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Thanksgiving Day, 2010

This column publishes usually every Sunday through Thursday after noon (sometimes even before; maybe even after sundown on busy days) U.S. Central Time except whenever a significant national holiday falls on the Monday through Friday associated with the otherwise-usual publication on the previous day (unless it is Independence Day or Christmas or New Year's when it is the day on which the holiday is observed by the U.S. government). In my opinion, there are six of these: New Year's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans' Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas.

With Thursday, Nov. 25 being Thanksgiving Day, I invite you to explore the link above.

Special election calls to reveal redistricting strategies

Right after the disastrous national and statewide results came in for Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, state Rep. Walker Hines became the first of them to jump ship as he angled for future political ambitions outside as well as security for his reelection. Next, state Sen. John Alario said he was almost certain to join the GOP, without revealing it was for future Senate ambitions. Hines’ leap gave the Republicans a plurality in the House, while if Alario follows through he’ll cause the Democrats’ majority to fall to four seats.

That may become three in short order. The Senate’s only independent, who himself was a Democrat a year ago, Troy Hebert, is set to become the commissioner of the state’s Alcohol and Tobacco Control Board. Hebert, who in his initial run for the Senate in 2007 fought off a very spirited challenge from Republican soon-to-be Rep. Jeff Landry, announced his retirement after this term at the end of the last session. His 22nd District has been trending more conservatively and redistricting to take place within months could make it more so for the fall elections.

Meanwhile, the GOP is extremely unlikely to pick up any more advantage with the departure of state Rep. Cedric Richmond at the beginning of the year from his office so that the Democrat can take a seat like Landry in the U.S. House of Representatives. But politics may play a role in how quickly this seat gets filled and connect it to Hebert’s.

The normal earliest election dates by calendar happenstance in 2011 are both in April. However, any special session for redistricting or anything else would be at least a couple of months earlier, so, in Richmond’s case, the presiding officer of his body, Republican Speaker Jim Tucker, could call for one before those dates. A practical reason not to would be to save the state money and hassle in conducting an election on an unscheduled date in only a handful of precincts but requiring state elections officials to be on duty.

Tucker may see an advantage to hold off, depriving Democrats of a vote during the redistricting session. However, Republicans and black Democrats will have a community of interests in redistricting to set aside as many districts with majorities of Republicans or blacks as possible, so having another black Democrat vote (as almost certainly Richmond’s successor will be) might be something Tucker wants.

Simultaneously, and it depends upon how quickly Hebert wants to start his new job (he may take his position immediately through interim appointment since the Senate which needs to confirm him will not be in session, although it would have to confirm him by the end of the 2011 regular session), Democrat state Sen. Pres. Joel Chaisson has the call on filling Hebert’s slot and he may not be as eager to do so prior to the regular election date, if Hebert resigns fairly quickly, because it could well end up putting a Republican in that place. This would further endanger the electability of white Democrats in the Senate, as five of six term-limited senators are white Democrats all from more conservative areas of the state, and the results of the redistricting process could make the task of Democrats holding on to the Senate even more difficult. Chaisson could see Hebert’s successor as an important piece in creating the conditions to produce a Republican majority in the special session.

Matters might get very interesting if Tucker feels like trying to link the two. With the only real disincentive for him to call an unscheduled election being saving the state money, by doing so he may pressure Chaisson into joining him by arguing why wait on giving District 22 voters representation when there’s already another election going on? After all, state election officials will already have to be on hand and adding a Senate race will probably only cost maybe $20,000 more. He further could turn up the heat by rallying his black Democrat colleagues in the House to get their Senate co-partisan co-ethnics to lean on Chaisson as part of a deal to have the special House election.

Thus, the scheduling of these elections will provide clues to observers about the internal political dynamics at play in this very interesting upcoming year of legislative electoral politics.


If Oregon can, why not privatize LSU Baton Rouge?

Maybe it’s not possible, but the option should be considered: if the University of Oregon can do try to do it, why can’t Louisiana State University Baton Rouge?

That is essentially privatizing its operating functions. UO’s president Richard Lariviere has proposed to state government that it only continue to fund capital improvements to the Eugene campus for 30 years, and that tuition and endowments would cover other expenses. Eventually, with projected growth rates, all expenses could be covered without any state subsidy although the state still would govern the institution.

This is Lariviere’s attempt to smooth the cyclical nature that Oregon, like Louisiana, faces in its higher education funding, where some times things are flush, and other times lean. It’s bold reform that stands in stark contrast to the tinkering at the margins for which Louisiana’s elected officials and higher education administrators have settled.


Blue Dogs out because they voted as fiscal liberals

One of the consequences of the 2010 midterm elections was the shattering of the “Blue Dog” myth – unless you’re one of the champions of this fictitious cause who will maintain that these House Democrats are significantly different than the liberal leadership of House Democrats that pulled the party to follow Pres. Barack Obama into electoral disaster.

These presumed “moderate” Democrats, many but not all from the South, above all were supposed to be fiscal conservatives. Elected from conservative-leaning districts, they claimed they would have a moderating effect on Democrats, justifying their elections to represent their districts – a narrative many in the media swallowed uncritically (as the linked article above shows).

In fact, as more prescient observers have noted, the Blue Dogs in reality were lap dogs to the House liberals. When in the minority, they did vote more fiscally conservatively than did the rest of their party. But since then, on all of the major budget-busting issues of the past four years of Democrat control of the House, majorities, mostly large, of Blue Dogs voted for increased spending. You name it, they went for it – Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bailouts, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the spending package early in Obama’s term, cash-for-clunkers, Obama's debt-tripling 2010 budget, the auto bailout, and for the federal takeover of health care.

In all, the Lap Dogs voted 80 percent of the time with liberal Democrats on fiscal issues. This does not include the 86 percent of the time they supported suspensions of what they crowed as their biggest achievement in pulling their party closer to the center, “pay-as-you-go” rules that mandated whenever spending was increased in one area, it had to be offset with a cut in another, making the whole enterprise a sham.

So when Louisiana’s outgoing Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon laments about the pasting Lap Dogs took in the midterm elections, losing over half their members (he being one of them, the only one not to lose reelection but because he opted to tilt spectacularly unsuccessfully for Sen. David Vitter’s seat), asserting they somehow kept his party’s leadership honest, it’s just another con job in an attempt to revise history. Melancon, once a leader of the coalition, is a poster child of the scam: his National Taxpayer Union grades in his five rated years in office were 3 D’s and 2 F’s.

Their record shows the whole movement became a tactic to try to fool voters into thinking they were electing representatives who were one thing on the campaign trail then when in office they were another. The story that some try to circulate that the Lap Dogs got crucified on the campaign trail for the sins of the liberal party leadership doesn’t jive with what their constituents understood: they were not the fiscal conservatives they proclaimed themselves to be, their votes were crucial to passing a lot of bad legislation, and they deserved punishment for selling out those they represented. Let the Blue Dog myth die its overdue, deserved death to which voters will break out in song.


Any legislative revolt needs constructive purpose

Does it appear that the Louisiana Legislature is growing a spine? That’s probably is not the best interpretation of the recent Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget’s mini-revolt against the Gov. Bobby Jindal on the question of the spending of educational dollars from the federal government.

Three months ago, the Democrat-controlled federal government decided to spend some more money the country didn’t have on the states in a last-ditch bid to buy and activate support from some traditional constituencies, including teachers’ unions as almost half of the appropriations went an Education Jobs Fund to which states could apply to retain educators’ jobs. Louisiana applied and got $147 million.

After an interval during which local school districts were led to believe the money would arrive for them this fiscal year, the Jindal Administration decided to save the money for higher education for next year, by a complex shuffling of money from fund to fund. Because of the previous acceptance of federal funds for higher education, which apparently will not be available for this upcoming fiscal year, $68 million had to be there for higher education to fulfill requirements for use of the money already spent or intended to be spent. The remainder the Jindal Administration hoped to spend on higher education next year.

But for the fund shunting to occur and the money added to this year’s budget, this appropriations change had to be approved, as the entire Legislature is not in session, by its Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, a panel composed of members of each chamber’s money committees plus the chairmen of another important committee from each, which routinely accepts these changes. Composed as such, currently it is split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans, given the chambers’ partisan balances.

So it wouldn’t take much for frustrated Democrats on the committee to relish a chance to stick it to Jindal. Several openly loath his attempts (with partial success) to hold down spending that contradicts their big government impulses, and especially resent his curtailing one of their main sources of electoral leverage, members’ amendments, with his line item veto power and its threatened use. Combine them with a few Republican members friendly with the traditional special interests that run elementary and secondary education in the state (some with backgrounds in it), and there were more than enough votes there to use only the $68 million for higher education next year, and to pump the other $79 million into state schools now.

However, likely this is not a novel assertion of legislative power; rather, it’s a one-off episode. This was a very narrowly-defined issue with plenty of time to investigate the public policy ramifications, among themselves and in public. The coming situation where thousands of line items and so many unknowns about hundreds of revenues and expenditure sources get dumped like a waterfall on legislators over just a few weeks always brings the advantage to the governor who has the staff to understand much better options and implications, as well as the veto power on which the Legislature never has used its override ability on any appropriation.

Yet the incident might convolute the process negatively. Jindal cannot act petulantly by using the incident as an excuse not to provide the leadership only available from his office in this time of budgeting stress in order to put the onus on the Legislature. For their part, legislators cannot see this as an encouragement to sabotage for political purposes only leadership emanating from Jindal, especially tempting as this is an election year; opposition should come only when it is constructive and assists in hammering out a budget without bad consequences in a period of declining revenue. Failure to operate in the proper spirit is going to make for a bad situation all around.