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26.8.10

Disappointing shill for Traylor eats crow, won't admit it

If you want to see a stupendous exercise in eating political crow and trying to pretend you aren’t throughout, look no further than the latest column in the Ouachita Citizen (among other newspapers) from its publisher, Sam Hanna, Jr.

When former Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor made his surprise, last-minute into the Republican Senate primary, those with good political instincts immediately knew something was fishy. Apparently there had been little in the way of planning and fundraising just six weeks out from the election against incumbent Sen. David Vitter with whom he shared most views riding high in the polls with millions in funding to draw upon. What made this decision more curious than a longing to engage some quixotic, longshot attempt was Traylor himself was carrying around some questionable ethical baggage that, even if legally it got resolved in his favor, this would not occur until well after the election and the unfavorable publicity that would result gave him no chance to win. To the world, it looked like Traylor was presenting himself as a stalking horse for Vitter’s assumed Democrat opponent Rep. Charlie Melancon, with the goal of having Traylor sling as much mud as possible in the interval to allow Melancon to do the same later. (Subsequent campaign filings have added more confirmation to this hypothesis.)

But Hanna’s newspapers seemingly disregarded the obvious and, for whatever reason, went all in with Traylor, endorsing him in part because they called Vitter a liability and lauded Traylor’s personal comportment. Then the legal troubles of Traylor – which surely were known by Hanna as many connected to the political world in that part of the state knew – surfaced to a wider audience and all independent polls showed Traylor massively behind Vitter. This did not discourage the Hanna newspapers; on the contrary, they doubled down by publishing results from a Traylor campaign push poll (reminiscent of what Gannett News Services allowed from the Melancon campaign earlier) showing Traylor within striking distance.

25.8.10

Political defeat on funds should not deter LA reform

So, Louisiana gets the shaft again in the federal government’s Race to the Top program. Why speaks volumes not so much about the quality of the application, but the politics inherent in educational policy that precisely is what reform in Louisiana and elsewhere slowly have been trying to wring from the system.

When reviewing the list of winners against those that did not score – Louisiana finished 13th of 17, actually lower than in the first round, and only the top 10 got money allocated in varying amounts – one might be tempted to wonder whether electoral politics made a difference. Almost all of the winning states were solidly Democrat or swing states where this fall Democrats could use some help as will Pres. Barack Obama for 2012. But Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made no modifications to the list submitted by external reviewers, for which he could have been accused of manipulation for political purposes (even if the list as produced largely served these kinds of purposes) – although it could be argued that Duncan overruling could have improved matters, given his reform credentials.

Unfortunately, much of the educational establishment does not share that outlook. More accurately, the list reflected the political views prevalent within the educational establishment, which are against ideas such as testing for teacher subject competence or linking teacher evaluations to student performance, and for union and local district seals of approvals, groups that generally oppose these reforms. Duncan tried to put a brave face on this fact of life, saying union failure to buy in did not cost states like Louisiana and Colorado (both of whom have aggressively moved forward in liking evaluation to performance), but wide disparity in reviewers’ scores (reported but the details not yet released; see here for the disparity noted in the first round) for the same applications often attributed to lower scores where there was not widespread union and district approval. (Factors extraneous to the ideas in the applications, like grant-writing skill, also played a part).

But, practically speaking, this should not alter the reform agenda Louisiana has been pursuing. Fewer dollars may mean slower implementation, but sufficient (if not as much desired for truly revolutionary change) impetus remains to continue reversing the lax state of Louisiana’s elementary and secondary educational system. Supporters of mediocrity (generally, the in-state opponents of the state’s application) will try to use this defeat as a way to halt momentum, but the supporters of improvement must not let this flag their wills to follow their agenda to give Louisiana children the education they deserve.

24.8.10

Combining LA retirement systems could reduce abuse

As state officials close in on a public contractor allegedly the perpetrator of several illegal acts regarding retirement funds for state and local employees, the spotlight should shift to the fragmented structure of the retirement system in Louisiana that creates the potential for this kind of abuse and needlessly reduces investment returns.

Randy Zinna has served in an executive director capacity, by contract, for three of Louisiana’s 33 retirement systems for state and local government employees. The state’s inspector general has forwarded a report indicating that legal action should be undertaken against him for some of his dealings with the systems’ funds. He first came under suspicion when the Municipal Police Employees Retirement System, sensitized by a number of bad investments its board authorized (documented here), began scrutinizing his cash flow activities over many years.

But the ability for this presumed abuse of public trust and funds was multiplied because of the large number of retirement funds, each with their own governing board, in the state. There are 16 for state and, collectively, parish employees while another 17 are run by individual municipalities or parishes. Together, they make Louisiana ranked 15th of all the states plus the District of Columbia in number of systems, but most states ranked higher have higher populations. Only Arkansas, Colorado, and West Virginia have smaller populations with more systems, and several states around Louisiana’s population have many fewer, such as Alabama (11), Arizona (7), Iowa (9), Mississippi (4), Nebraska (13), Oklahoma (12), and Oregon (4). Some very highly populated states such as New York and Ohio have few, while Maine and Hawai’i have just a single system covering everybody.

By having so many systems, each with their own separate board of appointees by state or local elected officials (and typically a representative of the retirees and of current employees covered elected by the members), that creates a lot of inexpert individuals entrusted with governing who thereby lean heavily on those that in most instances serve as executive directors on a contractual, part-time basis. Consolidation of these into a few or even only one system would increase the breadth of experience of board members that should improve their governance decisions, and necessitate the hiring of full-time, professional directors (such as Louisiana’s largest systems have now) who would not have private sector conflicts with their duties.

Besides strengthening the integrity of the systems, combination of systems also would reduce the investment risk each of the smaller system now face. With smaller amounts of money invested through each, the impact of a single bad investment magnifies. Pooling funds would increase diversification which over time would reduce poor performances, an especially trenchant consideration given their tremendous collective unfunded accrued liability in the $14 billion range that must be completely eliminated within the next two decades. Also, duplicative expenses could be eliminated, bringing scales of efficiency to the systems’ management and saving retiree and/or taxpayer dollars.

However, don’t hold your breath on this one. Elected officials like having so many boards to which to make patronage appointments, and the board members themselves get the chance to puff out their chests through their service even as they invest in a string of failing golf courses. Even though logic is on the side of consolidation, political courage is scarce in the Legislature to make this change so the system is likely is to continue creaking along inefficiently with more potential for abuse and poor decision-making that should not be tolerated.

23.8.10

LA GOP dismisses own laudatory role by rejection

And the futile rehash of the end of the closed primary for elections to Congress wasn’t the only thing interesting that Louisiana’s Republican State Central Committee tackled last weekend to disrupt the typically low relevance of these kinds of meetings. It also addressed whether it should issue some kind of request for official commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War as another round of Confederate History Month.

All right, this is not the weightiest activity a party governance board could address, but in some ways it’s even more interesting than the primary debate. As noted elsewhere, this effort creates an interesting juxtaposition between laudable aspects of existence the rebel regime, such as a willingness to defend against perceived tyranny, and the inconvenient fact (no matter how much deniers and revisionists attempt to obscure this) that its essential nature first and foremost was shaped by its support of a great evil, slavery.

But as is typical in the debate over whether April as Confederate History Month ought to be used as a time to study and reflect about the conflict – past governors as well as black mayors find no problem in proclaiming this – arguments on both sides turn out shallow and uninformed. Thus the main objection at the meeting in question to the motion to issue was that it was a “racist” issue that would draw unfavorable media coverage.

One wonders whether the hapless official that made this remark even knows the history of his own political party. The Republican Party, in essence, started out as a single-issue interest group supporting abolition of slavery of blacks that organized itself into a political party. Its rapid ascent to power (aided by discord among Democrats) was the last straw to pro-slavery (most) Southerners who decided preemptively to try to leave the Union and was reviled by the Confederacy. The South’s hatred of the party intensified when after the failed rebellion the federal government, controlled by the party, imposed measures such as equality and freedom for ex-slave blacks. When federal troops withdrew and Southern states took on their own affairs, in only a few years Republicans lost all political power they had and blacks lost protection of most of their political and economic rights.

If there is any institution in America that could call for study and reflection of the Confederacy’s impact on American history without any misinterpretation of its motives, it would be the one that was most instrumental in combating the Confederacy’s institutionalized racism, the Republican Party. Thus, objecting to such a motion on the basis that the party which sacrificed much to end slavery and to bring full citizenship to blacks would look “racist” in advocating study of that very process and era simply is absurd, and demonstrates again the muddled thinking that often accompanies this issue.

22.8.10

Govt accountability suffers in politician-centered LA

Usually, state central committee meetings of political parties feature internecine quibbles. But the recent meeting of Louisiana Republicans actually brought some fascinating policy quarrels to the surface.

One came with the body’s declaration that for federal elections to Congress the state should repeal its intent to return to the blanket primary system for the 2012 cycle and retain a form of the closed primary. The motion correctly noted that to the party, and to any political party for that matter with its sympathizers, the system encourages those with Republican sympathies to identify as such. A quick trip through the political science literature tells you those who make the psychological commitment to identifying with a political party in a tangible way such as by registering as a member for voting purposes are much likelier voters for the party’s candidates. The blanket primary system, which does not force people to identify with a particular party to vote for its candidates in primary elections, discourages the making of this psychological commitment.

This produces a more accountable set of politicians, because party becomes a more meaningful cue for voters who then expect those elected under those labels to follow policy preferences articulated by the party. It discourages personalistic kinds of politics, which emphasizes focusing on the politicians’ ability to relate to enough voters rather than on issues, obscuring the latter – which is what the blanket primary system accentuates. Particularly for the GOP at this time the switch would be helpful, since so many no-party and Democrat-registered folks regularly vote Republican.

Unfortunately for them, many of their elected officials disregard party fortunes for their own. Many state legislators grappling with term limits look to move up to national office, and figure if they got into state office through the blanket primary system, their chances are maximized if the same system applies for higher office. Also, they prefer a system which emphasizes personalistic politics precisely because it is easier to hide votes and actions dealing with policy from the electorate. This is why so many voted to scrap the closed primary system after so short a period.

These primary motives nakedly were revealed because what the party suggested in its motion already had been forwarded in the Legislature this year by Republican state Rep. Cameron Henry. Critics tried to hide these motives by saying it was all about cost, as the current system caused as many as three elections to occur while the blanket primary produced a maximum of just two. But Henry’s bill would have kept closed primaries with two elections by eliminating the runoff election for the nomination – as is the case in most states. It would have saved the same amount of money, but the bill was shelved quickly, thus proving ambition more than a willingness to be accountable to the citizenry really drove supporters’ considerations (that and some outright dishonesty on the floor).

Also wanting was former state Rep. Peppi Bruneau’s defense of the blanket primary system in saying that it was what helped the party grow in the number of officials elected to the Legislature. Bruneau – who when the blanket system first started began his legislative career as an independent who are the people who most benefit from that system – does not know his comparative electoral history. While Republicans began to get elected slowly but surely, then with a more rapid increase within the last decade, their rates of increase in Louisiana actually were slower than in other southern states, precisely because the electoral system did not punish candidates who claimed they were conservative who ran as Democrats by putting them into primaries with more liberal electorates. Rather than encourage Republican officeholders, it retarded their numbers.

The motion was long overdue and one wonders where it was months ago when the Henry’s failed bill and the dissembling state Rep. Hunter Greene’s bill that succeeded lay pre-filed for the session. Perhaps more vocal complaints (only late in the process did the party’s chairman, current Lt. Gov. candidate Roger Villere express disapproval) then might have derailed the effort or channeled it into Henry’s bill. It’s now too little, too late, as for reasons above it will not be revisited in the Legislature, but this action serves as a useful reminder how politician-centered politics dies hard in Louisiana – to the detriment of government accountability.