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Landrieu unprincipled stand to threaten her political future

Scrambling in light of a hard political choice, four months on and Sen. Mary Landrieu still isn’t being honest with her constituents about the Constitution, Senate rules, confirmation of judges, and her record. Her latest press release on the matter does a better job of avoiding her past misstatements but, again, knowledge of fact and use of logic shows the problems in her thinking on this issue.

Her press release states:

For more than 200 years, the Senate has fulfilled our Framers' intent that it be the body of our government where the minority, and even the lone voice of one individual, is protected from the potential absolute power of the majority. This tradition has for generations empowered individual senators to stand up and fight for what they believe, even when political expediency or the will of the majority dictated otherwise.

Except that she leaves out the fact that, until Pres. George W. Bush took office, the minority party never had used actual filibusters to stop judicial nominations to appellate court positions. Policy issues were the kinds of things filibusters were used on, and the rule has been changed many times, most recently in 1974. Landrieu tries to leave the false impression that minority parties in the Senate have filibustered nominees according to rules set in stone for the past 216 years, not the past 2.

But these facts don’t deter Landrieu, who then declares that because a majority is a majority following the Constitution, it must be tyrannical:

I and other Democrats are committed to ensuring this consensus, and have recognized the president's prerogative by confirming more than 95 percent of his judicial nominees. But while our nation defends these cornerstones of freedom abroad, it is indeed ironic that the Republican leadership is willing to cast them aside here at home.
Our democracy is built on the promise that every American has a voice, and that promise is in danger of being broken. And so, I am working with some of my centrist colleagues to forge a compromise that will preserve the voice of the individual, while keeping the wheels of government turning.

Let me get this straight, because the majority is winning public policy battles because they have the votes to do so, this means it “cast[s cornerstones of freedom] aside here at home?” Is Landrieu so idiotic that she doesn’t understand that the overthrown governments in Afghanistan and Iraq to which she makes reference were (very much) minority governments supported by few, which is exactly the same tactic she is countenancing by demanding minority government by Democrats thwarting the will of the majority?

Is she also so stupid as to not realize we had elections here last November where “every American ha[d] a voice,” at least of those eligible to vote? Her problem with that is a majority of Americans rejected her party. She is right that “that promise is in danger of being broken” – by her and her party in their insistence on thwarting the democratic ideal that the majority rules in policy debates.

And she repeats the laughable implication that she and “centrists” are trying to forge a compromise – Landrieu’s record clearly shows that she is no centrist.

Of course, her views fully comport to the Democrat spin machine furiously trying to distort the issue. Witness the remarks of Louisiana’s favorite ex-convict columnist. Jim Brown has a habit of lying; first to a federal agent, and now repeating the dishonest line that “Democrats are doing the same thing as Republicans did” (with this convicted liar conveying an incredible impudence that Republicans are the ones being dishonest here).

Are you paying attention this time, Mr. “Everybody But Me Is To Blame For Me Going To Jail:” when the Senate in the 1990s bottled up some of Pres. Bill Clinton’s appointees, it’s because the Republicans were the Senate’s majority party. In a democracy, that’s what majorities get to do. A decade on, it’s the minority Democrats who using rules to prevent a vote. And the majority can change those rules whenever it sees fit, according to the Constitution. Now do you (and Landrieu) finally see why it’s not the same thing?

Landrieu should know by now that no amount of spin is going to save her from her position on this issue if she goes along with the obstructionism of her party. By her release, she hints at she may be part of a group attempting to be put together to force a measure that represents a defeat for democratic rule in the Senate by giving the weight of precedent to the Democrats’ novel use of the filibuster. Future political opponents will remind the voters of Louisiana of all of this, the majority of whom would be unsympathetic to her view on this (or the fact she is refusing to be independent and stand up for Louisiana by bowing to the party leadership on this measure), even as it appears the Democrats will go down in flames on this issue.

Time’s up for Landrieu; the Senate looks to move on nominations today. If she were politically smart, she would stop defending the indefensible and instead call for an up-or-down vote on all judicial nominees. Then she could vote against the nominees she felt unworthy. That way, she takes the high road on principle and still casts votes she thinks are best. Otherwise, she is just digging her 2008 political grave deeper and deeper.


Nursing homes' strategy: stall, deny, complain

One likely group likely to voice its preference that it does not need the state to change its fiscal policy towards the group’s industry as a result of greater-than-anticipated revenues is the nursing home industry. It would be a mistake for such a cheeky move to be allowed to succeed.

This has been the strategy of the nursing home industry in Louisiana, that despite all of the demonstrated need to reform and of the special treatment the industry has received, to keep talking about how cuts would be so catastrophic to the industry and its clients. The letter from Denny “Kit” Gamble (the kinds of violations documented at one of the nursing homes his company owns can be seen here) is illustrative.

In this article Cristina Rodriguez reports:

The nursing home industry was given $90 million last year to start building outpatient services or adult day health care centers, said [Gov. Kathleen] Blanco's spokeswoman, Denise Bottcher."The diversification was intended to give the nursing homes the opportunity to get in other areas of that business, so any future loss of dollars would not be so hard," she said. "It's an effort to get the industry to providing just more choice."

But Gamble writes:

Nursing homes were never given $90 million to develop home and community-based services, including adult day health care. David Hood of the state Department of Health and Hospitals told us to do it as advice to keep from losing future business due to "out-of-court settlements," made by the DHH several years ago.

If one didn’t know the history behind this, Gamble might sound credible. But the fact is, the federal Olmstead and state Barthelemy decisions require Louisiana to diversify its provision of health care services in this area. What Hood (Gamble said) said is perfectly consistent with what Bottcher said: the state gave $90 million extra to nursing homes in order to show the courts it was trying to comply with these decisions, depending upon nursing homes to expand provision of community-based services.

Gamble writes, “I am not saying that Denise Bottcher of Gov. Kathleen Blanco's office was being dishonest, but someone definitely misinformed Bottcher” – when much closer to the truth is Gamble and the rest of the industry deliberately paid no heed to the state’s directive and did what they pleased with the extra funds. That seems to be where the dishonesty is here.

In fact, it used the money to keep building more overcapacity – already among the nation’s most overbuilt. From the article:

The expected cuts would hit many nursing homes in the middle of renovations that they started with the extra money they received. Gamble, with eight properties, has a $12.5 million line of credit on which he's already committed to spending $5 million for improvements.

Why would they do this when already they knew they were so overbuilt and governments everywhere we saying they were going to reduce Medicaid allocations to nursing homes? Because the strategy of the nursing homes has been to build up as much overcapacity as they could, and then to cry how reduced reimbursement levels and totals were going to destroy the industry. The other part of the strategy has been to say the burden will fall on the clients:

While $60 million may represent around a 10 percent cut, that is not what we make -- it is our gross income. Average profit margins are less than 8 percent in Louisiana. We lose money on Medicaid (an average of more than $3 per patient day). Quality of care in Louisiana has improved, according to some studies. How can you cut deeply into our budget and expect patient care not to suffer?

The reason why they “lose” money is because they built up so much debt thinking the state or hoping to push the state into forever reimbursing them for vacant beds (incidentally, health care costs are among the lowest in the nation for nursing homes in Louisiana, which is why the rate is among the lowest, and the gross income is closer now to $800 million). What they need to do is stop any expansion where there already is overcapacity, and sell off facilities in part or whole, or convert some of their capital assets into providing the types of services the $90 million was supposed to encourage them to get into.

Gamble in the article seems to admit as such, but couches it in terms of how patients, not owners’ pocketbooks, are going to be affected:

"We can't keep our level of care up like we need to keep it up if we're going to have to lay off people…. I don't think there would be a drastic decline in patient care, but (because of layoffs) it would be hard for us to answer call bells as quickly as we should," Gamble said. "I think a lot of the renovations to buildings would stop. The first thing you do is cut back in areas that don't affect patient care."

The remark about declining staff response is, well, remarkable, for Louisiana is well below the nation in terms of staff per patient already. There wouldn’t be any service problems if nursing homes would staff to the appropriate level.

Just because these people are poor or disingenuous businessmen does not give them any special claim on the taxpayers’ resources. Having over 80 percent of their revenues coming from government, nursing homes in Louisiana have grown fat and happy off the taxpayer and want the gravy train to continue. They don’t want to change their ways when studies have made it clear they must become more efficient. This state cannot afford to subsidize any longer such arrogance.


Now isn't the time for Louisiana to spend like a drunken sailor

Let’s hope the good news from the Revenue Estimating Conference does not trigger the atavistic reflex of all too many Louisianan politicians to embrace the Carnival spirit of living for today, not for tomorrow.

With its estimation of $192 million available currently, in the minds of many it is already spent, for some on health care (obviating the need for a sick tax), other for unneeded teacher raises. To its credit, the Administration has stated it wants to see the windfall go into capital outlay (as long as it doesn’t get plowed into building another useless lake), since this properly should be considered a one-time bonus.

As for next year’s $169 million now believed to be coming, Gov. Kathleen Blanco wants to see it steered to health care. That’s absolutely the right call, as long as that does not lead to a false sense of security that prevents necessary fiscal reforms in Louisiana’s provision of health care. (Still out there, though, is Blanco’s insistence that money has to be provided to pay for as-yet unclaimed corporate welfare for Hollywood.)

But Blanco still wishes to pursue the $1 increase per pack of cigarettes tax to fund the unmerited teacher pay raises. This is strange; by her insistence that next year’s additional funds go to health care, wouldn’t that mean that was top priority? Yet she has pushed far harder this measure to fund a new commitment than she has for making up the existing gap in health care revenues. Why was not the smoker tax dedicated to health care in the first place?

Obviously, the answer is politics. With 50,000 or so classroom teachers in the state, some throwing their weight behind unions dedicated first to sucking money out of taxpayers and incidentally to educating, they pack much more political punch than the poor, sick, and disabled, and it’s only the 20 percent or so of the population that smokes who would pay rather than the much larger segment of the population that would get hit with the sick tax. Kind of like the squeaky wheel getting the grease, those who complain the most will get first dibs on money most easily extracted from the fewest number.

There is also some question about doing the right thing in regards to the higher-than-anticipated oil revenues that constitutionally must go into the Budget Stabilization Fund. Many legislators lick their chops when they see this money being put into the piggy bank and want to declare by fiat it is a rainy day and time to bust it open. Senate Pres. Don Hines only yesterday had his bill to raid the Fund heard in a Senate committee which fortunately did not act on it. Maybe the pressure is off now with this newly “found” money but regardless this impulse needs vigorous resisting.

In all, the state cannot let this windfall make it think that serious fiscal and structural reforms are not necessary. Let’s not turn this state into a lottery winner that subsequently fritters it all away.


Simple Caddo-Bossier bill belies political import

At first glance, one may wonder why all the fuss over SB 333, state Sen. Max Malone’s bill to rejigger the composition of the Caddo-Bossier Parishes Port Commission. Why would Malone want to do this, and why does there seem to be some vociferous resistance from Shreveport officials to do it?

We need a brief overview of the Commission to understand this. Presently, each of the parish legislatures appoints one representative while the mayors of Shreveport and Bossier City select five and two members, respectively, with City Council approval. Two port officials also serve on it. They finance their operating activities with a property tax levied on parish landowners as long as it is approved by parish voters.

Among the members presently, all Shreveport designees are allies, if not close friends, of Shreveport Mayor Keith Hightower. Among Bossier City designees, they are the incoming Mayor-elect Lo Walker and CAO-designate Lynn Austin.

Malone’s bill, which has as co-authors all the area’s legislative delegation except for state Rep. Hoppy Hopkins (who has had to miss a good bit of this legislative session) and the black Democrats, would make two changes. First, the method of selection would change where each area senator would nominate individuals (District 37’s – Malone – getting two because his district is divided equally between the two parishes) for all but one spot each for the allocated representatives of the cities (the parish representatives would remain the same), with the two other spots being one each appointed by each mayor without a fixed term (unlike all the other appointees, who have overlapping six-year terms).

The practical effect of this is salutary. The Commission, an entity created by the Legislature for statewide economic development purposes, presently is too much a parochial creature of the local governments. Have some state input into the nomination process creates a better balance between state and local perspectives.

(It might also create greater public input and transparency to the Commission. It meets monthly at Shreveport’s swank University Club, does not publicly publish its budget, and conducts its meetings in record time – its last published minutes involving the budget were from 12/11/03 and it dispatched that and everything else in 16 minutes.)

Its political impact, however, is to reduce the patronage possibilities for Hightower since this bill would go into effect in 2006, a resource Hightower would like to have to support his political ambitions (it is no accident that two of the commissioners, James Pannell and Scott Pernici, have been at the center of recent corruption allegations levied at the Hightower Administration).

Second, the bill would change the Shreveport-Bossier City representative ratio from 5-2 to 4-3. The former ratio is more reflective of the distributions of population and economic activity between the two. Despite this disproportionate advantage to Bossier City, Shreveport city lobbyist, Commissioner, and Hightower loyalist Michael Wainwright reported that the two Bossier City commissioners and incoming administration opposed the idea even if they would pick an extra appointee.

Note, however, that Walker and Austin’s opposition probably stems from the fact that Bossier City will now have just one directly appointed representative instead of two. It also has drawn the ire of the only senator whose district is in the bill who is not supporting it, Lydia Jackson, who wants to amend the ratio to its previous status. Note that the original ratio in the bill appeals not just to Malone’s status as equally representing both parishes, but also helped bring on board all Bossier legislators.

Another black Democrat, former Shreveport city councilman (who served there with Hightower) State Rep. Cedric Glover is on record opposing the bill. Also a Hightower loyalist who has carried his water more than once, with Shreveport’s emerging black majority Glover is a prime mayoral candidate in 2006 and likely does not want to see the power of direct appointment lost to the city.

Regardless whether the ratio is amended back to the current balance, the idea of allowing the state more influence is good, not just from an economic development standpoint, but also to create more checks and balances over the Commission.


Stop the pay raise/cigarette tax shell game

It’s truly dangerous when government thinks it’s going to have “excess” revenues and wonders how it is going to spend them. This topic has emerged in light of estimates that the now $1 a pack cigarette tax increase is wending its way through the Louisiana House would generate much more money than Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s goal of giving public school employees and college faculty members raises would require.

Of course, counting chickens before they hatch is a long-standing tradition in Louisiana fiscal policy so these estimates may be very off (as well as a history of taking revenues from one thing and using them to fund another different, especially with tobacco). They certainly will be somewhat off (wasn’t the 1998 Tobacco Settlement supposed to solve educational under-funding?) because a tax increase of that magnitude will cause some people finally to quit smoking (at least people will feel better about hanging around most public buildings in Shreveport). Still, there could be some revenue generated above and beyond funding this salary increase.

Blanco has made noises that surplus funds would go to health care. In essence, this admits the hypocrisy of the whole exercise: if you are taxing an activity because it is supposedly bad partly to discourage the behavior, the revenues generated should go to addressing the problems created by the behavior. As the behavior declines because of the tax, the problem becomes smaller, but so do the revenues to handle the reduced problem. You don’t link the revenues to something totally unconnected to it because then the problem doesn’t get addressed and the revenue stream, with no relationship to the issue to which it is linked, is unreliable to fund the other issue.

The whole strategy has been to find something unpopular engaged in by only a minority of the population, and to suck money out of that group because it is the kind of tax increase the least resisted by the majority and it is tied into a popular but wholly unrelated area. If increased educational salaries were really a state priority, it would be taken care of already by cutting spending in presumably less-important areas (maybe even in health care through more efficient use of resources.) In short, it is nothing but a shell game.

Were there any real rationality to all of this Blanco would reverse her case – she would clamor for the tax increase as a way pump additional funds into state health care expenditures, and then fund raises only after health care needs are met. This tax’s proceeds could be made to flow into a dedicated fund whose revenues only went into health care. Then an amount of money now coming from the general fund into health care could be redirected to these raises.

This kind of arrangement would out logic into the process and take hypocrisy out of it. If Louisianans are going to get hit with a tax increase which, frankly, is unjustified until greater efficiency measures first are introduced into state government and policy, at least have one which serves a real need and encourages the state to adopt a saner set of priorities.