings in the near term, it’s ridiculous to use that as an excuse not to start the process. Just because savings and better allocation of them may take awhile to come doesn’t mean the overall net benefits in the future are not there. Even if delayed, the state still reaps lasting rewards.


Following these reforms will take courage, yet policy-makers inside and outside of academia should not be so spineless as to let that deter them from doing so. My expressing these sentiments, given my place in academia, is not going to win me many friends in my profession and I would not be acknowledging reality if I ignored the fact that comments such as these and about some other matters, which are mine alone, that have appeared under my byline have not helped my academic career. But they are correct and necessary to be heard, and if I can write about them, then surely the highest-ranked academic administrators and state appointed and elected officials can have enough guts to pursue them.

23.3.10

Reporter's defense calls into question quality of work

What’s most remarkable about his published defense concerning the unorthodox piece he wrote publicizing an internal poll for Senate candidate Rep. Charlie Melancon is not so much what was or was not addressed in it, but that he wrote it at all.


Surely Gannett News reporter Mike Hasten felt a little disquiet when he decided to go with a story about how Melancon’s campaign pollster showed the candidate down only(!) 10 percentage points to incumbent Sen. David Vitter, when independent polling showed Vitter with a lead more than twice that. And if my original post on the questionable nature of that decision didn’t catch his attention, national political writer Stuart Rothenberg’s critique certainly did to the point that Hasten felt compelled to defend his story’s appearance.


Both Rothenberg and I pointed out in our respective pieces the various ways that impaired trusting the results from the paid pollster as unbiased and truly indicative of the contest (Rothenberg called it “spin”). As further evidence, I compared it with the independent poll and concluded the vast difference between the two meant one was less valid than the other for an objective view of the contest, and on balance the evidence suggested it was the paid pollster’s that came up short. Rothenberg also gave an example from another contest concerning the less-suitable nature that internal polls have in getting an accurate assessment of the actual dynamics of a contest.


Hasten attempted to defend the use of “spin” as the basis for a presumably objective story about the campaign in several ways. He noted the Melancon campaign polling firm, which works exclusively for Democrats, was “reputable.” He wrote that a pollster cited in the story unconnected to the contest that he used to build the thesis that Melancon was competitive was a registered Republican. He observed that the he asked the Vitter campaign if it would release its internal polling for his use but it didn’t.


All of which misses the point that Rothenberg and I made: the information released itself is questionable as a tool for objectively judging the state of a contest. Rothenberg points out, and uses another pollster on background to emphasize, that this kind of information is presented to a candidate in an affirmative way that does not mean the information is not valid, but that it is done so selectively. It does not matter even if the highest quality data were collected; short of having the actual unadulterated data and original, unaltered question protocol, if Hasten was given the same information that went to the candidate, as a whole it will draw conclusions that are optimistic for that candidacy.


The same goes for any other source reviewing such information: conclusions are to some extent predetermined by the choices of information to present. And what good would Vitter’s internal polling do for this? It probably is much closer to the independent polling results. What kind of story would Hasten have written then if he already had decided – he must have because he treated them as such in the story – that the Melancon results accurately depicted the state of the race? They can’t both be right, so would Hasten have been critical of the putative Vitter data despite it being of the same kind as Melancon’s?


This points to the elephant in the room that Hasten simply cannot bring himself to see: the independent pollster, Rasmussen, surveying almost at the same time and with a record of a high degree of accuracy, came up with much different results. I previously noted the various sources that could explain some of the variation but it’s unlikely it would account for all – and some of that variation that can be attributed is a result of data collection decisions that can introduce bias into the results. Again, keep in mind that Hasten is deeming as an accurate portrayal of the contest information collected on behalf of a campaign which means by definition he must declare as inaccurate an independent source with an excellent record – an approach that stretches credulity. He must take this approach because otherwise there is no story here – just spin produced by a campaign that should not be newsworthy.


On this matter, Hasten contradicts himself when he bases his defense mainly on getting Vitter’s numbers as well. Not getting them, he never should have run the story in the first place (which was solicited by the Melancon campaign that proffered the information to him) if he believed, as is implied by the fact he told the Melancon campaign that he would ask for Vitter’s numbers, that they were presented in a way optimistic to Melancon. Why even bring that up otherwise?


But then it’s disingenuous to justify running the story anyway on the basis that Vitter’s campaign did not want to share their data (for obvious reasons that they contain campaign-sensitive strategic information: Melancon’s campaign was willing to release theirs because of the sense of desperation around it on the gamble it could change perceptions about the race), missing a chance to “rebut.” Rebut what, a campaign handout with another? Why would that be news that could add anything to our understanding of the contest?


(Ironically, the goal of the Melancon campaign to change impressions of the contest got subverted by the story they hoped would do this. The story and Hasten’s addendum have become the story itself, not the spin designed to be interjected into the campaign narrative.)


One of three things happened here: either Hasten was a useful idiot to the Melancon campaign, or he harbors sympathy for the campaign and wanted it to get a leg up with his story, or, given his weak justifications on this incident, his critical faculties aren’t good in these matters. If the first, chastened he would not have written a defense. If the others, sadly now readers must keep them in mind whenever they read anything presented as a straight news story that carries his byline.

22.3.10

FMAP money saves LA now, but pays far more in future

Make no mistake, few in America will be better off as a result of passage of health care insurance legislation that will raise premiums and spending and simultaneously lower quality of health care. But it does ameliorate Louisiana’s budget difficulties to some degree, even if only delaying the bigger costs it will impose on state taxpayers.


The bad news that initial estimates show the 2009-10 fiscal year for the state is running at least a couple of hundred million dollars short. Since this is so close to the end of a fiscal year, catastrophic cuts would have to occur in some areas including health care. If these figures hold up, Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Alan Levine said he could use money he was hoping to hold aside to plug another projected deficit for next year to fill in the gap temporarily.


Instead, the problem is temporarily solved. The ruinous bill expected to be signed into law today by its main instigator Democrat Pres. Barack Obama contains the so-called “Louisiana Purchase” line item that gives the state somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 to 300 million extra for Medicaid for its FMAP share because of changes in the state’s matching requirement. Disaster recovery dollars as a result of the 2005 hurricanes drove Louisiana income indicators used to compute the match higher, increasing the state’s burden. Universally, Louisiana policy-makers have cited this as an unfair artifact of the formula that does not reflect the state’s real ability to pay.


But while Levine and his boss Gov. Bobby Jindal and almost every federal official elected from the state have argued standalone legislation should address the problem, Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu, who had professed previously skepticism about the impending law, then supported after it was revealed the provision to give extra money had been inserted into it at her behest. In all the convolutions since, it has remained and will continue even as Democrats embark upon the unprecedented, unintended, and possibly illegal use of reconciliation to change a bill already passed into law. That Landrieu has written about her support of the reconciliation process in this case indicates Democrats have enough votes to keep it in the manipulated bill they hope to disgorge within the next few weeks. And any future repeals of the provisions politically will come too late to prevent transfer of that money.


Thus, with the money essentially guaranteed and wisely not included in Jindal’s budget, Levine is free to tap into the money set aside if needed to weather this year’s potential sudden shortfall and use the Louisiana Purchase money to shore up next year. Of course, this is just a very temporary solution. In fact, Levine has noted that when the requirements of the new bad law come into full effect, it will cost the state annually about as much as the “fix” itself, so the bill will end up costing far more than any single fix – a fact Landrieu continues to ignore.


This attack on liberty and scourge to quality health care may provide temporary respite to Louisiana’s immediate fiscal problems, but, besides the forced escalation of Medicaid costs, in the long run will cause a host of more serious fiscal and non-fiscal difficulties to the state. Perhaps voters will thank Landrieu for that at the appropriate time.

21.3.10

Reaction to rather than remark itself shows stupidity

I have been publishing opinion columns for over a quarter century and reading them from longer ago than that, but I’ve never seen such a flight from reason as evidenced by various fulminations concerning the politically incorrect statement of Shreveport City Councilman Ron Webb. Far more than his statement it has been the reactions to it that make the area look bad.

For those readers how haven’t paid attention to city news at the beginning of the year, when queried why he didn’t want to appropriate the Robinson Film Center another $25,000, Webb famously said, “it bothered me that they supported gay and lesbian rights.” Whereupon presumed tolerance police launched a series of criticisms that labeled him “homophobic” (always an amusing word to behold – literally it means “fear of man”), opined that the remark indicated “intolerance,” and predicted dire economic consequences as a result of the remark. Webb eventually issued a reply that said he was following what he perceived his constituents wanted, to which other self-assigned cultural avatars proclaimed was too convenient if not incorrect.

Although Mayor Cedric Glover would not admit that the remark had anything to do with the timing, shortly thereafter he proclaimed an executive order for city personnel matters that now would include “sexual orientation, gender identity and disabilities” as protected categories. This useless gesture in practical terms – city, state, and/or federal statutes already mandate that personnel actions take place only for work-related reasons for any individual – nonetheless seemed to provide some symbolic action connoting that the city’s officials “cared.”