On higher education funding, Bill Cassidy is skipping class

By Robert Mann

The venue of last Wednesday’s U.S. Senate debate between Sen. Mary Landrieu and Rep. Bill Cassidy – the Journalism Building on LSU’s campus – was odd given how this campaign has largely ignored Louisiana’s young people. To be fair, that’s because Cassidy won’t engage Landrieu over how to address skyrocketing college tuition and student debt. On the struggle of poor and middle-income families to send their kids to college, Cassidy is silent.

It’s an issue about which Cassidy once professed some concern. When he called on me in 2006 as he prepared to run for the state Senate, Cassidy promised a campaign devoted largely to increasing state support to LSU.

It must have been a passing fancy because he’s never made funding LSU a priority. Like most legislators, Cassidy was mute as Gov. Bobby Jindal began slashing the state’s higher education budget. Now in the U.S. House, he has done little to help young people afford a college education.

While Cassidy has paid scant attention to young people (it is, after all, a midterm election, meaning the electorate will be older and whiter), Landrieu has prowled college campuses in search of votes. She has touted her “Passport to the Middle Class,” two bills designed to make it easier for young people to earn a college degree.

One bill would almost double the maximum Pell Grant award while a companion measure, introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., would allow “responsible” students to refinance their student loan debt.

“A college degree should help individuals build dreams, not debt,” Landrieu has said. “Each year, we see the cost of college tuition increase while in Louisiana, Gov. Jindal and his allies in the Legislature continue to slash higher education funding by $700 million and raise tuition and fees by 40 percent on students and their families. This is not sustainable.”

At Wednesday’s debate, Cassidy said nothing about helping make college more affordable. Landrieu, meanwhile, raised the issue and pitched her “Passport” plan.

Questioned about student loan debt at his first debate with Landrieu, Cassidy skirted the question. He babbled about teaching at LSU, grumbled about rising tuition and then muttered about “a lot of fraud” in the federal Pell Grant program.

GOP complaints about “voter fraud” are about suppressing minority voting, so perhaps this is a new Republican strategy of Pell Grant suppression. Regardless, wouldn’t it be nice if Republicans, like Cassidy, cared about fraud on Wall Street as much as the case of some coed who misspent part of her Pell Grant?

Continue reading on NOLA.com: http://www.nola.com/opinions/index.ssf/2014/10/cassidy_landrieu_college_stude.html#incart_river

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Scandal: Mary Landrieu tells the truth about race, Louisiana history

By Robert Mann

Did you hear the stunning news about how Sen. Mary Landrieu vilified all her white constituents as knuckle-dragging, virulent racists?

It was quite shocking and will probably disqualify her from being re-elected to the Senate. Her comments were so abhorrent and repulsive that she may have to change her name and move to another state.

Here’s how the right-wing news site Brietbart News reported this shocking incident:

In comments sure to cascade into regional races across the South, embattled Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Thursday that Southern racism is to blame for President Barack Obama’s unpopularity.

“Why does President Obama have a hard time in Louisiana?” asked Todd.

“Let me be very, very honest with you,” said Landrieu. “The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans. It’s been a difficult time for the president to present himself in a very positive light as a leader.”

Landrieu added: “It has not always been a good place for women, to be able to present ourselves. It’s more of a conservative place. So we’ve had to work a little bit harder on that. But, you know, the people trust me, I believe. Really, they do.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal blasted Landrieu’s comments as desperate and out of touch.

“She appears to be living in a different century. Implied in her comments is the clear suggestion that President Obama and his policies are unpopular in Louisiana because of his ethnicity,” said Jindal. “That is a major insult by Senator Landrieu to the people of Louisiana, and I flatly reject it.”

Wait, you might say, that’s it?  Landrieu noted an inconvertible fact — “the South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans” — and that’s what causes a freak-out on the right?

If you read only Brietbart, when asked about Obama’s unpopularity in Louisiana, Landrieu didn’t stop at “go.” She went right to race. But Brietbart’s mission is not to report Landrieu’s remarks in context. It’s job is to stoke white outrage over the notion that any Democrat might note the uncomfortable fact that racism still exists in places like Louisiana.

In fact, as reported by NOLA.com, when Todd asked Landrieu about Obama’s poor job ratings in Louisiana, she first said this:

“One of the reasons that the president’s so unpopular is because he put the moratorium on off-shore drilling. Remember? After Macondo. And our state was furious about that. Now he could have shut down the BP operations but he didn’t, he shut down the whole Gulf. When you shut down the whole Gulf of Mexico it puts a lot of people here at risk and out of business. That’s number one.

She told Todd that “his energy policies are really different than ours.”

“I mean, we’re a pro-production state,” Landrieu said. “We wanna drill almost anywhere. People believe that it’s an opportunity for Americans to become energy self-sufficient.”

Interesting how Brietbart and other “outraged” Landrieu critics forget to mention that her first response to that question was to defend Louisiana’s oil and gas economy.

But Bobby Jindal wants you to know that he’s outraged by even the suggestion that there exist racists in a state in which 60 percent of white voters gave David Duke their vote (in the 1990 U.S. Senate and 1991 governor’s races).

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Want to keep hurting Louisiana college students? Here’s how you can do it

By Robert Mann

At first glance, two ill-conceived constitutional amendments on the November ballot might not appear to harm Louisiana college students. Their passage, however, would be further proof that the wellbeing of Louisiana’s young people remains among our lowest priorities.

It’s a complicated issue, explained well in a voter’s guide published by the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana (PAR), but the basic situation is this: the state imposes a fee on nursing homes, intermediate care facilities for the developmentally disabled and community pharmacies. That money goes into the Louisiana Medical Assistance Trust Fund and is used as a state match to draw down federal dollars, much of which goes to compensate the nursing homes and other facilities who provide services to the poor and others who qualify for Medicaid.

Good so far.

Amendment one, however, would give the trust fund, in PAR’s words, “the more protected status of a constitutionally established fund, which could be altered only by another constitutional amendment. It could not be raided for other spending purposes in the annual budget process or during mid-year budget cuts.”

Worse, the amendment would lock in current reimbursements paid by the state to providers. Payments could go up, but would never drop below a “floor” established by the amendment.

In other words, this is a sweetheart deal carved out by legislators for the very powerful and politically connected nursing homes.

It gets worse.

Amendment two would create a similar arrangement for the state’s hospitals, allowing a new fee that would go into a Hospital Stabilization Fund and then be used to draw down federal money. Similar to amendment one, this amendment would create a floor for reimbursement rates.

“The amendment would eliminate the government’s ability to make targeted cuts to hospital providers,” PAR notes. The amendment, as PAR further observes, would permit a decrease in hospital rates “only to address a state budget deficit and only if two-thirds of the Legislature agrees during a session or two-thirds of the joint budget committee agrees out of session. Even then, the rate reduction could not be more than the average reduction experienced by other types of providers in the Medicaid program.”

In other words, a very inflexible state budget, already overloaded with constitutionally protected funds, would become even less flexible.

Nursing homes, hospitals and other facilities will be guaranteed their funding, even if fees are insufficient to match the payments they receive. If hard budget times hit us again – and they will, eventually – the nursing homes and hospitals will be paid first.

The only way to mitigate the mess created by these amendments would be a two-thirds vote of a Legislature already controlled by the nursing homes and hospitals. In the case of amendment one, it could only be changed by a vote of the people.

In the meantime, you know what will be cut during the hard times? Other health care providers, like doctors and home-care providers, colleges, state police and other critical services. That’s because they don’t have special budget protections, like that which these amendments would give to hospitals and nursing homes.

No one is suggesting that nursing homes and hospitals don’t deserve adequate funding. It’s just that programs for our youngest citizens are almost always the ones that get shortchanged.

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Another blow to Bill Cassidy’s conservative cred: Woody Jenkins endorses Rob Maness

Former state Rep. Woody Jenkins

Former state Rep. Woody Jenkins

By Robert Mann

By now, it’s clear that many Louisiana conservatives don’t believe Rep. Bill Cassidy is one of them. In his race against Sen. Mary Landrieu, Cassidy is having a difficult time putting away his tea party challenger, Rob Maness.

That job didn’t get any easier on Friday when former Republican state Rep. Woody Jenkins endorsed Maness over Cassidy. Jenkins, you may recall, almost beat Landrieu for the U.S. Senate in 1996, coming within a few thousand votes of winning the race.

“Based on my personal knowledge of the candidates, their philosophies, and their voting records, Col. Maness is the outstanding choice,” Jenkins said in a statement. “He is a true conservative, a real leader, and an articulate spokesman for the free enterprise system, a strong national defense, controlling illegal immigration, the right to life, and adherence to the Constitution.”

The implication, of course, is that Cassidy isn’t a true conservative, nor a real leader, etc.

As I wrote in my new Times-Picayune | NOLA.com column, “Cassidy’s history of supporting Democrats might explain why he hasn’t yet locked down the GOP vote.”

Maness is consistently getting around about 10 points in the polls and that’s keeping Cassidy in the low-to-mid 30s.

As I noted, Maness and former state Rep. Tony Perkins have long questioned Cassidy’s conservatism:

Maness has long questioned Cassidy’s conservative bona fides. “Congressman Cassidy’s fondness for liberal Democrats – including Sen. Landrieu and Gov. Blanco – and his flip-flopping on issues are well-documented by the press and in the record of his campaign contributions,” a Maness spokesman told the website NolaDefender.com last year.

Among Maness’ top supporters is Tony Perkins, a former Baton Rouge state representative who runs the Family Research Council, an ultra-conservative policy organization in Washington, D.C.  Perkins says he doubts Cassidy’s ability to defeat Landrieu, citing an “enthusiasm deficit” among Louisiana Republicans.

“There’s a reason for that,” Perkins told a Washington newspaper in September when asked why he’s not behind Cassidy. “It goes back to that enthusiasm deficit. He’s a moderate candidate who stays away from many issues, and he’s just not exciting conservatives.”

It’s not likely that Jenkins’ endorsement will have much impact on the race. Cassidy is still almost a cinch to be in a runoff with Landrieu.

But if any other prominent Republicans endorse Maness, Cassidy might limp into that runoff. Despite all that, he will remain in a good position to challenge Landrieu.

Still, it seems clear that questions about Cassidy’s conservative credentials will continue to dog his campaign and make his path to victory a bit more challenging than he would prefer.

At the very least, it’s clear he does not yet have a united Louisiana Republican Party behind him.

Will the real Bill Cassidy please stand up?

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By Robert Mann

Former President Bill Clinton, who was in Baton Rouge last Monday to campaign for Sen. Mary Landrieu, has scorned the attacks on her as someone too liberal for Louisiana. Clinton argued that the three-term Democratic senator would “be winning this race by 10 or 15 or 20 points but for the difficulty of the moment in which we’re living.”

I’m not sure about those percentages. Landrieu always has tough reelection races and this is her toughest. Yet, Clinton’s basic point is valid. Midterm elections are not only a referendum on specific incumbents but also the party in power. In this case, Landrieu’s Democratic Party holds the White House and its occupant is almost as unpopular in Louisiana as Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Perhaps Clinton simply meant that Landrieu, as one of the Senate’s most conservative Democrats, might not be in trouble were she running as an independent or a moderate Republican.

So, I asked myself, “Why didn’t Landrieu just change parties?”  In a close election, wouldn’t that give her an advantage? Piffle, you say. The state’s Republicans would never send a former Democrat to the U.S. Senate.

To that I would say, that is precisely what they may do. You see, Landrieu’s main Republican opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy, is no lifelong, rock-ribbed conservative. Not that long ago, he was a Democrat who supported Landrieu in her first re-election campaign.

Several of those who worked closely with Cassidy in the 1990s and early 2000s at Earl K. Long Medical Center in Baton Rouge tell me they distinctly remember him as a passionate Democrat.

I met Cassidy in the fall of 2006, when he came to my LSU office for advice on his run for the state Senate. When he left, I was persuaded that he was, at heart, a Democrat.

I had first heard of Cassidy in September 2003, when he published a letter to the editor in the Baton Rouge Advocate, attacking Jindal, who was running for governor against Democrat Kathleen Blanco. “For those whose concern about health care goes beyond cutting budgets,” Cassidy wrote, “the Jindal record is poor.”

In fact, Cassidy did more to help Blanco than attack Jindal. He gave her campaign $2,000. Only the year before, Cassidy even supported Landrieu’s Senate re-election, contributing $500 to her 2002 campaign.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link: http://www.nola.com/opinions/index.ssf/2014/10/cassidy_democrat_landrieu.html#incart_river

Kathleen Blanco’s very personal appeal for Mary Landrieu

By Robert Mann

It’s no surprise to me that former Gov. Kathleen Blanco is supporting Sen. Mary Landrieu for re-election. What is interesting is how Blanco is sharing that support — in a lengthy, heartfelt, personal letter to a group of friends and families which she emailed Tuesday.

SLU_BlancoIn particular, I was drawn to Blanco’s very good defense of Landrieu’s vote for the Affordable Care Act.

As governor I spent a great deal of time and effort to find ways to control the ever spiraling increases in health care costs. We live in a country that will not stand by while people die in the streets for lack of health insurance, so state and federal governments provide access to a base level of care.

 In Louisiana where 21.7%, over one-fifth of our people, work at low paying jobs that offer no health insurance, it becomes obvious why something had to be done to stop the bleeding. That means 866,000 people in Louisiana relied on Charity Hospitals (which no longer function the same way) for their care. All states get federal subsidies to help with care for the uninsured but here in Louisiana we could not get ahead of our problems.

The Affordable Care Act, which Mary voted for, is designed to help people with modest incomes buy private health insurance with decent coverage. It is made affordable with tax subsidies. That is no different than allowing companies to write off the costs of insurance provided to employees.

Over 100,000 in our state are now insured thru this program and pay an average $83 per month. 198,000 more are eligible, but probably do not know it. The rest earn too little for that program but would be covered in a different way.

If Governor Jindal would come to his senses and allow our the lowest income earning segment of our work force to become eligible for Medicaid, 100% would be covered by the federal government for 3 years, and 90% thereafter. (The state only gets 67% of current Medicaid help from the federal government.) Most governors, Democrats and Republicans, across the country have done this, so our federal tax dollars are helping out of state folks. We could bring hundreds of thousands off the roles of the uninsured and save tax payers incredible amounts on health care.

There are several moving parts that benefit all of us. Our children can now remain on parents’ policies until they are 26, if necessary. No longer can anyone be denied health insurance for pre-existing conditions, which was a huge problem for many. And insurance companies may no longer keep exorbitant profits. They must spend 80% of the money they earn on direct coverage, returning excess profits to their customers, and thereby lowering costs for all (while still allowing those insurers a healthy 20% margin of profit).

This is a vast improvement over the crippled system we were all paying dearly for in direct taxes and higher insurance costs for ourselves, whether we knew it or not.   I personally thank Mary Landrieu for her vote. I want her to go back to the Senate to continue improving the program so it works even better. 

Read the entire letter below:

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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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