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13.11.10

While expedient, Hines switch also better fits his record

The fact now has been ratified by the numbers: with the party switch of state Rep. Walker Hines from Democrat to Republican, effective control by Republicans of the Louisiana House of Representatives becomes official control. But the story is less about the evolution of a legislator that it is his concern over his political future.

Hines’ move brings the GOP total to 51 in the lower chamber, compared to 50 Democrats and four independents – although two of them reliably vote with Republicans and a third somewhat less often. As heard often in these cases, Hines cites certain things indicating the direction of the Democrats as reason for his change in affiliation.

That may be true, but two political considerations that certainly contributed he doesn’t mention. One, with redistricting coming up and Republicans looking likely to control the process, Hines wanted to shore up his odds that in the coming loss of seats for Orleans Parish he doesn’t get hung out to dry with a move of more black residents into his district, increasing the odds that a black Democrat could successfully challenge him. By joining the majority, he makes it more likely Republicans in the process will want to preserve his district with a white majority.

Also, two, Hines seems to have his eyes set on the Secretary of State’s office next year. As it is becoming increasingly apparent that in statewide contests Democrats are at a distinct disadvantage, running as a Republican would improve his chances of winning in all likelihood should he run. Some wonder whether this is not another version of the “Manchurian” candidacy witnessed in the recent special election for the lieutenant governor’s office where the politically untested daughter of a Democrat political activist and large donor ran as a blank slate mouthing some conservative themes, as a backdoor means by which a liberal can try to win statewide office.

This evidence suggests while Hines’ shift does smack of political expediency, he can claim genuinely that he is more at home with the GOP. When he ran in 2007, fresh out of college, as a Democrat he was criticized by student Democrats as being too squishy about their boilerplate liberalism and did not draw their endorsement for his run. Despite that, he caught a break when fellow Democrat and considered liberal front-runner Una Anderson right before the election was accused of allegedly being involved in a bribery scheme. After his successful election, nothing more was heard about Anderson in this matter.

In his first session, Hines charged ahead with playbook liberal legislation such as abolishing the death penalty, wasting money on making government buildings “green,” and government intervention into the marketplace for mortgage lending, plus he tried to sabotage tax cutting. But he also introduced some good reform measures and his reform instincts led him to score a 70 (where 100 is the most conservative/reform) on the Louisiana Legislature Log’s scorecard. In his second session, while his score dropped to 60 and he opposed some good conservative reform, he only introduced one objectionable bill which would have needlessly spent money on a fruitless effort to reduce homelessness.

This past session marked a significant movement in both his legislative agenda and voting record. With bills to force more efficiency in spending of health care dollars and other reform measures (one of which would become one of his first bills to make it to law), his only real misstep came in offering up something akin to the constitutional amendment that passed a couple of weeks ago which devalues property rights too much, a temptation shared by Orleans delegation regardless of ideology. And he ended up among the highest on the scorecard with a 95. (Hines throughout his legislative career also has been a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the considered “conservative” organization of state legislators.)

So it could be argued that the real political expediency for Hines came when he first ran as a Democrat (representatives of this label averaged a 44 over the last three years on the scorecard; note that Hines’ average of 75 is much higher than the average of about 58 for outgoing Republican Secretary of State Jay Dardenne over his last three years in the state Senate), even as his voting record trended in the opposite direction. This may have been needed with a district of demographics favoring Democrats. So despite the fact that his father is a political activist and he’s young, Hines (who once indicated Republican activists had asked him about switching from the beginning of his attempt for office) can claim legitimately it is not only for political expediency that he made the switch.

11.11.10

Whining, inaction not options to deal with higher education

With emotions running high over the state of funding higher education in Louisiana, adding needed perspective to the issue produces a better idea what should be done, what can be done, and what is likely to get done. We begin by addressing certain myths about the funding situation for higher education:

  • Higher education in Louisiana is underfunded. By now the statistics should be familiar to anybody attentive about the issue, whether using statistics of a few years ago or more recent ones: in fiscal year 2009, Louisiana ranked seventh nationally in per capita expenditures for higher education, indicating that this never has been a funding problem but an efficiency in spending problem.
  • There has been a large reduction in higher education budgets over the past couple of years. Again, you really can’t argue this, as the $212 million in reduced state support is offset by $124 million in tuition and fee increases through the end of fiscal year 2010, so the total decline from the peak has been about 7.65 percent – not insignificant, but hardly catastrophic, at least up until now.
  • Since the beginning of 2008, higher education has faced reductions totaling only $43 million. This is what might be gap including the 2010-11 tuition increases courtesy of the GRAD Act which commits schools to improve performance, but it does not take into account the unfunded mandates being passed along which the University of Louisiana System estimated typically took up much of the tuition increases until the GRAD Act came along; for example, at my institution over half of the extra tuition revenue has been offset by unfunded mandates which the Legislature has stopped covering with additional monies over those past two years.
  • Tuition increases will unfairly burden students. Louisiana ranks right about the bottom third of states in tuition charged and with many states also raising theirs probably will hardly advance on this list even with GRAD Act effects, and this does not take into account that roughly 22,000 students a year qualify for Taylor Opportunity Program for Students money which pays for tuition at the estimated cost last fiscal year of about $135 million, so while many will have to pay 10 percent more, it’s easier to call this unfair to taxpayers than for students in general.
Disregarding these myths and understanding the facts, what should be done is an extensive restructuring of higher education. Once again, the statistics here don’t lie: Louisiana has the eighth most public baccalaureate and above institutions and sixth most below baccalaureate institutions in the nation, meaning it ranks almost at the bottom of states in terms of students per institution. Further, it is a system skewed to the baccalaureate-and-above institutions whose enrollments are proportionally much higher than the national average and therefore adds an estimated $91 million more a year in delivery costs – about the budget reduction over the past two years including unfunded mandates.

In short, the system is overbuilt and top heavy. Some baccalaureate-and-above institutions need to be consolidated or converted into two-year schools, and among the technical colleges there need to be consolidations and closings as well. But this never will happen because legislators like having these institutions in their districts for the money and jobs they bring and also because alumni who help them in their campaigns (if the legislators themselves are not alumni) will threaten loss of support if any of these kinds of changes get made. Even the idea of relatively smaller savings that might come from following the lead of many states and consolidating governance systems into having just one higher education board has been fought tooth-and-nail to date.

Given this political reality, what could be done is sort of what is being done – the GRAD Act and trying to shift more students to community colleges and technical schools with overdue and delayed admission standards increases at the four-year schools, but this still falls short. TOPS standards, rather than being set at the national American College Test average, for tuition at baccalaureate institutions should be increased to make it a true scholarship program and some kind of payback required for dropouts (Louisiana ranked thirteenth in funds paid for freshmen dropouts from 2003-08) would encourage fewer marginal students to go to college and better direct students to appropriate fields of study and institutions. In addition, the state’s penchant for dedicating revenues, which would require constitutional amendments to change, skews priorities that forces higher education to be deprived of funding while less important activities automatically get money without review. Gov. Bobby Jindal would have to lead the charge to get these things implemented, including calling a special session by early 2011 to deal with the proposed amendments.

Instead, if Jindal does not exert some leadership to get these changes implemented, what is likely to happen is what is happening now – Jindal being unable to do the things at a global level to correct the problems of inefficient use of resources, so with no other choice than having to make higher education institutions cut at the margins it ends up from a public policy standpoint of treating the symptoms rather than the disease, and from a political standpoint damages him and higher education through the conflict that will ensue. For its part, Louisiana higher education has to wake up and support sensible changes (tax increases not being one) that can allow it to transition over the next several years into a more efficient deliverer of public services (although higher education does itself no favors to garner support when clownish behavior like this occurs).

The fact is, with the removal of federal spending dollars on tap, tens of millions, perhaps even more, dollars more may disappear from higher education next fiscal year. Politicians need to put aside parochial interests and make some systemic changes, while higher education has to devote its energies to pursuing realistic responses to this unfavorable environment that impair delivery the least. Inaction and whining are not options.

10.11.10

Increasingly irrelevant Ethics Board needs abolishment

In light of a recent court ruling, perhaps the time has come to reevaluate the relevancy, leading perhaps to the dismantling, of the Louisiana Board of Ethics.

Until the past couple of years, the Board was prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner of all matters dealing with campaign finance, financial reporting requirements of government officials and lobbyists, and ethics questions of job performance in an elective or appointive office. Then, a statutory change removed its adjudicatory power. Overall, this was a good thing because it put decisions in the hands of trained, impartial civil servants with protections against political interference rather than inexpert political appointees charged with ruling on potentially the people who appointed them. The decision whether to prosecute on all matters remained in the hands of the Board, but it also continued to issue rulings on campaign finance violations while forwarding other matters to the new Ethics Adjudication Boards for action.

However, in a court case dealing with prosecution and adjudication of a violator of campaign finance regulations, where a former candidate failed to file required documents by their legal due date, the judge ruled that if a defendant challenged the punishment, even though the facts were clear about the case – the reports did not show up by the due date – administrative law judges still would have to have a trial about it. This was contrary to the state’s argument that, in these campaign finance matters, the Board served merely a procedural function, ratifying that reports were not filed when they were supposed to be and acting on information in them, justifying the Board’s continuing adjudication on those kinds of matters.

Yet perhaps what tipped the scales in favor of the ruling was the Board also could make exceptions. Even if a clear violation occurred, it had the power to waive penalties at its discretion. This would moot the argument that failure to file on time was open-and-shut, because not all instances of it drew a penalty. If let unchallenged to a higher court, which the Board has not yet decided whether this should be pursued, this discretionary authority now passes to the Ethics Adjudication Boards.

This decision, should it be unchallenged or upheld, begs reassessment of the Board. It has many powers, but practically all of them now remaining are really administrative. About the only ones that have any non-trivial policy import are whether to investigate resumed violations and discretion to issue advisory opinions about the ethics code. But for these kinds of matters it leans heavily on staff, so why not simply make these staff choices? The executive power of the Board could be placed in the hands of its administrator who would make the final call, as occurs in the Attorney General’s office. Legal changes could increase the administrator’s independence from political considerations.

By divesting the state of the Board, it would remove an increasingly irrelevant set of political appointees, save money, and remove a layer of bureaucracy. If Louisiana, by legislative and/or judicial fiat, has started the process of making its ethics enforcement and adjudication more professional, it should just go all the way.

9.11.10

Shreveport results show candidates, campaigns matter

Candidates and their campaigns matter. You can have the majority of constituents with you on the issues and your party identification may comport to the majority of those voting, but decisions made by candidates in their campaigns can more than negatively offset these advantages, and vice-versa when the demographics aren’t on your side. Recent Shreveport elections presented a good dose of this reality.

If he were honest with himself, Republican Bryan Wooley knew he had almost no chance of winning the mayor’s contest against incumbent Democrat Cedric Glover. No matter how big the wave for conservative Republicans was nationwide, that the city had a 50.2 percent black registration and Democrat registration of 54.5 percent provided a pretty big seawall for use by a black Democrat to fight it off – especially as Glover had shown in the past that he could turn out his base with the best of them.

Assuming this honesty existed, Wooley could justify his attempt after a term on the City Council by thinking he could leverage campaigning for mayor into a seat in the state legislature. Perhaps he considered that state Sen. Buddy Shaw, next year in his mid-70s, might want to hang it up (a special election for the state House seat in his district just concluded) and he could use a citywide run to get a head start on 2011. Really only this could justify giving up a seat where he would be a heavy favorite for reelection. As long as he ran a credible campaign, the experience would boost his political career.

Wooley had won unexpectedly in 2006, defeating a then-current Caddo Parish Commissioner, the former District D councilman, and the appointed interim seatholder. You can’t do that without a good campaign and candidate. However, the kind of office also matters. At this level, with approximately 30,000 constituents that stresses eye-level media and personal contact, the greater demands of campaigning to a much larger mass base that can reveal flaws in the candidate in campaign aren’t part of the equation. Having to go on TV, regular media reporting, and getting out the vote from a population of 200,000 may be things a campaign that succeeds at a smaller level can’t handle well.

Going for the top job turned out to expose those flaws with Wooley. People had to have a reason to vote for him other than he was not a liberal Democrat, and he didn’t give them much with no real legislative accomplishments and rhetoric heavy on bromides but short on substance. Bizarre decisions sealed his fate, such as choices to violate the spirit of campaign laws and basing the latter part of his campaign on attacks on Glover’s character that, with the surface evidence publicly available, seemed to be little more than slinging of unverifiable mud.

This resulted in a blowout 63-37 percent win for Glover. That Glover beat him on election day in his own Republican-plurality district in a Republican wave year speaks volumes to the quality of the candidacy of Wooley. He was not ready for prime time and in effect took himself out of the running for pursuing an office such as state Senate any time soon.

But with different dynamics, the GOP wave proved formidable this year. Trying to succeed Wooley was Republican Michael Corbin, who gathered 43 percent of the vote in the Oct. 2 primary. But another Republican picked up 13 percent who immediately made it known she would vote for his other-party opponent who led coming out of the primary.

In the general election runoff, Corbin increased his number of votes compared to all previous Republican votes by 65 percent. However, his opponent increased his by nearly 69 percent. Yet Corbin won 55-45 percent because it appears most of the Republicans that had voted for his Republican opponent rode the wave and went with him the next time, as well as did new Republican voters which got turnout to jump to around 55 percent.

And both the wave and candidate qualities seem to have influenced the District B outcome. Sheva Sims entered the runoff in good shape. Although the black Democrat finished with 40 percent behind the 46 percent of white Democrat Jeff Everson, the 6 percent who voted for last-place finisher black Democrat Craig Lee could be expected to vote for her, and third place finisher white no-party Deborah Allen endorsed Sims.

The district, with its 51.2 percent black registration, almost got Sims elected four years ago against a white incumbent Democrat with then only a plurality of blacks registered. But Everson triumphed last week with 52 percent because, from unofficial indications, the turnout pattern from the primary was replicated in the runoff. In Sims’ best precincts which also had the highest proportions of blacks, turnout was roughly equivalent between whites and blacks. However, in Everson’s best, with the highest proportions of whites, white turnout typically was two and even three times that of black turnout, even riding Glover’s coattails.

Sims’ weakness as a candidate also showed in that in the primary she was beaten by Allen, Lee, or both in four (large) majority white precincts. In the runoff, her votes didn’t equal those of her and the two defeated candidates in the primary while Everson’s typically doubled. And in the largest majority black precincts, Everson’s proportion of the vote actually increased relative to hers from election to election.

Lesson: abilities of candidates can complement or stifle short- and long-term effects for and against their elections. It’s not always a matter of just running the numbers.

8.11.10

Jindal diagnoses well, must follow own advice in quest

You have to go back to the administration of former Gov. John McKeithen to find a tome published under the name of a current Louisiana governor, but it seems that Gov. Bobby Jindal’s effort shortly to be released is going to make for some more interesting reading than the previous boilerplate. At least a pre-publication view indicates both that it will not be viewed favorably by the Washington/media liberal swamp and that Jindal should be going after higher national office unafraid to slash and burn.

The reviewer, a Washington Post subaltern, barely mentions the substantial portion of Leadership and Crisis concerning Jindal’s pre-political career (even though Jindal entered the political arena at 25, given his 39 years that’s about two-thirds of his life) which should prove interesting but instead concentrates on the political aspects. These, he maintains, consist mainly of criticism of elected and bureaucratic officials in Washington, with the occasional insinuation about the insularity of the media.

(Jindal apparently summarizes that he has fairly good media relations. This may come as a surprise to many of my friends in the traditional Louisiana media, whose kinds of stories they choose to run and sometimes the content of them in tone often range from contemptuous to exasperated because in his media relations not only does he not allow them to define him and his policies the way they want to, but also because they perceive his handling of them accelerates their slide into irrelevance and abrogates what they see as their right to wield influence. Perhaps Jindal refers to his relations with the members of the media at a personal level, but no doubt he acutely realizes the hostility the traditional Louisiana media generally feel towards him.)

Jindal seems to have harsh words about Washington politicians in general. He calls the typical members of Congress, where he served for three years in the House, “little kids” who are more interested in their own political fortunes than thinking of their constituents (scratch my musings that Jindal could position himself to run for the Senate in 2014; with this, it’s clear he’s all in for the executive branch), on the oil spill crisis highlights the many failings of the Pres. Barack Obama Administration, and critiques politicians who break the law and/or received legislative or judicial censure as a result of their activities as enriching selves and feeding appetites. (The reviewer faults him for not including Newt Gingrich on the list of bad behaving men as Gingrich wrote and approving blurb for the book, but the subaltern seems blissfully unaware that Gingrich never broke the law nor was censured by the House or judiciary for any activity.)

These observations follow the theme of the book, “leadership,” as a negative barometer of it, where it seems Jindal finds the pursuit of personal gain and power an impediment to it. “Leadership,” of course, in its classic administrative sense means to bring about a desired end-state for a group (in this case, the American people) by persuasion and task performance. From the review, it would appear Jindal doesn’t give many specifics about the particular policies he would advocate as part of his leadership (or perhaps the reviewer omitted them for space or political reasons), but he does make the global statement that too much interest in political selves interferes with it.

As he enters his final year of what could be his first term in office, Jindal must understand it gives him an excellent opportunity to practice what he preaches to avoid, as Louisiana faces severe budgetary problems. The book appears to serve as another resource which Jindal wants to use for a presumed vice presidential nomination sooner, and/or perhaps presidential nomination later, positioning himself as an outsider, particularly to Washington, even as he holds office. Given the tremendous disconnect the public presently sees between its interests and Democrat leadership, that is a political plus for achievement in the national political arena and perhaps explains the book’s apparent shift in tone from what had been anticipated, title change and all. But if that is his ambition, he needs to make sure he does not fail to provide leadership at home while in the pursuit of his own personal political quest.

7.11.10

Jindal strategy may help or backfire on national hopes

In a kind of campaigning for any future national aspirations, Gov. Bobby Jindal may have become a victim of his own success for the long term and signaled his hopes for the near-term.

Widely considered to be amenable to a presidential or vice presidential nomination in 2012 or 2016, during the recent midterm election campaigns Jindal lent his support to, if not outright appearance for, a number of Republican candidates, most of whom won their offices successfully. Jindal is thought of as a good draw by campaigns and the monetary support his endorsements appear to trigger seems to verify that.

Partly because of his efforts, which are typical of a politician who wishes to build a donor and high-profile supporter network for future national ambitions (and taken seriously by Democrats who already are beginning opposition research on him), several younger (that is, around his age) conservative Republicans won high profile offices,