Search This Blog

Loading...

2.4.10

Media get upset at attempts denying corporate welfare


In an era where traditional media in general and newspapers in particular are suffering significant declines in revenues as a result of increasing public skepticism and technological changes, it’s understandable that they wish to preserve income sources as much as possible. But it’s disappointing when they try to do so by making false and conceited claims about legal changes to save taxpayers money that, rather than thwarting their somehow being indispensible guardians of freedom, instead denies them corporate welfare.

This bad tendency flared this week courtesy of hearings on HB 131 by state Rep. Bodi White and an editorial printed in the normally-sensible Alexandria Town Talk. White’s bill would remove the mandate that government publish names of jurors in newspapers; the editorial addressed HB 1212 by Rep. Jeff Arnold that would remove the requirement that the state and local governing authorities must have their official journals of business conducted printed only in a newspaper.

On HB 131, the Louisiana Press Association bleated that this would erode the “public’s right to know.” Presently, clerks of court in most instances have names of jurors available for public inspection and this list is given to a newspaper which then is paid for printing it. White’s, as well as the Louisiana Law Institute’s concern is that it increases the chances of parties attached to a defendant to discover names and then try to intimidate jurors.

1.4.10

Tucker power moves may have policy repercussions

As I was saying about House Speaker Jim Tucker’s desire to create an independent power base and the relative lack of professionalism of the Louisiana Legislature?


With Republican Tucker’s removal of Republican state Reps. John LaBruzzo and John Schroder from the House Appropriations Committee, and of Democrat state Reps. Charmaine Stiaes and Noble Ellington from the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, not only did he makes moves that would draw the admiration of ex-U.S. House Speaker “Uncle” Joe Cannon, but also demonstrated a desire to mold the Louisiana House into a source of power beholden more to his wishes than to party, ideology, or alliance with Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. The Speaker is given the latitude by the House to make all committee assignments and their leadership decisions.


Tucker is not directly saying so, but he made it fairly unambiguous that reasons for the moves stemmed from Ellington being supported by LaBruzzo, Schroder, and Stiaes in the contest for Speaker Pro-Tempore concluded earlier in the week. Tucker had said at the time of the contest that some votes didn’t go the way the way he expected, and later added certain personnel moves among committees were going to be made related in some way to some legislators not keeping their words. Presumably, this meant that in Tucker’s view the three had pledged support to the winner, state Rep. Joel Robideaux, even though Ellington claimed LaBruzzo and Schroder said they had made any firm commitments to him well before the vote.


Unusually (and as a sign of its aggravation with the whole affair), public confirmation of this interpretation of events came from the Jindal Administration whose Chief of Staff Tim Teepell said it had asked Tucker not to retaliate to minimize “distraction.” Again, that such a public and now publicized break occurred demonstrates the degree to which Tucker is willing to assert independence – especially given that Robideaux’s new office is not that important and seems an unlikely vehicle over which to make such a power play. Important to remember here, however, is that the move is more over demonstration of power and strengthening bonds of loyalty than anything else – acquisition of power and engendering loyalty being the only tools by which a Speaker can utilize to stay in office and to function with fewer constraints on him.


This also is evident in both the actions themselves and their outcomes. LaBruzzo and Stiaes recently had been criticized by Tucker for lax attendance on the Appropriations Committee; they claimed their records were no worse than anybody else’s. This may have been a warning shot to both to vote “correctly” in a contest that, as the final vote indicated, was closer than perhaps Tucker had liked. Had Tucker not wanted so openly to display the true dynamics behind it all, he could have booted both off this committee for this reason. It also would not have been so nakedly obvious had he then removed Ellington from either committee (he sat on both).


But dumping Stiaes from HGA instead and especially the ouster of Schroder was as blatant as signals get that Tucker does not brook what he perceived as prevarication as an impediment to his wielding of power. Schroder is a particularly interesting example – as one of the most conservative members of the House (his Louisiana Legislature Log rating for 2009 being 90), he could be expected to be a valuable vote and natural ally for Tucker on that committee yet Tucker showed no compunction in giving him the boot.


Further reinforcement of this comes from the significance of his successor choices – Democrats James Armes and Rosalind Jones for Appropriations and Republicans Nancy Landry and Nick Lorusso (all of whom voted for Robideuax). Not only are they, in the aggregate, more junior than those replaced, but they completely changed the partisan balances of their committees. With these moves, on Appropriations Tucker actually took a Republican advantage (not counting his ex-officio membership on it) of 13-10 and made it a deficit of 11-12, while on HGA the numbers (ignoring the one independent) went from a marginal 10-8 GOP advantage to a blowout 12-6. This shows that it is more important to Tucker to have presumably loyal individuals on the most important legislative committee in the House, Appropriations, to better stamp his authority on the budget, than the power he thinks he could derive from putting party and probably ideological loyalists on it. That’s reinforced by meaninglessly padding the HGA GOP advantage.


(If you’re keeping track, the scorecard numbers, which reflect ideology and reformist impulses where higher scores mean more conservative and reformist, for 2009 of those replaced on Appropriations were Schroder 90 and LaBruzzo 90, while the replacements’ were Armes 60 and Jones 10.)


That Tucker headed in this direction shows the truly unprofessional (that is, relatively unconstrained by institutionally-based norms) nature of the House and how personalistic politics (norms focused on personal charisma and relationships) continue to hold sway. This allows Tucker, despite his being one of the more partisan and conservative members of the House (2009 score of 80), to continue in power in a body almost exactly evenly divided between the parties, because he can command fealty from a number of Democrats who will vote his way when the chips are down. This should be no surprise; he began acquiring this loyalty when he spearheaded a politically-suicidal move to pay part-time legislators full-time salaries early in his tenure.


Most interesting will be how these decisions play out over the next couple of years. In particular, committee voting on the budget and redistricting might prove fascinating and produce a number of speculative scenarios about why things will happen as they do and what might have happened otherwise. From the perspective of conservatives and reformers, they had better hope that the results of this repositioning of slots by Tucker, believed to be one of them, don’t set back their policy agendas.

31.3.10

Landrieu must explain vote enabling sex offenders

While this week she’s out cutting a bunch of ribbons, Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu last week was casting some very interesting votes in the Senate. Most concerned allowing discussion and voting on certain amendments to the Reconciliation Act of 2010, the contorted legal exercise to ram through the ruinous health care legislation supported by Democrats only that will increase the premiums and cost of health care while lowering its quality.


The list of her choices is illuminating, to say the least. All in all, she voted against:


Note that these actions prevented even any discussion or votes on these matters. If Landrieu doesn’t support free and democratic debate on these points, one must wonder whether she supports any of this. She had a perfect opportunity to reveal her views, yet she chose to hide along with almost every other Democrat.


So Landrieu must explain to her constituents, does she not want to help the disadvantaged to receive and pay for health care, or to protect taxpayers from waste, abuse, and fraud, or to save money in health care provision, or to prevent stealth tax hikes, or to increase access to life-saving medical procedures, or to safeguard states’ rights and the Constitution, or to have the law apply equally to all, or to prohibit federal funds going to satisfy the cravings of sex offenders and to pay for abortions? These are not hypotheticals – her own behavior leads reasonable observers to pose these legitimate questions.


Silence on these questions, raised by her own voting behavior, creates a dangerous impression that by her willingness to countenance these things therefore at the very least she must not care about them. Until she indicates otherwise, that’s a reasonable assumption.

30.3.10

Officer vote shows personality still plays big role

For a largely symbolic office, we got largely symbolic results, but it’s a significant symbolism that offers a tiny hope that Louisiana’s political system continues to mature away from being based on personality and more towards focusing on ideas.


In the contest for House Speaker Pro-Tempore, Lafayette-area state Rep. Joel Robideaux, an independent who entered the House through a special election and won reelection for this term, defeated Democrat state Rep. Noble Ellington from northeast Louisiana who has served longer in the Legislature (having previously been term-limited out of the Senate before winning a House seat this past election) than any other member of the House. The 53-48 result showed personalistic politics still plays a large role in decision-making.


This officer does little more than a typical member of the House, unlike his boss the Speaker, Republican Jim Tucker. He gets a salary bump and a better office and can preside over the chamber when the Speaker isn’t around but the latter offers few opportunities (rulings mainly) to wield power. So how the vote turned out is where the real significance is.


In understanding legislative politics in Louisiana, the most important factor is the personalistic nature of politics. That is, politics revolves first and foremost around the individuals themselves and their characteristics, interest group support and own agendas, with party and ideology less important. Historically in Louisiana, regionalism has been next in importance; only within the last 20 years has party and ideology become at all significant in understanding legislative behavior.


From the perspective of classic democratic theory, personalistic politics is problematic. Because it relies so much on individuals rather than institutions and on personal agendas rather than ideologies, it creates a difficult linkage mechanism for the mass public in terms of its decisions about who to send to office and how to keep them accountable once in office. Unless a constituent has a special connection to a policy-maker, partisan and ideological ties that bind the two together create a weak bond. It’s no accident that, around the world, in states with weak or nonexistent democracies personalistic politics plays the dominant role in understanding political behavior.


In a mature institution, party and ideology play more important roles in decision-making than personal relations which assists the public in assigning credit or blame for actions because knowing the partisanship and ideology of representatives very often coveys accurate information about how they decide. Where politics is personalistic, that muddies the waters considerably and creates confusion among the mass public.


Were either chamber of the Legislature more professional bodies (such as the U.S. Congress), this vote would have sharp cleavages: most if not all Democrats would have voted for Ellington and most if not all blacks (since all but one are Democrats) should have voted for him. Had he captured all of these and all members had been present, he would have lost 52-51 (two seats lie vacant, most recently represented by black Democrats).


Instead, his losing tally (even though they answered the roll call as present, state Reps. Patrick Williams and Juan LaFonta seemed to wander off by the time of the vote; Tucker asserted they would have voted for Robideaux) was comprised of 13 Republicans, while Robideaux helped win with 17 Democrats including seven blacks. Lest anyone think regionalism has lost its power, Ellington captured nearly half (29) of the members outside of north and central Louisiana – including some Republicans, while Robideaux siphoned 10 from that region – some white Republicans, but also some black Democrats.


In the final analysis, many more Republicans voted for Robideaux (he essentially is one of them but because of internecine Lafayette politics originally ran as an independent and has stayed one) and many more Democrats did he same for Ellington, showing that party and ideology does matter. That leads to some belief that psychological attachments may be gaining in strength in terms of decision-making calculus in the Legislature, but that personalistic considerations continue to hold substantial sway in a body that slowly is becoming more professional.

29.3.10

Jindal hits major themes except for future big picture

Part campaign speech, part softening up expected opposition on some matters, nonetheless Gov. Bobby Jindal’s 2010 State of the State Address provided some large strategic indicators revealing how and decent reassurance that Jindal has fortitude to deal with satisfactorily a challenging fiscal environment for the upcoming fiscal year. Beyond that, he left us uncertain.


Jindal gave his remarks essentially extemporaneously, a skill perhaps explained when he made references to national politics tied to state concerns, leading to the suspicion that remarks somewhat similar to these have been delivered before in locations outside of the state. Concentrating almost exclusively on touting specific policies due hoped-for legislative deliberation, nonetheless he used them together to make several larger points.


First, to the consternation of critics on the left who say he has helped cut taxes too much and to those on the right who, regardless of any real evidence to support this thought, insist he is going to collaborate to raise taxes, he once again avowed he would not in the quest to address budgetary concerns. (Raising fees – on drivers’ licenses for many, state park users, and those pursuing higher education without the benefit of TOPS – are another matter than he did not address and which he does want to raise, but fees are not taxes – fees are voluntary and necessarily related to the service for which they are charged.) He called on state government to live within its means which indicates he will continue his welcome and increasingly successful campaign to make government work more efficiently and, to a lesser extent, change its priorities.


Second and related, he solidified his ground against some criticisms. Louisiana’s Legislative Black Caucus has protested by note and deeds his request and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s agreement in suing the federal government over certain provisions of the recently-enacted health care reform law, saying that trying to overturn certain parts of the law that may violate state sovereignty was wasteful of time and money especially not needed in the current fiscal environment.


But Jindal sent a response when he remarked about how the provisions, which he called an “unfunded mandate,” would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars annually soon. And, in an echo of his anti-tax remarks, he implied that improvements in economic indicators, along the lines of employment, inflation, business activities, and bond ratings, resulted from his support of tax cuts and regulatory changes.


Third, to some degree he buttered up the Legislature because he’ll need its support to accomplish some more specific things that could be controversial. It began with the honorable gesture of asking for a moment to remember the late state Rep. Avon Honey – but ironic because last year Honey’s attentiveness and his legislative opponents’ inattentiveness caused perhaps the biggest legislative embarrassment for Jindal when he got the House to approve a bill in direct contradiction to Jindal’s stated intentions regarding unemployment benefits.


At several points, Jindal preached how everybody had to work together, and at many points promoted initiatives and sometimes their legislative authors. He even cooed about the House’s speaker pro-tem vote that had actual open conflict for the first time in years. Some have criticized Jindal for being too detached (perhaps, some suggest, as he divides his attentions too much with national elective ambitions) from the legislative process so this may be a signal he’s willing to get up close and personal to work with them on these matters he sees as important. With the first couple of years gone in his term and likely some reduction in political capital plus with stakes being higher, he would do well to get his Administration more personally involved.


I grade governors on these and this work got Jindal a solid ‘B.’ Yet he didn’t deserve an ‘A’ because of what he didn’t address – what happens after this session relative to the spending plan it will produce. While this could seem unfair, since he’ll have another speech next year to go into this, it’s relevant now and needs explanation now because decisions made this year may impact critically next year given an even larger deficit is forecast now for it.


To date, Jindal has tinkered well with getting more out of government with less. But the magnitude of the crisis forthcoming will require grander gestures and thinking. Recognition of this that specifies the larger solutions necessary must come out now. That some of Jindal’s tinkering is not wise (such as redefining the purpose of the Budget Stabilization Fund) does not lend complete confidence that the state’s fiscal structure truly will be positioned to fend off potential financial catastrophe. Before much longer, we really need to hear from him on this account.

28.3.10

Statistics show how LA govt privatization can win big

While Gov. Bobby Jindal’s budget’s focus on privatization, representing the greatest move towards it in state history, has caught the attention of policy-makers, why Louisiana can benefit here more than in most states shows why it can be a very effective strategy for improving performance for fewer dollars.


There’s a reason why some state employees or their representatives – especially union bosses – and legislators look at this issue anywhere from askance to with hostility: because of the sweet deal public sector employees typically receive compared to their private sector counterparts. On average, total compensation for state and local government employees is 45 percent higher than those in comparable positions in the private sector, so considerable savings exist by pruning government where the job can be done just by the private sector.


Some savings would be immediate, as salaries are about a third higher in the public sector. Thus, assuming the jobs pared average the roughly $41,000 a Louisiana classified employee makes, and assuming that the 3,000 or so jobs the Jindal budget seeks to drop, many of which would go courtesy of privatization, that could produce an annual savings of $41 million just by this differential – enough to pay for the earned income tax credit the state dishes to low-income earners who file state income taxes despite having no liability and instead get a refund.


However, a substantial long-term benefit also would accrue to the state by exporting government jobs to the private sector, because benefits for government workers are about 70 percent higher on average than those same ones in the private sector. Already, the state is struggling with an unfunded accrued liability problem that by itself is about 60 percent of the state’s entire annual operating budget – and it continues higher. By shedding these jobs now, this would aggravate less this ticking time bomb.


It’s no surprise that unions have been vocal critics of the privatization effort – statistics also show that almost all of the gap between public and private jobs has come about because of unionization. So, most of that $40 million potentially realized from salary savings alone would manifest only if it were all unionized jobs that were culled, which is not the case. Still, in 2008 in Louisiana 4.6 percent of the entire workforce was union members, and in state and local government the proportion was over 10 percent of them.


Of course, even if the large majority of jobs contracted away won’t save much in terms of personnel costs, chances are private sector workers are more productive and efficient. (Which is why private workers are three times more likely to quit their jobs than are government workers.) Thus, savings would emerge from that source as well.


Unfortunately, it’s not just union hacks and state employees who know, if rehired in the private sector, they may have to work harder and may even get less compensation so they speak out against privatization, it’s also lawmakers whose parochial views put a few constituents first and the rest of the state and its taxpayers second also who object. Too many of them see state employment as a device that wins them votes, so the more of it in their districts, the better. More than these other sources, Jindal will find these obstacles the toughest to overcome.


Still, the crisis atmosphere may be enough finally to get the state – which is fourth in terms of per capita expense on government and 12th in percentage of workforce in state government – to move away from this bloat and start using taxpayer dollars more efficiently through privatization.