Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Pray

Governor Blanco has declared today, Wednesday August 31, a day of prayer as the waters continue to rise in New Orleans and the lives of some of that city's most vulnerable residents are put at even greater risk (as if that were possible). Meanwhile, questions are starting to appear in the national media about the state's response to this disaster concerning foresight or lack thereof in adequate planning for the worst-case scenario. Increasingly tough questions are being directed to the governor and to Mayor Nagin. The message so far is this: Keeping your fingers crossed that the "big one" never comes isn't proving to be much of a disaster preparation plan.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Classes back in session

Classes are back in session and alas, the life of a PhD student won't allow postings here on a daily basis as I've been doing the last few months. But I do hope to continue posting pretty frequently so please do check in once in a while. As always, thanks for the support!

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Addressing the dropout rate

My column this week discusses the state's serious dropout problem and the implications of failing to do something meaningful to address it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Moderating pork

The Cato Institute just released a short report titled "Pork: A Microcosm of the Overspending Problem." The report is available from the Institute's home page here. The report begins, "The $286 billion highway bill that passed in July was bloated with 6,371 special projects inserted by members of Congress for their states and districts. Such projects are often of dubious value or for purposes that are the responsibility of local governments and the private sector. Pork is only one type of waste in the budget, but it undermines efforts to restrain federal spending in general." There's no debating the fact that federal spending is on the rise. It's worth noting, however, that "pork" is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, one man's pork is another's economic development project (see new I-49 funding for Louisiana...) Setting aside the definitional problem, the Cato Institute's report contains an interesting proposition: "Pork spending might be brought under control with greater budget transparency. The name of the politician requesting each project should be listed in legislation, and spending request letters sent by members to appropriators should be made available online." Why stop at the federal level? How about doing the same thing in Louisiana? And in addition to 1) the name of the politician requesting the money and 2) the written funding request from the requesters, how about also requiring a few additional common sense safeguards such as: a) documentation proving that the organization requesting the funding actually exists b) documentation listing all founding and governing members of the requesting organization c) documentation proving the organization has been in existence for more than one year d) accounting records for the organization's past spending (including bank statements) e) detailed proposal for use of requested funds f) after-action report required to be published and widely distributed within 1 year of receipt of the state funding to demonstrate how the monies were spent (including certified receipts, bank statements and other evidence of financial transactions) g) establishing significant penalties for misappropriation of said public funds No doubt some of the money the Louisiana legislature doles out each year goes to worthy organizations. But wouldn't it be nice to know for certain that all of it does?

Monday, August 22, 2005

Electoral approval

A recent survey tracks approval ratings for U.S. senators. For Louisiana the numbers look like this: Senator Mary Landrieu: 52% approval; 40% disapproval Senator David Vitter: 57% approval; 31% disapproval National average: 56% approval; 32% disapproval Last month, the same organization released gubernatorial approval ratings: Governor Kathleen Blanco: 54% approval; 38% disapproval National average: 50% approval; 41% disapproval Finally, new approval numbers for President George W. Bush: Louisiana: 48% approval; 48% disapproval National: 41% approval; 55% disapproval

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Shuttle Discovery in NWLA

I had an incredible vantage point for watching the arrival of space shuttle Discovery at Barksdale Air Force Base on Friday. Here are a few of the pix I took. It was an amazing thing to see. Please note: All pictures © 2005, Emily Metzgar

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Mysterious meter maids

The content of an article in yesterday's Shreveport Times is just too tempting not to comment on. A local resident has become a "water meter watchdog." This local man, Robert Feather, has made it his mission to find out who exactly is reading the city's water meters. The official answer is Port City Utilities, a company registered, according to the Secretary of State's office, to a man who died 5 months ago. What Feather's discovered is typical of Shreveport in a sad kind of way. Feather has the support of his city councilman, Thomas Carmody and the article notes: "In a series of letters to City Attorney Ramon Lafitte, Carmody questions whether the city's contract with Port City Utilities is legally valid. Carmody's chief concerns:" "The Port City Utilities contract, executed by Richard Johnson, indicates the limited liability corporation had no other members or a board of directors, and none was listed on the contract." "Johnson died March 20, and no new registered agent has been named. According to a check with the Louisiana secretary of state's office on Thursday, Johnson is still listed as the company's sole registered agent nearly five months after his death." "The only address for Port City Utilities, as confirmed by the secretary of state's official records, reflects Johnson's address." "Carmody wants to know who's getting paid each month when the city cuts a check to Port City Utilities." Is it so wrong to want to know who gets paid when the city writes a check to Port City Utilities? According to Shreveport Mayor Keith Hightower it is. The article quotes Hightower as accusing Carmody of conducting a "witch hunt" in order to drag former Senator Greg Tarver's name into the whole affair. You see, Tarver's relatives populate 50% of the board of Port City Utilities. And remember, the person listed as the point of contact and chief decision-maker for Port City Utilities is now dead. Is Hightower concerned? Well, no. According to Carmody the mayor's position is this: "It doesn't matter who the city of Shreveport contracts with to provide services, as long as the services are provided." If that's an accurate representation of the mayor's beliefs about contracting city services then it explains a great deal about why things are the way they are in Shreveport.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Poverty & health care

Yesterday a new report titled "Hospital Care in the 100 Largest Cities and Their Suburbs, 1996-2002: Implications for the Future of the Hospital Safety Net in Metropolitan America" was released by SUNY Downstate and promoted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Press release and link to report here. See page 12 of the report for discussion of the association between hospital utilization/capacity and high poverty rates. This is something that should be of concern to Louisiana. Page 26 identifies the 100 metro areas considered in this Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-sponsored study. Louisiana has three cities considered in the study -- SHV, BTR, & NOLA -- all categorized as "high poverty" communities. The report notes that poverty "is positively correlated with illness and health care need." Not surprisingly, the report makes an explicit connection between poverty, violence, low education levels, low birthweights and unemployment. With some of the nation's highest high school drop out rates, prisoner incarceration rates, child poverty rates and infant mortality rates, it isn't surprising that Louisiana has overall poor indicators of public health placing tremendous pressure on the state charity hospital system. After a while it sounds to start like a broken record, doesn't it? All these issues of public health, education and poverty are interconnected. Failing to address any one of them in an effective way ensures disappointing performance on all indicators of social and economic welfare. And that kind of consistently poor performance doesn't do anybody in Louisiana any good.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Digital Louisiana?

The National Council of State Legislatures is holding its annual meeting in Seattle, Washington this week. Not much news yet generated by that meeting. But the conference did kick off with University of Washington's president Mark Emmert interviewing Microsoft's Bill Gates. The Associated Press has a report on the exchange. According to the AP, the take-home message was this: "Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates told state legislators that harnessing the power of technology will help them serve their constituents more efficiently." It's worth noting that the Louisiana legislature was recognized in 2002 by the Center for Digital Government for the state legislature's use of technology. In 2004, however, Louisiana failed to make the list of top 25 digital states a list described as "a comprehensive study on best practices, policies and progress made by state governments in their use of digital technologies to better serve their citizens and streamline operations."

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Lobbying in Louisiana

My column this week discusses a recent report from the Center for Public Integrity concerning lobbying in state capitals across the country. The column begins, "Last week, the Center for Public Integrity released a report noting that money spent by state-level lobbyists across the country is nearing $1 billion. The report observes 'vested interests are working harder than ever to achieve their goals in state capitols and state agencies around the country.' Citing the existence of more than 47,000 such interests employing more than 38,000 people, the report figures that averages out to about five lobbyists for every state legislator nationwide." The report ranks all 50 states for the rigor of their lobbying regulations. Louisiana ranks 33rd. An article in yesterday's Times Picayune notes that one of Louisiana's many lobbying loopholes is about to close. This may lead Louisiana to a better ranking next time around.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Youth access to tobacco

Good news for Louisiana's youth: According to a new report from the state's Department of Health and Hospitals, fewer children are being sold cigarettes across the state. (The complete Youth Access to Tobacco Report is available here.) In Louisiana overall, 7% of convenience stores were found selling cigarettes to minors. That wasn't much of a change from last year, but the overall trend is a positive one. Almost 800 state tobacco retail outlets were tested and according to these numbers, an average of 93% of them passed the test. That's especially good news since, according to the Times Picayune, "when federal and state officials first measured noncompliance in 1997, Louisiana had the highest rate in the nation, 72.7percent." Northwest Louisiana dropped from 21.74% to 7.1%. That's great news. But Southwest Louisiana still has a problem. In that region, more than 26% of the stores examined in the study were selling cigarettes to minors. That's up from under 10% last year. Overall, the state's performance is improving and that's good news no matter how you look at it.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Rhetoric or reality?

Last week, the Milken Institute released its annual Cost-of-Doing-Business Index. It finds Hawaii, New York and Massachusetts to be the most expensive places to do business in the United States. Both the index and the data used are available here. Louisiana's ranking moved upward (that's the wrong direction) from 38th last time around to 32nd this time. The Milken Institute index is comprised of state performance indexed in several categories: wage costs, tax burden, electricity cost, industrial rent cost, and office rent cost. To place Louisiana's performance in context, copied below are the U.S. and LA averages on 3 important factors: wage per employee US: 37.154 LA: 30.219 tax burden: US: 61.4 LA: 64.4 electricity cost (per kilowatt hour): US: 6.56 LA: 6.49 The conclusion to be drawn from this simple comparison is that although wages are lower in Louisiana and electricity is cheaper in the state, the tax burden in Louisiana is higher than the national average. That tax burden number strongly suggests that Louisiana isn't nearly as business-friendly as current state rhetoric suggests. All this proves, yet again, that changing the rhetoric doesn't change the reality.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Projecting potemkin positivism

An article in today's Times Picayune raises yet another batch of questions about the state's funding priorities. This time questions concern the cost of renovating Lt. Governor Landrieu's official residence and office space. According to the article, official justification for spending nearly $1 million on said projects is as follows: "Renovations to the space occupied by the office of lieutenant governor and the office of the secretary of DCRT (Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism) were designed to give us a place to host dignitaries, conduct economic development and tourism business meetings -- basically to show the state in a more professional, positive light to those who we do business with." No one disagrees that Louisiana needs to project a more professional, positive image to visitors. And yet, such extraordinary expense in a state so strapped for cash might just project an image that is neither professional nor positive. While justification for such extensive (and expensive) renovations are clearly framed in terms of making the state look better to outsiders, such construction does nothing to change the reality of life in Louisiana outside those million dollar work spaces and well-appointed personal digs. At least attention to appearances at the expense of meaningful change outside the walls of Landrieu's new potemkin village is consistent with state leadership's overall tendency to make superficial changes while still leaving the underlying reality unchanged.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Media access to juvenile courts

I'm on the road to present a paper at the conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (www.aejmc.org). My paper is titled, "Media Access to Juvenile Courts: The Argument for Uniform Access." Abstract: "Media Access to Juvenile Courts: The Argument for Uniform Access • Emily Metzgar Louisiana State • This paper advocates uniform media access to the nation’s juvenile courts, including both delinquency and dependency hearings, based on consideration of juveniles’ due process rights; Supreme Court decisions on media access to legal proceedings; the nature of the juvenile justice system; and the media’s role in raising awareness of public policy issues. Ultimately this paper recommends establishment of presumptive access policies for all juvenile courts and encourages more comprehensive media coverage of juvenile justice issues." Next blog posting on Sunday.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Summer reading?

The National Endowment for the Arts recently released a report titled, “Reading at Risk.” The findings are straightforward: “Literary reading in America is not only declining rapidly among all groups, but the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young.” Report available here: http://www.nea.gov/news/news04/ReadingAtRisk.html The numbers: 1982: 56.9% of adults were reading literature 1992: 54 % 2002: 46.7% “The 10-point drop,” the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics notes, “represents a loss of 20 million potential readers.” That’s a lot fewer people reading beyond newspapers, current events nonfiction, blogs and news magazines! Reading at Risk notes, “More than reading is at stake. The decline in reading… parallels a larger retreat from participation in civic and cultural life. The long-term implications of this study not only affect literature but all the arts – as well as social activities such as volunteerism, philanthropy, and even political engagement.” It further notes, “Reading is not a timeless, universal capability. Advanced literacy is a specific intellectual skills and social habit that depends on a great many educational, cultural, and economic factors. As more Americans lose this capability, our nation become less informed, active, and independent-minded. These are not qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose.” What does this all mean? “At the current rate of loss, literary reading as leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century,” the report concludes. That disappearance would be a tragedy indeed. Life without Bowles, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Greene or Hardy? A shelf without It All Comes Down, To Kill a Mockingbird, Nana, Native Son, Cold Comfort Farm or Their Eyes Were Watching God? Can the United States really afford to become “less informed, active and independent-minded?” Summer's not over yet. Pick up a piece of great literature and read!

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Testing accountability

My column this week focuses on recent school accountability results for Louisiana. Now's no time to get weak-kneed about sticking with reforms. Too much is riding on Louisiana getting public education right.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Deliberating on democracy

Yesterday The Advocate ran a story about Louisiana's appearance in the Center for Voting and Democracy's new report, Dubious Democracy 2005. The portion of the report focusing on Louisiana begins, "Louisiana’s congressional elections are among the least democratic in the nation." The report notes, "Louisiana ranks 46th out of all 50 states on the democracy index this year, making it one of FairVote’s “Dirty Dozen” of 2005." The Center credits Louisiana's 46th place ranking to its "sky-high incumbency rate" and its "anemic voter turnout." For context, consider these facts about the U.S. as a whole in 2004: --Nationally, just 5 incumbents lost to challengers --The average victory margin was 70% to 30% --Nearly 25% of all races were uncontested (incumbent had no challenger) --1 out of every 11 voters skipped the House vote on their ballots Louisiana made the national survey's "state lowlights" list with the following fact: "Incumbents have gone 36 for 36 since 1992. 1992 was the only election in elections between 1982 - 2004 when an incumbent was defeated." On the subject of voter turnout, here's a little-known fact that hasn't earned much attention in Louisiana: The state had the nation's "lowest voter turnout in the nation in U.S. House races, with only 39 percent of the voting-eligible population in Louisiana voting in the 2004 U.S. House elections." [emphasis added]. This means, the report concludes, "barely one in four eligible Louisiana voters voted for anyone representing them in the U.S. House."

Monday, August 08, 2005

Blog audiences growing

There's a new report suggesting that 50 million Americans visited blogs in the first quarter of 2005. That's 1 in 6 web surfers. The report's key findings: • "50 million U.S. Internet users visited blog sites in the first quarter of 2005. That is roughly 30% of all U.S. Internet users and 1 in 6 of the total U.S. population" • "Five hosting services for blogs each had more than 5 million unique visitors in that period, and four individual blogs had more than 1 million visitors each" • "Of 400 of the biggest blogs observed, segmented by seven (nonexclusive) categories, political blogs were the most popular, followed by "hipster" lifestyle blogs, tech blogs and blogs authored by women" • "Compared to the average Internet user, blog readers are significantly more likely to live in wealthier households, be younger and connect to the Web on high-speed connections" • "Blog readers also visit nearly twice as many web pages as the Internet average, and they are much more likely to shop online" Source: Behaviors of the Blogosphere: Understanding the Scale, Composition and Activities of Weblog Audiences, from ComScore Networks (Available here).

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Governing the Internet

Congressional Quarterly has an interesting column about the United Nations' apparent desire to take governing control of the Internet. The author notes that "Whoever controls decisions on how Internet traffic gets routed can wield vast economic and political influence." And the UN, he argues, hasn't demonstrated any ability to responsibly handle that kind of influence. Anyone who's seen the UN organizational chart or who has tried following the investigation of the UN's oil-for-food program in Iraq might be inclined to agree.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Blogging the blogosphere

Early this week, Technorati released its 6-month State of the Blogosphere report. It has launched a flurry of commentary. Technorati, which tracks blogs, noted that the number of blogs has doubled in the last 5 ½ months. It's no surprise then that this week two opinion pieces ran in two different mainstream media publications both addressing the blog phenomenon. In one, the New York Times marveled at the expansion of the Blogosphere and the exponential growth in the number of people embracing the technology. The editorial noted, “Some 900,000 new blog postings are added every day - a steady increase marked by extraordinary spikes in new postings after incidents like the London bombing. The blogosphere - that is, the virtual realm of blogdom as a whole - doubles in size every five and a half months.” A day earlier, Editor and Publisher magazine had run a think-piece by an LSU professor of mass communication who suggested that the so-called explosion of blogging is just overblown hype. The E&P piece noted that many of those new blogs are orphaned (never revisited by their creators) or are actually created not by individuals seeking to exercise their right to free speech, but rather by advertising, public relations and other commercial promoters seeking to exploit the new technology. The argument is that the raw number of blogs in existence is misleading and leads to excessive media hype when in fact it might be prudent to curb enthusiasm a bit. Predictably, the Blogosphere is now dissecting all the commentary and opinions are as widespread as the number of bloggers themselves. However many people that is.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Louisiana's uninsured children

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Urban Institute recently released a report documenting the number of uninsured children in the United States. See press release about the report here. Titled "Going Without: America's Uninsured Children," the report finds "One-third (32.9 percent) of uninsured children in America went without medical care for an entire year... Conversely, nearly 88 percent of their insured counterparts received care during the same period." The Washington Post reported findings and highlighted the good news saying "The number of children with medical insurance is increasing across the country, thanks to outreach efforts and streamlining of government eligibility requirements." So, how about Louisiana? According to the new report %13.6 of Louisiana's children are uninsured. That translates into more than 160,000 youngters without health insurance. Fortunately, 62% of those children received medical care anyway -- that's almost 47,000 kids. It's wonderful kids can get medical care in Louisiana even without health insurance and it's absolutely the right thing for medical professionals to do. But the expense of treating uninsured children is absorbed by everyone and the current system is simply not sustainable. By far the most frustrating part of Louisiana's child health insurance gap is that there's a program designed specifically to provide health care to those children. LaCHIP is supposed to help fill that gap. As Louisiana's Agenda for Children noted last December, "The lack of affordable, quality health care coverage is a major issue in America today and the state of Louisiana continues to have one of the highest rates of uninsured citizens in the nation... Health coverage for children is an important link to education and therefore a link to alleviating poverty." Poverty. Education. Health. There's no escaping the connection. All the evidence points to Louisiana's need to address these issues and it's obvious none of them can be addressed in isolation. A poverty summit, regional health care committees and school accountability programs so far haven't made much of a dent in the state's most important indicators. Of course, all this says a great deal about the state's priorities. So here's a question for Louisiana's economic development gurus: If the state isn't willing to invest in its most important resource -- human capital (in this case, children), how can it reasonably expect outsiders to come do it for them?

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Perception is reality

Anyone wondering why Louisiana just can't shake its reputation for corruption need look no further than yesterday's federal raid of U.S. Rep. William Jefferson's homes, offices and car. It's highly unusual for the feds to subpoena a congressman, search his property and leave with boxes of material for investigation. Even if Rep. Jefferson is never charged with any wrongdoing, it just doesn't look good for a sitting member of Congress to be at the center of something like that.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

"Getting worse faster"

The new Kids Count 2005 Data Book released last week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation deserves far more attention than it's been getting in Louisiana. When the lead researcher for the report said "Louisiana is getting worse faster than the rest of the country," it should have been front page news across the state. My column this week addresses the report and the implications for Louisiana -- ranked 49th in overall indicators of child well-being. The column expands on my earlier comments about Louisiana's performance last Thursday. Recent editorials in the Advocate and the Times Picayune have also commented on the state's 49th place ranking for indicators of child well-being. The Advocate implied that it will take more than a poverty summit to address Louisiana's child poverty crisis. The Times Picayune observed "Child poverty has been increasing nationally in recent years, but Louisiana isn't just a part of this distressing trend, it's on the leading edge." By now, the scope of the problem is quite clear. The question is what will Louisiana do about it?

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Sexual violence in prisons

On Sunday, the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report titled, "Sexual Violence Reported by Correctional Authorities, 2004." A BJS press release about the report is here. The report itself is available here. According to the report, Louisiana had only one allegation of "inmate-on-inmate sexual violence reported by State or Federal prison authorities" in 2004. It was ultimately classified as "unfounded." Louisiana had 18 different "Allegations of staff sexual misconduct with inmates reported by State and Federal prison authorities." None of them were "substantiated." 7 were deemed "unsubstantiated" and 10 were found to be "unfounded." Numerous footnotes explain how the total number of allegations could be different from the numbers found to be substantiated, unsubstantiated, or unfounded. As for reports from local prison or jail authorities in Louisiana, here's a quick snapshot: --Caddo Parish had 1 substantiated allegation. --East Baton Rouge had 4 allegations, 2 of them unsubstantiated, 2 outstanding. --Orleans Parish had 10 allegations, all of them substantiated. --Rapides Parish had 1 unsubstantiated allegation. The report contains additional information pertaining to Louisiana, including statistics for privately-run prisons and juvenile facilities. When the New York Times reported on the BJS report it emphasized that "Sexual assaults and other illicit incidents of sexual contact are reported at juvenile prisons at 10 times the rate than at adult lockups." (Note: For Louisiana there were no substantiated allegations concerning youth.) The NYT also noted that, overall "For 2004, more than 8,200 allegations of sex violence were reported to corrections officials, the report said. About one-third of the complaints were substantiated by officials, and 15 percent were still being investigated." "Most of the allegations," it continued, "about 55 percent, were either false or there was not enough evidence to support or reject them." NPR also covered the report on Monday morning. The only "good news" of any sort in the BJS report: 4 of Louisiana's local jail jurisdictions had "no allegations of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence and staff sexual misconduct" in 2004. Those jurisdictions were: Livingston Parish, Shreveport City, St. Charles Parish and West Baton Rouge Parish.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Logging Louisiana cypress

Here's something that hasn't seen much coverage in Louisiana media: Debate about whether the state should allow logging in its remaining cypress swamps. Consider this observation from the San Diego Union Tribune about the dilemma facing the governor, "There's still a lot of cypress swamp left. Louisiana now has 1,462 million cubic feet of cypress, second only to Florida." "The abundance is both a blessing and a curse," the paper continues. "This poor state needs the tax dollars that logging would bring but it also needs to save its coast, which would most likely lose even more land if logging is not restricted." And that is the irony. At the same time Louisiana is seeking federal dollars to protect and restore the eroding coastline, it is contemplating logging the cypress forests which will probably put the coastline at further risk. NPR had a story about it in May. Public meetings on the subject began last month and the Times-Picayune reported on the meetings. A decision is expected soon.