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3.6.10

Hello pot, meet kettle: Melancon, MPERS, and BP

It’s a classic strategy – when you are seriously underperforming, find somebody else to blame, and U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon and Louisiana's Municipal Police Employees Retirement System have given us excellent examples of this philosophy in action.

Perhaps in an effort to revive his moribund Senate campaign, on national television the Democrat Melancon called for the head of the president of BP as the company’s well continues to emit oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Making the obligatory noises of agony over the situation, he also found the wit to call for criminal investigations of federal employees who might have given permits improperly to the operation, no doubt as a means to try to distance himself from his co-partisans running government whose orders potentially halting the industry offshore Louisiana already are criticized in the state and will have a negative impact on his campaign that already is deader in the water than an oil sheen. More positive action sooner by Melancon, such as in assisting the state in obtaining mitigation tools, might make this tantrum seem less self-serving.

Because apparently this represents a remarkable change of heart for Melancon, who a couple of weeks ago was telling national television reporters that the whole incident was being “overplayed” and who has shown little leadership in trying to deal with the looming crisis that threatens his current district more than any other. This seems particularly uncaring of Melancon, who otherwise seems so concerned about the environment that he is willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money and emit many greenhouse gases to get to the South Pole to get a review of the global warming issue and to send some mail.

Still, his faith in failing short-term memories of the public pales in comparison to that of MPERS, who sued BP’s board of directors for actions the MPERS board thinks were erroneous and neglectful. This charge if proven could mean the needless loss of several million dollars in market value for the BP stock that the fund that backs pensions holds.

However, if this is the standard by which MPERS decides to litigate, perhaps its board should sue itself. After all, it allowed a series of questionable investments to be made in assets that most anyone with common sense would not dare to have a pension fund get into, culminating in an ongoing legal investigation into the activities of its attorney and MPERS assets. One failed Texas golf course investment alone has it on the hook for much more than the decline in its BP stock, and it lately, even before the economic downturn, has been performing poorly in its overall investment activities.

Which is why it already faces at least one suit from one of its members over its investment activities and its poor performance is leading police departments around the state to have to pay much more into the system to compensate. Yet its decision to sue should not have been unexpected, as whenever it seems to suffer a big loss it does so, as in the case of the Texas golf course.

The pots of Melancon and MPERS in apportioning blame naturally miss the irony of their calling kettles black. Hopefully, the public and system-vested police officers will not and will make decisions about their abilities to exert power accordingly.

2.6.10

Chamber dispute pushes policy in desired direction

As the House and Senate Budget Stabilization Fund controversy continues, rather extensive and large silver linings become more apparent, almost leading one to wonder about the convenience of it all.

As noted, the chambers’ leaders are locked in a constitutional dispute about use of these funds of nearly $200 million which has lead to none of it being used for budgeting by the House Appropriations Committee. Thereby it appears the House has called the Senate’s bluff (at least in the version of its budget which other officials say incorrectly calculates federal money insertions that they say are fewer) and will completely refuse the use of these funds.

But at least four ramifications that well may produce policy congruent with the agendas of reformers and more fiscally conservative policy-makers may come about if the House leadership sticks to its guns and refuses to authorize releasing of the funds reflected in this budget. The most obvious and largely sought after by leaders of both chambers and Gov. Bobby Jindal is an unwise change to the Fund’s rules that would guarantee it could be used in fiscal year 2011-12 when money problems get even worse.

Additionally, some long-desired changes by many in Louisiana government could happen as a result of more enforced austerity. Originally designed to have no instructional costs cut, the House version now will whack another $50 million potentially out higher education. This move could spur changes dealing with what many have come to realize about the system: it is heavy in top administration with too much functional dispersion. This reduction may provide a bigger push for the reduction of governing boards and (obvious) merging of campuses which many policy-makers want but who at present cannot find the legislative supermajorities to pull them off.

Also, already started in process but especially with passage of federal legislation that will encourage lower quality health care at higher costs to consumers and taxpayers, the charity hospital model in Louisiana becomes increasingly untenable. As part of $68 million in contemplated cuts to health and hospitals, officials said this might cause (more accurately, hasten) the closure of an unnamed four of these hospitals. Although this might disrupt initially the care continuum, in the affected areas the medical community should have the capacity to absorb the formerly state-treated patients, especially as this will accelerate behavioral changes as a result of their inability to use emergency care as primary care to place greater emphasis on preventive care.

Finally, counterproductive corporate welfare may get eliminated as $55 million remaining in the Mega-Projects Fund will disappear. While the mandarins in charge of giving away taxpayer dollars to private concerns will yawp about how this means large employers are less likely to be lured into the state, it would put an end to the inefficient bribery scheme they employ that is empirically unproven to bring more benefits than costs (and its specific failures) and instead focus the task on economic development on the sounder principles of lower taxes, reduced regulation, and streamlined procedures.

Given the potential benefits of these outcomes, one wonders whether there’s more to the constitutional dispute than fidelity to principle. While House Speaker Jim Tucker has spoken against changing the procedures of using the Fund, by word and legislative deed he has shown sympathy for these other outcomes, and some other members of the House in particular have demonstrated much greater public enthusiasm for them. Constitutional questions to them may be a fortunate reason to create conditions that make these policy changes more necessary to sell over wider objections in the Senate and to other balky House members. It would be a happy if uncommon circumstance if adhering to the Constitution on the basis of principle simultaneously produces better politics through superior policy.

1.6.10

Obama leak response damages further Melancon

Some kind of unpredictable, chance event had to come out of nowhere to give Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon a chance to knock off incumbent Republican Sen. David Vitter this November, given the dynamics he faced. Lo and behold, one came – except it is going to have the entirely opposite fate of sealing Melancon’s defeat far more thoroughly than any efforts regarding containment to date of the blowout well in the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s not that event but rather the doings of the Democrat Melancon endorsed for president, winner Barack Obama, attached to the disaster that has made Melancon’s task (hard to imagine) even more difficult. As if Melancon did not have enough to fight off – co-partisan with Obama and a deeply unpopular Democrat Party, his own questionable votes and actions in office, facing a slightly vulnerable but well-positioned incumbent – now Obama’s response to the Apr. 20 accident, partly conditioned by his own ineffective response and failure to manage effectively an agency whose policies and procedures were lax and lacking, is to shut down Louisiana offshore drilling and place other onerous requirements on it.

While these proclamations may be red meat thrown to the know-nothings that infest much of the environmentalist movement and act to shore up that part of the disintegrating Obama electoral coalition, this overreaction – enhanced safety measures for existing and new drilling should take at a maximum no more than a few weeks, not six months, to implement – will cost Louisiana thousands of jobs in the short term and tens of thousands over the long haul. Relevant to government, a small but significant drop in revenues will occur for the state already struggling with budget concerns, may set back by years coastal restoration efforts, and for the foreseeable future trigger a large and significant revenue reduction for local governments around the Gulf.

Oil exploration and production operates on a lengthy timeline. Decisions are made that don’t bear fruit until years later (if they do), so to make operations minimal for months in the Gulf obviously not only drastically curtails economic activity – and government revenues from it – during that time but also well into the future as companies plan around that and shift activity to other areas that thus may induce little Gulf action for the next several years. This may impede Louisiana’s coastal restoration efforts since the federal law that begins to divert what was federal royalty money, especially that of new discoveries, to state coffers for preservation efforts begins in the next few years, and that activity may not be there as a result of this Obama order.

So now all of this gets hung around Melancon’s neck. Even though Melancon as a legislator has been more friendly than not to the oil industry, he cannot escape the fact that it is his guy that is doing this to Louisiana’s people, and his party that he helps keep in legislative power has been supporting measures like this even before the crisis. The blowback may be farther – Democrat present and potential candidates for the Third Congressional District, already considered underdogs, will suffer as this is the epicenter of the industry in the state, and even next year Democrats running for state offices around the coast may suffer.

But Melancon will feel it the worst. Running a campaign that, at best, has been on life support from the beginning, this is the last thing he needs, because it is the last thing the people of Louisiana need, being sacrificed on the altar of environmental correctness.

31.5.10

The Meaning of Memorial Day

This column publishes every Sunday through Thursday around noon U.S. Central Time (maybe even after sundown on busy days, or maybe before noon if things work out, or even sometimes on the weekend if there's big news) except whenever a significant national holiday falls on the Monday through Friday associated with the otherwise-usual publication on the previous day (unless it is Independence Day, Christmas, or New Year's Day when it is the day on which the holiday is observed by the U.S. government). In my opinion, there are six of these: Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans' Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and New Year's Day.

With Monday, May 31 being Memorial Day, I invite you to explore the link above.

30.5.10

Moreno win latest sign of interesting aberrant trend

Forget “Chocolate City” – New Orleans continues to become the Rainbow City as Helena Moreno knocked off James Perry to win the special election for House District 93.

In a city whose black population exceeds 60 percent, in a district where over half the registered voters are black, Moreno – born a non-citizen and who only moved into the district a few years ago – defeated Perry who was favored by most black establishment politicians and was the darling of the liberal establishment but perhaps better known for past profanity-implied commercials and a boatload of traffic tickets. To add injury to insult in a district that should have been a slam dunk for a black candidate, Moreno’s previous political experience was working for Hillary Clinton, her losing the Democrat nomination for the Second Congressional District in 2008 to disgraced former Rep. William Jefferson, and then endorsing (as did some other Democrats) present Republican Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao.

Cao, by the way, also was born a non-citizen and also is not black. Add to this mix the fact that a majority of the New Orleans City Council is composed of whites and so are city-/parish-wide officials Mayor Mitch Landrieu, District Attorney Leon Cannizaro, and (included for completeness sake, even if he was first elected before Moreno was born) Coroner Frank Minyard. Except for Minyard, all have been elected and the Council balance shifted since Hurricane Katrina power-washed the city.

This brings the larger question of whether some kind of post-racial political shift has occurred. It’s not nonpartisan, because among these folks only Cao is not a Democrat and he deserves his election to the scandal-tinged nature of Jefferson’s candidacy. It also might be a bit much to argue that demographic changes have produced this. Although much has been made about a several-point percentage drop in black population in Orleans, the fact is that from the 2004 presidential election to the 2010 mayoral contest the proportion of the electorate that is black has fallen only 1.5 percent, so that would seem to be a small amount on which to turn the fortunes of candidates.

Rather, this result seems to reinforce the idea that the reduced ability of black politicians to win office around Orleans where they have numerical majorities comes from the lack of cultivation of the quality of candidates that can win. A few reasons explain this, but they all stem from the enormous influence that personalistic politics plays in the process.

First, black politicians came to power with the assistance of political machines built around a handful of prominent figures. As these people have exited the political scene, because the organizations were more extensions of them than standalone operations, they have had difficulty in passing along organizational benefits to aid others in achieving election.

Second, a number of these founders and their associates have brought discredit to their groups and politics in general through activities that invited, sometimes successfully concluded, legal challenges for corruption. Jefferson’s travails aside, there has been controversy about former Mayor Marc Morial’s time in office, the recent imprisonment of former City Councilman Oliver Thomas, and, none of this being new, the antics of Sherman Copelin and others. This further impedes the organizations, with reduced resources from reduced stature due to their close connections to controversial figures, from being able to identify and to assist political talent.

Third, the success of former Mayor Ray Nagin came without an appeal to these machines, nor did he attempt to build one of his own. As a result, in terms of city government they were mostly on the sidelines in the reception of government preferments that could strengthen them.

Fourth, the hurricane disasters of 2005 and all the disruption they fomented clearly negatively impacted the groups’ ability to transmit political and electoral benefits to preferred candidates. The 93rd contest featured another serious candidate in former state Rep. Louis Charbonnet, but he couldn’t even make the runoff, and while Perry piled up endorsements the traffic ticket issue which Moreno said showed a disregard for the law and Perry’s response to it demonstrated he wasn’t ready for prime time. There just wasn’t enough political heft left to have this qu8ality of candidate beat out a semi-celebrity former television reporter that had shown some political acumen.

This being the cause that means the current conditions appear more aberrant than enduring. New Orleans black politics may be undergoing a transition era the system evolves away from the personalistic politics of the past that was in part a product of the past exclusion of blacks from elected office, towards leaders who are more adept in working with an open system with campaigns based less upon who recommends who and more on demonstrated ability or promise and more mass-based campaigning techniques. There are a number of younger black elected officials who with a little time and experience may revert the environment back to one where majority-black constituencies almost never will send anybody but a black politician to fulfill a political job.