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21.10.10

Half of 10 proposed amendments merit approval

Out of over-eagerness and/or because it’s a bloated document, the Legislature has made it time again to contemplate numerous changes to the Louisiana Constitution, after voters approved two of them in October. Several deserve passage.

#1 would prevent legislators from giving themselves pay raises during their current terms. One could argue the political process can take care of this, as it did in 2008 when heavy public opposition to a more-than-doubling drew a gubernatorial veto. But if we are to consider the Constitution as a recitation of basic core principles by which to organize government, limit its power, and to enumerate the rights of the people, a fundamental rule should be that officials cannot enrich themselves while in office. The amendment is consistent with this belief.

#2 would allow more severance tax revenues to be retained by parishes that earn them; the current cap means some must forward the bulk of theirs to the state even as the activity to produce oil and gas resources places greater infrastructure and regulatory demand on parishes. The amendment would put half of the new additional funds towards roads projects. Even if increased economic activity brings other revenue benefits, it’s unlikely in most cases that they compensate for increase capital needs, so an affirmative vote is in order to shift these funds from the state to local governments.

20.10.10

Shreveport legal contracting invites too much abuse

An issue hardly heard about in the campaigns for city offices in Shreveport, particularly relevant to the mayor's contest, concerns contracting for legal services by the city. It’s not so much that lawyers give money and may get city contracts in return, it’s the necessity or desirability of having those contracts in the first place.

Shreveport’s always been known as a soft touch when it comes to extracting money from it by way of lawsuit, but that might actually be improving. Sued 3,673 between 2005 and 2009, the rate has dropped in that period from 736 in 2005 to 293 in 2009. (These figures are reported by the Shreveport Times, which would seem to imply that 2,644 suits were filed between 2006-2008, seeming somewhat inconsistent with this pair of separately reported annual totals. Also, The TimesDatacenter” lists only 520 cases during these years that were initiated and/or concluded.) Of these, three-eighths resulted in payouts of around $12.1 million with many still pending.

While it would seem this is progress in reducing the perception that Shreveport is a slot machine willing to pay off, it paid out $8 million to outside counsel over that period, Many governments use outside counsel sparingly in these situations, which are in addition to the roughly (using budgeted 2010 figures) $1.1 million allocated to the City Attorney’s office (which also handles suits the city itself initiates). Fortunately, this cost also has been coming down from $2 million in 2005 to $1.2 million in 2009. This would call into question -- $20 million paid out in five years for cases dealt with outside counsel – whether it’s a cost effective practice.

Actually, it’s not that big of a deal that contract winners over that time span – in a couple of cases, going over a million dollars – gave money to politicians. For example, former city attorney and Caddo Parish Attorney Dannye Malone’s firm has given political candidates in that time $9,300 while he got $1.2 million from city contracts. If it were as simple as that, any moderately successful lawyer in town could get his hands on that kind of scratch in an instant and pay to play.

(The Times reported only those amounts traceable to a firm or firm’s principles, which doesn’t mean other firm lawyers didn’t contribute nor family members of firm principles and members didn’t contribute. Still, the state’s campaign finance laws limit maximum donation per election per candidate to $2,500 for mayor and $1,000 for city council, so that tends to dampen the role money could play.)

Really what determines the distribution of this kind of work is part competence, but part political allegiance and familiarity. In the case of Malone, for example, his longtime political appointments not only give him familiarity with the areas of law in question, but with the people and political forces involved, giving him quite a leg up for any business. Also note that there are checks and balances, such as review committees and City Council approval for contracts.

So you could buy all the arguments supporting the notion of extensive outsourcing of city legal work – these lawyers do an effective job, campaign contributions don’t influence such decisions, it costs about the same as if it were in-house, checks and balances apply – but that still leaves two considerations that support drastically downsizing this Shreveport tendency.

One, favorites do get played. Only those lawyers with some political connections and whose firms are large enough to handle the business get the work. There’s nothing illegal or sinister about this and they may provide great service, but it does point out that not many in the private sector will get the chance to be part of this. It’s bad policy to have government picking and choosing select beneficiaries of taxpayer largesse, even when they work for it, when it could be done just as well, by all indications, by city legal staff. After all, most of these cases do not involve esoteric areas of law.

Two, the campaign connection may be the reverse. That is, some firms and lawyers may feel they have to contribute in order to play so it would really be more politicians than lawyers benefitting from this system. It’s a bit disconcerting, for example, that in less than four years current Mayor Cedric Glover has gotten almost twice as much in identifiable contributions from firms and individuals that got city business than did his predecessor Keith Hightower for eight years when under Hightower much more was being contracted out. Glover also got nearly as much from lawyers and firms that did not get city contracts, but perhaps they felt they should give to have a chance to get a job.

This is not to say Glover is going out strong-arming lawyers presenting them visions of letting contracts to cough up campaign cash for him. But an implicit and subconscious thought encouraged by the existing situation may entice those wanting city business to fork it over to Glover and anybody else they think might help them land business, without a word ever spoken by any party. It’s a potential money pipeline that ought not to be there for politicians.

For these two reasons, widespread contracting of legal services for Shreveport neither is advisable nor justifiable. Hire more city attorneys if necessary, but leave contracting only to the most unusual or arcane instances where legal expertise is needed.

19.10.10

Legislators whine, do nothing about losing their pork

After a hint that they actually were growing a spine, the gutless wonders that comprise the Legislature’s Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget reasserted their worm-like backbones by using their positions to complain rather that do something substantive and helpful.

The reversion to form occurred in discussion over an over-funded capital outlay budget, pending mail ballots’ counting due today some $30 million over the $320 million limit. The over-budgeted money comes courtesy of a request to find money to fully fund building needs to entice a steel plant to locate in the state, a move fueled by generous state gifts to the company.

Ignoring the larger question of whether the state ought to be in the business of paying hundreds of millions of dollars to bribe specific businesses to locate here rather than cutting taxes to assist the general business climate to attract them here, the additional money had been left out of the current year request when the Legislature put in just enough requests and no more to claim the $320 million available. This was a departure from past practice, where far more in requests were put in, forcing the State Bond Commission to pick and choose which projects could get funded. In practice, this meant that, since the Commission had a majority of gubernatorial picks and allies sitting on it, the governor’s parameters would be followed by it in this choosing.

The highly unusual discipline displayed by the Legislature, however, would have negated this gubernatorial influence until the additional money was requested by the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration. With it, officials outlined which $30 million of projects would be asked to be moved out of this year’s spending, which they said was based upon criteria of significance of the money in significantly moving the project forward, cutting funds that did not seem to accomplish that.

The JLCB gets an opportunity to forward its own recommendations in this instance, even though it is unlikely they would be followed by the Commission if they differed from the governor’s. Still, the responsible thing to do would be to forward such alternatives if they differed with arguments as to why their list merits approval, demonstrating a seriousness of purpose in the provision of quality governance.

Instead, we got the usual irresponsible whining and moaning mainly centered on how pet projects of individual legislators bore the brunt of the cuts, with no recommendations forthcoming from the JLCB. They particularly got put off by being reminded that the distribution of cuts happened because of their time-honored strategy of trying to force enough money through in a budget year for partial funding of a project that then essentially mandates its future funding.

This got up the dander of state Rep. Hunter Greene, acting as if the proverbial wall being talked to, who said “It’s hard for me to swallow the premise that we created the problem,” and claimed he was a victim of “miscommunication” because he thought each chamber would get $15 million for pet projects out of the capital outlay bill. Of course, if local governments would pay for their own projects – which they easily can do if they are responsible stewards of local taxpayer dollars – you wouldn’t have these requests to be cut in the first place.

Understand that legislators’ animus on this came from the removal of their insertion of such projects to boost their reelection chances which has nothing to do with actual needs and priorities for state taxpayer dollars. It was only the first step in reform to cue up for spending only as much as you have. The next step is to make sure those dollars are spent only on genuine state needs, but there are too many legislators who think government’s purpose is to share the wealth in a way to keep them in office. Because of these hogs at the trough, don’t hold your breath on this changing any time soon.

18.10.10

Fayard pursues politics as usual by objecting to facts

Republican Sec. of State Jay Dardenne, running in the special election for lieutenant governor, did not need in his campaigning to “attack” his opponent Democrat attorney Caroline Fayard, nor did he “attack” her, yet the media narrative has become that he has “attacked” her. Why?

Dardenne has almost everything going for him in this contest: name recognition, the right party label in this election cycle, a demonstrated willingness for voters (in the primary) to prefer the GOP label that produced a majority of the vote, and plenty of funding. About the only thing not in his favor is with distrust of government at high levels, some voters are prejudiced against those already in office whereas Fayard, not having run for elective office, can present herself as “untainted” and also as a blank slate to voters reminiscent of Pres. Barack Obama’s campaign of two years past.

With these dynamics, typically a front-runner like Dardenne need not delve into the presumed personal shortcomings of an opponent and can concentrate just on his qualities he brings to the job. However, Dardenne has chosen to runs an ad that refuses to give Fayard a clear field in presenting a defined image of her choice to voters. In it he points out some liberal issue preferences of hers, that much of her support comes from trial lawyers, that she has been a consistent donor to liberal Democrats, and that she has been aided and assisted by them in the campaign, asserting that her loyalties are more to national Democrats than to Louisiana’s values.

Fayard has taken umbrage at the commercial – even though it is all factual and consistent. In high dudgeon, she claims it is an “attack,” and others in the media have parroted that assessment. But as the Dardenne campaign has pointed out, it’s simply a recitation of qualities about her and her campaign – her “record” of political life. Certainly there has been extensive discussion of Dardenne’s history in office, which Dardenne claims to some extent has been distorted, by opponents for the office and from elsewhere, so it’s entirely legitimate that he should draw distinctions to help better educate voters on the differences between the two (where in other ads he touts his record, by contrast).

It’s telling that Fayard tries to delegitimize the tactic and message to distract votes from its content and reminds us of the quandary Democrats in Louisiana have faced in the past two decades. Knowing that the Democrat and especially liberal label increasingly have become unpopular to voters, they try to present themselves as one thing when their attitudes and behavior would suggest another. Fayard, for all her protestations that Dardenne’s tactics are indicative of the “same old,” is herself trying to follow the “same old” liberal Democrat playbook in the state.

If to the majority of Louisiana voters liberal Democrats and the views they push are dogs (yellow, blue, or any color), since Fayard lay down with dogs, she’s going to get their fleas. Crying foul (and backed in this by her allies) when her opponent points out that reaffirms that her campaign is less about getting new blood into office and more about trying to fool the electorate – the very impetus to turning an electorate feeling deceived in the past two years so decisively against Democrats this election cycle.

17.10.10

Media need backup for accurate Senate comparisons

The mainstream media have their purposes, but one of their chief shortcomings is they cannot, given their level of expertise and space/time constraints, present more than a superficial if even accurate picture of issues of the day. That’s why columns like this exist and prove useful in the instance of evaluating the different issue preferences of Louisiana’s major 2010 Senate candidates.

One look at historical voting records for both incumbent Republican Sen. David Vitter and challenger Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon immediately tells you there’s a big difference: according to the American Conservative Union’s voting scorecard, Vitter is a strong conservative at about 94 lifetime (100 in 2009) while Melancon is a moderate liberal at about 42 lifetime (27 in 2009). But it’s also evident on individual issues from the past couple of years.

The Troubled Asset Relief Program has gotten a number of politicians in trouble this election cycle, and rightly so. Designed to infuse taxpayer dollars into the financial system through government ownership to provide short-term fiscal relief to private sector entities, the $700 billion program (curtailed slightly with recent legislation) in its pessimistic scenario will lose $105 billion; in its most optimistic, it may break even. Unfortunately, it provided an uneven short-term fix at the expense of long-term concerns. It merely kicked the can down the road regarding those weak assets that threatens to create an additional debt crisis through necessity of refinancing so much short-term debt designed to fund the program at higher rates and also because debt deleveraging of the weak assets has not nearly run its course because of the jobless recovery it has helped to create. Melancon voted for it; Vitter voted against it and was one of its sharpest critics.

Somewhat of a successor to TARP was a recent bill that would infuse $30 billion into the banking system for loans, to small business, along with $12 billion in tax credits for small business. But the credits are fleeting and mostly useless while the bill lowers lending standards to cause the same problem that the government-created financial crisis did beginning in 2007. Vitter voted against it and proposed instead to help small business by getting (unsuccessfully) Democrats to extend the Republican tax cuts of 2002 due to expire at the end of this year while Melancon voted for it and is against extending the cuts for all.

And also related to TARP, the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law extended vastly government’s regulatory powers at large expense to the industry (to be passed through to consumers) which will stifle investment particularly at the community level, stunt lending, and makes permanent the TARP system in the hands of a vast new array of unelected bureaucrats. Melancon voted for it, Vitter against it.

Both Vitter and Melancon voted against their chambers’ versions of the Democrat health care bill that will lower quality and increase costs. But Melancon, in committee, enabled a key provision of the bill to go through that later was kept alive that would allow for public monies to end up financing abortion. Melancon also has stated that he does not want to repeal the law but wants to improve it although he has not specified anything about that. Vitter has supported repeal.

Interested parties might figure out some of this if they paid attention to Vitter campaign communications, but they would have no idea of it if they followed only what Melancon issued because throughout the entire campaign Melancon (continuing a trend before he even formally announced a candidacy) has stayed away from meaningful discussions of issues, focusing instead on a strategy of character assassination of Vitter. This includes his distorting and dodging other issues such as supporting bureaucratic means of keeping the oil exploration moratorium.

So if the mainstream media are going to make some kind of attempt to inject issue preferences into the campaign that Melancon heretofore has resisted, the least that can be done is to back them up with more complete, and therefore more accurate, descriptions of the preferences of the candidates.