The mysterious case of the missing budget cuts

By Robert Mann

To paraphrase Groucho Marx: They may talk like charlatans and look like charlatans. But don’t let that fool you. They really are charlatans.

How long have Republican leaders in the Louisiana Legislature assured us the state’s budget could be balanced — mostly or entirely — by spenSnake-oilding cuts? Their obsession with cuts is one reason so many of them voted to bring the recent fiscal special session crashing down. They have attacked Gov. John Bel Edwards, suggesting state government is plagued by massive amounts of waste and abuse.

They’ve been preaching this specious sermon for years.

“If you can control government spending, then we don’t have to have these conversations over and over and over again,” Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, said last month.

“Government needs to be as efficient and as lean as possible,” Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, said. “Additional revenue is a last resort. There are other ways to balance the budget other than imposing taxes on citizens who live and work in this state.”

Screenshot 2018-03-09 07.30.51“My constituents are asking me, from questionnaires I send out, to reduce waste and government spending,” Rep. Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, said.

These comments appear to reflect how most Republicans in the state House think. There’s only one problem — and it exposes them as hypocrites, at best, or con artists, at worst. These lawmakers have never identified the cuts they say the governor should make to close the $700 million budget shortfall that will remain when $1 billion in temporary taxes expire on June 30.

It’s not that they lack the manpower to find those cuts, if they exist. Hundreds of legislative staff members could scour the budget for them. They also have the reports of various management experts the state has paid millions over the years to find additional cuts and efficiencies (most of which were adopted long ago).

And, yet, despite bleating about how Edwards should trim the budget before proposing new revenue to support health care, higher education and other critical programs, Republicans have never produced the cuts.

The most-charitable view is they haven’t bothered to look. Less-charitable is that the cuts aren’t there, and they know it. The least-charitable view — and the one that seems obvious — is that this is all about ensuring Edwards’ defeat next year.

That is not only my view, but that of several prominent House Republicans, including Barry Ivey of Baton Rouge, who confessedrecently: “We don’t want a Democrat (governor) to get re-elected, and we don’t want to give him a political win by doing tax reform. That was something that was told to me (by party leaders). We placed politics ahead of our constituents. We should all be ashamed.”

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Why are Louisiana universities so powerless in Baton Rouge?

By Robert Mann

How did it come to this sad state in Louisiana higher education? How could venerable institutions with hundreds of thousands of graduates and more than 200,000 students prove so powerless at the state Capitol? Why have these schools — with their amazing students, brilliant faculty and gifted administrators — been unable to persuade lawmakers to increase their budgets or, at least, guarantee them long-term budget stability?

Long ago, when I worked at the Capitol, I would hear rumblings about trimming LSU’s funding. That talk never went anywhere because of the assumption that if the governor or the Legislature messed with LSU, its students, faculty and alumni would descend upon them with pitchforks waving and torches blazing.

State leaders, fearful of the roar of the LSU tiger, instead gave the school and other state universities ample funding. Then, in 2008, Bobby Jindal became governor and we learned that the Fighting Tigers were really paper tigers.

As Jindal and lawmakers attacked state universities and slashed their funding, nothing much happened in response. The alumni associations and university foundations did not organize their members to descend on the Capitol to fight the cuts. There were some scattered protests by students and faculty, but the cuts happened anyway.

Then-LSU Chancellor Mike Martin spoke up about the way Jindal was hurting his university. Jindal’s staff dressed him down and later ran him out of town. Others lost their jobs for speaking out. Soon, the message was clear: Keep quiet and go along or we’ll fire you or cut your budget even more.

With that, Jindal’s path was largely unimpeded. He and Republican lawmakers intimidated, attacked and undermined higher education leaders during this eight-year reign of terror. They did so because, as they began, few people stood up to their bullying in a forceful and effective way.

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Louisiana’s fiscal woes distract us and obscure what really ails us

louisiana-140784_960_720

By Robert Mann

No reasonable, informed person would question the need for the current special session of the Louisiana Legislature. The consequences of losing vital state services — the result of $1 billion in expiring, temporary taxes — would be devastating.

This is a crisis. It’s as if our house is burning and the priority is to extinguish the flames and save the structure. An extended discussion about whether to renovate the house or build a new one must wait until the fire is out.

The problem is, in Louisiana, the budget flames never die.

The perennial impasse over the state’s budget — we have had 18 regular or special legislative sessions since 2008 — has distracted Louisiana’s leaders from other serious issues. It’s crippling us. And it’s robbed us of the ability to imagine and create a better state for our people.

Anyone with eyes to see knows Louisiana is suffering. We have so many deep, systemic problems that it seems our leaders don’t know where to start. The worse news is that, because of the never-ending fiscal crisis, they cannot summon the resources or energy to tackle the problems that plague our people.

Indulge me another analogy: Louisiana is like a patient with a chronic respiratory disease. Every week, he sees a doctor, who struggles to restore or improve his breathing. He prescribes new drugs. He puts him in new therapies. In his conversations with this suffering patient, the doctor spends 90 percent of his time talking about his labored breathing.

Louisiana is like that patient. We are so focused on the immediate — and justified — need to keep revenue flowing into the state’s coffers that we never have a serious, sustained discussion about the chronic problems that sap our state of its ability to thrive and survive.

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Was anyone really surprised when Amazon snubbed Louisiana for its new HQ2?

By Robert Mann

Few, if any, at the state Capitol should have been shocked that no Louisiana city was among the 20 finalists for the massive, new second Amazon.com headquarters, also known as HQ2. The $6.56 billion in tax incentives state Economic Development officials offered could not persuade the company to bring its 50,000 employees here.

Imagine a mountain of money that tall being insufficient to overcome a state’s colossal economic and social problems. I would love to read the assessment on Louisiana that Amazon’s site selection consultant prepared for the company’s brass. I suspect it might look something like this:

MEMO

To: Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO

From: The Site Selection Team

Reg: Louisiana’s Bid for HQ2

Louisiana has offered an impressive incentive package, hoping to lure us to the Bayou State. While it enjoys many natural resources (including the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River) and a vibrant and diverse culture, Louisiana is among the least desirable locations in the nation.

In Politico’s recent annual assessment of the states, Louisiana finished last for the second year in a row, based on its cumulative poor rankings in the following categories: per capita income, unemployment, poverty, home ownership, high school graduates, life expectancy at birth and infant mortality. For all the reasons discussed below, we cannot recommend locating this facility in Louisiana.

Economy: There is almost nothing about Louisiana’s economy that is attractive to a company like Amazon. Louisiana has one of the nation’s worst business environments, and its economic growth is among the most anemic. It has some of the lowest economic opportunity and ranks poorly in gender equality. Its worker environment is last among the states. Only one state has a higher poverty rate.

In WalletHub’s recent ranking of the most innovative states, only two — Mississippi and West Virginia — were considered worse. It’s among the least hospitable places for working moms and working dads and is also one of the worst states for millennials. It is the least financially literate state.

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Why stop at work requirements for food stamps and health care? Let’s go all the way.

By Robert Mann

I’m fed up with lazy, poor families who mooch off industrious citizens and waste our hard-earned tax dollars. I agree with Sen. John Kennedy: They aren’t entitled to health care through the state’s Medicaid system.

Unemployment and laziness shouldn’t be rewarded. Let them get sick or injured and, if they survive, they’ll better understand the value of work. After the heart disease passes, they will apply the lessons they’ve learned as they rush out to find a job.

If the worst happens, at least their orphaned children will have learned a valuable lesson: The only way society should treat you as a human being worthy of life is if you are employed.

And I agree with Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge: If the poor won’t work, they don’t deserve food assistance. Going hungry for a few weeks will not only encourage mom and dad to get up and work; the malnutrition and hunger pains should also teach the kids a lesson they won’t forget.

It’s just like Jesus said when he fed the hungry multitude: “Those with a job get a fish and a loaf.”

These humane, sensible policies have inspired me to propose some additional reforms:

Why should taxpayers educate children of parents who don’t work? Let’s begin each school year by turning away all children whose parents are unemployed. Forcing mom and dad to homeschool them will teach the kids the value of a job.

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Why Louisiana’s GOP congressional delegation won’t condemn the Racist in Chief

By Robert Mann

Perhaps you have noticed not one Republican member of Louisiana’s congressional delegation condemned Donald Trump for his racist remarks about immigrants.

I know, Trump’s vulgar slur surprised no one. This kind of thing is routine. And it’s not as if Trump hides this personality trait. Among other offenses, he’s the original birther, for which he has never expressed regret.

But, after Trump’s racist Oval Office vulgarity, it’s clear how much hatred his dark heart harbors. So, were you at all surprised that our Republican members of Congress shrank from condemning comments that will prove a windfall for terrorist recruiting efforts in Africa?

No? Well, neither was I.

Could it be Trump has so compromised the consciences of these members they no longer care about hateful, bigoted language that undermines national security? Or has their loyalty to the Racist in Chief blinded them so they cannot recognize racism?

Maybe, but I suspect something far more prosaic. The collective failure of conscience by these Republicans tells us how they regard their constituents.

Trust me: Sen. John Kennedy, Rep. Steve Scalise and the rest of our delegation understand well the voters who elected them. The uniform silence of Kennedy, Scalise, Sen. Bill Cassidy and Reps. Garret Graves, Clay Higgins, Ralph Abraham and Mike Johnson tells us volumes.

What it says is they believe criticizing Trump is a political loser. They know denouncingTrump’s racism will cost them votes.

For all the talk about “economic anxiety” as the motivation for many Trump supporters, his greatest appeal has always been thinly veiled racism. Now that Trump has revealed himself as nothing more than a champion of the rich — and his poll numbers among Republicans remain strong — let’s call economic anxiety what it really is: racism.

Does this mean every Trump voter is a racist? No. But for most, racism is not a deal breaker and is, in fact, Trump’s greatest appeal. And it’s that appeal that intimidates Kennedy, Scalise and the rest.

I know, defending the marginalized has never been a Republican priority. That’s partly because so many Republican voters regard immigrants, minorities and the poor as lazy, shiftless moochers. It’s why you will often hear politicians, like Kennedy and Graves, vilify the poor in service of the rich.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

The Good, Bad and Ugly in Louisiana Politics, 2017

By Robert Mann

“I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.”  — Jonathan Swift

It was a year that shame forgot. Sure, that might describe most years in Louisiana politics, but events of 2017 seem particularly shameless and worthy of disdain. Maybe it’s the Trump Affect, a malady which afflicts some politicians and causes the sudden disappearance of self-respect and integrity. That meant the possibilities for distinction in unprincipled political behavior were bottomless — and opportunities for valor plentiful.

Here are the 2017 winners of my annual competition: “The Good, Bad and Ugly in Louisiana Politics.”

Most Courage: State Reps. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, and Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, two members of the House who tried to stave off the state’s looming “fiscal cliff” — when $1 billion in temporary taxes expire next summer — by proposing a series of modest, practical tax reform measures.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and other leaders ignored many sensible recommendations by the Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy. Meanwhile, Stokes and Ivy waged a valiant-but-unsuccessful fight to instill a modicum of fiscal sanity, something out of vogue in Baton Rouge for a decade.

Most Cowardice: The House GOP Caucus, which resisted all efforts to address fiscal reform, stubbornly and dishonestly insisting that, after many years of deep budget reductions, the state’s budget woes can be solved by cuts alone.

“It’s hard to watch Louisiana fall on its face, which is what I do believe we are seeing at the moment,” Stokes observed last June. “Instead of solving our crisis and finding that opportunity, this Legislature has persisted — through three years and six sessions — to simply prolong the crisis.”

Shameless Ambition: U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, who sought to burnish his conservative bona fides with a cynical attack on poor working families surviving on meager allotments of food stamps. Graves’ legislation would impose work requirements on those receiving food assistance, although most of them are, in fact, working.

Most Embarrassing Statement: Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, for imploring President Donald Trump to intervene to prevent the removal of Confederate memorials in New Orleans. “I wrote him a letter and I asked him to look out your window, look at the statute of Jackson there at the White House because Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square is next in New Orleans if we don’t do something,” Nungesser said. This was a suggestion too ridiculous and reckless for even Trump.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Louisiana never had a governor who cared for children more than Kathleen Blanco

By Robert Mann

You can tell a lot about people — especially public officials — by how they behave around children. I’m thinking about the baby-kissing politicians who pretend to care but lose all concern for the kids when the TV lights go dark. There are those, however, who know tenderly cradling a baby or kneeling down to look a 5-year-old in the eyes for a quiet conversation is how you establish a true connection with a young person.SLU_Blanco

If you’re a parent, it’s easy to perceive who cares about young people. If you’re a close watcher of politicians, it’s also easy. And that is one reason I will always love former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. She didn’t snatch babies from their mothers, toss them in the air and make a show of kissing them. Her concern for children was deeper, lasting and sincere.

As most readers know, Blanco is struggling with cancer and has asked for our prayers. I’ve prayed for her, as I know many of you have, too.

History will judge her more kindly than did some journalists and her political opponents in the months and years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. She kept fighting for Louisiana to her last day in office, and the recovery money the state received from Washington was partly a result of her fierce determination to fight for the state she loves.

When I think about my time on her staff, what stands out most is how much she cared for children and all that she did for them.

First, a personal story: One day in November 2004, my 5-year-old son was mildly sick. My wife was out of town. We had a press conference that morning, and I had several meetings with the governor. In too many workplaces, children are unwelcome, especially if they are not well. But I worked for Kathleen Blanco, so I brought my son to work.

I will never forget lugging this sniffly kid into the governor’s office for an hour-long meeting with her and other members of our senior staff. When the governor saw my son, she welcomed him warmly and hurried off to find a coloring book and crayons. She set him up at her conference table and made certain he was comfortable. And then we began our meeting.

Not for a second did she make me feel uneasy about having brought my son to work. It seemed like the most natural thing for a staff member of hers to do because, of course, it was.

That loving care for a sick child was and is typical of Kathleen Blanco. This mother, grandmother and former school teacher did not mouth concern for Louisiana’s children; she made it her policy priority.

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Judge James Brady: A Man Apart

By Robert Mann

“Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.” ―Shannon L. Alder

U.S. District Judge James Brady, who died on Saturday after a brief illness, was the rarest of persons in politics and the law. I knew him for more than 30 years and I cannot recall him speaking a harsh or uncharitable word about another person.

Ever.

Imagine going through life without indulging in such talk. I can’t do it for a week or, sometimes, more than a day.Brady

Now, imagine spending decades working in the law and politics — leading a state political party, no less — and conducting yourself like that.

Imagine devoting yourself to public affairs and being devoid of personal animus toward other people.  

Think about how few people in your life you could describe as such. I know a few, but not many. I know even fewer in politics, in which the coin of the realm is, too often, personal insults, denigrating statements and the airing of petty grievances.

Jim Brady was a man apart. I almost asserted “he was among the best of a bygone era during which politics was not governed by such dark impulses.” Then, I remembered, there never was such an era in American or Louisiana politics.

It was not some golden era that has passed.

Rather, it is Jim Brady — a rare individual, exceedingly modest and compassionate and generous to a fault — who has passed.

Everyone who knew Jim has a story — or many stories — about his kind and thoughtful ways. Jim treated everyone with dignity and respect.

He was one of the most thoughtful and considerate people I knew. Hardly six weeks went by Jim didn’t call to compliment me about something — a column, a radio appearance, some minor distinction that few in my life, but Jim, took note of.

He not only noticed; he also called. And after each phone call from Jim, I thought: I wish I were more like that — thoughtful, caring and taking the time to make a call.

And here’s the thing: I know I was only one among dozens of friends who received phone calls like that.

Jim Brady gave his friendship — and did not request anything in return.

I know many generous people. I know many thoughtful people. I know many compassionate people. I know many people who are ethical to a fault and faithful to their families and friends. Jim Brady was that person in my life who represented the best balance of those fine qualities and more.

He was simply, as one of his good friends told me this morning, “the best.”

Rest in peace, friend.

What Louisiana’s Nicholls State University and Harvard have in common

By Robert Mann

In Thibodaux, some residents call Nicholls State University “Harvard on the Bayou.” Nicholls is a fine school, but it’s not in Harvard’s (Ivy) league, except in one respect: both are private institutions.

Harvard has been private for centuries. Nicholls, however, became “private” in recent years as the Legislature — after more than a dozen deep budget cuts — set it adrift.

And it’s not only Nicholls. Four other Louisiana universities — Grambling State, Louisiana Tech, McNeese State and Southeastern Louisiana University (SLU) — are “private,” too. In other words, each institution pays the state more in mandated costs — the institution’s contributions to retirement, insurance, unemployment benefits, etc. — than it receives in state appropriations.

Nicholls and the other institutions can eliminate programs and lay off employees. They cannot refuse to pay mandated costs.

On average, 74 cents of each dollar the state sends to Louisiana’s universities is sent back to Baton Rouge. Put another way, the state’s pitiful contribution to most universities barely covers their insurance and retirement payments.

Combine those increasing costs with the collapse of state appropriations and you have a situation in which every state college and university now relies on tuition and fees for the overwhelming majority of its funding.

Louisiana has given up supporting its universities in any meaningful way. We no longer regard educating youth as vital to our state’s future. What little we spend on higher education is seen as an expense, not an investment. We view schools as a burden, not pillars of prosperity.

Note how some state officials describe TOPS, Louisiana’s tuition assistance program. Listen to them talk about it, and you would think the program is devouring the state’s budget. You might never guess this voracious beast — one the Legislature couldn’t “fully” support a year ago — represents only about 3 percent of the state’s general fund.

It’s no wonder, then, Louisiana ranks 48th among the states in educational attainment. In other words, only Mississippi and West Virginia have a smaller percentage of residents with college degrees. This pathetic ranking is no accident. We’ve defunded our universities more and raised tuition and fees more than any other state.

Louisiana has not only abandoned its universities; it’s abandoned many young people. It’s now impossible for many high school graduates from low-income families to attend college. And while lawmakers struggle to fund TOPS — which aids only about a fourth of the state’s college students — they’ve done little for Go Grants, an underfunded program for students from low-income families. Those grants could make a profound difference in the lives of young people who struggle to afford college.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.