Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Long time coming

My column this week considers the eerie similarities between a classic song and the political reality of post-hurricane Louisiana. Text of the column is copied below. Words to the Crosby, Stills and Nash song, "Long time gone" are here.

The night before Katrina churned ashore, a Baton Rouge radio station played Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Long time gone” a song with lyrics as eerily suited to the mood that night and the months to come as the minor key of the melody. The song begins, “It’s been a long time comin’. It's goin' to be a long time gone, And it appears to be a… long, long, long, long time, Before the dawn.” No doubt the disc-jockey’s choice was driven by the ominous weather forecast and indications that Katrina was Louisiana’s long-feared “big one.” That’s probably why the music still plays in my head months later. But the more time that passes in post-Katrina Louisiana the more fitting the song becomes. Given budget shortfalls, levee breaks, population dispersion and politics as usual, Louisiana’s dawn is indeed far away. But don’t stop looking for similarities to Louisiana’s current situation after just the first few lines. Check the second verse: “Turn, turn any corner. Hear, you must hear what the people say, You know there's something that's goin' on around here, That surely, surely, surely won't stand the light of day...” The prescience of the line about something that won’t stand the light of day is hard to miss. Failures of the levees and the boards behind them fit that description perfectly. So, too, reports of abandoned and abused prisoners in state custody. Don’t forget images of empty New Orleans school buses parked in flooded lots. These examples of government failure and inept leadership surely don’t stand the light of day – although the national media is doing a better job of shining light on government failures than the state press. One of the ironies of state leadership’s concern that national attention is turning away from Louisiana is the likelihood that much going on around here couldn’t stand the scrutiny of the longed-for, sustained national media attention. Verse three encourages an end to apathy -- again frighteningly relevant to Louisiana -- with these lines, “Speak out, you got to speak out against the madness, You got to speak your mind, If you dare. But don't, no don't try to get yourself elected…” Initial public outrage in Louisiana about Katrina-related events has long since dissipated. Meanwhile, political motivation for action or inaction in response to Katrina has been evident since late August. Despite the litany of missed opportunities before, during and since Katrina, the apathy continues as does the political posturing. Louisiana’s post-hurricane fiscal and political disaster was indeed a long time coming. The problems won’t be fixed overnight, no matter how aggressive or proactive the leadership or the voters who put them there. But Louisiana’s dawn is far away and as long as the state takes only baby steps by trying to preserve as much as possible of the state’s current political system -- the very system responsible for this mess in the first place -- it’s possible dawn might never come at all.

Abdication of fiscal responsibility

Today's Advocate has a piece that should have appeared during the special legislative session. The article focuses on where budget cuts actually came from versus where they should have come from. Of particular note is the budget-cutting inaction of the senate in post-hurricane Louisiana:

Nearly half the 39 senators are now on record against cutting their own budget in bad fiscal times.
That's pathetic. But even worse is the state's continued acceptance of health care and education as the only budget items eligible for cuts. A look at any pre-hurricane national ranking suggests these are two areas where the state can least afford to skimp (of course the state could also stand to reprioritize its spending in those issue areas, but that's a topic for another time). Bottom line: If it's the state constitution that makes this targeting of the most vulnerable the always first-picked fruit in difficult times, then it's time to amend the constitution to bring some common sense into the state's budgeting process. One final thought: If the legislature responsible for passing a $18.2 billion budget during its last regular session can't be compelled to make cuts on its own when it's undoubtedly the right thing to do with the state in such a time of crisis, then it's time to send them home because they've just demonstrated where their priorities are. And for you keeping score at home, those priorities just aren't in line with the best interest of the state and its people.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Difference of opinion

Funny how different people can watch the same events and come to such different conclusions: Yesterday's Times Pic editorial on the special legislative session. Today's Times Pic report on the special legislative session. Today's Shreveport Times on the special legislative session. John Maginnis on the special legislative session. My column on the special legislative session:

Is it possible for a state to be in denial? Louisiana sure makes it look that way. It took almost two months to create and populate the Louisiana Recovery Authority – a board the Baton Rouge Advocate derided as “another advisory committee.” The committee approach has been tried and found lacking on a variety of issues critical to the state in recent years. What led the administration to roll it out again? It suggests denial about the need for decisive leadership in the state’s continuing time of crisis. The governor says, "I can't imagine how a state could help itself more than we're helping ourselves." But as one commentator noted, the “savings” heralded by the governor and state legislature during the special session amounted to less than half of the total budget increase between the last regular session and the one preceding it. Not refilling vacant state jobs as a cost-saving measure is a start, but it isn’t much of a disaster-driven recovery plan. It suggests denial about the magnitude of Louisiana’s addiction to state spending as lubricant for the state’s political machine. Before Katrina, a member of the state’s congressional delegation was under investigation by the FBI. Then a parish-level official was caught in an FBI sting. Meanwhile, Louisiana hasn’t complied with Congressional requests for documentation of the state response to Katrina. But that hasn’t stopped a state from requesting $250 billion in federal monies while at the same time complaining about expectations for repayment of that money. This suggests denial about the impact of Louisiana’s track record on the state’s efforts to earn post-hurricane sympathy and dollars. As the special legislative session was about to start two weeks ago, the Times Picayune ran an editorial saying “Our state’s elected leaders need to show, in word and deed, that they understand the scale of the state’s current plight – and will make the tough choices necessary to get out of it.” But granting immunity to political interests and protecting sources of legislator income from public disclosure suggest something other than an understanding of the state’s plight. With the long overdue special session now over, the results suggest continued denial. To quote Mark Twain’s famous line, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Denial is alive and well in Louisiana, from Shreveport to Baton Rouge, from Lake Charles to Monroe. Denial helps disguise the need for an overhaul of the state’s political system. Denial provides cover to those who fear the inevitable restructuring of state funding priorities. Denial allows complaints about failures at the federal level without acknowledging failures closer to home. Denial permits meaningless quips like “watch my results” in response to observations about serious leadership shortcomings. Louisiana can no longer afford its old political system and the rest of the country knows it. But until Louisiana faces that reality with leadership ready to tackle it, no real recovery can begin. Everything else is just a continued denial of reality.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Louisiana's shame

Images of her makeshift roadside grave were emblematic of government neglect in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. But why is it a British newspaper following up on the heartbreaking story of Vera Smith who lay dead on the side of a NOLA road for days? May Miss Vera finally rest in peace and may her death inspire those who seek a better future for the people of Louisiana.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

History haunts

My column this week considers the context of Louisiana's post-hurricane troubles. The column is a litany of opportunities missed by the state in recent years. Encouraging signs from the legislature in the last 24 hours notwithstanding (budget cuts, controls for NOLA schools) the column is a reminder that the current crisis was a long time in the making:

Amid statewide coverage of Louisiana’s displaced populations, post-hurricane upheavals, and dire financial straits, one thing is missing. The state’s governmental, electoral, judicial, educational, fiscal and reputational crisis requires context. So here’s an attempt at context in 500 words or less: It’s not a bold insight to observe that Louisiana has a checkered political past. Nor is it profound to note the challenges facing Louisiana are of a magnitude rarely seen in American history. Still there doesn’t seem to be much state-led urgency about the whole thing. And if there’s no urgency emanating from this disaster’s ground zero, why should the rest of the country care? If the issues aren’t important enough to call the state legislature into session until almost three months after the disaster, why should the rest of the country rush to commit to long-term rebuilding projects? If issues aren’t urgent enough for the state legislature to stay in session through the week-end, why should anyone outside Louisiana take seriously assertions about the dire state of affairs around here? If recovery isn’t important enough to make legislators loosen their grip on pet projects, why should American taxpayers be expected to ante up? It’s about more than hurricanes. In recent years, Louisiana has had ample opportunity to help itself. It could have reduced the tax burden on private businesses. It could have acknowledged that official rhetoric about new times in Louisiana didn’t reflect reality on the ground – something public opinion surveys suggested the rest of the country knew anyway. It could have slashed state employee rolls. The legislature could have welcomed statements from voters that they intended to hold lawmakers accountable for their votes. The legislature could have voted to implement charter schools in New Orleans. Louisiana could have begun tackling the poverty problem by getting serious about teacher pay and other predictors of improved education performance instead of pouring money into education administration and poverty summits. It could have saved money by eliminating one of the state’s annual elections. It could have implemented more than half-step measures to reform the state’s indigent defense system. The inspector general and legislative auditor could have been quickly replaced to track government behavior, waste and fraud – actions that might have prevented the embarrassing misappropriation of $30 million in federal monies intended for homeland security. Louisiana could have prioritized education and health care instead of slush funds. It could have said no to state-funded sugar mills, convention center hotels and reservoirs. It could have passed serious ethical guidelines for public officials – guidelines which would now be in play for post-hurricane reconstruction efforts. So, Louisiana, go easy on the rest of the country for its reluctance to pour more money into the state’s seemingly bottomless and accountability-free public trough. Lawmakers in DC and their constituents across the country can’t be blamed for taking a cautious approach to Louisiana’s pleas for a bailout. The sad fact is many across the country probably believe Louisiana’s finally reaped what it’s sown.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Trickle of returnees

The New York Times today reports on the slow return of evacuees to New Orleans and surrounding areas. The picture is rather bleak:

The city had 460,000 residents before the hurricane, but with many neighborhoods uninhabitable, some officials speculate that there are no more than 100,000 people now.
More measures of a less-than-quick repopulation of NOLA:
The local power company, Entergy New Orleans, said that less than 30 percent of its customers were drawing power. Change-of-address forms have been filed by nearly two-thirds of the postal customers in New Orleans and a section of neighboring Jefferson Parish, according to an analysis by the local newspaper, The Times-Picayune.
But this is what puts it all in perspective:
"There is more of a focus, frankly, on the rebuilding effort in Iraq," he said. "Because it's become politically important, there is a lot of data generated there."
There's no national sense of urgency about rebuilding New Orleans and southeast Louisiana. But that same lack of urgency apparently extends to the Louisiana state legislature which didn't have enough to do to justify staying in session over the week-end. If state lawmakers don't think moving forward quickly is important why should the rest of the country?

Friday, November 11, 2005

LA politics on display

There's another broad-ranging article about Louisiana politics in another major national newspaper. Today it's The New York Times with an article titled "In Louisiana, Old Rivalries Resurfacing on Storm Aid." This article doesn't have the same negative undertones of yesterday's piece in the Washington Post, but it does hint at the hurdles facing Louisiana's efforts to move beyond the 2005 hurricane season:

New Orleans, with a far more concentrated black and Democratic population than the rest of the state, has long had more power in the Legislature than popularity.
More insights into business-as-usual in Louisiana:
But four days into the 17-day session, there are already signs that the old geographic differences are again bubbling to the surface. Representatives of rural areas to the north are trying to protect their programs from being slashed. Cities that have taken in large numbers of evacuees want money to deal with the overflow. And lawmakers from stricken southern regions are desperately trying to begin the rebuilding process.
At one point it looks like the article is headed toward a reference to the recent bond commission fiasco. But alas, it goes no further than this:
There has also been an outcry from northern legislators at the governor's decision not to spend any money from a discretionary fund long used to pay for pet projects of members, in part to help reduce a budget deficit approaching $1 billion. The deficit is largely the result of the evacuation from southern Louisiana.
The article ends on a high note, quoting state senator Robert Adley:
But Robert Adley, a Democratic state senator from the northwest town of Benton, said he believed that the hurricanes' devastation could still produce a consensus. "We all know there are three states in Louisiana: north, south and the Isle of Orleans," Mr. Adley said. "But we are a family, and families come together in the time of a crisis."
It's a nice sentiment, but so far there's little evidence suggesting this is going to happen anytime soon -- at least not before the end of the special session.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

It's not about NOLA

Lots of buzz about today's WaPo article titled Burdens of Past Limit New Orleans's Future. It's an important article and not just because it discusses New Orleans. It's a front page story in the Washington Post. Doesn't get much higher profile than that. The headline means little. This is more than a story about New Orleans. It's about Louisiana. First item: LA as money pit:

"Always broke. Worst school system in the state. Highest crime rate in the nation. Shrinking population. All the corporations have moved out," said Bernie Pinsonat, a political analyst in Baton Rouge. "Any poll I do, the rest of Louisiana thinks, 'New Orleans is a deep, dark hole, and no matter how much money we send, it doesn't seem to get better.' "
Don't hate Pinsonat for speaking the truth. If Louisianans feel that way, why should the rest of the country feel any different? Next item: Pervasive corruption:
In a recent Louisiana State University poll of 419 business executives, corruption was ranked among the worst aspects of doing business in Louisiana. Investors and managers elsewhere are reluctant to come "because they don't want to pay the corruption tax," said Rafael C. Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. "We've seen every type of corruption imaginable," said U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, whose office indicted 44 public officials in the past fiscal year alone. He pointed to skimming, bribery and shakedowns across a spectrum of government employment: judges, police, teachers, administrators and traffic court workers.
Business leaders surveyed nationwide identified public corruption as a significant problem impeding business in Louisiana. The inept local and state response to crisis in recent months has done little to improve that impression. Last item: Corruption not a thing of the past:
Two judges in Jefferson Parish, the largest New Orleans suburb, face bribery charges. About 50 law officers and employees have been convicted in the past five years of crimes including payroll fraud, drug dealing and extortion. And more than 20 Orleans Parish school employees were recently charged with fraud and extortion. One special-ed teacher pleaded guilty to conspiring to extort money from a student in exchange for a passing grade. In August, FBI agents raided the Washington and New Orleans homes of eight-term Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.), suspecting he had illegally pocketed an investor's money. They reportedly found a large amount of cash in a freezer. The same month, a grand jury charged Glenn Haydel, uncle of former mayor Marc Morial, with skimming $550,000 in city money. In a development that offers little comfort for funders of the post-Katrina rebuilding project, three Louisiana emergency-preparedness officials are awaiting trial on charges that they tried to block federal auditors from uncovering the alleged misuse of Federal Emergency Management Agency funds. FEMA is demanding that the state repay $30 million, alleging that the money was mishandled.
No wonder Louisiana's complaints about not having the money to repay FEMA are being laughed out of D.C. The recent bond commission vote didn't help much either. And who could forget the requested $250 billion handout? Louisiana's media may neglect to put the state's past and present in its proper context, but no need to worry. The Washington Post is taking care of it for them. And now everybody in the United States can see the big picture. Whatever post-hurricane sympathy existed for Louisiana has already been hopelessly squandered. Tacit message in today's Post? Time for Louisiana to stop playing the victim and start taking some responsibility.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

U.S. Consitution still in effect

My column today comments on HB 28 currently under consideration in the Louisiana legislature. The bill calls for limiting “liability of law enforcement agencies to prison detainees during emergencies and disasters.” The bill was passed out of committee on Tuesday morning with little discussion, although an amendment limiting language to ensure it applies only to Katrina and Rita-related events was added. But that amendment does little to address the most serious problem with the bill: It looks very much like an effort by some of the state's most entrenched interests to excuse what appear to have been serious human rights violations. The Shreveport Times website is slow this morning. Complete text of the column is copied below:

Louisiana’s special session is underway and one of Governor Blanco’s 77 action items demands immediate attention. She called for limiting “liability of law enforcement agencies to prison detainees during emergencies and disasters.” The legislature has complied and proposed House Bill 28. Given hurricane-induced upheaval, some disruption in due process was inevitable. While the bill may be intended to protect law enforcement agencies across the state who, in good faith, accepted evacuated prisoners without adequate information to make decisions about release, as written HB 28 could also exempt law enforcement from liability for mistreatment of prisoners during and after Katrina. Setting aside concerns about the bill’s retroactive nature, it could also excuse behavior qualifying as human rights abuse. Consider the following: The Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers reports that at Hunt Correctional Facility, to which 8000 prisoners were evacuated, “inmates were placed on a football or soccer field… The field had no toilet facilities, there was no shelter from the sun… The field became a pit, and the guards began simply throwing sandwiches over the fence to the inmates…” Three days later, a bus finally moving some inmates from Hunt to the Jena Correctional Facility was in a wreck when the driver fell asleep “and hit an electrical pole, throwing men all over… [they] were shackled… with the backs of their hands [cuffed] together… they had no way to protect themselves in the wreck.” The bus behind them, also filled with prisoners, “kept going and ran straight into a live electrical light, which caused electrical shocks to the passengers.” Once at Jena, the prisoners were reportedly subjected to physical and psychological assault. The New York Times reported on more than two dozen complaints of “beatings, racial slurs and sexual taunts.” Then the Los Angeles Times referred to lawyers who “said the inmates told of being beaten, subjected to racial invective, having their heads rubbed in mace and vomit, and being taunted by guards...” The Jena facility closed soon after these reports surfaced in national media. And these details still don’t address reports of fatalities among prisoners before their evacuation from the storm zone. There’s been no official confirmation of mistreatment, but the governor’s request for immunity could be actually interpreted as tacit admission of wrongdoing. Consider the context: Louisiana has the nation’s highest per capita incarceration rate without the accompanying high rates of crime. The state’s indigent defense system is notoriously dysfunctional. And now the state wants to be relieved of responsibility for protecting prisoners in its custody when disaster strikes. There’s something horribly wrong with this picture. Fortunately Louisiana can’t exempt itself from the due process and equal protection obligations of the U.S. Constitution. So while the state may indeed succeed in declaring itself not liable for treatment of prison detainees before, during or after a disaster, such immunity isn’t likely to hold up should federal investigations into post-Katrina events ensue. Should such investigations materialize, Louisiana’s greatest public relations disaster may be yet to come.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Fuzzy math

Today’s Advocate has an article including comments from lawmakers and appointees about the need to cut spending and the struggles that lie ahead as those cuts are made. A few lines toward the end caught my attention:

Renee Free, first assistant to Secretary of State Al Ater, said she's been told to prepare for a 12 percent cut. Such a cut would close museums, furlough 10 to 12 employees and force the department to fire student workers and part-time staff, she said. Another concern, she said, is the statewide election proposed in current legislation. The election would take place this year. "If we have to do an election, you will have to appropriate $3.4 million," Free told the committee, explaining that the department doesn't have the money to pay for an election.”
Think way, way back to July 2005 when the governor vetoed a bill that would have eliminated one of the state’s several scheduled elections. I wrote a column and posted comments on this blog condemning the veto. My column in the Shreveport Times that week began,
In her inaugural address, Governor Blanco spoke of her intention to provide “a new kind of government in Louisiana -- one that is open, progressive and accountable to its people.” So when the state legislature passed a bill eliminating the state’s third-Saturday-in-January election date, expectations were high that the principle of good government might prevail this time around. HB 415 would, after all, have made the state more “open, progressive and accountable to its people” by eliminating what can only be considered a superfluous election date and by actually saving the state at least $500,000.
Not surprisingly that column was met with criticism by groups arguing that eliminating an election wouldn’t save the state any money at all. Indeed, one reader from a group that would have been affected by the changed election cycle quoted the fiscal note on the matter for me:
Legislation has no fiscal impact on the Secretary of State. Based on an average annual cost of January elections held during the last four years, local governing authorities could realize cost savings of $526,025. However, it is unknown how much of this amount would be saved if local governing authorities hold bond, tax and proposition elections on dates coinciding with other available election dates. If this occurs, the total cost of the statewide election is prorated between the state and local governments. The pro rata share is difficult to estimate, since it is based on the number of local entities with issues on the ballots. The above table only illustrates the calculated savings from removing the January election date for these measures. There is no anticipated direct material effect on governmental revenues as a result of this measure.
So now, in November, I’m confused. To justify the veto of HB 415 in July, political interests (and the governor) argued that canceling one of the state’s many statewide elections would save the state no money. The $500,000 savings mentioned by the bill were ridiculed as inaccurate. But today, a representative of the Secretary of State’s office says in the Advocate that holding a scheduled election will cost the state $3.4 million. Only in Louisiana could canceling an election not possibly save the state $500,000 while at the same time holding an election will cost the state $3.4 million. Assuming, as this suggests, that the rules of mathematics are suspended once you cross the border into Louisiana, the state should have no trouble paying FEMA its $3 billion and overcoming the anticipated hurricane-related state revenue loss of $ 1 billion. And for the record, I fear this means the state bond commission opted to spend $45 million for goat shows, lawn mower races and other "critical projects" instead of on what could have been 13.235 elections (Do the math: $45 m/$3.4m).

Monday, November 07, 2005

From rhetoric to action

Quick thoughts on the opening of the special session: It's easy to deliver a speech promising leadership, fiscal control and reputational improvement. But it's quite another to deliver on it. The next 17 days will determine whether there's any daylight between rhetorical flourishes and political realities. Things to watch: State officials allowed to profit from recovery contracts? No way. Fiscal responsibility? Where was fiscal responsibility and leadership when the state bond commission approved $45 million in new spending a couple weeks ago? Elimination of liability for law enforcement re: prisoners? Not if it extends to excusing human rights abuses. Last night the governor said, "We all know that this recovery is not a sprint. It requires endurance and commitment from all of us. " Indeed. Commitment to the principles laid out in the governor's address is something many hope to see for weeks, months and years ahead. But right now I'm just hoping to see it last the next 17 days.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Advocate weighs in

Kudos to the Advocate for running an editorial by one of its staff writers highly critical of the administration's handling of the bond commission vote. Michlle Millhollon writes,

"Gov. Kathleen Blanco says she wants the federal government to help fund hurricane rebuilding. But she seems to be undermining her own case."
She continues,
"[Commissioner of Administration Jerry Luke]LeBlanc's railed against the bureaucratic roadblocks the state is encountering in getting financial help from the federal government. 'Our federal delegation's fought the battle, but the bureaucracy in Washington is not listening,' he recently lamented. Almost in the same breath, he pushed for $45 million for new construction projects. That's like dining at Ruth's Chris and then asking for food stamps."

Electoral consequences

My column this week considers the consequences of efforts to chance election regulations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The column begins:

Indications are that many who fled Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina just aren't coming back. But that hasn't stopped members of the U.S. House and Senate from proposing legislation that would allow evacuees to vote absentee in Louisiana elections through 2008. It was inevitable, really, given the observation only days after evacuees began arriving in Houston that the Democrats' margin of victory in Louisiana was sitting under the Astrodome.
It concludes:
Officials pushing for extended absentee voting privileges might want to be careful what they wish for. Louisiana's leaders are unaccustomed to accountability, but the next few elections might introduce them to concepts most of their counterparts elsewhere across the country encounter on a regular basis. Actions (or inactions, as the case may be) have consequences.