Sunday, July 31, 2005

Immunizations in Louisiana

The Centers for Disease Control has released its annual National Immunization Survey which "provides vaccination coverage estimates for children aged 19--35 months for each of the 50 states and 28 selected urban areas." USA Today reported on it last week. According to USA Today, the good news is "Nearly 81% of American babies get all their recommended vaccinations before age 3, a record high." According to the CDC, "The official estimates of vaccination coverage rates from the NIS are rates of being up-to-date with respect to the ACIP recommended numbers of doses of vaccines. Vaccinations included in the survey are: diphtheria and tetanus toxoids and acellular pertussis vaccine (DTaP); poliovirus vaccine (polio); measles-containing vaccine (MCV); Haemophilus influenzae type b vaccine (Hib); hepatitis B vaccine (Hep B); varicella zoster vaccine, pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV), hepatitis A vaccine (Hep A), and influenza vaccine (FLU)." As is obvious from the chart at the link to the survey numbers, measuring vaccination rates isn't simple. But one detail seems clear: For the four different iterations of vaccines tracked, Louisiana falls below the national average on all of them. Check Louisiana's Office of Public Health for more information about immunizations in Louisiana.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Space station Mars?

The space shuttle lifted off safely earlier this week. But concerns about the safety of the crew, the nagging issue of foam breaking off and NASA's subsequent decision to ground future shuttle flights have tempered the moods of those who were excited about getting back to space. So here's a fun diversion from the space shuttle mission and Louisiana-centric concerns about the fate of the Louisiana facility that makes the foam. There's a group of scientists preparing for life on Mars. In a column in today's New York Times, John Tierney writes about a group in the Arctic practicing for life and research on Mars. Tierney's column includes links to that project and others. Those links are below. The Mars Society website has details about the independent project Tierney mentions today. The Haughton-Mars Project website has details about a separate research endeavor, this one apparently funded with federal monies. Finally, Tierney refers readers to a book titled The Case for Mars. If this isn't the kind good stuff that could keep you surfing the web all day for more information, then I don't know what is.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Progress on I-49

Great news for those who dream of someday being able to drive north out of Louisiana for business or pleasure -- funding for completion of I-49 is in the new federal transportation bill. Coming in just under the wire before the Congressional recess, the bill has terrific implications for Louisiana, so here's the run-down of the deal from the state perspective. With temps lingering in the 90s for the foreseeable future, the idea of someday being able to hop on the interstate and drive to Canada is certainly appealing!

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Kids Count – or not

Yesterday the Annie E. Casey Foundation released its annual Kids Count report focusing on ten separate indicators of child well-being using the most recent data available. The full breakdown of Louisiana’s performance is here. Since at least 1999, Louisiana has been firmly ensconced in 49th place for its performance on indicators that serve as measures of child well-being. According to the Associated Press, of the "10 categories studied, Louisiana's statistics grew worse in eight, including infant mortality, high school dropouts and teen deaths." That same report quoted the study's researcher who observed, "Louisiana is getting worse faster than the rest of the country." That's not what it's supposed to look like when children are a state priority. Note that 49th that doesn’t always mean second-to-last. Sometimes it means tied for last place. In the case of infant mortality for example, it means Louisiana is tied with Mississippi for last place. The same is true for high school drop out rates. Check out the lead paragraph from an Arizona newspaper: “Once again, Arizona's high school dropout rate is the worst in the nation, though this time we share last place with Louisiana.” Think that's bad? Referring to Kids Count, the Times Picayune noted the state's child poverty rate, "soared by a staggering 11 percent between 2000 and 2003... As many as half the state's youngsters live in households with incomes below the poverty level and 30 percent of them are trapped in outright destitution." 50% of the state's children in poverty? 30% subsisting in "outright destitution"? That's shameful. But at least there's money for convention center hotels, sugar mills and reservoirs. Because that's the stuff that really matters. Rhetoric from the state’s elected officials insists that Louisiana makes children a priority, but the evidence points to a different reality altogether.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Veto defies common sense

My column this week comments on Governor Blanco's recent veto of HB 415, a bill that would have eliminated one of Louisiana's many election dates. Explaining her veto, Governor Blanco issued a statement: "House Bill No. 415 by Representative Mike Powell would eliminate the third Saturday in January of any year as an election date for voter consideration of bond, tax or other propositions." "A fundamental part of our governments in this country is for the citizens as voters to decide how they will be governed. The elimination of one of the customary election dates appears to be a move away from this principle. After conferring on the merits of the bill, I am not convinced that the case has been made for elimination of this election date. For this reason, I am vetoing House Bill No. 415 and returning it to the House of Representatives." The Times Picayune reported on the decision as did the Advocate. The Shreveport Times condemned it. The bill's sponsor has also spoken publicly about it, in the Shreveport Times and in a letter to the editor in the Baton Rouge Advocate. It's unlikely the governor's decision to veto a piece of common sense legislation will be forgotten any time soon.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Trashing trade talk

Last week Governor Blanco announced she will make a trade-oriented trip to East Asia in the fall, including stops in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China. The announcement specifically mentioned a stop at Expo 2005 in Aichi Prefecture, Japan. Take a look at what’s happening there. Hostility from some quarters in response to the governor’s announcement is both surprising and misplaced. Governor Blanco’s desire to build the state’s foreign trade ties through travel is most welcome. It’s also likely to yield long-term benefits for the state and its citizens. Such efforts should be embraced -- not condemned. Knee-jerk rejection of Governor Blanco’s efforts to expand Louisiana’s trade relationships with some of the most dynamic economies in the world almost smacks of xenophobia. It also demonstrates a failure to understand the realities -- and benefits -- of global trade. Everybody wins if the governor’s East Asian trade mission is a success. Gambatte Blanco-sensei!

Monday, July 25, 2005

Just the facts

For a change of pace, here's the non-partisan factcheck.org's timeline of events and known facts about what they call "The Wilson-Plame-Novak-Rove Blame Game." Factcheck.org says, "Both sides twist and hype the case of a CIA agent’s leaked identity. We document what’s known so far." Check the timeline and the facts and see for yourself.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Chimp Haven goes big time

Caddo Parish's Chimp Haven is the cover story of today's New York Times Magazine.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Louisiana's good news

Louisiana’s film industry effort is taking off. And it’s earning lots of positive attention for the state. This provides the strongest evidence yet that Louisiana can indeed succeed with economic development efforts that highlight the state’s strengths.

Friday, July 22, 2005

American media's "bad news"

An essay that will appear in this week-end's New York Times Sunday Book Review discusses the current state of American media. The piece, titled “Bad News,” begins “The conventional news media are embattled. Attacked by both left and right in book after book, rocked by scandals, challenged by upstart bloggers, they have become a focus of controversy and concern. Their audience is in decline, their credibility with the public in shreds.” The author, Richard Posner -- a law professor, a federal appeals court judge and a blogger -- notes both liberal and conservative critics of the media agree “that the function of the news is to inform people about social, political, cultural, ethical and economic issues so that they can vote and otherwise express themselves as responsible citizens. Assessing complaints about mainstream media coming from both sides of the political spectrum, Posner observes “The mainstream media are predominantly liberal - in fact, more liberal than they used to be. But not because the politics of journalists have changed. Rather, because the rise of new media, itself mainly an economic rather than a political phenomenon, has caused polarization, pushing the already liberal media farther left.” He's talking about the rise of right-wing, conservative media. And that discussion is interesting. But the most compelling part of Posner’s essay is his take on blogs, bloggers and the blogosphere. He calls blogs “the latest, and perhaps gravest, challenge to the journalist establishment." He continues, “Journalists accuse bloggers of having lowered standards. But their real concern is less high-minded - it is the threat that bloggers, who are mostly amateurs, pose to professional journalists and their principal employers, the conventional news media.” What follows is Posner's discussion of the economics of blogging compared to that of mainstream media and the implications of those differences. “Bad News” is a lengthy essay, but for anyone interested in the liberal-conservative divide in American media and the changing media landscape -- and especially the role of blogs -- Posner’s piece provides significant food-for-thought. Check it out!

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Facta non verba

Thought for the day: Facta non verba. It's Latin for "Deeds not words." Imagine the impact if Louisiana voters were to begin making this concept their guiding principle when electing and re-electing and re-electing and re-electing public officials. It would mean accountability for campaign promises. It would mean tracking voting records and cutting through the spin. It would mean an end of the old way of doing business and might, finally, bring that long-promised new day to Louisiana. Variatio delectat - There's nothing like change! (Cicero)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Transportation is barrier to employment

My column today focuses on the need for Shreveport-Bossier to address its public transit system. Background on the issue in my post from July 17.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Standardizing graduation rates

The National Governors Association meeting wraps up today. Education has been a major topic of discussion at the meeting. The big news was the decision by 45 states to standardize their reporting of high school drop out rates. The New York Times had an article about the decision. So did the Washington Post. NYT reports that the new chairman of the NGA, Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee believes current state-to-state comparisons of high school graduation rates an’t useful. He likened the current way of comparing rates to “ranking one basketball team shooting at an 8-foot-high basket against another shooting at a 10-foot-high basket.” “'We should all be shooting at a 10-foot basket,’ Mr. Huckabee said. ‘This will give us the ability to honestly know how well we are doing compared to other states.’” In other words, the solution isn't to lower standards. The Washington Post writes, “Education experts say a key predictor of whether students eventually will graduate from college is not race or economic circumstances but whether they completed a rigorous course of study in high school.” “At the governors’ winter meeting… Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates declared U.S. high schools ‘obsolete’ and challenged the governors to help change them. Last week, the NGA announced that 10 states, including Virginia, will receive as much as $2 million each to implement plans to raise graduation rates and improve high school curricula. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will underwrite the financing.” Note: Louisiana was selected as one of the ten states receiving these special funds. See my post from yesterday for Louisiana links to the announcement. See also the Gates Foundation announcement of the awards.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Parsing pro-education rhetoric

An article in Sunday’s Advocate highlighted Governor Blanco’s trip to the National Governors Association convention in Iowa. The keynote speaker at the convention was Thomas Friedman who spoke about the importance of education as it ties into his “flat world” thesis. (See my post from June 25 on this very topic.) Education is front-and-center at the NGA meeting and Louisiana’s performance in that realm will be given particular scrutiny. The NGA recently recognized Louisiana as an “honor state.” Governor Blanco responded to the NGA's recognition in a July 15 press release saying she had learned Louisiana would “receive a grant from the National Governors Association to continue our groundbreaking work in high school redesign. This recognition as an ‘honor state’ by the NGA is further confirmation that Louisiana is heading in the right direction to change the way high schools serve our children.” Governor Blanco’s statement concluded, “Louisiana is aggressively moving to change how our high schools are structured and perceived by students, parents and communities. By increasing the value and relevance of a high school diploma, reducing dropout rates, and improving the classroom setting by redesigning the structure of some high schools, we are letting the state and the nation know that we are fully committed to education and to our children.” Of course it’s important that Louisiana be “fully committed to education and to our children.” But it’s also important to be able to prove the truth of such statements. Does the reality match the rhetoric? Louisiana earned D+ in school climate. Louisiana 46th “smartest state” (out of 50). Louisiana’s educational performance compared to the other 49 states using KidsCount data doesn’t look so good either. And, I believe Louisiana plays politics with education. Conclusion: Louisiana may earn high grades for “accountability” in education, but when it comes to accountability in rhetoric about education the record isn’t quite so good.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Public transport in Shreveport-Bossier

Yesterday’s Shreveport Times had an excellent article about the Shreveport-Bossier metro area’s desperate need to reform its public transit system. The problem is simple to articulate: The public transit system doesn’t go where people need it to go and it doesn’t run when people need it to run. Doesn’t that sound like the exact opposite of everything mass transit is supposed to be? Local urban planning firm MHSM Architects maintains a website dedicated to research conducted thus far on the condition of the area’s transit system and proposals for tweaking the system so that it does what it ought to do. The Northwest Louisiana Council of Governments is playing a leading role in discussions on the reform of SporTran. The official SporTran website is here. The Shreveport Times article summarizes the SporTran findings and proposed solutions thus far: “The researchers from MHSM Architects identified census tracts with a high percentage of workers who have non-standard shifts and found that they all overlapped with neighborhoods where people have the least access to transportation.” “To design routes, they connected those neighborhoods with employers likely to need after-hours workers such as the LSU/Christus Schumpert/Willis Knighton North hospital cluster, the casinos and the Youree Drive/Bert Kouns Industrial Loop corridor. Those routes would run from 7 p.m. to midnight Mondays through Saturdays.” “The two options vary slightly. One forms loops on major corridors, has less wait time in the early hours and involves fewer buses. The other has an extra route into the neighborhoods but would cost more. Both run fewer busses than the day shift and have longer waits later at night.” The research done thus far is top-notch. The options presented for addressing the off-hour needs of SporTran’s rider-ship are sensible. It’s clear there’s a way to improve the current situation. But skeptics question whether the system needs tweaking at all. Take a look at the current SporTran service map and hours of operation. Would you be able to make a living by relying solely on that system to get you around?

Saturday, July 16, 2005

It's all about education

Still not convinced that education is the secret to Louisiana’s future? See this article from Friday’s Town Talk. The much-anticipated, much-needed employment opportunity provided by the Union Tank Car plant successfully recruited to Central Louisiana has hit a bit of a roadblock. According to this article, a number of job applicants are having a hard time passing the pre-qualifying tests necessary for employment at the plant. It’s not a lack of work experience. It’s not a failure to pass drug tests. It’s not an inability to hold down a full-time job. According to the Town Talk, prospective employees are having trouble passing the “ninth-grade reading level and eighth-grade math level that Union Tank requires before moving candidates on to the hands-on welding test and formal application stage.” That’s unfortunate enough. But even worse, according to the article, “the failures may not so much reflect the achievement level of the area workforce as it reflects the need to adjust the test, said Elaine Morace of the Rapides One-Stop Job Center.” The job center rep’s protestations to the contrary, it actually does sound like the failures reflect the achievement level of the area workforce. Let’s be clear about what the Town Talk article suggests: Because the Union Tank Car test is too hard the standards should therefore be changed. In the real world, standards don’t get lowered just because someone can’t meet them. Failure to meet clearly-measurable, easily-quantifiable, carefully-articulated -- not to mention reasonable – minimum standards has consequences. It looks like Louisiana may be reaping what it has sown with respect to decades of inadequate public education. And don’t think this kind of recruitment experience on the part of a major new Louisiana employer is going to go unnoticed elsewhere in the country’s industrial community. The lesson is this: No matter how you look at it, no matter how many tax breaks are given, no matter how many industrial recruitment successes the state has, there’s always going to be a price to pay for a failed public education system. Without getting education right, no other economic development plan will ever work in Louisiana. It’s as simple as that.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Louisiana & base closings

It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom for Louisiana in light of recent recommendations from a federal commission to close several military facilities in the state. Indeed, Governor Blanco set an optimistic tone in the opening lines of this May 2005 press release (State BRAC page here). Now there are interesting findings from the Heritage Foundation concerning the base realignment and closure (BRAC) process and per capita income. Heritage concludes that in areas where bases have closed in the past, “most communities have recovered nicely from past BRAC rounds, with approximately 90 percent of all jobs being replaced. Indeed, approximately 115,000 jobs have been created through past recovery efforts, and many communities have actually prospered.” This report emphasizes the importance of BRAC despite the frightening implications for communities on the closure list. “BRAC is one of the most important – and controversial – issues affecting the future health of the armed forces, and it is critical to U.S. national security. It balances national defense priorities, supports the Pentagon’s military modernization objective, saves the Department of Defense billions of dollars each year, and creates opportunities for private economic development.” In other words, sometimes the recommendation for closure has nothing to do with the state in which a base is located and everything to do with the needs of the U.S. military to more effectively provide for the national defense. Using three regions as case studies for economic success after base closures, the Heritage report offers suggestions for successfully navigating the closure and reaping economic benefits from the infrastructure left behind. “It is of vital importance for them [target communities] to act proactively,” the report says. “They should not wait for the Pentagon, the federal government, or any other agency to tell them what to do. Instead, they should develop their own plans and tell the Pentagon and other government agencies what to do.” The Heritage report then provides several examples of closed bases that are now significant economic drivers for the communities which had initially mourned the base closure. One base is now an “international aviation and aerospace center and designated foreign trade zone.” Another “is being developed into an upscale master-planned… community.” Yet another is a “world-class research, education, and business campus.” Even Louisiana’s England Air Force Base in Alexandria which closed in 1991 is cited as an example that “allowed local planners to take advantage of England’s varied assets to diversity the local economy.” The Times Picayune had an article about it on May 23, available here (scroll down to “Survival Strategy.”) Meanwhile, the Advocate had a piece earlier this month about federal grants to aid in the transition from bases to something else locally sustainable. Given the extraordinary infrequency with which previous BRAC recommendations have been reversed, it seems a better use of energy for communities affected by proposed base closures to develop a “what next?” plan that utilizes all the resources and physical plant that will be left behind when the inevitable closure comes. See yesterday’s Times Picayune for an example of energy that might be better directed elsewhere. By commenting on this I don’t mean to diminish the very real fear and uncertainty that accompanies a base closure. The point is simply that there is life, indeed very dynamic economic life, in the aftermath of a base closure. Check out the official BRAC site here for more info. Additional DoD-BRAC info is here. Louisiana needs to start embracing these likely closures as opportunities instead of mourning them as irreparable losses.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Newborn testing

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal had an article about newborn medical screening. It begins, “More and more states are requiring expanded testing of newborns for rare medical conditions, but a debate continues to rage over the ethical and legal issues involved.” A press release from the March of Dimes outlines the major issues at play concerning infant medical testing – testing normally done via a blood test on an infant’s heel. The March of Dimes says, “Expanded newborn screening is now required by law in dozens of states, but most infants still are not covered by the full panel of 29 tests recommended by experts, according to the March of Dimes 2005 state-by-state report card on newborn screening. “The March of Dimes recommends that every baby born in the United States receive screening for a uniform panel of 29 disorders that includes metabolic conditions and hearing deficiency. All of these disorders can be successfully managed or treated to prevent severe consequences, if diagnosed early.” (emphasis added by me). The WSJ article notes, “Michael Watson, the director of the American College of Medical Genetics, says it is important to have expanded and uniform testing across the country. In an increasingly mobile population, he says, parents ‘may have their first child in a state where 30 conditions are screened and then move to a state where three conditions are screened.’” But some experts are concerned about expansion of testing. According to the WSJ, “not everyone agrees that newborn testing should be sharply expanded right now. Jeffrey Botkin, a professor of pediatric medical ethics at the University of Utah, says that expanded testing carries its own risks because many doctors don't know how best to treat rare metabolic conditions and can hurt babies if their diagnosis is wrong. He also says the testing often takes place without parental consent, raising legal concerns.” Citing the heartbreaking story of a Virginia family, the WSJ makes a compelling argument for expanded testing. One family’s son is permanently disabled because of the failure to identify a disease through infant blood tests at his birth. The family’s second child has the same condition but it was identified at birth and through timely treatment she will lead a normal life. Louisiana is one of 15 states regularly offering fewer than 10 of the 29 recommended tests. This means that in Louisiana there are nearly two dozen different conditions that can be identified at birth and effectively treated – but Louisiana parents don’t get the benefit of that information. And the consequences can be extreme. For a list of states and the conditions for which they test regularly , check the box on the left side “More on Newborn Screening” and click on “a rundown of tests by state.”

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Louisiana's chemical plants

My column today focuses on the vulnerability of chemical plants to terror attacks, particularly in Louisiana. A recent report from the Congressional Research Service provided information about dangerous plants and population density in their vicinities. (Link to the report here.) As I write in the column, “members of the communities and families ‘living next to volatile chemicals’… should be concerned… recent congressional testimony suggests the Bush Administration is thinking about taking a tougher regulatory stand despite chemical industry complaints that it will cost too much. Meanwhile, the aforementioned CRS report has put a number on potential human costs if nothing is done.” See here for recent testimony to the Senate Homeland Security Committee about chemical plant security. According to the CRS report, the numbers break down like this in Louisiana: Areas with population of 0 to 999: 138 chemical plants Areas with population of 1,000 to 9,9999: 106 chemical plants Areas with population of 10,000 to 99,999: 57 chemical plants Areas with population of 100,000 to 999,999: 50 chemical plants Areas with population of more than 1,000,000: 2 chemical plants An article in the Times Picayune last month reported on recent testimony to Congress about the continued vulnerability of the nation’s chemical plants almost four years after 9/11. The Atlanta Journal Constitution had an editorial on the subject a few weeks ago. The New York Times had an editorial last week about the need to continue protecting the United States from terrorist attacks. And chemical plants came up again. Finally, the National Environmental Trust has collected relevant information and clips here: Chemcial Site Security: America's Achilles' Heel?

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The long emergency

As a counterpoint to my post from June 25 about Thomas Friedman’s new book The World is Flat, here’s something else to think about. The book is called The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century by James Howard Kunstler. This is the kind of book that can keep you up at night wondering if the author’s dismal vision of the future is indeed as plausible as he believes. No, this isn't fringe survivalist literature. An abbreviated version of Kunstler’s thesis appeared in the Dallas Morning News on Sunday, July 3. In The Long Emergency, Kunstler points to the reality that “reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as the necessities of modern life – not to mention all of its comforts and luxuries: central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lights, inexpensive clothing, recorded music, movies, hip-replacement surgery, national defense – you name it.” This is no new observation. What’s alarming is his calculation that the world is using its finite supply of fossil fuels so quickly that the global supply will be at its halfway point in just a few years. He refers to the halfway point as the “oil peak” and in the book’s introduction he notes, “What is generally not comprehended about this predicament is that the developed world will begin to suffer long before the oil and gas actually run out.” (The “oil peak” concept originated with geophysicist M. King Hubbert. Some background here and here.) Today's New York Times has a retrospective on American oil crises that helps put all these arguments in perspective. One write-up of Kunstler's book says, “The Long Emergency tells us just what to expect after the honeymoon of affordable energy is over, preparing us for economic, political, and social changes of an unimaginable scale. Riveting and authoritative, The Long Emergency is a devastating indictment that brings new urgency and accessibility to the critical issues that will shape our future, and that we can no longer afford to ignore.” That more people aren’t talking about the inevitability of the end of oil is something Kunstler explains. He says, “throughout history, even the most important and self-evident trends are often completely ignored because the changes they foreshadow are simply unthinkable.” He attributes complacency on the issue to the “presumption that technology and markets will naturally rescue us.” But what if technology and markets can’t compensate for the end of fossil fuels? This book urges people to start thinking about that possibility.

Monday, July 11, 2005

More on prisons

The Times Picayune has an excellent editorial this morning focusing on Louisiana's high prisoner incarceration rate. It begins, "Nobody believes that Louisianians are naturally more criminal than people born in other states. So it should concern everybody who lives here that Louisiana imprisons a higher percentage of its residents than every other state does." It concludes, "A high prison rate isn't so much a disease as it is a symptom. And if state officials and lawmakers are as embarrassed by our dubious distinction as they should be, they'll do more to fix our schools, bring down the high poverty rate and create better jobs. Having the highest percentage of its citizens in prison doesn't make Louisiana safe. It means that the state has failed in many ways." See my post from yesterday about how Louisiana is actually marketing this dubious distinction. The bottom line is this: Louisiana's high prisoner incarceration rate deserves far more attention than it currently gets.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Only in Louisiana

From the "Only in Louisiana" files comes this story published in Saturday's Houston Chronicle. It's a golf course built with prison labor at Angola. The article says no tax dollars were spent in the course's construction. It's called Prison View and it's on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Nice. I guess it's one way for Louisiana to market its proud ownership of the nation's highest per capita incarceration rate.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Cigarette taxes revisited

The Tax Foundation goes into great detail about why cigarette taxes just aren't a good idea. The Tax Foundation reports that the last ten years provide ample evidence of how cigarette taxes work (or not). Looks like it might be time to add the Tax Foundation to the list of willful obstructionists responsible for Louisiana's failure to increase teacher pay during the recent legislative session. The Foundation argues the last ten years demonstrate "to any dispassionate observer that the greater mobility of people and goods, along with instant communication, have made excise taxes obsolete. This is especially true of the cigarette tax because the product is lightweight, compact and highly taxed." Among the problems states have discovered: --"Revenue estimates are rarely met, causing budget problems." --"Bonds sold against future master settlement revenues are unattractive except at preposterously high interest rates, and even then they are downgraded by the rating agencies." --"In a replay of Prohibition-era social decay, law-abiding citizens learn to break the law routinely, and states respond by adopting intrusive and sometimes abusive tactics to catch them." --"Organized criminals and terrorist cells begin trafficking in smuggled cigarettes, and the states spend prodigiously to catch them, with almost no success." --"Businesses and jobs, along with their tax revenue on income, sales and property, are lost to interstate competition." Should increasing cigarette taxes ever resurface as a proposed source of revenue for Louisiana, the anti-children, anti-education supporters of Big Tobacco now have more ammunition.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Health care funding

The National Governors Association has released The Fiscal Survey of States. The New York Times reports on it this morning. State numbers are self-reported. One finding: Louisiana is not alone in its struggles to cover health care costs. According to a representative of the NGA, "The continued rise in health care costs, spurred on by Medicaid, continues to throw a wrench in the recovery of states to emerge from the recent fiscal crisis. Medicaid continues to be the major driver of state spending, and it will continue to cut into other state budget priorities like education and economic development." There could be trouble ahead based on Louisiana's recently-passed creative financing scheme in the form of a hospital tax. The Advocate reported on Louisiana's plan in June. Georgia tried it and it backfired. This is something to watch.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Terror, again

The news from London continues to send chills down the spine. As one terrorism expert noted, counter-terrorism efforts need to be lucky again and again and again. That is, counter-terrorism efforts need to work every time. But a committed terrorist organization only needs to be lucky once. Unfortunately, some as-yet-unidentified terrorist group seems to have gotten lucky this morning. Links to counter-terrorism resources: Rand Corporation: Terrorism and Homeland Security Council on Foreign Relations: Terrorism in London U.S. Department of Homeland Security: Raising terror level U.S. Department of State: Counterterrorism Office

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Education, education, education

My column today considers education and its constant abuse in the state's political environment. The column concludes: "It's clear no Louisiana official can win or keep an elected office without promising to make education a priority. And that's important. But it's time people start demanding behavior reflecting those promises. The question is whether when elections next roll around voters will remember how education is somehow just never quite important enough to be at the top of the list." It's not an exaggeration to say education is the key to Louisiana's future. Get education right and everything else will fall into place.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

State spending, taxes and results

Operating under the assumption that sunshine is the best disinfectant, here’s a quick rundown of available info about state tax statistics and spending habits. That Louisiana fails to get good results for the money it spends is a given. A quick glance at national ranking of performance indicators proves that. See, for example, indicators of child well-being. The Tax Foundation maintains information about the tax climate of the 50 states. Here’s the Foundation’s tax data page for Louisiana. Info about Louisiana’s state and local tax burden is here, again from the Tax Foundation. Here’s the U.S. Census Bureau’s breakdown of total taxes and tax per capita. Meanwhile, Louisiana state rep Tim Burns highlights state spending info on his personal website. Citing a 2004 book titled The Price of Government (excerpt here) Burns notes the following statistics on state spending comparing Louisiana to other states in the region: Louisiana: $4,141.04 Alabama: $3,835.96 Florida: $3,538.05 Texas: $2,987.99 Georgia: $1,972.96 Mississippi: $1,584.59 Isn’t it time to start asking why Louisiana spends so much but gets so little?

Monday, July 04, 2005

Local boy makes good

Congratulations B.J. Ryan! The Baltimore Orioles’ closer (and Shreveport-Bossier native) was selected for the 2005 All-Star Game. An article in the Shreveport Times menions Ryan’s selection for the All-Star roster. Official announcement of Ryan's and other Orioles' selection from the Orioles’ clubhouse here. And here's an MLB article on the All-Star roster. Go B.J.!

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Partisan politics in LA?

John Hill’s column on Saturday was interesting. It condemned what he sees as the new partisanship in the Louisiana state legislature. It blamed the democratic governor’s recent difficulties on obstructionist tactics practiced by the opposing party. But here’s the thing: Partisanship is more than just disagreeing about what’s best for the state. It’s about using state issues and elevating the party’s interest above the state’s. It’s also about being disingenuous in the justification of that behavior and finding ways to blame the opposing party for political failures. I’m no fan of the extreme partisanship poisoning Washington and the country’s politics. It’s painfully clear partisanship does more harm than good. If that’s what’s happening in Louisiana it’s no darn good. But let’s be clear on our definition of terms: Policy disagreement does not equal partisanship. And yet, Hill’s first example of “partisanship” was Senator Dardenne’s complaint about state spending. Hill wrote, “The debate turned decidedly partisan after Sen. Jay Dardenne, R-Baton Rouge complained the Blanco administration was allowing spending to grow unabated.” Is it just me? That really sounds more like a policy of good government than it does a philosophy of partisanship or obstructionism. Later Hill writes, “At session's end, Blanco said the cigarette tax issue was not 100 percent partisan. ‘I had some Republicans.’ But the partisan rifts ‘did take me by surprise,’ Blanco said. ‘In the past, personal relationships mattered more than party politics.’” Let’s have a moment of silence for the decline of personal relationships in Louisiana politics. They’ve done to so much to help the state on indicators like economic development, population growth, poverty reduction, educational attainment, high school graduation rates, adult incarceration rates and quality-of-life. I would lament the passing of the good old days except, with the benefit of hindsight, it turns out they weren’t so good. What’s interesting is who’s shedding the tears.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

New approach in juvenile courts

Missouri, the national model for juvenile justice reform is opening its child protection courts to the public. I’ve written a paper advocating adoption of this policy nationwide. I’ll be presenting it at the Association for Education in Journalism and Communication conference in August. Abstract for my paper here (13th down from the top of the list).

Friday, July 01, 2005

More of the same to come?

Just as criticism of the administration’s performance during the recent legislative session was reaching a crescendo, Governor Blanco announced she will call a special legislative session to address the still-outstanding issue of teacher pay raises. The Times Picayune has a quick write-up. The language of the governor's announcement reads like an attempt to spin recent events into an image of gubernatorial persistence rather than defeat. It’s a theme that turns up repeatedly in the short release. A few examples: “Several weeks ago, even before the legislative session ended, I said that I had not given up on the subject of meaningful teacher pay increases.” “As I have said over and over again, competitive teacher salaries are at the heart of any rational plan to rebuild the economy of our state.” “Some may wonder at my persistence in this matter. I hope that this announcement will strongly indicate what should have been obvious. I am totally committed to meaningful teacher pay raises.” Sadly, what was obvious from the start of the legislative session was state leadership’s (governor and legislature included) failure to make education the priority they repeatedly say it is. A few common-sense observations for this Friday: --The legislature failed to approve and the governor failed to endorse no-tax-increase attempts to raise teacher pay during the session. It’s hard to avoid the fact that had they pursued those options, there would be no need for a special session now – and Governor Blanco might be taking less of a beating in the press. --Nobody in a leadership position was willing to abandon pet projects thus freeing monies for teacher pay raises. That tells everyone everything they need to know about the state’s education priorities. --Yesterday’s press release suggested that the governor willfully opted to make health care a priority over education. The session ended only recently; my memory’s still pretty good and that’s not how I remember things. At the time, it looked more like she was forced into changing her plans as a result of resistance to cigarette taxes dedicated to education. Despite the press release and attempts to put a new and happy spin on things and promises of a teacher pay raise should the money become available, certain facts remain unchanged: --The state budget increased by more than $1 billion this year but there wasn’t enough money to be found for teacher pay raises. --Yesterday’s press release confirmed the administration won’t change how it approaches teacher pay raises. Money for teachers will only come from new revenue. It won’t be found in a badly bloated state budget that just grows and grows and grows. --Any system that repeatedly allows -- indeed encourages -- choosing between health care and education priorities is seriously broken. The bruising legislative session should have forced recognition of a simple fact: The current way of doing business in Louisiana is not sustainable. Sadly, based on legislative actions and comments from the governor’s mansion, it looks like Louisiana’s leadership hasn’t yet received that message.