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Fields, Jackson undermine Louisiana democracy

If the Rev. Jesse Jackson is going to carpetbag in Louisiana on the conduct of elections, it would do if he got his facts straight. Then maybe the hurricane-force blowhard winds that he produces wouldn’t spawn little tornadoes like state Sen. Cleo Fields’ lawsuit to stop the Apr. 22 elections in Orleans Parish.

Jackson asserts several inaccuracies. First, like it should make any difference, New Orleans will have a majority of black voters present on Apr. 22. The fact that Jackson mistakenly mentions that New Orleans’ population composition present now is majority white implies that he really wouldn’t think voting rights is an issue if he had known a majority black population likely will be on the ground on election day. That is, if a hurricane shattered a majority white city that left a majority of non-whites in the city on election day, we wouldn’t hear a peep out of him. It’s not voting rights he’s concerned about, it’s power for a constituency he claims to represent.

Also, when Jackson writes “Louisiana … refused to provide satellite voting places for those dispersed,” it’s obvious he paid no attention to what happened in the last special session when the state bent over backwards to set up 10 of these for the next couple of elections (he can check here for a full account). He also accuses the state of holding “an election with a secret voting roll in New Orleans.” This is patently untrue: anybody can request to see the names of registered voters in Orleans Parish at any time.

Fields takes these untruths and runs with them, claiming in a request to the U.S. Department of Justice that the state has not done enough to ensure minority voting rights. In fact, the state has complied with its own laws, in the past found adequate by the federal government, and even gone beyond them, by spending millions of dollars to directly inform displaced voters about election aspects.

Indeed, Fields shows little understanding for the basic principles of American government when he echoes claims that evacuees are unlikely to take advantage of the complicated procedures that would let them vote by mail-in absentee ballots (why are these people different from anybody else for whom these procedures have been in place for years; aren’t all people to be treated equally?) and when he makes statements like “What's the rush? There's not one vacant position. All of these positions have elected officials that are in place.” Uh, OK, but a fundamental precept of our representative democracy is that elected majoritarian branch officials serve fixed, not open-ended, terms.
In this light, the actions of Jackson and Fields represent a disregard for democratic principles, even as they insist they are allegedly trying to promote them.


Blanco's risky budget fails to promote real fiscal reform

Be prepared for a budgetary two-step coming from the administration of Gov. Kathleen Blanco: she’s going to claim it represents fundamental reform and a decrease in spending when it really doesn’t, and when all is said and done, it will continue to perpetuate past inefficient practices and priorities that have become less affordable than ever in this era of budgetary uncertainty.

Comparing the budget placed into law by the Legislature at the end of the 2005 regular session, there is a noticeable hike in expenditures over twice the rate of inflation. But get ready to hear that this budget not only doesn’t create a big increase, you’ll hear it actually represents a decrease – because Blanco will argue that it is less than the budget approved after the special sessions and executive orders she issued which incorporated a huge influx of federal funds put there in response to the hurricane disasters of 2005.

In other words, the proposed budget ($20.294 billion) is considerably higher than the one that went into effect on 7/1/05 ($18.427 billion). But it is actually slightly lower than the one that went into effect 12/1/05 ($20.787 billion). (A difference which, at first, left some legislators scratching their heads.) Guess which difference will be harped upon in the next three months by the Blanco Administration?

Actually, when all is said and done, that’s the only real difference between last year’s and this year’s budget – federal funds. When you subtract out the extra amount of it that added in, there’s little difference between the two.

Which, if you take a glass half-full approach, isn’t a bad deal. You could argue that an essentially standstill budget is a good thing in a state with a history of living beyond its means. But that would be, unfortunately, the wrong way to look at it.

Besides the influx of federal funds (which will go away when the aftermath of the disasters becomes ameliorated), three other substantial changes occurred within the past eight months. One, the Blanco Administration and Legislature cut about $615 million in spending; two, the Budget Stabilization Fund was raided to the tune of nearly $154 million, and three, in the current budget additional revenues of $410 million have been recognized. In essence, around $1.1 billion of a combination of restored cuts and new spending wiped away gains from cuts and use of new revenues (mainly revenues, as some lawmakers have pointed, which really should be treated as nonrecurring where Blanco foresees them as being used for continuing items such as educator salary increases and health spending – the administration’s excuse: Blanco’s not doing anything not done in previous budgets).

Admittedly, a few items do point to a half-hearted attempt to restructure state spending. The urban and rural funds were not resurrected, and a few hundred employees did drop from the state government rolls (whether they were needed in light of cuts to provision of social services and education, resulting from reduced population from the disasters, is another matter.) Blanco also wants to marginally increase spending on more efficient community-based long-term health care, by way of another example.

However, her budget lacks major structural reforms. One example here is in monies spent on the wasteful institutional bias present in long-term health care; the budget seems to reflect no attempt to realize roughly $100 million a year in savings from changing reimbursement policies to nursing homes. In short, some expenditures got moved around to make the state a marginally more efficient enterprise, some mostly lower-priority, previously-cut items along with some big ticket new spending got added, and the state drew down on its “rainy day” fund and upon revenues uncertain to continue in order to compensate.

To pull all of this off, Blanco is betting that projections don’t materially change and that Louisiana experiences a “hurricane dividend:” that people displaced from the state disproportionately were less productive to the state in terms of revenues they brought to it but bigger drains on health and human services they claimed from the state. Only time will tell, and it may tell very badly if neither of these come to pass.

So, do not be fooled if Blanco proclaims that her budget not only does not promote “big government,” but that it represents real reform. It does not: real reform would have entailed keeping most of the cuts enacted in the past few months, extending them further into areas based on priority, shifting expenditures to deal with bigger but more obscure problems (such as unfunded accrued liabilities in Louisiana’s pension funds, estimated to grow by about another $237 million this year), demanding more efficiency out of the bureaucracy, and utilizing far more conservatively additionally recognized revenues from the state’s own and the federal government’s resources. The glass is half-empty, and until reform beyond what Blanco seems willing to offer occurs, Louisiana always will risk fiscal difficulties.


What hurricanes? Blanco budget promises business as usual

Let me get this straight, six months ago the sky was falling in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with Rita soon on her way to add insult to injury (relatively speaking). But instead, if you are to take Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s 2006-07 budget at its word, not only is the sky not falling, it’s raining money onto the fair state of Louisiana.

Sure, a good 350,000-plus still are displaced, probably most never to return, thousands of revenue-producing businesses with them, and damage estimates topping (when counting insurance claims and government assistance) over $100 billion, but Blanco decided on the back of better-than-expected revenues to propose the largest budget, by far, in the history of the state.

Optimists like myself, in the aftermath of the disasters, comforted ourselves by thinking a streamlining and prioritizing of government would serve as the silver lining to the dark cloud. As if a business undergoing tough economic times, state government would reorganize itself to become more efficient and to shed itself of functions which provided little real benefits compared to great costs. Money, I figured, would go to where it was really needed.

Silly me. Personally, I might like a raise, but let’s see how some other things first work out (which probably do not include raises for secondary school teachers because they continue to get overpaid for what they produce – although with Orleans Parish and its union-driven high-pay, low-performance system largely defeated, maybe in the rest of the state results have caught up to compensation). There is still a multitude of spending time bombs which should have first priority over any restored cuts or new spending, such as the $12 billion unfunded accrued liability of state retirement systems.

Note that the $20.3 billion price tag on this produces an annual increase of 8.56 percent, more than doubling the current rate of inflation. And this is after factoring out state job and spending cuts that resulted from the disasters. Plus, who knows how high it would have gone without this being an odd-numbered year session, when taxes can’t be raised ordinarily, blunting Blanco’s proclivity to hike them.

Details of the budget are forthcoming soon, but with the broad numbers coming out as they are it seems unlikely any real push towards efficiency and priorities will appear in it. So (even as the federal government watches and ponders whether to give more recovery money to a state with a spendthrift reputation), Louisiana looks to rip even the silver lining off the cloud and waste it like it has done so often in the past?


Black majority present in Orleans, aiding Nagin

For awhile after Hurricane Katrina, conventional wisdom was that Republicans and white candidates electorally would be advantaged in Orleans Parish. Congressional Research Service data indicated that blacks disproportionately fled the city and such relatively few numbers were left that non-blacks actually held a majority in New Orleans by Oct., 2005.

But it’s not going to happen. I presented a paper last week at the Louisiana Political Science Association 2006 annual meeting that estimates that while Orleans Parish will have regained less than half of its pre-storm population by city elections Apr. 22, it will have a black majority, using a model based upon estimated population and actual voter registration statistics both before and after Hurricane Katrina struck the greater New Orleans area in late Aug., 2005.

Taking a voting model based upon past elections shows, with so many blacks registered as Democrats and historically voting for such candidates that Democrat candidates should have little trouble in winning city/parish elections. We have to remember that New Orleans was 68 percent black in population prior to Katrina, with over 165,000 more blacks than all other racial group numbers combined. About half of all registered voters were black Democrats. Even if blacks are not returning to the city in the proportion, 73 percent, that comprised the evacuees, it appears a majority, about 57 percent, of the returnees are black.

As the city continues to repopulate, blacks have regained their numerical dominance, a trend that will continue until New Orleans reaches its “carrying capacity” of just over 300,000 around the end of the year. Then the city will grow slowly if at all for some time. But there will be an estimated 115,242 blacks present in New Orleans by Apr. 22, as opposed to about 103,000 non-blacks.

We also can use historical data to figure out the numbers of black Democrats, white Democrats, and white Republicans projected to be present, to create a voting model. The statistics don’t look good for Republicans at all. 53,803 black Democrats are predicted to be in New Orleans on election day, compared to less than 18,000 white Republicans. And even if, unrealistically, one theorized that every single white Democrat voted for a Republican, those predicted there only comprise about 26,000. The black and Democrat advantage will continue to grow by the general election runoff on May 20.

Adjusting by registration and historical voting patterns doesn’t change this relationship. Blacks expected to vote still will outnumber non-blacks by several hundred. And this does not include absentee/early voting totals which are heavily weighed to blacks.

These numbers tell us that if the likes of Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu want to wrest the mayor’s job from Ray Nagin, they’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way: a bi-racial coalition. Being the only major black candidate in the race, unless one of the major white candidates can snare a non-trivial portion of the black vote, Nagin will win even with all the bad publicity he has garnered (and he realizes this as his campaigning emphasizes his ethnicity.)

To win the office of New Orleans mayor in 2006, you’re almost certainly going to have to run as a Democrat. And if you base your strategy of the mistaken belief that whites will comprise a majority of voters, you guarantee yourself defeat. (P.S. if readers would like a copy of the paper, write me.)