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LA House remap perhaps most controversial of all

If you think controversy has flared over a redistricting proposal that would shift two state Senate seats out of New Orleans after the 2010 census, and as if redistricting that will lead to the loss of a U.S. House seat isn’t also stirring the pot enough, the biggest one has yet to be addressed.

Regarding the House seat, two ideas are making rounds: eliminate the Third District, basically south of I-10 and east of I-49 currently white-majority and the only one not held by a Republican, or combine the Fourth and Fifth which essentially take up all of the state north of Alexandria. Momentum is on the side of the former as it fits better legal aspects of redistricting imposed by federal courts, the Third will have no sitting Congressman to defend it, Republicans who with the governorship and an effective majority in the state House have the upper hand in the process and will want to see a Democrat district dismantled, and black political interests wishing to preserve an Orleans power base desire this outcome.

Regarding the Senate, the Republican/black coalition also is making itself felt as this plan will create three black-majority districts at the expense of removing two such districts from New Orleans. If black politicians join Republicans on this, they will have more than enough votes in the Senate to approve such a plan. However, the prospects of this plan are less certain because so many Senate interests are threatened – not just because of the two black Democrat New Orleans Senate seats (mathematically, a plan could be produced that creates only the loss of one), but also as several white Democrats will find their districts may become less favorable for one of their partisans to be elected and with a nine-seat edge even if only half of black senators stay with them they can prevent the plan from succeeding.

But where the real consternation may occur is in the state House. There, by the numbers, New Orleans stands to lose three House seats. And the geography, demography, and legal environment suggest more loss of black and Democrat power.

Ideally, the districts that come out of the process will have about 44,000 residents, which translates normally into about 30,000 registrants to vote. This puts almost all current Orleans-based districts at risk, but black-majority ones more than others. In fact, the most any has according to them latest statistics is the 93rd (currently vacant) at 25,341. The 99th (Charmaine Stiaes with 19,122) and 101st (Cedric Richmond at 19,885) both are under 20,000.

Viewing the map, one easy consolidation and some paring would be the 101st with the 100th (23,042), state Rep. Austin Badon’s. This is not news; it’s no accident that term-limited Richmond is running for Congress (and favored to win) while Badon is running for New Orleans City Council. With Badon not term-limited, if he loses the city race, not against an incumbent in a combined district he probably won’t mind this change.

A little trickier but still obvious would be the combination and paring of the 99th and the 97th (22,718), the latter held by recent arrival state Rep. Jared Brossett. Both would want to remain in office but Stiaes has been around a lot longer than Brossett and probably could get a combined district drawn to her favor.

Yet it Republicans and blacks, for different reasons, wanted to go for the jugular, they could create two districts out of the 96th (22,418) held by state Rep. Juan LaFonta who is running against Richmond, the 93rd, and the 98th (21,736) held by state white Rep. Neil Abramson. The 96th and 98th are not next to each other, but the dismembering of the 93rd would connect them. Intriguingly, the 98th is a majority-black district more centered on Uptown but it could be made to disappear into two majority-black districts – in essence, blacks would then lose just two seats and whites one.

This kind of plan may appeal to blacks if then the 103rd and 104th, based in St. Bernard, are combined. Democrat state Rep. Reed Henderson’s 103rd (17,467) and Republican state Rep. Nita Hutter’s 104th (16,313) simply cannot survive the depopulation of the area separately. Both are white and Hutter is term-limited. Being the only incumbent then, Henderson, even if a consolidated district might favor a Republican, could feel optimistic about retaining the seat. This would mean in the New Orleans area two seats held by blacks and two seats by whites would disappear – in the minds of black politicians, perhaps a good deal given the circumstances.

A final bonus to blacks would be the 91st, 95th and 102nd districts, held respectively by white Democrats Walter Leger, Walker Hines and Jeff Arnold, could still be arranged to have majority black populations. This means if not in 2011, then soon after, all of these could gain black representatives. Thus, in terms of sheer number of black representatives, there may actually be more after redistricting than before.

Republicans would not mind this at all. From the perspective of Gov. Bobby Jindal, wiping out Abramson’s district might not have him shed many tears as Abramson has been one of Jindal’s staunchest legislative critics. They would have a good chance at keeping a combined 103/104, could be competitive at some point in the 91st, 95th, and 102nd, and with four seats shifting out of the area to other parts of the state are very likely to get one or more of those newly drawn in a way that favors them.

This is just one scenario, but one which maximizes Republican and black Democrat representation at the expense of white Democrats. Whether Democrats will fracture over this remains to be seen, but it helps to recall that there has been some historical animosity of the rest of the state towards New Orleans, and the chance to pile on may be too much to resist regardless of party and race.


Senate remap plan creates more demographic equity

A joint redistricting plan jointly proposed by a social conservative interest group and a black Democrat state senator presents not only a good redistricting plan for the Louisiana Senate but also highlights the stakes present in the upcoming decennial exercise.

The Louisiana Family Forum is not a stranger to these attempts, as it previously has offered a plan for U.S. House redistricting in the wake of the great likelihood that the state will lose a seat after the 2010 census. Combining forces with it is state Sen. Elbert Guillory, and just like the House plan, this state Senate plan recognized increased black political clout and decreased white Democrat strength.

With the House plan, essentially what is today’s Third District currently represented by white, and currently the only in the delegation, Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon is the casualty of declining population. The LFF plan essentially creates five districts in areas that recently have been won by Republicans and a majority-black district captured in unusually circumstances by Asian Republican Anh “Joseph” Cao last election. This makes it less likely that a white Democrat will be elected from the state and currently is the idea with the most momentum, without Melancon around to lobby for his present district (he is running for the U.S. Senate), depopulation of Orleans Parish necessitating that Cao’s district expand, and desires of black politicians to make sure that a majority black district that would comprise 17 percent of the state’s population remain in a state where 30 percent of the overall population is black.

The state Senate plan follows these parameters in the sense that it shuffles the 39 districts to maximize black representation while dismembering districts of two term-limited legislators – currently held by state Sens. Joe McPherson and Rob Marionneaux – and two recent arrivals to the Senate – state Sens. J.P. Morrell and Karen Peterson – and shifting completely around the district of term-limited Sen. Pres. Joel Chaisson – to constitute new ones. In the process, even as it obliterates two Orleans-based black majority districts, it creates three new ones in different parts of the state – in the River Parishes area, Acadiana, and central Louisiana.

This could be a significant selling point. Currently, only two mainly non-urban majority-black districts exist – in the northeast part (now represented by white Democrat state Sen. Francis Thompson) and just north of Lafayette (Guillory’s). This would create three more, and might appeal to black politicians who would like to see greater opportunity for blacks to be elected outside of urban areas in the state and who wish to clip New Orleans’ political power. Indeed, the plan is advertised as seeking “demographic equity.”

Since it increases the number of black majority districts, it reduces the dilution of black voting strength statewide. Currently, the average spread between the two races in Senate districts is 47 percent. This plan would increase it to 55. That aspect may worry white Democrat politicians because it will make some of the districts they currently hold significantly more amenable to the election of a Republican – particularly the 18th of state Sen. Jody Amedee, the new 19th, the 21st of term-limited state Sen. Butch Gautreaux, the 22nd of state Sen. Troy Hebert, and the 29th of state Sen. Jack Smith.

Two black Democrats also may have problems with this plan, Morrell and Peterson, especially the latter as she just got elected to this seat after leaving the second-ranked position in the House. Her clout may be the most substantial roadblock to this plan but the reality is New Orleans at the very least will lose one Senate seat and if other black politicians are willing to let internecine warfare occur within New Orleans to get these others benefits of the plan, they can box in her, Morrell, and the senators they would be pitted against, Ann Duplessis and Edwin Murray.

This plan will become law if a majority of black Democrats in the Legislature – particularly those in the House who might have progressive ambition for some new Senate seats – will put aside relationships with some existing members with the goal of increasing overall black representation in the Senate. They will be assisted by Republicans who also could get more of their members elected under this plan – as things stand, if the districts listed above flip, they will have a Senate majority. As with the House plan, the odd people out will be white Democrats, casualties of a Louisiana white electorate that increasingly finds itself opposed to Democrats nationally and a Louisiana black electorate seeking co-ethnic candidates to represent their interests.


Jindal protecting higher education serves political goals

Perhaps the most unexpected budget decision made by Gov. Bobby Jindal for fiscal year 2010-11 was to make only a relatively small reduction to money going to higher education management boards and none others. As he and others elaborate on their thinking towards higher education funding, the potential rationales for this become clearer.

After priming the world for a large round of cuts to all of higher education with the establishment of the Postsecondary Education Review Commission by the Legislature, which teed up recommendations that could justify tens of millions of dollars in reductions, then Jindal basically used the budget to impose just one of them, consolidation of system governance. Jindal’s explanation was that, after facing a quarter billion dollars of downsizing over the past 14 months, the system needed time to adjust to that.

Jindal did propose cutting some other areas, quite significantly, and continued relatively smaller cuts to health care which prompted immediate complaint from a hospital group representative. Also, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee state Rep. Jim Fannin indicated his panel might be in a cutting mood – meaning higher education delivery would be the most likely and most affected area subject to this – to prepare better the state for the 2011-12 cycle which is predicted even worse for deficits. Jindal has some influence over Fannin – nobody that opposes often or on particularly big issues the governor gets to run a legislative committee – so Fannin must feel he has the means to embark upon this course successfully. Jindal, then, must have some strategy in mind to articulate protecting higher education at the expense of other things and maybe against the wishes of legislators.

Notably, Jindal was once head of what is now the University of Louisiana system and also he was not and did not have a great deal of input into the genesis and operation of PERC. This gives him somewhat of an independent streak in how he wants to deal with reform of higher education delivery. Further, he may be counting on precisely the reason why Fannin thought it might be better to make bigger cuts now than next year, that next year will be an election year. While Fannin may see that as an impediment to cutting, as legislators don’t want to remove things that they could get credited for that could help their reelection, Jindal may not see that as a problem for his reelection chances given his popularity and that he is not subject to parochial constituency desires.

In fact, he may be counting on another aspect to next year’s budgeting that could be used for political purposes: next year, the Legislature may take up fiscal matters including tax increases which it cannot do this year (unless in special session). It could be that Jindal wants to show in his budgeting that he can produce one without a tax increase (as he has stated countless times how he will not raise taxes). Some legislators may be clamoring for one in that environment but Jindal would seal reelection by appearing to stand up against them.

More specifically concerning higher education, Jindal may think this course has better chances of producing the reform actually needed. Often, Jindal has stated his preferences about reform: besides governance consolidation, also higher admission standards for baccalaureate institutions and more emphasis on community and technical college provision of learning, with performance standards including increased graduation rates for all campuses. As part of the fix, schools would get greater leeway and less interference from the Legislature in setting tuition rates.

This session could produce the bill that allows tuition to go up. In exchange for that, Jindal may hope that higher education will pursue the goals of creating realistic performance indicators and boosting admissions standards (which will create a natural shift of enrollments to two-year and below institutions), in addition to his monetary prodding of system consolidation. He always could threaten higher education with failure to pass the bill unless it makes a lot of progress before the middle of July on these matters. That approach may be more effective at producing workable reform than initiating the crisis sooner that could lend itself to emphasizing the short-term at the expense of the long-term instead.

It also may be the best tool to getting the Legislature to act on another Jindal idea. Higher education stands the greatest risk of cutting because the state’s fiscal structure creates great inflexibility in budgeting through dedication of funding sources. Jindal tried last session to get this addressed to begin a process of removing dedications but the Legislature was cool to that notion. By proposing to make the crisis hit later – and during an election year – Jindal may figure that this will provide extra impetus for the Legislature to follow his wishes on this now so the mechanism is in place next year as a method to handle cuts which will allow reduced cuts to higher education.

Thus, delaying a potential day of reckoning (besides buying time for miracles) serves several Jindal purposes. It creates incentives he may feel optimal to produce the reforms he sees needed in higher education. It gives him leverage to get other, related reform measures passed. It positions him well politically in an election year. And even if the Legislature shows great will on its own and passes out an operating budget (for example, not allowing one-time money to prop up higher education spending) that forces more cuts on higher education in a way Jindal cannot use his veto powers to stop, at least he can claim he tried to protect higher education. Understood this way, his budgetary choices do not seem that surprising.


Solid Jindal reform budget stays course, promises more

Reformers should take heart from a Gov. Bobby Jindal budget that continues for the most part to advance the cause and begins to reveal the boldness that Jindal always has promised, and needs to show to advance his political career.

Fiscal pressures meant another exercise in cutting, and Jindal used to a moderate degree the recommendations of the Commission on Streamlining Government whose output was a much a search for deficit reduction measures as it was a vehicle to build political capital for ideas along these lines the Jindal Administration has been contemplating for some time. But not much was used from the Postsecondary Education Review Commission as the only cuts made there were in system administration. If anything, this signals to the Regents and schools that they have a year to get their houses in order and to make some big changes, or the next budget will force it on them.

With higher education almost totally spared, once again in aggregate health care bore the brunt of reductions even as they were minimal, although this could change. With talk of federal action that generally could pump health bucks to the states for another year, and still the hope that specifically for Louisiana a fix will be made to the funding formula that disadvantages the state for past federal recovery largesse, should one or both of these manifest the budget is designed largely to restore this funding.

These cuts largely resonate around the theme of the state getting out of the business of direct provision of health care, manifested this year in the areas of mental health services, group homes for the developmentally disabled, and treatment of addictive disorders. Shifts are from institutional to community- and home-based care and privatization when possible. But just as with higher education, a message is sent that bigger things are one the way with the current changes signaling that next year wholesale de-institutionalization is on the way as the state likely will shed most of its charity hospitals, state supports and services centers for the developmentally disabled, and (more optimistically) in reliance on nursing homes for care of the elderly and disabled under the theory that the nongovernment sector can handle much of this service provision with reduced emphasis on warehousing of the less healthy.

These grander ideas, if Jindal holds to course, represent a shift more towards these kinds of actions where in the past Jindal usually has moved in less eye-catching ways based more upon improvement of implementation as his reformist strategy. However, there still is plenty of that in other areas of government where some significant reductions occur mainly in operational aspects. The Department of Social Services is planned to have many functions consolidated to other agencies, the Office of Motor Vehicles faces the same within its own structure, the Department of Environmental Quality will have to run only on the resources it collects itself (including federal sources), the Department of Corrections must trim expenses through greater use of technology, and the Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism must set priorities in what offerings it will be able to run.

Besides the overall Jindal goal of reducing government’s role in direct health care provision which has been an ongoing effort since the budget crisis began over a year ago, the budget also introduces subtle and more specific Jindal desires of more recent vintage that challenge established orders. The cuts to CRT speak to Jindal’s desire to eliminate the lieutenant governor’s position which already is drawing resistance, the higher education cuts provide impetus to combining the fragmented higher education governance structure, and other cuts to the administration of elementary and secondary education at the state level which send the message that streamlining must occur there as well, where all attempt to prod powers that be in these areas Jindal cannot directly control to accept these Jindal initiatives. If they resist, next year’s budget actions could ramp up the pressure even more.

Two areas disappoint, one in a nagging way. Many tax amnesty dollars got used which made the health care cuts minimal, but this is a one-time source not available for next year and federal spending dollars around $1 billion continue to prop up this year’s effort. If all things remain the same, neither will be available next year and their use is unfortunate because of the concerted efforts that Jindal and mainly his fellow legislative Republicans have made to match state expenditures with recurring sources of funds.

The biggest ongoing weakness of Jindal’s fiscal plans is his odd faith in the chimera of state-planned “economic development” where the state intervenes in the marketplace to bribe firms to locate in the state through cash giveaways. The budget does nothing to discourage this and protects money that sits there for this purpose, despite the fact it costs more in taxpayer dollars to provide these incentives than the revenues they ever bring in to state coffers, when it could be used for more cost-effective needs.

On the whole, though, the executive budget continues remaking Louisiana government into a smaller and better steward of the people’s money. It even hints of bolder things to come which cannot hurt Jindal in a 2011 reelection bid and for any other political plans he may have.