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10.6.10

Dishonest Melancon blames "killers" rather than self

Political issues are so only when there is disagreement about something. The reason the oil spill crisis and federal government reaction to it has become an electoral issue in Louisiana is that Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon, running for the job of and against Republican Sen. David Vitter, disputes Vitter’s opposition to any moratorium and, apparently unlike Vitter, sees oil companies as “killers.”

In a remarkably candid WWL-TV interview Melancon, badly trailing Vitter in the polls, said some remarkable things that, a few days later, at least one of which he’s now trying to repudiate. For example, while he made comments that parish leaders were generally satisfied with the response of the Pres. Barack Obama Administration, at least one of them – Plaquemines Parish Pres. Billy Nungesser – consistently has said and acted otherwise.

But the comment to which now Melancon desperately tries to crawfish from just a few days later is the one that he stated repeatedly during the interview, that he does support a moratorium on drilling – not a complete moratorium as Obama declared, but some kind nonetheless. Thus, it is entirely accurate to say he is a supporter of the moratorium applying as it does on this present day, as the Vitter campaign hyperbolically has pointed out.

Melancon’s two-faced attitude on this comes from the dictates of his campaign. He doesn’t want to chase away potential voters who will blame him for supporting any moratorium because of its economy-killing aspects in Louisiana, yet at the same time he needs to throw red meat to the rabid left which he cannot afford to have sit out the contest over lack of enthusiasm for him. Thus, he has harsh words for those companies that, in order to stay in business, plan on shifting rigs out of the Gulf during a moratorium: “You’re going to Nigeria because you don’t want to stand for inspections here, so you’re going to kill Nigerians and ruin their ocean, is that the deal?”

It’s a nice try at demagoguery, trying to blame the companies rather than himself for his support of a moratorium, but it just is not factual. All rigs were inspected in mid-May by the federal government and declared, with just a couple of minor issues, to be in compliance. It’s not inspections, it’s the economy, stupid. This and his sudden denials implying he is in all forms against a moratorium illustrates how Melancon tries to have it both ways in trying to win votes – neither honest.

As if this isn’t enough fakery to fill his days, Melancon’s campaign has taken to misrepresenting Vitter’s position on spill liability. Vitter supports efforts to cap liability of companies at a minimum of $150 million – twice the current maximum – and as high as the total of the four latest quarters of a company’s profits which is much higher, using the present BP case as an example, than legislation offered by long-time Democrats drilling opponents. Yet although a “cap” is defined as an upper limit, Melancon’s campaign has taken to equating Vitter’s support of a “cap,” no matter how high, to a “bailout” defined as “a rescue from financial distress” – two very different things.

That also begs the question of Melancon: by criticizing Vitter’s preference of even a high cap, does that mean Melancon doesn’t want any liability cap? That if a terrible accident occurs (keep in mind companies do not want one because of the liability concerns and loss in profits from being unable to get the oil) a whole company, the jobs it creates, and the added productivity to the economy it stimulates and the benefits it brings consumers, should be wiped out? Maybe this reflects an attitude of Melancon that does not see oil companies as contributors to wealth creation in society but rather as greedy “killers,” explaining his televised remarks?

The mendacity surrounding Melancon on this issue should be expected, with his Senate campaign going so poorly. Still, it’s disappointing to see him stoop so low.

9.6.10

Legislators do duty by preventing process tax bill vote

Predictably, SB 432 by state Sen. Rob Marionneaux went down in flaming defeat because it represents a stealth tax hike on hydrocarbon consumers and would kill jobs in Louisiana. But a related question serves as a reminder why we must trust very imperfect representatives and tolerate their many mistakes in search of good policy-making.

The bill would have taxed any hydrocarbon processing in the state, removing the severance tax on oil and gas extraction. However, it would have gone into effect, being a constitutional amendment, only after an affirmative vote by the people after gaining at least 26 votes in the Senate (it fell 20 short) and a two-thirds vote of the seated membership in the House. Thus, one argument made by supporter state Sen. Joe McPherson in its favor was to allow the people to make that kind of decision.

In a way, this was a bit disingenuous on his part. The procedure for a constitutional amendment, much stricter than obtaining a simple majority of the seated membership of each chamber and governor signature or successful override by two-thirds of the seated membership in each chamber of a veto, was created because the necessity a double majority – in essence, a supermajority of the people’s wishes indirectly and a majority of the people acting directly – would protect better the people from arbitrary and/or despotic rule.

However, it does not mean that the indirect part of the equation, the representatives of the people, should just on principle lay down and do whatever the people want. Passionate majorities not always are rational or informed and it is the job of the representative to use his own best judgment in legislating. If that means doing something that is not favored by a majority because the representative thinks it is unwise, then he must act against the will of the people. If they don’t like it, he can be recalled or thrown out of office at the next election.

Of course, this means some bad policy will emerge – look no further than the ruinous health care provision act passed by Democrats who disregarded the people’s correct understanding it would raise costs and lower quality as Democrats’ real goal with this bill was to consolidate power and grow government. Still, on the whole policy-making probably is better by having a representative democracy.

Marionneaux’s defeated bill provides a great example. Some in the Legislature are economic simpletons like McPherson – who proclaimed that (even as it doesn’t in real life) the “Texaco flag flies over this Capitol” – who may capture the vast economic ignorance that typifies the American public that can be exploited by demagoguery. Cooler legislative heads, instead of abrogating their duty, did the best thing for the people by not giving them a chance to sacrifice more of their resources in the name of bigger government on half-baked, discredited populism.

Certainly a lot of dumb decisions come from the Louisiana Legislature, and along with past governors to varying degrees it has been one of the bigger impediments to smaller government that works more efficiently and allows people to maximize freedom. But we need to applaud legislators when they do something in the people’s interests when the people themselves may not do what’s best, and the rejection of this noxious legislation provides just such an opportunity.

8.6.10

Political antics start now over fee increase revocation

With a decisive vote approaching today on SB 407, which would prohibit an increase in individual drivers’ license fees from $21.50 to $36.50, the final parameters defining the politics of the issue will emerge in a debate that has shirked investigating the real questions.


From the beginning, Sen. Joe McPherson’s bill got hijacked by politicians trying to use its passage as a vehicle for one or more of asserting legislative independence, showing they “care” about constituents some of which would be asked to pay an intolerable almost a penny a day in extra costs, and angling to count coup on Gov. Bobby Jindal whose subordinates used their authority with his assent to raise the fee beginning Mar. 8. Conspicuously absent has been any rational discussion about the costs associated with the fee, its larger place in the funding of public safety measures, and the efficiency and scope of the operations of the state’s Department of Public Safety.


Bereft of any meaningful serious judgment of its merits or demerits, as a result it boils down to this: many legislators derive political benefit from its passage for those reasons while Jindal will not. At that point, either Jindal must submit and sign it into law which makes him look like he permitted subordinates to do something wrong in the first place and create a budget hole for him to have to address or can resist further with a veto that would not admit culpability. Yet the latter may dig a deeper hole for him in negative reputation if that gets overridden, producing the same result but with more embarrassment.


Intriguingly, the Legislature has left unaddressed in all of this the $13.6 million budget hole to appear with the bill’s enactment. Its current work on the state’s operating budget, HB 1 which must be in balance, makes no provision to remove that revenue and slice that amount. But a House amendment tacked on with its 90-7 passage yesterday tries to ensure that Jindal won’t foist blame on legislators by dealing with the deficit through closing district offices of DPS by saying he needs to do so to save money because of the bill.


This maneuver added another step to the process, Senate concurrence which seems likely. In doing so, this would add a day to its journey and puts it right at the limit to get the bill to Jindal and force a decision before the session ends Jun. 21; the governor must return a bill if vetoed within 12 days of his receipt if the Legislature gave it to him with more than 10 days left in an non-adjourned session.


While the House passed it well above the two-thirds margin needed to override a veto, the Senate about a month ago passed it just above the majority. However, 11 did not vote on that occasion so the five extra votes to get to 26 of 39 favoring are probably there. Still, this was without the House provision which could cost some Senate votes over budget concerns.


Given these dynamics, probably the best outcome for which Jindal can hope is 25 or fewer senators to pass; it seems unlikely that anything but concurrence will occur because that would stall the bill too long for a regular session override attempt to happen if needed. This would increase his confidence that a veto would stick and make it more likely to come. If a few more than that, he still might try it after doing some arm-twisting in the senior chamber to discourage an override.


Yet if many more, Jindal may have to suck it up and sign. But if nothing else is done about the budget to allow the created hole to stay – or even if it is dealt with –

there’s one more thing he can do to salvage something politically. Whether the hole exists, he can use his line item veto power to knock out member’s favored amendments to the tune of about $13.6 million, as presently around $11 million of these requests are present and the Senate will add significantly more.


Not every legislator has been able to plug a district project into HB 1 and some of them will have opposed SB 407. Regardless, enough should be there for Jindal to claim he is making these vetoes either to balance the budget or for some higher cause, such as getting money released now to parishes to fight oil spills, to cushion for hard times ahead, or things like that. Thus, Jindal would make legislators pay a political cost for complicating his life and making him look like a heavy.


This would dare the Legislature to come back for a veto session to undo his potentially dozens of vetoes – a staredown he is likely to win. Imagine public reaction to legislators adding hundreds of thousands of dollars of costs to a strapped state to allow them to approve of “pork” and “slush.” Especially if only some legislators’ projects got cut – maybe longtime antagonists of Jindal’s – getting a majority to call for such a session might be difficult. Perhaps even as I type this, communiqu├ęs emanate from the fourth floor of the Capitol to select senators outlining such a scenario to head off the bill even getting this far.


Since the Legislature never took up the serious aspects of the issue, on it now we can sit back and watch the circus-like political antics take the center ring over the next two weeks, and lament the lost opportunity for a real debate.

7.6.10

Forgoing money doesn't mean not pursuing reforms

As did many school districts in Louisiana in the first round of selection, both Bossier and Caddo opted out of joining in the state’s application for the federal Race to the Top program this time also. If that wasn’t a mistake, then not emulating it surely is.

The program would rain extra money upon participating states, of which Louisiana is considered a likely recipient. The dollar amount depends upon many things, but it is not unreasonable that the state could receive, given predicted participation, around $175 million from it, half of which would go to the districts themselves, meaning Bossier and Caddo probably turned away at least $10-20 million for next year and possibly three additional.

The state's three largest districts chose to go for it, with Caddo being the largest not to and Bossier the fourth largest not to. Caddo, ranked 43rd (of 69) in accountability, was the tenth lowest not to buy in, while Bossier, ranked 15th, had only two higher-ranking districts opt in. Tellingly, 74 of the state’s 77 charter schools are all in – including both Shreveport schools that this year became charter schools after Caddo did not have what it took to improve them sufficiently. The program objectives are enhancing standards and assessments, improving the collection and use of data, increasing teacher effectiveness and achieving equity in teacher distribution and turning around struggling schools.

Bossier declined first at the end of last year, voicing their concern that it would have to continue to pay for programs funded by this money after the four years were up. While money for general district improvement was available, given the lack of struggling schools in the district its School Board believed the improvement funds were not enough and with too many strings to justify taking them.

Caddo chose not to apply just before the deadline about a month later. A sentiment pushed by Superintendant Gerald Dawkins, it stated the requirements were too nebulous, despite assertions by state Superintendant Paul Pastorek to the contrary, and that a specific one in particular, tying half of teacher evaluations to growth in student achievement, was too obnoxious.

The latter complaint especially and obviously had drawn the ire of both local teachers unions the Caddo Association of Educators and the Caddo Federation of Teachers, despite the fact that in the case of the latter the state organization had endorsed it. The Bossier Association of Educators followed the lead of its state organization also and had been against applying, while the School Board there mimicked the objection from its state association concerning future financing.

While these criticisms may merit turning down this particular program, in no way do they invalidate the ideas behind it. As was pointed out previously by Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Chas Roemer, the reforms being talked of as part of Race to the Top are ones that can be done anyway by the state or by districts. Further, many of them would cost little to nothing, so lack of funds that could have come from the federal government really is no obstacle to implementing these.

Perhaps the single most valuable innovation was the very one cited by Caddo as foundering its potential bid, changes in evaluating teachers so they depend upon not things like how many years one has been in the system, how neatly arranged their lesson plans are, or how friendly they are with the principal, but on actual merit. And merit is best measured by how much the teachers know about the subjects they teach and how much the students they teach know.

This was why the local unions so bitterly resisted the program, as well as many in the education establishment. They don’t want these evaluation measures to expose how inadequate are some teachers in subject area knowledge, or how other agendas get in the way of the extra work some would have to put in or the imposition of increased discipline many want that are necessary to improve things. While Louisiana’s accountability program has made some strides in forcing higher expectations that demand more of (and thereby create more work of and require greater knowledge from) teachers, evaluating their employment status and pay on subject area testing and student achievement will complete the process.

These are the kinds of things that Bossier and Caddo could do on their own – if majorities of their boards truly wanted to do the hard political work to overcome the inertia of the unions, bureaucracy, and attitudes of those like Dawkins who disgracefully resisted the state’s takeover of the two failed schools that allowed them to become charter schools and angled to put obstacles in the way of their independent success. That’s because he and several board members fear that the charter schools – unafraid to take this money because they already are implementing many of the suggestions drawn up by the state to qualify for the money – will show up the district by turning these schools around through doing things such as putting children’s outcomes ahead of politics when it comes to teacher quality.

Just because the money isn’t taken – now or through reapplication – doesn’t mean the ideas behind it shouldn’t be implemented, especially regarding teacher evaluation. Watered-down legislation is churning forward to make this easier. School board members who are true advocates of quality education and seriously desire it must step up to make that happen.

6.6.10

Hypocrisy, demagoguery swamp real fee hike issue


Look no further than the continuing soap opera concerning a hike in drivers’ license fees for individuals from $21.50 to $36.50 over a four year period for an example of how political considerations overwhelm clear thinking, distract rather than seriously debate true issues, and promote demagoguery instead of genuine leadership and governance.

A 1989 law gave the state the ability to raise the fee at any time and it did at that time for some kinds of licenses. But it didn’t for over two decades for individual ones, and only in February did the Department of Public Safety announce it was going to do so. It took about a month for that to hit the collective consciousness of state legislators and the public, right before the increase went into effect, and many expressed disappointment.

For some state legislators, outrage better described their reactions. Of them, in some cases the fee increase alone was obnoxious enough. This should have been the most important issue all along, whether the activities of the department justified the increased fee, and, if not, the question then framed as whether the excess should be used to fund other areas of state government and/or increased activities of the department.