Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Resolutions for 2006

My column this week in the Shreveport Times proposes resolutions for 2006. Link forthcoming.

2005 was a disastrous year for Louisiana. But 2006 will be a year of uncommon opportunity. Here are a few resolutions that might help convert Louisiana’s opportunity to reality: 1. Resolve to demand decisive leadership. Policy-by-commission isn’t it. 2. Resolve to question the state’s traditional media. Require that it cover the complete story and provide all the facts, regardless of whose political interests those facts might jeopardize. That should mean more investigative journalism and less reliance on reporting-by-press-release. 3. Resolve not to rely solely on the state’s entrenched media. Seek information from alternative sources including chambers of commerce, business associations, non-profit organizations, informal social networks, out-of-state media and the internet. 4. Resolve not to shy away from fact-based political debate. Lively discussion is healthy and leads to better overall results. (See Resolutions 1, 2 and 3). 5. Resolve to insist on meaningful ethics standards, increased transparency and elimination of sweetheart deals. Know that the only way to hold elected officials accountable is if you can get access to information in the first place. 6. Resolve to hold elected officials responsible. Ask hard questions. Keep track of promises made, votes cast, explanations provided and conflicts of interest along the way. If you don’t like what you see, run for office yourself or support someone who could do a better job. 7. Resolve to cut state bureaucracy. Be aware that constantly cutting health care and education to protect other interests is public policy suicide. 8. Resolve not to view the federal government as a source of hand-outs. The federal government isn’t the solution to the state’s problems. 9. Resolve to embrace ideas and expertise from beyond state borders. This means seeking best practices and fighting constant pressure to continue business as usual. Remember that business as usual is responsible for the current mess. 10. Resolve not to look backward for answers to Louisiana’s future. The people, politics and policies of the past have failed. 11. Resolve to stop laughing at Louisiana’s reputation for crooked, dishonest or incompetent leadership. No one else is amused. 12. Resolve not to be satisfied with barely-good-enough. Louisiana deserves far better than it has got. 13. Resolve to sacrifice short-term political benefit for long-term gain. A little visionary thinking is long overdue. 14. Resolve that 2006 will be the year Louisiana finally begins reaching its long-untapped potential.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Anatomy of a failure

My column this week pulls back from the who-did-what-when debate surrounding Katrina and looks at the big picture.

For Louisiana, the story of Hurricane Katrina is a story of failure. But it’s not a failure of imagination. Disaster planning studies anticipated the aftermath of a strong storm. It’s not a failure to evacuate. Getting 1.2 million people out of harm’s way was no small feat. It’s not a failure of the human instinct to help. Stories abound of heroes who rallied resources to help rescue people from New Orleans and who still help support ongoing relief and relocation projects. It’s not a failure of passion. The emotional pleas of private citizens and state representatives help sustain sympathy and attract the federal tax dollars needed for rebuilding. Louisiana’s Hurricane Katrina story is one of government failure. The first article of the state constitution reads, “All government, of right, originates with the people, is founded on their will alone, and is instituted to protect the rights of the individual and for the good of the whole. Its only legitimate ends are to secure justice for all, preserve peace, protect the rights, and promote the happiness and general welfare of the people.” In fulfilling those fundamental duties the state of Louisiana failed years before Hurricane Katrina appeared on any weather radar. Now Hurricane Katrina is simply an opportunity to tell the story about a government that failed to provide the fundamentals necessary for moving out of isolated neighborhoods. It’s about a failed education system, a failed justice system and a failed health care system. It’s about a government that made a political constituency out of those trapped in poverty by those very failures. It’s about government that ignored this disaster for years and lacked the political will to fix it. It’s about voters who failed to hold elected officials responsible. It’s about everyone who still believes they deserve some piece, however small, of Louisiana’s government largesse, whether in the form of a gubernatorial appointment or a state job or a special legislative project or free health care. The failure of Louisiana’s government to meet the needs of the people began long ago. Blame it on populist politics, the good old boy network and other staples of Louisiana political lore. But the uproar over the hurricane’s impact on the state shouldn’t be about who made what decisions when in the 72 hours before the storm rolled ashore. The uproar should be about the consistent pattern of public policy negligence that led government dependency to become the prevailing attitude in New Orleans and in Louisiana as a whole. If the focus remains on who did what when immediately before, during and after the storm, then Louisiana is missing an historic opportunity to ask fundamental questions about its myriad public policy failures. The only meaningful discussion at this point will address how the government of Louisiana meets (or fails to meet) the basic needs of its people. Any other discussion is beside the point. The truth is, by the time Katrina arrived Louisiana’s public policy disaster was already well underway.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Hiding from reality

My column this week in the Shreveport Times considers the many reasons Louisiana may be having trouble maintaining sympathy for its post-hurricane plight.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

LA's document dump

My column this week (link forthcoming) comments on the recent release of more than 100,000 pages of documents detailing Louisiana's response before, during and after Katrina. Full text below:

While news reports about last Friday’s Katrina-related document dump attribute the governor’s release of the papers to a desire to set the record straight – not to mention a Congressional investigation – the content of those documents does little more than confirm the record as it already stood: Louisiana was ill-prepared for a disaster the size of Katrina. Even worse, once tragedy struck, there doesn’t appear to have been anyone in charge. Here's a question: How could Louisiana’s governor, in the midst of all the chaos, afford an hour-long appearance on Larry King Live? The evening of her appearance, August 30th, Mississippi’s governor spoke with King by phone for five minutes and then was off again doing whatever he thought a governor in a state just devastated by a massive hurricane should do. In his judgment that didn’t include taking calls from viewers. It’s not mean-spirited to be critical of Louisiana or the governor’s performance. Any even-handed assessment of what transpired is going to find plenty of evidence of things that didn’t work as they should have at all levels of government. But here’s the rub: The president took responsibility for the failed federal response. The governor would admit only that she might have relied too heavily on FEMA. And the mayor of New Orleans has been so frequently out of town that responsibility probably can’t find him. Did the White House try to extract political points after its lethargic early response to Katrina? No doubt. But these documents make clear that politics was also front-and-center as Louisiana’s government struggled to formulate its own response. On Sunday, CNN had this to say about the documents: “We are learning… about what was going on behind the scenes in the Louisiana governor's office as Hurricane Katrina roared ashore. Documents… suggest Governor Kathleen Blanco and her staff were unprepared, unorganized and focused on the governor's public image while New Orleans was in chaos.” This doesn’t set the record straight. It merely confirms what everyone was pretty sure they already knew. Commenting on the documents, the Washington Post noted, “Raw and frequently conflicting, reflecting the chaotic conditions in the initial hours after the storm hit, the records paint an intimate portrait of a state struggling to overcome extremes of weather and bureaucratic incompetence as the storm ripped its way across the state.” The Advocate also referred to the documents saying “As thousands waited to be rescued after Hurricane Katrina, the governor’s top aides brainstormed on ways to make an embattled Gov. Kathleen Blanco look more ‘John Wayne’ than ‘first lady.’” No one’s pretending that politics didn’t play a part behind the scenes in Washington or Baton Rouge or anywhere else during and after Katrina. But one thing’s for sure: If the president and his party were indeed scheming to make Louisiana look bad, they had a lot of extra help from the state and its leadership.

Friday, December 02, 2005

It's FEMA's fault

Times Pic reports SecState Ater has recommended the elections in New Orleans be postponed. It already looks bad enough that Mardi Gras can somehow proceed in February while elections cannot. But now it’s apparently FEMA’s fault. Here's a line from the article:

"Our job would have been a lot easier if FEMA had been more forthright and more forthcoming," Ater said.
This helps explain why Mark Twain is fast becoming my favorite source of quotes concerning Louisiana’s post-hurricane environment. "It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense." -- Mark Twain

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The usual suspects

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: The 2006 election for the position of Louisiana’s Secretary of State will tell the world everything it needs to know about whether the 2005 hurricane season changed anything about the way the state does business. Yesterday, acting Secretary of State Al Ater announced he wouldn’t run for the position. Fair enough. If the rumor mill is correct then Mr. Ater may have bigger fish to fry. But if past performance is any predictor, then don’t expect the state media to cover the race, its candidates or the kinds of decisions the person who steps into that position will be faced with making. Exhibit A: Consider the way the media dropped the story about the tragically bizarre circumstances leading to the injury and death of Mr. Ater’s predecessor. Now come reports about the variety of people ready to throw their hats into the Secretary of State’s race next fall. Three words summarize the group ready to run: The Usual Suspects. How in the world is Louisiana going to recover from the devastation of the recent hurricane season coupled with decades of ineffective, self-promoting and occasionally corrupt government by electing more of the usual suspects to an important statewide position? Hint: Electing one of the usual suspects to a statewide position isn’t the way to do it.