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29.1.11

Freeze another push to achieve Jindal pay plan reform

Two rookies on the State Civil Service Commission have found themselves in the thick of the action almost from the start as Gov. Bobby Jindal, shortly after their appointment and the reappointment of another of its members, took the next step in his quest to instill greater efficiency into the state’s bureaucracy.

The Jindal Administration forwarded a request, similar to last year’s, that no “merit” raises be given out among the state’s classified employees, where such pay increases come through rules set by the SCSC. The body is free to do what it wants, but if Jindal says his budget will not include money for those raises, its actions in this regard become greatly circumscribed. But now with a majority of its seven members appointed by Jindal (one is elected by classified employees who is also new because of the resignation of the previous holder of that spot), they likely will give some kind of formal assent to this.

Whether they will take the next step advocated by Jindal is another matter. Besides budgetary hard times looming over the state, for two years Jindal has sought fundamental reform about how classified employees are evaluated and compensated. At present, a one-size-fits-all rule exists that declares anybody who grades at least satisfactorily or better qualifies for a four percent hike, if the panel declares a raise. But this rule has helped pervert the system so that it has become used as a cost-of-living adjustment with over 99 percent of all employees receiving them when given.

27.1.11

Degree-cutting more valuable in P.R. than cost savings

If you are impressed by the Louisiana Board of Regents for Higher Education announcing they will review 459 degree programs (nearly a third extant) of the state’s institutions for termination, and/or wailing and gnashing of teeth that will emanate from some in these institutions, don’t be.

Building on a similar review conducted a few years ago but now with more exacting criteria, the Regents want institutions at all levels concerning these programs identified as having too few students complete them to justify their existence to do any of terminate them, consolidate them into other programs, or to convince the Board that they should be allowed to continue existing at that particular institution. It is not entirely, but greatly, much ado about nothing.

For one, some of these programs already have been selected by their own schools, accurately reading ahead, for elimination. Faced with declining state revenues, they internally chose these out of cost/benefit ratios. For example, at my institution Louisiana State University Shreveport, with almost no graduates over the past few years, the Geography major already is being phased out.

Which is why in many of these instances savings will be minimal. Often, these programs existed because they easily could attach themselves to resources for others. In the case of Geography at LSUS, it used to operate with one-and-half positions, then got pared to one-half (four courses a year). But even dropping the major now won’t cause any real reduction in costs because some geography classes still must be taught on behalf other majors for them to meet accreditation standards, such as in social studies education.

Another kind of termination also really will save no money at all. For example, the University of New Orleans has its Master of Arts in Political Science on the chopping block – even though its Ph.D. program continues robustly. Masters students take the same classes as Ph.D. candidates, only fewer of them, and can present the faculty with a creative work, like Ph.D. students, to complete the degree, the only difference being their thesis is a shorter, less-involved work than a dissertation required of the terminal degree. (They do have an option to take more coursework in place of a thesis.) That so few student credit hours would be lost by not having M.A. students in classes means even without the degree the same number of faculty members will be needed to teach the same number of courses. In other words, there really are no savings there by getting rid of this degree.

Then there are those majors that are connected substantially to others. Many on the list, like Mathematics at LSUS and its Mathematics Education (grades 6-12) degrees, even are tagged on the list as candidates for consolidation as they may reflect duplication. The strategy here could make Math Ed a concentration within Math, where perhaps 90 of 120 hours would be similar between the two. This might lead to freeing up some minimal faculty resources (maybe a half to one position, if even that) but not many savings.

I’m not familiar with everything on the list but my guess is there are few, maybe five percent, of those programs listed would entail elimination of entire disciplines with more than one faculty member, where the savings will be most significant. Thus, whatever gets cancelled in aggregate will not add up to much relatively speaking; more than eight figures annually spent less would surprise me which would represent about three percent of the state’s contribution to higher education if cuts end up even that high.

Especially from those few folks whose necks will be on the line you’ll hear about how these cuts will do this or that deleterious thing, and they may be true. Yet however monumental and drastic the exercise may come off as, in terms of savings and disruption to institutions it hardly will be dramatic, and, from the perspective of the Regents, more valuable for public relations purposes to show higher education is “serious” about reining in costs to distract from the really big-ticket savings items it wishes to avoid such as institution closures and mergers and consolidation of governing boards. We’ll know the Board is serious about cost containment when it advocates these actions.

26.1.11

Group's birth reminds to end wasteful LA film tax credits

Lest you think it was just another New Orleans alphabet-soup political organization, the Louisiana Industry for Film and Entertainment announced its formation for the purpose of promoting the state’s film industry. But maybe its real motive is to help its members to continue reaching into the wallets of Louisianans.

Almost a decade ago the state got into the subsidization of the film-making industry in a big way through the offering of substantial tax credits. That largesse has helped the state, according to the group’s press release, rise to third place behind only history-rich California and investment-rich New York as a location.

Not mentioned, naturally, is the hundreds of millions of net loss to the state in terms of tax dollars going out in this corporate bribery for the industry compared to the triggered by these breaks. That should not surprise the informed who know that studies show that no jurisdiction even comes close to breaking even in this regard, and specifically in the case of Louisiana one dollar comes back for every seven spent. The jobs typically created are temporary with next to no upward mobility, and with misleading assumptions thrown about concerning them they actually understate the economic distortion these programs instigate.

25.1.11

Absent budget apocalypse, Jindal reelection certain

So Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal would be supported by 49 percent of a sample of voters for reelection, while 40 percent would consider somebody else. Parse the results, and it looks like it’s dead-girl-or-live-boy time concerning Jindal’s obtaining a second term.

Beginning with a minor point, if the sample were of likely voters (kind of early to ask), with the small Republican bias that tends to infiltrate that sampling frame Jindal probably would be over 50 percent. Moving to a larger concern that increases Jindal’s chances further, this assumes he has an opponent with any chance of electability, which means somebody with credibility and who can at least try to keep up with Jindal’s prodigious fundraising that leaves him, with his 2010 report to come soon, at almost $7.2 million and counting banked.

The two go hand-in-hand, as credibility, or belief someone can win, draws contributions, which means something unless you can plunk down several million bucks on your own. Such 2007 candidates like independent businessman John Georges and Democrat Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell have shown with their lack of performance then that they are not credible even if spending a lot of money. Democrat and former Rep. Charlie Melancon got brutalized by the electorate trying for the U.S. Senate last year and lost his stomach for electoral politics. Former Democrat Gov. Kathleen Blanco never has or will recover from her term’s showing. Democrat New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has the job he wants and got it recently, depleting both his desire and campaign account. Republican Treasurer John Kennedy has failed twice at a comparable office and with only a half million smackers at the end of 2009 in his campaign account would have great difficulty in getting enough resources to compete.

In any event, hypothetical matchups in the poll featuring Jindal and Landrieu or Kennedy have Jindal waxing both. Some Democrats, desperate to not to give Jindal a free pass without any meaningful competition as the clock ticks, have approached former interim Secretary of State Al Ater who launched wasteful and questionable voting initiatives in his brief tenure and who does not seem eager to come out of retirement and waste his time getting routed. Finding what at this moment appears to be a sacrificial lamb willing to spend a lot of his own money to satisfy an ego will not be easy.

Given that no candidate exists that could beat Jindal under current conditions, what might happen, other than scandal which (in personal comportment) the Jefferson Smith-like Jindal seems extraordinarily unlikely to suffer, that could make Jindal lose this contest? The poll’s author, in an effort that seems strained in order to help reassure the payers of the poll think they are getting more information than the obvious from it, speculates that a Tea Party-backed candidate could pull enough votes to send the contest into a general election runoff. Never mind that a number of those who said they would consider somebody else are conservatives who unlikely could find anybody as pleasing to them as Jindal, and so what if he gets pushed into another month of campaigning because he wins a second election anyway?

No, only a major disruption in the policy atmosphere has any remote chance to keep him from repeating. As this space has mentioned on several occasions before and during last year’s legislative session, the fiscal problems besetting the state required increased boldness out of Jindal, which, as things turned out, did not much transpire. Still, he and the Legislature muddled through to birth this year’s budget and with a cautiously-brightening revenue outlook, programmatic cuts of a draconian nature well may be avoided for next year’s.

For that is the only thing that even could make Jindal vulnerable, much less beatable – big cuts in the areas of health care and higher education, which legally together must bear the brunt of revenue losses. And by this I mean cuts resulting in mass layoffs at universities, students clamoring and unable to get in any colleges, more significant reductions in service hours for those utilizing Medicaid waiver services, and numerous defections out of it by Medicaid providers because of more rate cuts that slows treatment considerably. Only drastic events such as these would catch enough of the public’s attention and get deliberated by it as deleterious enough to the state for Jindal to draw substantial voter opposition.

This scenario seems very unlikely. Absent its manifestation, prepare for another Jindal inauguration in a little less than a year’s time. That’s the valid message from this poll.

23.1.11

Outcome may cost GOP one majority but achieve another

The somewhat-surprising, because of its size and timing, win of state Rep. Fred Mills over fellow Republicans and independents for the Senate District 22 seat puts the GOP on the doorstep of legislative majorities amid questions of Mills’ reliability concerning his new party.

While the race may have looked to head to a general election runoff, instead Mills took 60 percent of the vote, with runner-up and fellow (almost as new) Republican state Rep. Simone Champagne polling only about a third as much. With his office about to become vacant, that pushes Republicans down to 52 House seats, compared to 48 Democrat and four independents. But as the GOP technically as a result loses its absolute majority in the lower chamber, it inches to the brink of gaining it in the Senate, as Mills will soon make for a 19-19 tie between the major parties in the upper chamber, with another spot to be decided in less than four weeks.

Although the combined length of time both Mills and Champagne has spent as Republicans has been eight months and, until now, neither elected as one, many conservatives in the party preferred Champagne on this basis of a slightly more conservative voting record and that Mills, until the past year, was a faithful donor to liberal candidates and state Democrats. However, with a Louisiana Legislature Log voting index score over the past three years of above 71, just about what House Republicans have averaged over the same time and way above the Democrat average of around 44 (100 being the most conservative/reform), Mills has appeared to have walked the walk which may allay fears of him being a conservative/Republican-in-name-only.

Mills may have done so well given the other four candidates split the southern part of the district while he could monopolize the northern part, but it was more than that. Only two parishes comprise the district, Mills’ from (the northern part of) St. Martin and the others from Iberia, with the population edge 16 points to Iberia’s favor, but not only did St. Martin turn out seven percentage points better where Mills cleaned up at nearly 90 percent of the vote, but he barely trailed Champagne in Iberia with each scoring about a third of the vote. Clearly pulling almost equal numbers of votes from each as well as competing with Champagne in Iberia and wiping everybody out in St. Martin shows a superior campaign job.

With none of the defeated candidates from his House District 46, nobody got a head start on replacing him. In 2007, no Republicans ran where Mills trounced his opposition with 84 percent of the vote. Further, Republicans may have preferred a Champagne win as her district has 8.5 percent fewer blacks than Mills’ 31 percent, which accounts for the higher Democrat registration in Mills’. My research has shown the tipping point historically in Louisiana for legislative contests is a ratio of 8:3 Democrats to Republicans registered, where above that statistic Democrats almost always win, and below that Republicans almost always win. While Champagne’s district is a little above that at 2.44, Mills’ is higher at 2.70. By contrast, the Senate district just won by Mills is at 2.31, just below the cutoff, so maybe he and Champagne knew what they were doing when they switched. And that no Democrat ran in this competitive district demonstrates the GOP has a pretty good shot at getting a successor to Mills, but obviously depending upon the quality of the candidates who run.

But even if Republicans can’t get it, they still have effective control of the House as two of the four independents (one switched from the GOP after the session) tend to vote with them the majority of the time (average LLL index score of all four of 62.50 for 2010, compared to the average Republican score of 74.50 and the Democrat average of 55.85). They’ll probably trade that for an outright Senate majority which can be provided by a District 25 special election outcome on Feb. 19 with state Rep. Jonathan Perry besting his Democrat challenger, a likely outcome where the registrant ratio is 2.15.

Remarks invite stronger effort for university reform

One thing about the guy who would be the ultimate signatory on my upcoming promotion request, Louisiana State University System President John Lombardi, is that he doesn’t shy away from giving himself a black eye with an ill-timed, self-induced punch to the face in the metaphorical sense with his rhetoric. Such self-abasement, even if unwitting and not admitted, willingly received as a consequence of a desire to speak freely, normally would appear refreshing to the casual observer in a world where most politicians avoid the merest hint of saying anything controversial, except that the self-interest Lombardi betrays by such comments is so obvious and craven.

Lombardi went bare-knuckle on himself again in front of the Louisiana State University Baton Rouge Faculty Senate. Whether he knew at least one member of the fourth estate was present to transcribe his remarks remains immaterial; these are open meetings by law and so one might want to be a little politic, or at least critically think, about the kinds of things you say. Or maybe Lombardi had too much of an urge to shoot from the hip that on comments about restructuring from within the LSU System. Regardless of motive, they serve only to encourage greater fervor to overturn the very interests he tried to protect with them.

With Lombardi one always must translate what he says in order to discover the attitude behind it. Thus, when Lombardi stated he and the LSU System (as according to a news release) were “neutral” on the idea broached by Gov. Bobby Jindal to merge the University of New Orleans, an LSU System member, and Southern University New Orleans, a Southern University System member, and place the new UNO into the University of Louisiana System, and then began to give a rudimentary opinion on it that downplayed the idea, we have to decode the real message behind those statements.