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Problem would return with primary system reversion

Hold onto your hernia belts, is Louisiana headed back to a blanket primary system for federal elections?

HB 292 by Rep. Hunter Greene unanimously sailed out of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday. It would scrap the modified closed primary system employed to elect Members of Congress, where only those registered as, or if not registered as then if allowed to by a party, a partisan for voting purposes to vote for that party’s nominees for office, and replace it by allowing any elector regardless of party affiliation or lack of it to vote in a primary election where all candidates run together. This was they way it had been done since the mid-1970s.

Greene and his supporters sold it on the bases that it would cause less confusion (because different major parties chose differently on whether to allow no party individuals to participate in their primaries and also because it differed from the blanket primary still being used at the state and local level) and save money (because a closed primary system with an absolute majority requirement for a nomination requires as many as three elections while the blanket system requires at most two). But the drawback would be the late seniority classification of Members of Congress from the state at their initial election if occurring at a regular date.

This is because of a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision that holding a blanket primary election where a winner could then be determined prior to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of an even-numbered year for a full term to the next Congress ran contrary to federal law. Since then, until its abolishment before 2008, Louisiana had to hold the primary on that first Tuesday after the first Monday in November and, because of state law mandating a runoff if no candidate received an absolute majority in the first election, what was termed the general election would have to be held after, by state law four weeks later in December.

Historically, this brought complaints that it put Louisiana at a disadvantage. With its newcomers elected to Congress a month after those from all other states, perquisites such as more desirable offices and intangible benefits such as seniority for purposes of committee placements and leadership they missed out on. In its present form, HB 292 would bring the same problem.

A potential solution would be to make it like Washington’s “top two” blanket system. Under it, as long as at least two candidates receive at least one percent of the total vote, the top two candidates in terms of votes received advance to face each other in a general election. A general election also would be held because write-in votes would be permitted. Thus, it can be scheduled on that first Tuesday after the first Monday in November with certainty.

It will be interesting to see how the bill fares in the House. Conservative Republicans and black Democrats are the biggest beneficiaries of the new system because the closed primary system allows their supporters typically to be the largest bloc in a closed primary (especially if the party chooses not to let no-party registrants, as does the GOP at present, to participate – this option being an imposition of a 1986 Supreme Court ruling). Together, they comprise a majority in the chamber so it may be wise for Greene to try to convert his bill to a top two version to win some extra votes by those put off with the December election problem.


Jindal must resist DC squeeze to follow optimal agenda

Results from an annual academic poll show that while Gov. Bobby Jindal does not at present have much to worry about concerning his political future in Louisiana he may face some danger to that ahead – courtesy of ideological opponents in Washington and at home.

Louisiana State University’s Public Policy Research Lab, as it does around the beginning of legislative sessions, inquired about some issues of the day. Among the revelations are:

  • About half responding would like the state’s budget problems to be solved through tax increases and spending cuts, while slightly fewer would want to see spending cuts only which is Jindal’s strategy
  • Solid majorities would like increases on a variety of taxes on vices, although Jindal opposed a steep increase last year on tobacco taxes
  • A slender majority regretted the repeals (in two stages in 2007 and 2008) of income tax provisions that taxes “excess” federal deductions and higher rates at lower income levels, over twice as many who now agreed with it, and even more said these should be reinstated; Jindal hesitantly helped to lead the effective reduction of rates

Of course, one limitation in polling on complex questions like these is that few in the public typically understand fully the ramifications of the choices and their answers. It would have been interesting to have asked whether respondents believed they had benefitted from these tax reductions (a majority of taxpaying households did, although many probably did not realize it as the Louisiana media have a bad habit of incorrectly asserting that only “wealthy” households did), and how much money they thought might be raised by the proposed sin taxes (not enough to make much of a difference, even at the high level of the proposed tax last year). Knowledge of the facts behind the answers may have changed their distributions dramatically.

Regardless, it points to the political problem that may loom for Jindal. Cutting spending, even when there are reforms that can lead to more efficiency and changes in priorities that can get government out of spending in areas that really aren’t necessary for the public weal, creates pain for the clients who suffer service reductions or eliminations and those in government who may lose their jobs or power and privilege. Do enough of it, and opposition increases in size and intensity, which also can alter public perceptions of those not significantly affected by the changes and even those who (often not realizing it) benefit from them.

Thus, it’s easy in lean times for government to make a scapegoat out of Jindal’s insistence on letting government into people’s wallets less often. Jindal knew this in his first year in office when the tax cut train chugged into town as already it was clear a national economic recession was on its way that would adversely impact state revenues. This made him tentative to embrace tax cuts, which he probably envisioned closer to the end rather the beginning of his term, although finally he did perhaps thinking they would be a good economic stimulus to help ride out the difficulty.

But then he may not have anticipated that the federal government would fall into the hands of those working at cross-purposes with him. The intent of Pres. Barack Obama and his Democrat allies controlling Congress at present has been to take the current recession and use it as a “crisis” to expand the power of the federal government through laws permitting government control of more of the economy, increased regulatory burdens, and far greater government spending. The sum of these will prevent any substantial economic growth for the foreseeable future – which further will aggravate Louisiana’s revenue-raising difficulties.

The larger Obama goal seeks to turn public opinion into accepting the idea that only government, not the people themselves unshackled by government, can provide for economic growth, through its prolonging little-to-negative growth, thus empowering liberal Democrats at the country’s expense. The corollary of this political strategy uses poor economic performance to punish conservative politicians in the states like Jindal, seeking to have them take blame for attempts to limit government size and power. National policy they believe will force conservatives eventually into repudiating conservatism in policy.

Specifically in Jindal’s case, that would mean national policy that causes economic performance to drag and pressuring state budgets either would cause discrediting of tax cuts and spending cuts, or that Jindal will cave in to demands that taxes be increased, or both. Jindal must understand that this dynamic and hold fast because the worst thing that could be done in the current economic environment is to make job-killing and productivity-suppressing tax increases.

He also must realize that time is on his side. Obama is looking more like a one-term president while the odds are getting close to even that both chambers of Congress will be in Republican hands next year. Therefore, in the short term damage will abate, and in a few years restoration of the American economy can be well underway. It would be fascinating in four years for some of these same questions to be asked, for by then if the present tides of political and public sentiment do race across the landscape, Louisiana’s fiscal picture (with some good reforms now proposed) will be much brighter – significantly more than if Jindal abandons his present course.

Jindal should expect no help from the elites in control in Washington now, nor from their liberal allies in the state in government, the media, and among other special interests. It will take commitment and leadership for him to pursue this course even as history and theory show it is the optimal course because of their opposition. They will try to distract from that and political pressures will mount, as the survey results show potentially can portend. Yet to date Jindal shows no signs that he will fail this test.


Bill to improve law education, use of people's dollars

While state Sen. Robert Adley’s populist bent often leads to eccentric legislation, on SB 549 he’s on to something good. The bill would prohibit law school clinics in the state that receive money from the state from litigating against the state or seeking damages against any individual or business or filing many constitutional challenges.

These clinics are designed for law students to gain experience in the practice of law and as a result often offer their services free to interested parties. The problem is that those who administer them at law schools and who participate can bring a very ideological view to what they do, in terms of some of the kinds of cases they pursue. As documented, the bias usually is quite liberal and incongruent with the views of the vast majority of taxpayers’ who in most cases provide the bulk of funding for these activities.

The bill’s passage would create several salutary changes. No longer would taxpayer money go to an activity that subsidizes the agenda of a few that does not represent the legal mainstream or realistically simulate the typical work that almost every lawyer will pursue. Dollars can be used far more efficiently to provide more genuine training and not in such a skewed direction.

Also, these kinds of suits with taxpayer money, because they are so far out of the mainstream, often are frivolous if not attempts with the public’s money to bludgeon an opponent into a certain action – one that pursues not an actual public interest but the private agendas of a few activists. Why should public money go to such a non-public purpose?

Finally, this would reduce waste in government and lower the cost of business. Without having to defends against nuisance suits whose bases are more ideological than real, fewer taxpayer resources (if against government) would be siphoned from real concerns and business and individuals would not have to see their own resources be diverted, enhancing individual freedom and lowering costs to consumers.

Note that the bill does not prohibit these activities by clinics, it just removes public money from funding them, leaving a wide range of cases that may be pursued using the people’s resources. If clinics drop these cases, this does not mean that causes that those of little means wish to pursue won’t be serviced adequately. As a professional duty lawyers are encouraged to take on work pro bono, and other legal aid societies exist that can be accessed for these kinds of cases. Or, clinics could refuse public funding, raise money for their operations from these kinds of donors, and continue unaffected.

There’s no reason the public should be paying for legal education those activities of it that poorly simulate what most lawyers actually will do, which serve private rather than public interests, and that end up wasting taxpayer dollars while attenuating individual freedom. Adley’s bill deserves a swift passage and enactment into law.


Tentative bill needs more to improve LA education

Regardless of the outcome of the federal “Race to the Top” process, those interested in improvement of Louisiana’s elementary and secondary education system need to come together to support legislation that has a proven track record of producing this outcome.

HB 1033 by state Rep. Frank Hoffman would require annual evaluations of all teachers, with half of it determined by student progress in the classroom. Naturally, the educational establishment and teachers unions look warily upon this legislation as they tend to emphasize first the provision and protection of jobs and then only concern themselves with educational rigor to benefit students.

Nonetheless, they have not come out in full opposition of the bill which has elements of reforms done in Massachusetts starting in 1993 and revised in 1996. Those changes by 2005 had made that state’s students the top performers in every subject area nationally. (Regrettably, under renewed liberal Democrat leadership they are beginning to roll back some of these measures.)

As much progress as the bill would produce, three changes would make it even better, following the model from Massachusetts. First, one reason why Louisiana students score near the bottom nationally is too many teachers do not adequately know their subject material, so they cannot sufficiently educate their students. Massachusetts at first had over half their teachers fail their licensure tests, and there’s no reason to expect that the level of subject area knowledge among Louisiana’s teachers as a whole is any higher. The bill would be improved vastly by adding such a component.

Second, state higher education must be made to adapt to the demands of higher expectations of teacher knowledge. In Massachusetts, colleges quickly got with the program and reduced the failure proportion considerably. This bill also should contain provisions for encouraging this, built upon measures already enacted that apply to college of education in Louisiana.

Third, much of the progress in Massachusetts occurred only after the creation of a state board that faced minimal political interference made tough, enforceable decisions; otherwise, reform would have been stalled. Currently, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education does not share that immunity. It may require a separate constitutional amendment to do so, but on these kinds of matters legislation should create some kind of structure that would cordon off as much as possible politics.

While better than standing pat, HB 1033, which incorporates some of the ideas behind the Race to the Top for which Louisiana was denied funding in the initial round, is too tentative. A good bill will become a great one with these alterations, and Hoffman and his chief supporter Gov. Bobby Jindal need to make great efforts on it with these additions.