Too bad Bobby Jindal didn’t try to close Highland Coffees

By Robert Mann

Remember the widespread outrage on the LSU campus several years ago when Gov. Bobby Jindal and state legislators were slashing state funding to the school? Recall the raucous protests that erupted on college campuses across the state, as Jindal’s budget cuts to higher education triggered faculty layoffs and skyrocketing tuition and fees?

LSU_Memorial_Tower_2Nope? Well, perhaps the reason you don’t remember is that those protests never happened.

Sure, there was the occasional rally and students wrote letters to the editor. For the most part, however, students and their parents were sanguine in the face of higher tuition costs (some didn’t feel the pain of the increases because of the TOPS program).

Many faculty members were silent, too. Most likely they were fearful that any protest might cost them their jobs. That wasn’t an irrational worry given Jindal’s predilection for firing people who oppose his policies. (Isn’t it interesting how Jindal suddenly embraces free speech when it involves bashing gays or criticizing Common Core?)

So, what do you suppose happened recently when a popular coffee shop just off the LSU campus announced it would close its doors at year’s end because it could not afford to pay the increased rent its property owner demanded?

Why, there was widespread outrage and indignation. The impending closure of Highland Coffees was big news in Baton Rouge and elsewhere. In fact, students and faculty raised such a ruckus that the embarrassed property owner quickly backtracked and said he would try to negotiate a lease agreement to keep the coffee shop open.

So, now, we know where the state stands. You can get away with crippling the state’s flagship university, but don’t dare close a coffee shop.

That’s a bridge too far.

God help us if Highland Coffees laid off half its staff and doubled coffee prices. There might be riots on Chimes Street. (I’d probably join them, as I love that coffee shop and consider it a valuable Baton Rouge institution.)

Meanwhile, however, directly across the street, sits LSU, which has endured deep budget cuts and lost hundreds of faculty members since Jindal began slashing higher education funding. Tuition and fees have shot up. Across the state, it’s now much more expensive to attend college.

To be fair, many states took advantage of the recent recession to slash funding for their colleges and universities, shifting more of the burden to students and their families, keeping many marginal college students off campus entirely and further driving up student debt.

It’s not only Louisiana that has devalued education. We’re just the worst offender in the nation.

As Inside Higher Education reported in January, “In Louisiana . . . state colleges received $1.7 billion five years ago, the budget cycle just before states saw widespread effects of the downturn. In the current budget, the state’s college[s] are operating with $1.1 billion — about a third less money.”

Lest you conclude that Jindal’s cuts to Louisiana higher education were simply the natural consequence of the recession and the inexorable evolution of higher education in the U.S. (and, trust me, there is widespread resignation to this new funding reality, including at the LSU System Office), consider what other countries are doing.

After widespread student protests and a petition signed by 1.35 million voters, chastened German officials announced recently they are reversing course and going back to full government subsidized college tuition for all student who gain admission to a German university.

Germany rejoins those European countries that provide fee tuition to their citizen. Those countries include Austria, Denmark, Finland, and Norway. Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and France charge nominal fees to college students.

Then, there is the special case of South Korea, as reported by the website Think Progess in July:

The [Korean] government formally acknowledged a commitment to education through reforms put in place throughout the second half of the 20th century. Policies instituted in 1969 and 1974 abolished middle school and high school entrance exams, which increased access to school in the lower levels. The 1974 High School Equalization Policy also pursued uniform facilities and instruction through strong regulations and financial assistance across secondary schools to promote equality, primarily by assigning students to schools and taking control over curriculum.

 In 1980, the Chun Du Hwan administration introduced the July 30 Education Reform to make higher education more fair and accessible. A popular part of this reform dramatically increased higher education enrollment by eliminating individual entrance exams and stressing the importance of high school achievement in deciding college eligibility. This expanded the number of high school graduates accepted into colleges and universities from 403,000 students in 1980 to over 1.4 million in 1989. Another part of these reforms was to introduce one standardized college entrance exam that, despite its reputation for creating an “examination hell,” is considered a fair and objective measure of achievement. The mid- to late-1990s was also full of higher education reform meant to increase quality and efficiency.

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Bobby Jindal’s unbalanced, balanced budget

By Robert Mann

It’s pretty clear that that Gov. Bobby Jindal and his staff panicked a few weeks ago when they realized they would close out the 2013-14 state fiscal year with a $141 million deficit.

Gov. Bobby Jindal

Gov. Bobby Jindal

That, of course, would blow a hole in Jindal’s already dim presidential hopes. After all, you can’t get elected president if you can’t balance your budget back home (never mind the ugly, messy way Jindal has balanced his previous budgets).

So, it appears Jindal and Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols went on a furious search throughout the state coffers, looking under every seat cushion to find the funds necessary to cobble together a “balanced” budget.

When they were done, they had magically discovered $319 million.

And then, just to divert attention from their incompetence, they tried to blame the whole thing on state Treasurer John Kennedy, attacking him for not finding the money in the accounts that the Jindal administration controlled. Their attacks and obfuscation have confused the issue just enough that Jindal just might get away with it.

But let the record show that until a few weeks ago, there was apparently widespread panic in Jindal World.

They had failed to balance the state’s budget.

Why does Bill Cassidy want you to work until age 70?

By Robert Mann

If ever a candidate for high public office proved himself disconnected from the worries and fears of average citizens, it was Rep. Bill Cassidy in last Tuesday’s U.S. Senate debate in Shreveport.

A three-term Republican congressman, Cassidy seems to have trouble connecting with the average fellow. His pedantic speaking style was evident during the televised debate with incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu and Tea Party favorite Rob Maness.

However, it wasn’t Cassidy’s awkward delivery that should worry voters. It is, instead, his appalling ambivalence to the travails of older Americans who rely on Social Security income for survival that should cause concern.

In the debate, Cassidy tried to make a case for raising the Social Security retirement age to 70. For most Baby Boomers, the retirement age is 66, but it’s been gradually inching up so that anyone born after 1959 will not receive full benefits until age 67.

Those were actions taken in 1983 to shore up the system, which Cassidy claims will go “bankrupt” without dire, corrective action. “Bankrupt” is the wrong word, but useful if you want to scare voters. By 2035, the system will only be able to pay 75 percent of earned benefits. Not good, but certainly not bankrupt.

Social Security has problems, but they’re not so serious to require the harmful medicine Cassidy prescribes: make older Americans work another three years.

It’s not really Cassidy’s idea. Increasing the retirement age has long been a “solution” for Social Security’s problems, a bulwark against an easier approach that would strengthen the system without the pain and suffering Cassidy recommends.

Raising the income cap for Social Security – thereby expanding its tax base – would solve Social Security’s problems for many decades to come, but corporate titans and Cassidy’s wealthy friends oppose it.

Right now, if you earn $117,000, you pay the exact amount of Social Security taxes that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett pay on their hundreds of millions in annual income. That hardly seems fair, especially when the alternative is forcing millions of older people, many of them with no other income, to continue working physically taxing jobs until they turn 70.

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Louisiana federal judge’s same-sex ruling also upholds ban on civil unions

By Marcus Rodrigue

A federal judge’s ruling last month upholding Louisiana’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage apparently also extends to civil unions and perhaps even joint property rights, according to legal experts and lawyers close to the case.

Judge Martin Feldman’s Sept. 3 decision was appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Louisiana’s constitutional amendment makes legal only those marriages that are “a union of one man and one woman.”

However, Louisiana’s ban goes further than most. It also asserts that “a legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized.” It also prohibits legal recognition marriage or alternative marriage status granted to same-sex couples in states where it is legal.

These alternative statuses — primarily civil unions, domestic partnerships and registered partnerships — traditionally have provided couples the same legal rights and benefits as married couples.

Refusing legal recognition to same-sex marriages from states where they are legal was at the heart of a decision Sept. 22 by State District Judge Edward Rubin of Lafayette, who ruled such a ban is unconstitutional.

Andrea Carroll, a law professor at LSU who specializes in family law, said the provision regarding statuses “substantially similar to that of marriage” directly targets those alternative statuses.

“That language was drafted with reference to what was going on in other states,” Carroll said. “I’m not aware of anything that says specifically [banning civil unions], but it’s well known to everyone who was an expert in the area at the time of drafting [of the legislation that put the issue on the ballot] that that is what it means. The reason it uses that ‘substantially similar’ language is that these things are called by different names in other states.

“We could not have said ‘civil unions are not permissible here or domestic partnerships are not permissible here’ because it would just be called something else.” Carroll added that lawmakers used that phrasing to include any same-sex union by any other name.

Though the meaning of the amendment’s language is understood in legal circles, Carroll said where the ban stops is less clear.

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Did Judge Feldman write the last anti-gay marriage ruling in US history?

U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman

U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman

By Robert Mann

No one knows for sure if the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will affirm U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman’s September decision that upheld Louisiana’s same-sex marriage ban. What we do know is that if any federal appeals court in the nation rules against same-sex marriage, it is likely to be a panel of ultra-conservative judges who make up the majority of the 5th.  Of course, it all depends on which individuals sit on that three-judge panel, or if all the court’s judges convene to consider the matter.

However the decision unfolds, the eyes of the nation’s constitutional scholars are now on the New Orleans-based court. If it reaffirms Louisiana’s constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage, it would likely be the case that finally prompts a full Supreme Court hearing of the question. If most legal scholars are to be trusted, it is apparent that a majority of the court would rule in favor of nationwide marriage equality, even in Louisiana.

On Monday, justices tacitly affirmed several appeals court rulings that declared unconstitutional five state laws — in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin — that prohibit same-sex marriage. The following day, another federal appeals court found Idaho’s and Nevada’s same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional, adding at least two more states to the marriage equality list. In all, as many as 32 states — perhaps more — will soon allow same-sex couples to marry.

That’s the good news.

The bad news, of course, is that a Louisianian might be the last federal district judge in American history to rule against same-sex marriage. And a Louisiana-based federal appeals court could issue the final court ruling in our history that denies basic human rights to gays and lesbians.

In other words, Louisiana might again offer up a landmark case in a human rights issue before the Supreme Court. If so, we will be, as we often are, on the wrong side of history.

I say, “again,” with the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in mind. In that historic and shameful 1896 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a Louisiana law — upheld by New Orleans Judge John Howard Ferguson and ratified by the state’s Supreme Court — which required separate rail cars for whites and blacks. In its 7-1 decision, the Supreme Court asserted, “If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.” Justice Edward Douglas White of Louisiana voted with the majority.

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How much should we care about politicians’ personal failings?

U.S. Sen. David Vitter

U.S. Sen. David Vitter

By Robert Mann

What’s the difference between former Gov. Edwin Edwards and U.S. Sen. David Vitter? Vitter paid prostitutes and apologized while an unabashed Edwards has often bragged about his sexual prowess. Vitter has always campaigned against public corruption while Edwards used his high position to enrich himself and his friends. Vitter is a committed conservative; Edwards remains an old-style populist.

They are about as different as any two politicians could be.

In my mind, however, here’s the crucial difference between them: For his crimes, Edwards deserves to lose his race for the state’s 6th congressional district seat. Despite his 2007 prostitution scandal, the voters were probably correct in re-electing Vitter in 2010.

Edwards served time in a federal prison for racketeering. He maintains his innocence and has never apologized for the misconduct that earned him eight years behind bars. Vitter, on the other hand, has been contrite about his moral lapses, if not specific. Regardless of his unwillingness to fully cough up the details of his sexual misconduct, Vitter apologized.

When he ran for re-election, many believed the voters would reject Vitter. They were wrong. Vitter might have been a flawed individual, but he well represented the state’s disenchantment with President Barack Obama.

Put another way, Vitter skillfully channeled Louisiana’s growing conservatism. He staked out conservative positions in an increasingly conservative state and made his case more effectively than his Democratic opponent. In short, he earned re-election.

All this came to mind this week after I read an excerpt in The New York Times of a new book by journalist Matt Bai, “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid.” It’s about the 1988 sex scandal that derailed Colorado Sen. Gary Hart’s presidential campaign. In the piece, Bai decries the rise of journalism obsessed with the personal failings of politicians, not their policies.

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Bobby Jindal with a Cajun accent? Scott Angelle’s perplexing candidacy for governor


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By Robert Mann

As a new Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey demonstrated, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s standing among Louisiana’s citizens is pretty darn low. He’s probably still more popular than Ebola, but I’m not sure he’d want to go head to head with toe fungus.

As I noted in a post on Wednesday,

Jindal’s job approval rating is a dismal 34 percent. He’d lose to Edwin Edwards in a hypothetical governor’s race and a large majority say they wish he wouldn’t run for president. And, if he should he become the GOP vice presidential nominee , a strong plurality said Jindal’s presence on the ticket would make them less likely to support the Republican ticket.

Jindal may, in fact, be the least popular governor in the United States. He is certainly in the bottom two or three.

That’s what makes Thursday’s announcement by Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle — he says he’s running for governor in 2015 — so curious.  Of all the potential candidates in next year’s governor’s race, none is closer to Jindal than Angelle.

Is there any evidence that the people are yearning for a continuation of Jindal’s policies, only now explained to them in a Cajun accent? If so, the polls certainly don’t show it.

Just how close is Angelle to Jindal?

The former St. Martin Parish president served as Jindal’s secretary of the Department of Natural Resources (having been first appointed to that job by Jindal’s predecessor, Kathleen Blanco). Angelle also held the position of Jindal’s top lobbyist to the Legislature. When then-Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu became mayor of New Orleans in 2010, Jindal appointed Angelle as the state’s temporary lieutenant governor until the election of Jay Dardenne.  Continue reading