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26.7.12

Budget hawks finally willing to back words with deeds?

Have so-called fiscal conservatives in the Legislature finally decided to take what has been to this point a supremely unserious effort in budget reform on their part and actually give it some substance? One only can hope with the pledge by a more than a couple of dozen of them to form a caucus and with it a political action committee to pursue this matter.

To date, the manner in which they have approached this has been mostly symbolic with little in the way of substance. During the past legislative session, they declared a pox on “one-time” money, some which is actual non-recurring dollars but most of which is recurring money shunted to dedicated funds that run surpluses that then require an extra legislative step known as a “funds sweep” to free them from perpetual non-use. This threw the budget out of balance, for which they then declared they had a solution – let somebody else (the commissioner of administration) take responsibility for balancing it using vague criteria they established, including hypocritically the use of one-time money.

More responsible heads prevailed, but that doesn’t mean the self-designated budget hawks have a bad idea. In fact, the notion that state government is bloated is right on the mark. Louisiana always has had a spending problem, not a revenue problem. But the solution is not to create a straw man born of an accounting trick called “one-time money” and then excommunicate it from a discussion of budgeting. The answer lies in properly matching revenues in order of priority of need, although that itself must come only after a decision (perhaps the first steps of this being taken now) about what amount of revenue and from where is appropriate for the state to address these needs in order of priority.

25.7.12

Voucher program standards set effort up for success


Promised accountability standards for non-public schools participating in Louisiana’s scholarship voucher program materialized and were approved by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education yesterday. A mixed bag, nevertheless they have more positives than negatives.

Participating schools will have students take the same academic tests as do students in the public schools, where reporting will occur for those with at least 40 program students or with one grade with at least 10 students. If after its first year of participation the school scores below 50 on a 150 point scale computed similarly as School Performance Scores for public schools (that being classified as “academically unacceptable) using only data from program students, it will be unable to accept additional program students and those there already may transfer out with priority. Do that three more years in a row, and the school gets yanked from the program.

But besides schools with few slots will have to meet these standards, many at least initially also won’t have to because testing only occurs from grade 3 on up. This means those that concentrate almost all of their slots in kindergarten through second grade will not have these standards apply – at this time about three-quarters of all slots available, although many schools appear willing to roll eligibility forward in grades as the years pass so soon most in the program will become subject to these standards.

24.7.12

Without genuine crisis, health care concerns reflect politics

What we must understand is that the concern voiced by Louisiana legislators over impending reductions in funds coming to the state’s charity hospitals has much more to do with their political careers than it does any reasonable worry that care for the uninsured or Medicaid clients will deteriorate significantly.

Yesterday, a number of legislators queried officials of the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration about large reductions, nearly a quarter of the budget for the state’s charity hospital system, run by the Louisiana State University System, due to an unexpected clawback of the federal government of excess monies being sent the state’s way for Medicaid. The enabling legislation not yet a month old, they seemed unaware that Rome was not built in a day and pressed for details on specific cuts. Absent that, some lapsed into encounter group mode and testified about their feelings on this matter.

These, for the most part, revolved around a scenario of people clamoring for care that would be unable to access it at the facilities of the country’s only state-run hospital system for the care of the indigent, leading both to swamping non-state facilities or abandoning their quests to have medical attention for their hangnails or whatever else might ail them. Naturally, this dystopian view has next to no relation to reality.

23.7.12

Retirement systems keep tying to deceive the LA public


Although they were able to stave off any meaningful changes to retirement policy this past legislative session, Louisiana’s over 20 retirement systems overseen by it know they have to keep vigilant in maintaining an aura of competence or else very necessary and long overdue reforms will happen. Thus the public relations campaigns and extraordinary measures continue to try to prevent the public from understanding the fundamental problems that exist with the systems.

On the legal front, three of the smaller systems continue to try to rescue themselves from their own stupidity. The Municipal Employees Retirement System, the Firefighters’ Retirement System, and the New Orleans Firefighters’ Pension and Relief Fund presently are attempting Hail Mary legal maneuvers in foreign courts to try to claw back over $100 million all together in funds invested with Fletcher Asset Management years ago. The company refused, initially, to pay off a partial cash out, and, now, the entire amounts.

Idiotically, they allowed the investment adviser (of dubious worth) with which they retain to con them into thinking they would get a minimum of 12 percent return on investment. News flash for the tyros that comprise the governing boards: unless inflation is running rampant for an extended period of time, nobody can guarantee that return. Only fools, made the worse that it was not they but Louisiana taxpayers that bore the risk, get taken in by deals like this. Fletcher filed for and got bankruptcy protection earlier this month, amid calls it had been nothing more than a Ponzi scheme, a month after the Legislative Auditor issued a report critical of the practices of the three funds.

22.7.12

Subversion can negate LA higher education positives

Recently, this space reviewed the conditions that lead Louisiana higher education to a point where lack of accountability encouraged by both federal and state policy led to today’s delivery system plagued with inefficiency and subpar performance. A recent report highlights how state policy must continue to evolve, shaped by larger forces, in order to overcome this – and it’s as yet uncertain whether the proper policy response will come.

The Institute for a Competitive Workplace gave the state a lower-than-average overall grade in effectiveness, especially faulting the state for its ability to get students graduated and getting into the system students from lower-income families. But pulling the overall mark up was creating incentives for better performance, which system officials argued was a recent product of policy that should bring about this as time passes. They also argued the strategy shift to increase admissions standards at baccalaureate-and-above institutions while increasing community college capacity also would pay off in retention, the theory being that too many unprepared students got sent to four-year institutions.

With the increase in admissions standards starting this fall, theoretically those who do not meet the new standards would enter community colleges. There, the schools should function to mold students into scholars capable of handling courses that are sufficiently challenging to have them graduate and with a degree making them capable of success outside of academia. At the baccalaureate-and-above schools, with the chaff separated from the wheat, resources can be used more efficiently to do a better job of educating.