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14.8.10

Marionneaux may get hoisted on his own populist petard

Any future political career for state Sen. Rob Marionneaux has gotten a whole lot more complicated as he finds the shoe may be now on his other potentially tainted foot.

Marionneaux, preparing to serve his last year in the Senate, is one of the dying breed of populists – economic liberals and social conservatives who rail against profitable large businesses or wealth on behalf of the “working man” – who, by definition, sometimes acts beneficially but often in ways detrimental to wise policy-making. For example, he’s favored such things as increased liberty for the most vulnerable in society with a comprehensive smoking ban and in greater education flexibility for families through tax credits. But he’s also wanted to increase taxes on the petrochemical industry that would kill Louisana jobs and be passed on to consumers and resisted tax cuts that disproportionately favored higher earners, among other things.

Yet one ideological consistency he has had has been with the issue of sunshine, or lack of it, on politicians. Famously, he wanted to banish the media from floor access to legislative chambers when the press reported about his and other politicians having preferential access to Louisiana State University athletic event tickets. He also has complained that new media are unfair because they report things he and other politicians say and do. It turns out there may be good reason why he wanted his activities to stay in the shadows.

The Louisiana Board of Ethics has forwarded to an Ethics Adjudication Board a complaint about Marionneaux that he did not report legal dealings with the state, a contingency-fee contract that could have resulted in an apparently huge payday for him. Few details have emerged because of the incomplete nature of the process and that almost all of the principals involved refuse to comment, Marionneaux included, but what public records requests have revealed is that officials at the heart of the matter on the other side of the case (Marionneaux was representing a corporation), from the LSU System and LSU, felt there was political pressure being exerted that they contended would settle the deal in a way very favorable monetarily for Marionneaux and expressed how he might use his position as a senator legislatively to make the potentially lucrative deal for him to happen.

Although the original case got settled in a way that apparently did not turn out as lucratively as it could have for Marionneaux, what makes it look worse for him is that he might well have been aware that it should have been reported. This past session, he succeeding in amending a bill to remove that reporting provision, which failed to pass the House, suggesting that might have been an impediment for him in any future dealings.

It will be months before this gets settled in this venue; whether additional criminal charges come may depend on that happening first. But if the communications among LSU officials are any indicator, it may go beyond just an ethics case. After a quarter century in academia on the instructing end, I can solemnly assure you that politics is so infused in the system that academicians can detect even the slightest hint of it and at the top its influence is omnipresent. If these guys perceived that somebody was trying to use his office as leverage, it’s a very real possibility that’s actually what was happening and providing a hypothetical reason as to why he did not report the activity.

None of this is good for Marionneaux’s political future, as he has before indicated ambitions in that regard after he leaves the Senate next year. Before Rep. Charlie Melancon stopped dithering and finally figured a longshot bid for the Senate was the optimal way to stay in elective office, Marionneaux had dropped hints that he would challenge as a Democrat incumbent Republican Sen. David Vitter (about whom he has in the Senate often not had complimentary things to say: here’s a milder example). He also may have the Public Service Commission in his sights as at one time he vied to become its executive secretary.

An adverse EAB ruling would not help in any possible future electoral endeavors. If it goes beyond that into a corruption trial, regardless of the outcome his chances for other elective offices are significantly impaired. And thus Marionneaux, who has railed about all these big interests trying illegitimately to exert power at the expense of the little man, may find that the Louisiana public assesses that his rhetoric would have come from a charlatan trying to use his own power and privilege to extract wealth from the state’s citizenry.

12.8.10

Tragedy does not deserve nanny state response

Your family and friends want to celebrate on a hot summer’s eve with the ability to cook outside and lounge around with cool drinks. About 20 of you head to a park but you all reject the areas with picnic tables and the like. Instead, you park in an area a bit distant from the river – because there is a ditch in the way built by the city (interestingly, only earlier that day) exactly to prevent vehicles from going to the riverbank. You then all lug your stuff to the riverbank through some foliage.

There, parents allow their children to play in the river in the visibly-moving current, despite the fact that not only can none of the children swim, but also none of the adults can. Unlike city parks with pools, there are no lifeguards, although a few other individuals are nearby. These non-swimmers bring a total of one life preserver, not worn by anybody but tossed out on the bank. And thus tragedy occurs when six youths drown.

Which brings up the question whether, in this instance, Shreveport bears any liability for the unfortunate event? It did occur offshore city property, within city boundaries, in an area not totally barricaded to prevent people from access.

But really to answer this, a question about whether common sense applies anymore must be addressed. Not only was the area difficult to reach, the city demonstrated there was hazard ahead by building the ditch. If something is relatively safe, it ought not to be difficult to access. And there’s little the city can do to tell people that if they can’t swim they shouldn’t be near enough any water to fall into it, no matter how shallow it might appear. Nor should it have to provide safety personnel on duty at every potentially hazardous spot that determined members of the public, despite the difficulty of getting to these places, might reach. To barricade the area would deny those who can swim, at their own risk, fishermen, etc. the use of this public property.

At best, Shreveport should put up some signs at various intervals in Hamel Park along the Red River stating there are no lifeguards present and that people swim at their own risk. But you just can’t legislate common sense, and to hold the state responsible for that aspects of our lives is the ultimate invitation for the institution of a nanny state that would strip us all of our autonomy as human beings. With freedom to act as we choose, we, not the state nor anything else, bear responsibility for our actions.

11.8.10

Using unneeded federal bucks may fiscally damage LA

The liberal dogmatists that run Washington (at least for another 143 days or so) have tossed another landmine Gov. Bobby Jindal’s way, creating for him potentially a difficult decision that could end up harming the state financially.

Another bailout has emanated from Democrats who don’t want to learn from their past mistakes, this one primarily addressing funding educator job provision (the bill doesn’t specify the money must go to classroom positions) and supplementing Medicaid expenditures in the states. But the biggest bailout attendant to it is for teachers’ unions, who get created potentially hundreds of thousands of positions where a percentage of those salaries will go to union dues, where these organizations will then pass on a significant portion of that to – guess who – Democrat candidates for office. And who said Democrats couldn’t find yet another way to reach into people’s pockets to try to perpetuate their rule?

It’s not the only usurpation of resources that the bill creates. By increasing taxes on corporations, that will have the effect of raising prices to consumers, and since the raise came related to outsourcing of jobs overseas, the discouragement of that will hike labor costs as well, promoting more higher prices in addition and greater working family distress. In turn, this kills jobs at home, just another day’s work for the Pres. Barack Obama Administration which has proven itself remarkably proficient in erasing jobs over its short lifetime.

Yet regarding Louisiana state finances, it puts Republican Jindal in a bind he first experienced a year-and-a-half ago when the first spending bill was passed. Then, the issue was over changes in the unemployment insurance program that would have forced the state to spend more money than necessary to qualify for a share in the spending bill, so Jindal declined nearly $100 million of that.

This time, it’s over the requirement in the law that its funds must supplement, not replace, state spending on education. Also, in each state, next year's spending on elementary and secondary education as a percentage of total state revenues must be equal to or greater than the previous year's level. Neighboring Mississippi already has determined these provisions would force it to spend $50 to $100 million extra in education that must be taken out of other areas in order to qualify for its $98 million.

With $147 million on the line, this could be tricky for Louisiana. Last year the state authorized (using schedules 19-653 through 19-699 of the operating budget bill HB 1) $5.58 billion for education out of $28.493 billion (revenues budgeted for 2010-11 including the funds if accepted, not the means of financing which include $1.42 billion in one-time state funds). Adding in both sets of money for the education and Medicaid parts of the spending bill produces an elementary and secondary education spending proportion of 20.1 percent.

But the big problem is the state’s one-time money pumped into this year’s budget that cannot be expected to be there next year. The latest revenue forecast for next year shows state revenues expected to go up $436 million but that leaves almost a billion-dollar gap – and keep in mind that $1.5 billion of state revenues this year were federal one-time dollars as well. Matching federal funds to that increased state revenue will offset some of that, but it’s not unlikely that the state will be in a revenue hole of some $2 billion.

By accepting the education additional money, Jindal would remove from the discretion of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and Legislature to change the Minimum Foundation Program formula to cut spending more than a 1:5 ratio compared to other state revenues. However, in reality the MFP likely would be kept at a standstill formula as it was this year, removing 60 percent or so of the current year spending in this area.

Now the other around $2.2 billion in non-MFP elementary and secondary education would be protected by the 1:5 ratio meaning cuts might not be as deep as necessity would dictate while other areas of the state budget of higher priority get cut, both because of the essentially absolutely protected MFP money – nudged higher by the $147 million – and somewhat protected other spending.

It also hamstrings the state in how to use increases in revenues, whether from its own resources or from more bailouts. Ironically, Louisiana’s problem is less grave than Mississippi’s because the latter shied away from non-recurring funding, magnifying the impact that a rise it its own revenues would force it to spend more on education by its funding acceptance as opposed to restoring cuts in other areas. Still, Louisiana faces the same choice for next year if on a lesser scale.

Jindal will have to balance whether pumping in an extra $147 million to education is worth the constraints he may face in dealing with the upcoming year’s serious budget difficulties. Especially trenchant to the decision is that education spending overall is about the same as last year yet statewide the public school system is in decline. For the 1999-2000 school year, average daily attendance was over 696,000 with 51,331 teachers and principals. In 2003-04, the respective numbers were over 668,000 and 51,383, and for 2007-08 they were over 605,000 and 47,360. In terms of spending, it’s gone from $3.335 billion to $3.829 billion to $5.341 billion over that time span. In terms of per pupil spending it’s gone from $4,792 to $5,732 to $8,828, in terms of per teacher/principal it’s been $64,970, $74,519, and $112,774, and all the while the educator/pupil ratio has dropped from 13.56 to 13 to 12.77. Why exactly do we need to inject more money into a system which in eight years has lost 13 percent of its students, whose costs on a per pupil or per educator ratio have gone up 84 and 74 percent, respectively, and who on a per pupil basis teach classes about 6 percent smaller?

Funding not exactly needed by schools versus hamstrung budgetary decisions for next year, that’s what Jindal has to figure out. In others, in what liberals may see as a big favor to Louisiana for education outside of political consideration to Louisianans may be no favor at all.

10.8.10

Prepare for issueless, dirty campaigns against Vitter

To overcome a huge polling lead enjoyed by incumbent Republican Sen. David Vitter, challengers such as Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon have to hope all of the dominoes fall correctly to win his Senate seat. A recent ruling shows that, so far, it’s not happening, although this shows no signs of altering their tactics.

The Federal Election Commission unanimously ruled that a complaint concerning the financing of Vitter’s campaign made by Democrats was without merit. They accused Vitter of colluding to obscure a campaign donation from another Republican they said was too embarrassed to want to give money directly to Vitter’s reelection effort.

Months ago this was the first public salvo of Democrats, whose objective is to aid Melancon, in their chosen strategy to try to defeat Vitter. Knowing that Vitter’s record was a much better fit with a majority of Louisianans, they hoped to steer the campaign away from discussion of issues and to make it about Vitter’s character. Trying to take advantage of Vitter’s 2007 admission that he had committed an unspecified “serious sin” believed to be linked to a prostitution ring, they wanted to produce a series of presumed incidents reflecting that Vitter behaved with a unethical pattern.

Since then, they also have questioned another campaign contribution, said Vitter is against laws to help rape victims, purloined the Great Seal of the United States, and charged him with deliberately wanting to keep employed a previously-convicted employee accused of battering a woman. To date, all of this has drawn a yawn from the public that seems more interested in the substantial policy differences between Vitter and Melancon and thereby continues to indicate may more will vote for Vitter in the fall.

The other complaint seems as meritless as the one just dismissed, few in the public know, care, or believe Melancon’s version of Vitter’s hiring practices, and the other incidents the public sees as trivial, silly, and/or desperate of Melancon. With the complaints frivolous, Melancon and Democrats can’t really campaign on the serious sin or staffer issue because to do so directly points out the poverty of issues in his campaign. He easily can be said to be avoiding issues and bringing up distracting, unproven matters that have nothing to do with the contest, preferring to campaign sleazily while Vitter takes the high road – a perception which would cost Melancon even more votes.

To compensate, Melancon and Democrats may be branching out in this strategy with the possible insertion of a stalking horse candidate, former Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor, into the Republican primary. Traylor, whose behavior that many might judge unethical itself that currently is the subject of lawsuits, in a candidate forum showed no hesitation to base almost his entire pitch that Vitter is “ineffective” because he has behaved unethically.

Never mind that, even if Vitter could be considered unethical, that some past politicians (the 42nd President who argued that “is” had a contingent meaning and was convicted of lying in court in a matter related to the performance of his presidential duties springs to mind) that earned this label were very effective. Still, that Traylor would take this route adds more fuel to the fire that he is indeed a Melancon plant, since he must know (as any competent political scientist who studies campaigns and elections can tell him) a heavily negative campaign about opponents’ characters almost never wins and only succeeds when the opponent has serious legal problems.

So this perhaps tells us the direction of Melancon’s campaign. It will continue to avoid issues and to obscure them whenever possible, relying on personal attacks, maybe through other surrogate candidates. In fact, it probably will ignore adverse evidence such as the FEC ruling altogether and keep repeating the same mantra about Vitter over and over again in the hopes that if you tell a story often enough, no matter how little credibility it has, it acquires an air of validity. Which means the Melancon organization may produce, in a state with plenty of such examples in the past, the dirtiest campaign in Louisiana’s history.