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Legislature has tools to resist gubernatorial intrusion

Falling well within the feel-good, do-nothing category of legislation confronting Louisiana is state Rep. Troy Hebert’s HB 547, which starting in 2007 would prevent the governor, governor-elect, or candidates from trying to influence the selection of legislative leaders. It would be enforced through the Board of Ethics, which could levy a penalty of up to $10,000. Earlier this week, it passed committee.

It would be counterproductive to engage in an extended explanation of the inability to enforce the bill if it became law, but that would detract from the larger issue that, rather than circumscribing the robustness of the political process, if the Legislature really wanted to prevent executive branch influence in its leadership, it simply could take matters into its own hands under its present powers.

Currently, the governor uses certain tools of leverage to try to direct the legislature. For example, with her power to utilize the line item veto, a governor can use it to excise spending items, especially of the capital budget variety, that would accrue to the constituents of a legislator’s district. That is, if these requests even got there; essentially, the capital budgeting procedure puts it squarely under the power of the governor.

R.S. 39:101(A) provides that capital outlay requests must be submitted by state agencies to the division of administration and by local government agencies through their appropriate state legislators no later than November 1 of each year. By Mar. 1 of the next year, from these sources the governor decides which projects are to be included in the capital outlay budget and included in the capital outlay bill presented to the legislature for the regular session each year.

In essence, the legislature has given the governor this power of choosing at the start. If it wanted to control this gubernatorial power, it would just change he law mandating this instead of adding new ones. Further, it could resist line item vetoes at the end by overriding them.

When reviewing the state Constitution, it becomes clear that the governor has few formal tools to leverage enough power over the Legislature to dictate its leadership (as she currently does informally, by letting it know who she prefers, and then they meekly fall into line). But even recently, it has defied the governor, as it did in the last couple of years of former Gov. Buddy Roemer’s administration when it threw out his handpicked designees and went with their own.

Again, if legislators were serious about this, they simply would exercise their own legal and constitutional powers of their body to correct the situation. More regulation of the matter is inefficient and inelegant in a democracy of separated powers.


Rally underscores needed change in state disability spending

Last week, advocates of greater individual freedom for the disabled and for more efficient state spending descended on Baton Rouge in support of legislation that would accomplish both. Hopefully, the Legislature will pay close attention to their concerns.

The hundreds assembled argued mainly for passage of SB 537 by Sen. Sharon Weston Broome which would convert any savings that the state would get from closing either or both of state homes for the disabled to funding community-based waiver programs that would allow capable disabled individuals to live outside of nursing homes. But they just as easily could have been stumping for SB 415 by Sen. Tom Schedler which would create an independent living council that would propose policy to improve the opportunities of the disabled to live outside of institutions. Both these bills have yet to be scheduled for a Senate committee hearing.

Demand obviously is there as witnessed by the 14,768 people on waiting lists to obtain these services. For them, only two alternative exist – either they do without services and must depend upon family, friends, and other volunteers to care for them, or they are forced into nursing homes which is paid for in part by state funds that typically cost three times as much as would state money spent on the waivers.

Voluminous documentation exists proving that Louisiana spends too much on nursing home care and not enough on community- and home-based care, relative to the state’s demographics and in comparison to other state. While for some in nursing homes that is the only realistic option for them to receive adequate care (if the homes care to provide it), for many others community- and home-based care are more than adequate in their cases.

These bills – and the rejection SB 613 by Sen. Sherri Smith Cheek which seeks to make the present inequitable formula biased in favor of institutional care even harder to reform – would make excellent first steps to improving the quality of life for many disabled in the state and for the state to use its resources more wisely.


Letting agricultural markets prevail optimal for Louisiana

In the parlance of collective behavior, it’s known as “logrolling:” the exchanging of assistance or favors. Specifically regarding politics, it’s the trading of votes by legislators to secure favorable action on projects of interest to each one. It explains why the U.S. expends tens of billions of dollars a year on agricultural subsidies, and the dilemma presenting itself to Louisiana producers that could change all of that.

Because of political clout, American agricultural producers enjoy taxpayer subsidy of their products to the detriment of those paying, consumers, and American international trade. That is, they are encouraged to grow more than the marketplace ordinarily would support; specifically, the largest producers reap the lion’s share of these gifts from taxpayers. It’s a notion inherited from an era when agriculture was the largest single industry in the economy and was performed almost exclusively by “family” farms.

(Some useful statistics here: Farms comprising less than 4 percent in number have over 52 percent of the total acreage. Sales of the largest 1.4 percent, comprising 9.8 percent of the total acreage, are 47 percent of the total. Theses are 2002 figures. Of the $43.7 billion in profit made by farms in 2003, $13.6 billion came from subsidies, or over 31 percent.)

One reason why it has persisted is members of Congress from farm states could team up with each other to support the many kinds of products collectively produced, but often with any particular product concentrated in just a few states – logrolling. As long as they could stick together, enough could agree to get everybody’s favorite product supported. Louisiana, in particular its producers of sugar as it is the single largest commodity produced in the state, are a big beneficiary of this attitude.

But that may be changing in the state as opprobrium increasingly is turning onto the sugar industry, usually cited as the worst example of inefficient, wasteful subsidy spending, as well as a rift growing between agricultural and aquacultural producers. It turns out that the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, where virtually no harvestable marine life exists during periods of maximal output, is exacerbated by fertilizer runoff.

Advocates of farming interests who benefit from the transfer of wealth from taxpayers to the agriculture industry and representatives of the fertilizer industry itself tapdance around the essential issue by saying other pollutants contribute and that farmers have every incentive to minimize the use of fertilizer since it costs them money. But these excuses miss the overarching point: if subsidies were not present to over-stimulate production, there would be less fertilizer runoff, and a smaller de-oxygenated zone, if any at all.

From Louisiana’s perspective, it changes the situation of producers from win-win to win-lose. Either agriculture gets propped up to the detriment of aquaculture/fisheries, or freeing market forces benefits aquaculture at the expense of the present preferential position for agriculture. And it is here that the seeds of change could germinate.

Supporters of subsidies have argued that they are needed to keep America self-reliant in agriculture, and because removal of them would also create a huge dislocation in agriculture. But these fears have been proven unfounded as the experiences of Australia and New Zealand, whose economies depend much more heavily on agriculture, show when they essentially, in a matter of years, dropped practically all subsidies, that the doomsday dislocation scenario never happened. And the agricultural market is not so inelastic as, if American quickly needed to ramp up production, it could not quickly respond to a shortage situation (which may not be such a bad thing with obesity in the U.S. raging out of control).

What Louisiana’s federally-elected officials must understand is the tradeoff here, that one set of the state’s interests has become opposed to another. And since one gets resources taken from the people and handed to it for no good reason which seems to cause the problem, they should support the end of this wasteful system which will help the other and the public as a whole. As almost is universally true, letting the free market determine allocation of resources optimizes the well-being of society.


Stuck on stupid XVII: Ater calls tune, asks feds to pay fiddler

Sep. 30, when the special election for Secretary of State will occur, cannot come soon enough, as the latest remarks concerning election expenses by its present, unelected (and fortunately not running) head Al Ater, only can lead one to conclude the office is occupied by a dingbat who thinks the intelligence of Orleans Parish residents cannot rise even to that level.

Ater, who for months has argued in favor of reduced ballot security, of delaying Orleans Parish elections as long as possible, and of committing the state to go far beyond legal or constitutional requirements to hold those elections, has gotten all indignant that the federal government refuses to pay for the extra estimated $3 million the state is spending on frivolous communications efforts for those elections. He even sees some kind of bias against Louisiana, hinting that is born of the fact that the national minority Democrats run the state. “Does President Bush not care about the democratic process in New Orleans?” he gripes, and wonders why in 2001 New York City got its entire postponed election expenses paid for.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says the costs to locate addresses and send out all sorts of literature to people displaced out of Orleans Parish as a result of the 2005 hurricane disasters do not qualify for federal funding. One of his subalterns, Angie LaPlace, commissioner of elections, argued otherwise, saying that FEMA did not take into account the stupidity of Orleanians. “This was an extraordinary event,” LaPlace helpfully reminds. “We don't expect people to be election experts. We don't think the average person would know the election process well and how to get a ballot and how to vote.”

Perhaps LaPlace is even denser than Ater, because she doesn’t seem to be aware that all anybody needs to know about how to voter early/absentee in Louisiana already is posted at her own department’s website. If she does, then in her mind an “election expert” is someone who knows how to point, click, read English, and find a 39-cent stamp, skills she apparently doubts most people have.

While it’s clear these dunderheads know how to loosen demagoguery into the public discourse, it’s equally evident they apparently can’t understand federal laws. 44CFR206.233 makes plain what qualifies as an expense qualifying for a Public Assistance grant from FEMA , paid to governments:

(a) General. To be eligible for financial assistance, an item of work must:
(1) Be required as the result of the major disaster event

Since New York postponed its election two weeks because of its response to the terrorist attack on the day of the election, it’s clear the disaster itself caused the postponement. But in no way was the “voter education” campaign required for New Orleans to hold its delayed elections.

Ater bleats the same discredited excuse for this that he has used all along to justify his attempts to loosen ballot security, provide for satellite voting, and for the superfluous communications: “We're trying to keep the U.S. Justice Department, the Legislature and federal courts happy. These are extraordinary expenses, all due to Katrina.” But this argument has been invalidated at every turn by the Justice Department and federal courts by their refusal to sanction earlier state inaction in this area (indeed, swiftly approving elections without the mailouts) and to ever even remotely hint that the state needed to do these things to make the elections “fair.”

But if you think these actions and statements by Ater are arrogant, most breathtaking of all on this account is his charge of bias when the increased communications, election delay, reduced ballot security, and satellite voting centers all were attempts by Ater to interject as much of a bias in favor of Democrats as he possibly could. While they have couched their rhetoric in terms of the upcoming New Orleans elections only, these partisans’ long term plan is to drag on the state of emergency as long as possible and justify all of these measures into state law to apply for elections all over the state, for as long as they can.

In essence Ater, who was aiming to be the next head of the state Democrats until another faction in the party outflanked him and his backers such as Gov. Kathleen Blanco, moans about how the federal government, run by Republicans and backed by the law, is not subsidizing his efforts to aid Democrats. And guess who ends up paying for his naked partisanship? That’s right, Louisiana citizens will, about 70 cents per head. Write to this moron what you think about his making Louisianans pay for his idiocy here.


Bills try to promote, prevent health care spending efficiency

A recent column in the Shreveport Times by a local nursing home administrator expressed the sentiment that, in reference to the next state budget, both nursing homes and community-based long-term health care in Louisiana be “adequately funded [and] must be an essential state and national public policy objective.” The problem is that in this state nursing homes are overfunded and community-based care is underfunded.

Consider the conclusions drawn from the Legislative Auditor’s 2004 report “Medicaid Long-Term Care Options for the Elderly and People With Disabilities: National and Louisiana Statistics:”

  • Louisiana ranked 1st in the nation in percentage of long-term care Medicaid expenditures used for institutional care in federal fiscal year 2002. Louisiana spent 90.2% of its Medicaid long-term care funds on institutional care.
  • Louisiana ranked 1st in the nation in the number of Intermediate Care Facilities for the Mentally Retarded (ICF/MRs) per 100,000 people as of June 30, 2002, and 2nd in the nation for per capita expenditures for ICF/MRs in federal fiscal year 2001. Louisiana spent $79.57 per person for ICF/MR care in comparison to $32.00 nationally and $33.95 for the Southern Regional Educational Board (SREB) states.
  • Louisiana ranked 4th in the nation in per capita expenditures for nursing facilities in federal fiscal year 2001. Louisiana spent $259.43 per person for nursing facility care in comparison to $148.70 nationally and $129.10 for the SREB states. Louisiana also ranked above both the nation and the SREB states in the number of nursing facilities per 100,000 people for calendar year 2002.

    Why are per person costs so much to Louisiana taxpayers? Because nursing homes in this state have one of the lowest occupancy rates in the nation. Also keep in mind that this three-quarter of a billion dollar annual industry gets 85 percent of its revenues from taxpayers. These and other facts lead the Auditor’s 2005 Performance Audit Report to conclude that the state could have saved as much as $97 million by having a uniform assessment process that would place those with long-term care needs in their most efficient setting and by adjusting the reimbursement system to be in line with other states.

    By contrast, as of the end of 2003, fewer than half of the eligible people that could receive community-based services did receive them (a gap of 11,338). If it costs for one year $7.2 million to create 800 more slots, this yearly savings could have paid to wipe out almost the entire backlog.

    Shreveport’s Republican state Sen. Sherri Smith Cheek, who sits as vice chair of the Senate’s Health and Welfare Committee, could spearhead a move to realize these efficiencies. Instead, Cheek is trying to perpetuate the present inefficiency, with her introduction of SB 613. It closely tracks her SB 253 from last regular session which attempts to write into law the wasteful formula rewarding empty beds, leading to the low occupancy rates.

    More helpfully, with her SB 537, Democrat Sharon Weston Broome does a better job on this account. This bill softens the blow from a hard choice the state must make affecting Bossier City’s Northwest Louisiana Developmental Center.

    The Center houses developmentally disabled individuals and is scheduled for closing under the proposed budget of Gov. Kathleen Blanco because of cost pressures, even as it appears closure of the facility, relative to the alternative of closing others across the state, was decided more on the basis of its cost rather than its cost effectiveness. Nonetheless, as advocates of the disabled rightly point out, it also follows the institutionalization model, which is more expensive and less necessary than home- or community-based care for many the state wishes to serve.

    (This point may be lost on local and state politicians wanting to keep the facility open, such as Bossier City councilman David Jones declaring “this budget is picking a fight with people that can't take care of themselves,” when they may not realize the fight many families would like to pick is with the state to get it to help their loved ones live at home or in the community instead of warehousing them.)

    Certainly the state should review this decision on the nature of the population served and alternatives to that service rather than simply trying to plug a budgetary hole. But if a more cost-effective and client-oriented way is found than leaving it open, Broome’s bill would mandate that the money saved be used to fund home- and community-based care – definitely a step in the right direction for those who want the state to save money and to provide improved quality of life to those and their families who must live with disability.