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30.12.10

An eternal lesson: keep close watch on all govts

As 2011 approaches and observing that Bossier Parish seems to have no difficulty, even in trying economic times, in finding money to service road construction, as well as reviewing the past year and digesting the renewed enthusiasm that the people have acquired courtesy of over-reaching national government to monitor the activities of government, it makes me think back some years ago about an object lesson concerning how government operates. The specific example is Bossier Parish's, and the apparent whimsy of situation might amuse save for the unsettling consequences implied had things turned out differently.

Perhaps somebody remembers in the days leading up to the 2006 fall elections that a sign touting an affirmative vote for Bossier Parish raising property taxes essentially threefold, at what was then the southern end of the Arthur Ray Teague Parkway, was moved a short distance away only a few days before that election. Blame me for the consternation.

I first noticed the sign on Sep. 21 and became simultaneously curious and concerned. It didn’t state who sponsored it, and it was in a spot I thought might be part of the public right-of-way, and certainly was on public property (Bossier City’s). Obviously it was an attempt to encourage passage of the measure which should bring pause to anyone who believes in fairness by government: Bossier City was permitting a pro-vote sign, supporting a Bossier Parish measure which would enrich the parish coffers by $2 million a year, to be placed on its property, regardless of whether its citizens supported such a measure.

29.12.10

Change, merge before expanding LA higher education

The call for increasing the capacity of Louisiana’s community college system underscores the mistakes of the past, and illuminates the pitfalls of the future regarding the state’s overbuilt system of higher education. From these observations, we can learn how to go about creating a more efficient system.

State Sen. Ben Nevers recently bemoaned that fact that the Florida Parishes area and central Louisiana had a paucity of community college choices. What he neglected to add was it had more than enough in terms of higher education and technical schools, the former condition a result of political machinations.

Long ago, in the former Gov. Huey Long era, smack in the middle of the Northshore area Southeastern Louisiana University was promoted from junior college status despite its fairly light area population and being only 50 miles away from the flagship school Louisiana State University Baton Rouge. In part this was as a result of the animosity of Longite forces towards New Orleans, considered the hotbed of anti-Long sentiment, in order to continue to deny the placement of a state university in New Orleans. In fact, that did not transpire until the 1950s and only about 50 years ago did New Orleans, through today’s University of New Orleans, gain an independent baccalaureate-and-above public institution.

28.12.10

Landrieu earmark defense illogical, disingenuous

While earmarks are just a relatively small contributor to the massive debt being rung up by the Pres. Barack Obama and (former in the House) Democrat leadership in Congress that threatens meaningful economic growth, their elimination by the new Republican House of Representatives leadership provides some savings and larger symbolic signaling. Yet at least one Louisiana federally-elected official continues to support the concept by framing in it in terms of a false dichotomy.

Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu contends that eliminating earmarks, or the process of federal spending targeted to a specific agency and/or area of the country inserted at the request of a Member of Congress to spending bills not recommended by the president, would give the executive branch all of the power of spending designated to the Congress (and is not shy about promoting this view). This view also to some degree Republican Rep. Rodney Alexander supported although he now is on the record as opposing them (with reluctance), and present lobbyist but former Rep. Bob Livingston has said the same.

Couching the argument in terms of constitutional powers makes for a good argument, but sloppily reasons that the only alternative to having Congress have no input in spending decisions is to have earmarks. This thinking is decidedly uninformed and disingenuous. At least two alternative approaches commend themselves for Congressional input.

Recall that one kind of earmark essentially asks that federal taxpayers foot the bill for a purpose that benefits only a geographically narrowly-defined range of individuals that, as a concept, to some degree runs afoul of the Constitution’s “general welfare” clause just as the Democrats’ health care provisions changes do. Others of them reflect agencies trying to make end runs around the White House to rectify what they consider unsatisfactory budgetary outcomes. This is what makes earmarks controversial in the first place and why they are thrown in all together into giant spending bills, to facilitate logrolling. That is, Members count on each other to vote for everybody else’s earmarks so everybody gets a piece of the action.

So the solution is to require that any line-item amendments to a presidential budget, either in insertion or removal or earmarks, be subject to a separate vote during floor debate and not be dealt with as a package at the committee level. Then, instead of everybody rubbing each other’s backs, each project will have to stand on its own merits. The time this will take and the publicity from the exposure will ensure few and only very worthy projects that have at least some national purpose will get added. The particularly would happen with the more local kinds of earmarks, where every Member who votes for a use of their constituents’ funds for another’s state or district would have to defend that vote.

As for projects that really only benefit specific areas of the country, if Congress wishes to provide more discretion to state and local governments in the use of federal money, there already exists an entire, if inefficient, grant structure replete with fairly unrestricted block grants. It can shovel more money to these, allowing states and local jurisdictions to apply on behalf of more projects. The earmark process as it has existed only subverts this and makes it work even more poorly.

These are extremely workable avenues by which Congress may impose its will on the spending choices of the federal government. To assert as Landrieu does that earmarks are the only method by which Congress may do so is a red herring designed to obscure rather than to clarify the debate, besides exhibiting a lack of critical thinking skills important to have in our policy-makers.

27.12.10

Proper spending priorities needed, mill saga reminds

As Louisiana grubs for money in what seems to be an approaching difficult budgetary year, a past mistake continues to haunt taxpayers and may be become worse next year, providing a harsh lesson.

As part of his multi-decade reign of error, former Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom conned the state into fronting $45 million for a processing plant in Lacassine to take sugar cane and extract it into syrup, arguing against the evidence that it would provide a needed service to farmers that would enable the state to pay for it. To make matters worse, he backed it by taking money intended to go for boll weevil protection (and also apportioned it to other capital projects) and then on top of all that brokered an $11 million unsecured loan for facility equipment.

Naturally, the wrong economics ensured the facility never has produced this syrup that would cover costs, and currently produces none because of that. In addition, Odom tried to get an ethanol plant built next to it to take cane refuse instead of paying to deal with it and offered a tremendous sweetheart deal to a company with no expertise in the field, Andino Energy, majority owner of the enterprise known as Louisiana Green Fuels, to own the existing facility and to build the other plant, after a deal to see to the Lake Charles Cane Cooperative fell through although the farming group has stayed in as a 20-percent owner. The Colombian-based majority owner has had to make minimal payments in the early years to the state, which for its part must take up the slack if the company can’t make full payments as the racetrack-generated revenue stream does not back the loan.