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14.4.10

Misimpression may have impacted big House vote

Give state Rep. Hunter Greene credit – once he gets incorrect information in his head, he’s not willing to let it go and insists on spreading it as Gospel, perhaps leading House members to decide an important matter on the basis of misimpression.


During the debate on his HB 292, which would reinstitute a blanket primary system for Congressional elections as was past practice and currently is done for state and local offices, on three occasions Greene asserted that “19 or 20” states had an “open” primary, although he also said there were “hybrid” systems that confused the count. That information was relevant because a point of contention against the bill was it would cause the possibility of Members of Congress to face general elections after the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November (as by federal law) which would put newcomers from Louisiana behind in terms of perquisites such as committee seats parceled out by the parties.


Greene continuously left the impression that “19 or 20” states also used the same system which meant they would suffer the same potential penalty, meaning the relative loss to Louisiana Members was minimized since so many other states’ Members could suffer similarly. In fact, because Greene did not call what he was proposing by its correct name, a blanket primary, legislators did not know that no other state has this electoral system. An elegant explanation of the difference is from footnote 1 of the U.S. Supreme Court majority opinion concerning a challenge to the only system close to Louisiana’s, Washington:


The term “blanket primary” refers to a system in which “any person, regardless of party affiliation, may vote for a party’s nominee.” California Democratic Party v. Jones, 530 U. S. 567, 576, n. 6 (2000). A blanket primary is distinct from an “open primary,” in which a person may vote for any party’s nominees, but must choose among that party’s nominees for all offices … and the more traditional “closed primary” in which “only persons who are members of the political party . . . can vote on its nominee.”


The “19 or 20” states to which Greene refers do not have the kind of same system he is proposing for Louisiana. The correct answer he should have given when asked how many states had a similar system to Louisiana’s was “one,” Washington, and it manages to avoid scheduling a general election after the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November because it essentially automatically permits more than one candidate to appear on that ballot on that day (and even this is still subject to litigation scheduled to be heard this fall). The open primary states (the exact figure is 22), because they have open rather than blanket primaries, do not have to have a general election after the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November because their systems, unlike Greene’s proposal, comport to federal law on this account. In fact, the only state that currently may have a general election after that date is Georgia, an open primary state, because it requires any general election winner to have an absolute majority of the vote and therefore may invite a runoff.


And how do I know Greene knows the difference? Because I told him, in a series of notes sent back and forth after the committee hearing on the bill. Yet the way he presented the bill on the floor continued to imply the system he proposes is commonly used throughout the country. That simply is not true; it is the only of its kind.


Most worrisome is whether a major reason why the bill advanced, as it did comfortably, was because legislators labored under that misimpression. Perhaps some who voted for it if they knew for a fact that Louisiana would be one of only two states that could have later elections might have voted against it. If enough members did have a misimpression, it could have made a difference in the bill’s passage.


Hopefully, when the bill reaches Senate committee and potentially floor deliberation, this point will be brought out by senators. Bill supporters cannot be allowed to imply that the proposed system is like “19 or 20” others because federal law causes very different consequences between this and every other state electoral system in the country in terms of when elections must be held and the possible consequences Louisiana must suffer in its representation in Washington that no other state (except perhaps Georgia, with its different system) faces.


The question is not so much whether the bill is good public policy, but whether policy-makers will allow themselves to decide its fate without seeking accurate information about it. Surely Louisiana citizens wish their elected representatives to make decisions on the basis of full and factual information fairly presented.

Blanket primary restoration makes backwards step

Bills are picking up steam that would turn back the clock to prevent further erosion of the emphasis on personality rather than policy in the state’s political culture.


More than any other state, Louisiana’s political culture, much like with undemocratic political systems or in immature democracies worldwide, emphasizes the place of the politician rather than those of institutions or ideas. This means political behavior such as voting and other forms of participation is shaped more by the persons in politics, for the most part elected officials, than by aggregators such as political parties or interest groups, or by ideology.


Why this is considered a more immature kind of politics by students of political culture and particularly by democratic theorists is institutions and ideas are superior instruments to aggregate shared preferences in the mass public. By contrast, more personalistic systems place primacy on individual relationships to which most of the mass public do not enjoy sufficient access and also because policymakers deemphasize issue preferences that make it easier for them to evade accountability for their policies. Regardless, it’s no surprise that Louisiana political elites generally prefer that evolution away from this not occur because it’s the system through which they gained power.


Electoral laws can affect this environment, and this regular session has some relevant bills. HB 292 by state Rep. Hunter Greene from a closed primary would return the state to a blanket primary for federal elections, as they were previous to 2008 and remain so for state and local elections. Thus, party nominations presently decided through elections where only party registrants, and if the party permits it also voters unaffiliated with any recognized party, may choose nominees for the general election would become contests without a nominative aspect at all.


This promotes personalistic politics because the attitude of partisanship, even if it provides this benefit only psychologically, unites those who share the same label. Where idea-based parties can control more aspects of the political process, such as conveying an electoral benefit to candidates through a nomination because the label supplies useful policy information to voters, the less personalistic the system becomes.


The blanket primary system used for all but federal elections in Louisiana most discourages this transformation. Because any voter can vote for any candidate of any label in any such election, there is no reward or penalty for a voter to consider and choose a label, either to self-identify or by which to judge a candidate. A closed primary forces voters to think about their issue preferences and register themselves accordingly because they gain the reward of being able to choose that party’s nominees. This imperative encourages voters to think about issues.


Further, they avoid the penalty of non-members of the party being able to influence decisions in ways they may not like. If a party can’t protect its most important decision, whom to represent it using its label to the voters, partisanship as an organizing principle for political behavior on the basis of interconnected ideas loses much power. And the beneficiaries of this are those who would base politics on personalism.


Greene’s bill faced no opposition in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, and one point in its favor was the current closed system could cause as many as three elections to be held rather than two under the blanket system, saving the state as much as an estimated almost $6.6 million every two years. But state Rep. Cameron Henry’s HB 1157 would do the same without getting rid of the closed system, because by it nominations could be won by a plurality vote just as are general elections for federal office, not requiring a runoff primary. But because the committee loved Greene’s bill, Henry deferred his.


Where Greene could make a case about the superiority of his bill was it could be less confusing. This is because some people complained in 2008 they couldn’t understand why they couldn’t vote for anybody in the federal primary elections when they could in all others, and in particular that no-party registrants (“independents”) could vote only in the Democrat primary.


Of course, the “confusion” could be reduced if local and state elections were changed to closed primaries rather than the reverse, and, as Henry pointed out, because the change to closed primaries for federal elections (which had been the case up until 1976) was so recent, confusion should die out over time as voters educated themselves. Still, some of it might remain because state parties are allowed to decide for themselves the question of independent participation, and currently the parties split: Democrats permit it, Republicans don’t.


To address this, state Sen. Robert Adley proposed SB 690 that would strip the parties of this ability; last year, he had offered a bill like Greene’s. Adley has long railed, with an obvious distaste for logical thinking, that not permitting independents to vote for whom they pleased in primaries was “disenfranchisement,” apparently oblivious to the fact that all they had to do to guarantee their participation in any party’s closed primary was to change their registration to that party’s.


The only problem with this year’s version is that it is unconstitutional. Adley seems unaware of Tashjian v. Republican Party of Connecticut where in 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state could not compel a party to accept or not accept independents as participants. Instead, that decision has to be left in the hands of the parties themselves, which Adley’s bill would deny, or else parties’ rights of association would be violated.


Greene’s bill (which today gets aired in the House) avoids this problem because it removes primaries from being used as vehicles of party nominations but at the cost of having to schedule the primaries on the first Tuesday of the first Monday of November and any runoff after, which the Court ruled Louisiana had to do in 1997’s Foster v. Love. This was one of the rationales for the move to closed primaries for federal elections, because Louisiana’s new representatives and senators were disadvantaged for seniority in committee assignments and perquisites. Notably, Henry’s bill would avoid this problem.


Regardless, these changes, or any reluctance to make all elections subject to closed primaries, signify resistance to changing the state’s political culture. So many complain that Louisiana politics seems so insider in nature, so controlled by “good old boys” (and girls now, too) that it creates dysfunctional government where the peoples’ interests receive short shrift compared to those of politicians and special interests. This reflects restlessness with the personalism in the system, and that personalism is strengthened by bills like Greene’s and Adley’s.

13.4.10

Leftist analysis misdiagnoses LA fiscal situation

Edward Ashworth, who heads the left-leaning Louisiana Budget Project, claims that Louisiana’s current budgetary problems are as a result of the state’s recent income tax relief to middle-class-and-above families and an unwillingness to raise taxes to compensate, which results in “cuts in spending that hit the poor, elderly, schoolchildren, college students and the developmentally disabled hardest while largely sparing the wealthy and businesses.” Only the most careless reading of data and uninformed view of economics would support such a selective interpretation and recommend the wrong solution to the states’ budgetary woes.

Ashworth notes the estimated reduction in revenues from the 2007 act that allows none of the “excess” federal tax deductions to be taxed by the state and the 2008 act that reduced tax brackets on the middle class and above would be $681 million for fiscal year 2010-2011. In reality, this will be somewhat lower because of the recessionary/no-growth state of the national economy that shows no sign of abating any time soon. Note also this relies on a static, unrealistic view of economic behavior that insufficiently models dynamic human decision-making. Nevertheless, he produces the argument that state revenue sources are not being tapped to their full extent.

But this ability-to-pay argument is meaningless in a vacuum that ignores the spending side of the equation. For 2008, the latest year for which data are available, in per capita terms among the states for operating expenses Louisiana (minus its disaster relief expenses) was the fourth-highest, and reviewing only expenses coming from state-generated sources it ranked 20th. In part, this stems from the large state apparatus tolerated in the state: the 12th highest per capita in state employees. These statistics don’t scream out that the state taxes and spends too little.

12.4.10

Legislature should give yellow light to red-light cameras

While some are looking to find a way to give a green light to red-light traffic cameras and others the exact opposite, a yellow light is the direction the state should flash regarding this volatile subject.


These cameras are timed to take pictures of alleged violating vehicles that run red lights (meaning entry of an intersection after the light has gone to red). Proponents argue they provide greater safety while opponents dispute that, point out constitutionality and enforcement problems with their use, and wonder whether jurisdictions are more interested in collecting revenue from them than in safety. Several states and several communities in Louisiana have banned their use, while others use them.


The state administratively is reviewing their use for state-designated roads and suspended any use of them on state roads by local governments. However, several bills have been introduced this legislative session addressing the issue, all more regulatory than then present, all the way from banning their use entirely to standards for their use to maximum fines to having local option approve of their use in any way.


Previously, I noted that, on balance, there probably is a marginal safety improvement in their use, but that more than minimal resources must be spent by local governments to ensure constitutional rights are not violated in the use of their products as evidence, and these jurisdictions must follow these set procedures. Further, I recommended, to guarantee that safety truly is first and foremost in the minds of policy-makers, that any fines collected be remitted to fund education in the state (perhaps to subsidize schools in the drivers’ education programs).


All the bills so far on the docket together would achieve much of what I proposed as a model bill, except obviously the outright ban, and a local option whether to allow their use (with absence of such affirmative vote meaning they would not be) also is good. In the spirit of compromise, I am willing to alter my proposal, to allow local governments to keep enough of the proceeds solely and only to pay a contractor to operate the system, with this rest remitted to the state for educational purposes. This means that funds generated could not, for example, be used to pay for a police officer to monitor camera images in real-time or to make positive identifications after the fact, or to offset additional administrative and legal costs, and the like.


The Legislature takes up the first of these bills today. Specifically, any combination of these bills that would create a red-light camera program where (1) it is funded solely by the local authority (2) with a minimum long yellow light time set in those intersections (3) which must be posted as having a camera (4) which must take pictures both of license plates and faces (5) that must be “clearly recognizable” after review by a police officer verified by a trial judge (6) from a camera proven calibrated accurately taking only vehicle and people photos after intersection entrance during a red light not making a legal right turn (7) subject to criminal proceedings (8) where any fine resulting from a conviction after contract costs only is paid not to the local jurisdiction but to fund the state’s Minimum Foundation Program that supports elementary and secondary education above the existing formula is one worth pursuing.

11.4.10

Bad bill seeks to remove hurdle to "dummy diploma"

Regardless that they talk out of both sides of their mouths, money is being put where it is the case of one of the “dummy diploma” concept backers – an effort that policy-makers must have the wisdom to reject.


State Sen. Ben Nevers was among the more vocal backers of a law passed last year to create the “career diploma,” which would significantly relax the kinds of requirements, in terms of advanced nature of coursework, to earn a high school diploma. They argued that for those planning on going into more vocational and technical fields this would be a better course – never mind that it would largely abrogate its holder from qualifying to enter a Louisiana university in the future, that occupations of all kinds continue to demand more and more critical thinking abilities and larger knowledge bases while the concept of this program of study retreats from these realities, students might change their minds but become trapped in a curriculum, etc.


All along, supporters asserted that it meant standards would not lowered even as suspicion grew that the main reason for doing this was so graduation statistics would increase and thereby make policy-makers look like they were doing their jobs better. Then, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education called their bluff by declaring that end-of-course tests would be the same for students for any kind of diploma.


Then the double-talking among the supporters truly manifested, and Nevers has led the charge with his SB 490. The bill would make BESE design “construction of end-of-course examination questions [to] reflect course content and method of instruction” for the career diploma. Translation: rather than test over classics in literature they would be over how to read directions, and rather than ask students to write critical essays they would ask them how they “feel” about the material, if that’s how the instruction is to be.


The majority on BESE’s idea of how the diplomas should differ is that the goal of attaining basic knowledge and critical thinking ability should be pursued in both and tested in the basic core courses, but that the traditional one elaborates and goes further in the core while with the career one those kinds of classes are jettisoned in favor of more vocational kinds. This would argue for using the same tests. But Nevers and his ilk seem to think, even as they protested otherwise, that the goals must differ because then no reason would exist for this legislation. They must envision core classes being taught at different skill levels, and it wouldn’t appear the difference would come from the career track classes being the more demanding.


A career diploma option need not devolve into a “dummy diploma,” but this bill surely sets up the process to push it that way. As such, the Legislature must reject it, and as a last resort Gov. Bobby Jindal would have to veto it. He actually supported the bill creating the option, but if he wants to maintain educational standards that slowly are dragging Louisiana into the 21st century, he can’t allow the current bill to water that down.