Wednesday, February 22, 2006

On taking a stand

My column for this week isn't yet online at the Shreveport Times. I'll add the link when it's available. Full text of today's column is copied below. “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” The truth of this old adage -- that your position on something is connected directly to what you’ve got invested in the situation as a whole – is once again on display in Louisiana as assessments of the just-ended special legislative session trickle out. Those vested in the current system – those with a clear interest in keeping things as close to the status quo as possible – have great incentive to portray the results of the recent legislative session as significant, reform-minded, and forward-thinking lawmaking dedicated to moving Louisiana beyond the 2005 hurricane season. This spin is predictable. The public seems to be seeking change, so small modifications are spun as significant reform. It’s entertaining to watch people deeply vested in the status quo maneuver to keep their jobs despite growing public displeasure with business as usual. That’s because it isn’t rational – indeed, it’s political suicide -- for those who benefit from the status quo to support wide-ranging change. Why? Because someone supporting broad change might just accidentally reform himself out of a job. And that’s the problem for Louisiana in February 2006: No one who benefits from business as usual in Louisiana is going to work too hard to change the system. That was painfully clear in the just-ended special session. Consolidated government in New Orleans? Never. A single levee board? Impossible. Full-access, fraud-proof voter regulations? Nope. Ethics restrictions on legislator income? Are you kidding? How could the public possibly expect this state’s politicians to run their political machines without the supply of incentives necessary to maintain the status quo? It’s a slippery slope, you know. First you eliminate political patronage and next thing you know, the people are calling for accountability in government. Clearly that can’t be allowed. Of course a few public statements endorsing reform aren’t too risky. An occasional verbal show of support for reform efforts is probably okay, too. But when it comes to rallying the votes or actually voting for the pro-reform position -- when it’s time for action to demonstrate commitment to reform -- opposition, or worse, inaction, are the predictable outcomes. And when the public doesn’t bother paying attention there’s no electoral penalty for saying one thing and doing another. Limited progress toward improving Louisiana’s public policy environment was the inevitable result of the I-say-I’m-for-reform-but-I-won’t-act-on-it majority in the recent legislative session. And it doesn’t take a political insider to see what happens now: Those vested in the status quo try to convince the public that the session was a significant success, while others with hopes of making the Louisiana political environment more functional and accountable offer less glowing interpretations. With a state media seemingly reluctant to scratch below the surface and a public disinclined to demand more than superficial analysis or regurgitated talking points, prospects for real reform in Louisiana look slim. Want to understand what’s happening here? Just remember: Where you stand depends on where you sit.