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Petty legislative agendas interfere with optimal policy

While many believe the informal levers of power of Louisiana’s governor control too much relative to the Legislature, it’s often overlooked that the Legislature can run some pretty good interference over the governor’s plans – and too often motivated by parochial and political interests.

Yesterday a committee in each chamber gave a good example of how this thinking may come to hurt Louisiana. In the Senate Governmental and Affairs Committee, it passed out unanimously SB 18 by state Sen. Edwin Murray which would allow the Senate to confirm appointees to the governing board of the new Medical Center of Louisiana – New Orleans facility. It has four appointees each by the governor and the Louisiana State University system that will run it, and single ones from participating partner universities Tulane, Dillard, and Xavier.

Officials of the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration and LSU argued this could prove problematic. They said this system without Senate approval was designed specifically to avoid any debt registered by the facility (and it will be in several hundreds of millions of dollars) to count against the state’s total. This has a constitutional cap on it so if it qualified as the state’s, it could delay seriously the project, and typically it has a better chance of not being counted this way if there is no Senate involvement.

The problem is, the determination is made by a somewhat subjective process by credit rating agencies so nobody really knows what impact this additional requirement would have. Discretion would have been the better part of valor, therefore, and left it off.

But apparently some in the Senate have had a fit of pique that, with five appointments made and six to go, all to date have been white males. While diversity does no harm when it occurs naturally as a part of a process to pick the best representatives, if the law was used as a club to force it, that would be a detriment to the state where an informal quota takes precedence over quality, just to assuage the political leanings of some senators.

Yet this interference is mild compared to that put up by the House Health and Welfare Committee when it approved HB 1443 by state Rep. John Bel Edwards which would give committees veto power over many Department of Health and Hospital contracts to privatize services. The department has outlined a scenario that would save the state likely tens of millions of dollars without deterioration of services because of the fundamental recognition that for many in need of mental health services the private sector inherently provides them more efficiently.

However, this goes against the ideological belief of legislators like Edwards who is more concerned about protecting state jobs and union influence than in working for better allocation of funds. That also jibes with the agenda of legislators like state Rep. Tom McVea who consider state facilities in their districts as government-provided economic development whose presence politicians can derive credit from for future electoral activities. While they may care about service quality for clients, they cannot provide a shred of evidence that private facilities (which far outnumber those of the state) do any worse job at any higher expense.

Both bills unflatteringly put agendas and government ahead of people, and it’s unlikely they can survive anticipated vetoes by Jindal if they were to get that far. They also serve as reminders of this bad tendency that is part of legislative politics everywhere, but not often seen as virulently as in Louisiana’s hyper-politicized atmosphere.


Unusual dynamics lie behind vote changes on issue

The failure of HB 799 yesterday revealed some interesting legislative dynamics that show this dubious constitutional amendment remains barely alive.

The bill, by state Rep. Eddie Lambert, would amend the Constitution to give the Legislature a veto power over a governor’s special session call. In doing so, it would weaken an important power the governor has that assists in providing proper checks and balances. Its practical effect would retain only to the Legislature this power; it already can call itself into special session, and with the acquisition of this veto power effectively only it may determine whether it ever does.

While supporters may argue that the change might save money – an unenthusiastic Legislature could prevent itself going into extraordinary session where otherwise little or nothing may be done at taxpayer expense – a political solution seems preferable: a governor would incur political cost by having such a session flop and thereby be deterred from proposing it. With this solution available, there is no need to sacrifice this gubernatorial check on legislative inaction.

However, the matter is more complicated than the 53-33 (with 17 abstentions of the 103 current members) vote in favor, meaning it failed as two-thirds of the seated membership or 70 members must approve a proposed amendment which then also must seek an affirmative majority of the electorate. This is because the day before the House passed HB 800 65-26 (with 12 abstentions), the enabling legislation to HB 799 – this being basically a copy of the amendment.

Had the voting held Monday to Tuesday, the amendment would be only five votes short. But, as it turned out, 15 who voted yea for the bill voted against the amendment, and eight others turned up absent. While it picked up nine who had voted nay and three who had been absent, obviously this wasn’t enough to come close even to matching the affirmative total of the bill.

This is not a rare occurrence, where on an amendment and its companion enabling legislation there are a few shifts in votes for strategic reasons (more bluntly, trying to present a certain image to constituents and future voters), but the volume and the fact that this is unlikely to be a big issue to many constituents makes the large movement between votes unusual. It also points to a way Lambert can keep the bill going.

If he can reverse the dynamic that lost six net votes from bill to amendment and get back the absentees, that gets him to 67. Four members missed both votes, so three of them would get it to 70. Regardless, it’s not a bill that deserves to pass for reasons of public knowledge, but perhaps even more intriguing than the arguments for or against are the behind-the-scenes reasons why so many legislators voted the opposite way on the same text.


LA Democrats try to dodge constitutional issues

The world of politics throws quandaries especially at elected officials, and Louisiana Democrats are going to have to choose between voting to affirm constitutional government or playing partisan politics.

The Legislature is processing two bills by state Rep. Kirk Talbot, HB 94 a constitutional amendment that would declare a “federal law or rule shall not compel, directly or indirectly, any person, employer or health care provider to participate in any health care system,” and HB 1474 a statute which notes the citizenry "is and shall be free from governmental intrusion in choosing or declining to choose any mode of securing health insurance coverage without penalty or threat of penalty," which creates this dilemma for his Democrat cohorts. They are in response to federal health care legislation approved by the Democrat-controlled federal government despite large majorities of the public being against it.

If anything, the Louisiana public even more vehemently opposes the measure, but that’s only a political reason to oppose it. Constitutionally, at the state level and individual level the law is highly suspect and 21 states including Louisiana have filed suit to have it overturned. That provides the best reason to vote for both of these bills.

Democrats, of course, resist supporting these because, besides political calculations, it will become an open admission that they understand the illegitimacy of the federal law and implicitly censures their own unpopular national political leaders. Thus, they find spurious reasons to try to justify opposition to it.

One is that, particularly with the amendment, it would prevent payment of Medicare payroll taxes. However, this thinking confuses the purpose of that and the questionable law. In the case of Medicare, that is a tax for a service provided that is compelled for hiring and paying people a certain minimum salary. The individual insurance purchase mandate from the private sector or else paying a penalty clearly differs.

The other, expressed by state Rep. Sam Jones, is that this represents “nullification” by states of a federal law that “We settled nullification in this country with the Civil War” – which only goes to show that Jones knows neither history nor understands what it means. The “nullification doctrine” to which he apparently refers was the belief that states could declare unconstitutional federal laws they felt were illegitimate uses of federal power. Neither of these bills do that – they simply clarify state powers enumerated in the Constitution known as the general police power.

Understand that at an intellectual level these kinds of reasoning simply are attempts to cover that these Democrats want to permit unconstitutional exertion of federal power without the state asserting its own constitutional power to regulate in this area. However, that appears to bother perhaps none of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus (and includes two no-party members) which means (also assuming Republican unanimity) it would take only five white (or four of them and a no-party) in the Senate and 15 white (or 14 of them and a no-party) Democrats in the House to defeat the amendment. Thus, passage of this will be difficult to achieve with the number of knee-jerk white liberals like Jones in the Legislature.

At the same time, the statute facing a simple majority of those seated as opposed to two-thirds, HB 1474 has a great chance of passing with its almost even partisan balance the House. But the Senate, with only 15 Republicans, would need at least five (or four of them and a no-party) Democrats to get it passed. That makes it about an even-money proposition.

If legislators concentrated on doing the right thing from a legal and moral standpoint, both of these measures would pass. But because many will focus on doing the politically correct thing, HB 94 passage looks unlikely and HB 1474 passage appears uncertain.


Legislators, higher education must adjust attitudes

Parochial legislative and insular university politics may be conspiring to thwart some desirable components to higher education reform in Louisiana, but the situation doesn’t have to be like this.

Last week, the House Education Committee took the first steps towards passing the GRAD Act, known formally as HB 1171 by House Speaker Jim Tucker, into law. A voluntary plan, state universities would have to hit certain performance targets in order to win the ability to increase tuition by at most 10 percent annually until reaching the Southern regional average; currently, they have the ability to raise it five percent for the next two years but then afterwards must secure a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to do so. It also would have allowed removal of the 12-hour cap on tuition; presently, at 12 hours or more a flat fee is charged.

But the latter provision got removed in committee which is an unwelcome development. Critics of it had said it would be troublesome especially for students at historically black universities and colleges as for some of limited means it would raise tuition rates. Yet removal of this barrier is integral to hitting the performance criteria, one of which is graduation rates, because with the cap in place it encourages students to take more hours than they really intend with the strategy of dropping hours in what they feel are their weakest classes, which has the practical effect of shutting out other students from those classes which may delay their graduations.

It also delayed implementation of the tuition hike ability from this fall to Fall, 2012. Tucker stated that legislative resistance to immediate reward without hitting the targets immediately or showing progress (the bill gives four years to meet them) drove this decision, but there may have been more to it than that. Partly explaining this amendment may be a reaction to the Board of Regents’ mandate to schools that a critical component to help achieve the higher expectations, tougher admission standards, could be delayed until Fall, 2012. Legislators might have been disappointed that the new standards did not start this fall.

Another explanation could be skepticism by legislators that any real changes are to come out of higher education with the Act. This has been expressed by legislators concerning the budget, where they have complained that higher education has been the least forthcoming with information of all agencies. This belief is not surprising given that academia considers itself misunderstood by politicians and the public.

But many outside academia in the public perceive a haughtiness to academia and this reluctance only feeds that suspicion as well as brings up questions about what it has to hide. In the current budget environment where higher education is especially vulnerable, this simply won’t work. If you can’t justify something to the broader public, it well may be spending a university need not undertake.

Legislators protecting what they consider turf and university administrators who fear program diminution are impediments to needed reforms. Both need to reevaluate their attitudes if change will optimize the delivery of higher education in Louisiana.


Turnout requirement good to boost political interest

The Shreveport Times had some interesting thoughts on recent local elections and on SB 186 by state Sen. Nick Gautreaux. However, they require greater explication as the two are connected.

The editorialists noted the dismal turnout in last weekend’s tax elections, three percent in Caddo Parish for a trio of property tax measures to renew funding of operations of various low-visibility parish departments, and nine percent in Bossier City to renew funding of salaries for public safety employees. While lamenting this fact, they correctly noted strategies of early voting and mail voting were unlikely to significantly boost turnout (consistent with political science literature).

But they also appeared unenthusiastic about another proven solution, timing elections of these matters with others. Turnout in them goes up demonstrably, even sometimes dramatically, when there are local elective office also on the ballot, and perhaps especially so with state and federal contests. (Presently I’m doing some research for presentation and publication on this issue; I’ll get back to everybody on this in perhaps six months or so). They’re not enthusiastic about this because it “necessarily mean[s] an enlarged election bureaucracy to handle the preparation of lengthy ballots and long lines at voting precincts as voters sort through a forest of propositions and candidates.”