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.”

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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

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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.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Why stop at Trump’s food-in-a-box plan? Here are some other horrible ideas the White House might consider

By Robert Mann

Politico reported the other day:

The Trump administration is proposing to save billions in the coming years by giving low-income families a box of government-picked, nonperishable foods every month instead of food stamps.

White House OMB Director Mick Mulvaney on Monday hailed the idea as one that kept up with the modern era, calling it a “Blue Apron-type program” — a nod to the high-end meal kit delivery company that had one of the worst stock debuts in 2017 and has struggled to hold onto customers. Mulvaney said the administration’s plan would not only save the government money, but also provide people with more nutritious food than they have now … 

That package would be made up of “100 percent U.S. grown and produced food” and would include items like shelf-stable milk, peanut butter, canned fruits and meats, and cereal.

At first blush, this sounds cruel, ridiculous and impractical. How would homeless people get their boxes? What if you have severe allergies to foods, like wheat or peanuts?

After serious reflection, however, I must admit the Trump administration has a point. I’m all in with Washington bureaucrats deciding what food folks in New Orleans and Baton Rouge should eat. But why stop at food boxes?

How else might we eliminate waste, fraud and abuse and restrict people’s choices by shipping them goods and services in cardboard boxes?

I have many ideas. Here are a few:

Why should the states spend billions each year paying teachers, principals, school nurses and custodians? And why should schools expend millions to build and maintain costly buildings and operate busses?

Let’s replace our unwieldy education system with “Classroom in a Crate.” Under this plan, the postman would deliver your “teacher” in a box that contains reading material for your child to study after he has watched the day’s lessons on a DVD.

(Before you scoff, remember this kind of thing has been tried. In 2012, Louisiana Education Superintendent John White and then-Gov. Bobby Jindal awarded $600,000 in private-school vouchers to a school in Ruston that taught lessons via DVD. Imagine the money White and Jindal could have saved by mailing those DVDs to the students.)

Under “Classroom in a Crate,” if a student qualifies for free lunches, his box will also come with a tin of sardines from the Second World War, surplus cheese from the Eisenhower administration, a package of crackers from Operation Desert Storm and a can of condensed milk from the Nixon years.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Why do so many fearful Christians put more faith in guns than God?

By Robert Mann

Why do many fearful Christians put more faith in guns than God? We all have fears. We fear failure, debilitating illness or death. We’re afraid of violence. We fear the unknown, the other and, sometimes, the truth.

“Life is made of fear,” says Mary, the protagonist in the novel “Other People,” by Martin Amis. “Some people eat fear soup three times a day. Some people eat fear soup all the meals there are. I eat it sometimes. When they bring me fear soup to eat, I try not to eat it, I try to send it back. But sometimes I’m too afraid to and have to eat it anyway.”

Fear is also an emotion people of faith should reject.

Jesus told his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) He also said: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” (Matthew 6:34)

The Christian and Hebrew scriptures are replete with admonitions about rejecting fear.

“There is no fear in love.” (1 John 4:18) “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4)

“The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1) “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:17)

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you.” (Isaiah 41:10) “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid.” (Psalm 118:6)

So why, in this part of the word at least, are Christians the most fearful, well-armed people many of us know? Why do so many Jesus followers reject one of his fundamental admonitions about being afraid?

Put another way: Why do so many Christians put more faith in their guns than their God?

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

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.

Some shocking news for Republicans: Ronald Reagan wasn’t a racist on immigration

By Robert Mann

There was once a prominent liberal Democrat — he would one day become president — who embraced a big, broad belief in the American dream that too many of today’s political leaders reject.

This future president said in a 1952 commencement address: “I, in my own mind, have thought of America has a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land. … [T]he means of selection was very simple as to how this land should be populated: Any place in the world and any person from those places; any person with the courage, with the desire to tear up the roots, to strive for freedom, to attempt and dare to live in a strange and foreign place, to travel half across the world, was welcome here.

“And they have brought with them to the bloodstream that has become America that precious courage … to strive for something better for themselves and for their children and their children’s children. I believe that God in shedding his grace on this country has always in this divine scheme of things kept an eye on our land and guided it as a promised land for these people.”

The liberal was Ronald Reagan, speaking at Williams Woods College in Fulton, Mo. But, you say, that was long before Reagan, the actor, became Reagan, the conservative political leader. He wouldn’t talk like that today, would he?

Think again.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

My resolutions for 2017 (or, How I plan to survive another year of Donald Trump)

By Robert Mann

Although I have never been one for New Year’s resolutions, 2018 feels different: I’ll turn 60 this year. Our son and daughter will graduate high school in May and head off to college in the fall. We’ll vacate our house, which has been decaying for years, while it undergoes renovations. By year’s end, I hope to finish a new book.

It will be a year of change, promise and uncertainty. That might describe every year, but this could be one of particular and bittersweet transition. That’s why I’m making the following resolutions:

I will work to savor every moment with my children. I love a full, bustling house, so I dread the calm that awaits after they leave. Lately, I lie awake contemplating my unpreparedness for a new life in which they are not sleeping in their bedrooms across the hall. But they’re ready for the next chapter. It’s time they flew from the nest, and I resolve — after only a few tears — to celebrate this exciting next step with them.

I will strive to better emulate my wife’s capacity for caring and friendship. For more than 25 years, I’ve marveled at her remarkable capacity for empathy and friendship. Hers is not a superficial camaraderie, but deep, caring relationships with a far-flung collection of childhood pals and newer friends. As a spiritual director in the United Methodist Church, she’s well trained in listening and counseling people on their spiritual journeys. She is also wise beyond words. She has much to teach me, and I resolve to spend more time observing her, talking with her about what matters most and walking in her compassionate footsteps.

I will spend less time thinking about politics. In December 2016, I took up woodworking again as a way to focus my thoughts, apply my hands to creative pursuits and — most important — to get my mind off politics and Donald Trump for a few hours. (It’s funny how little you’ll think about current events when you’re trying not to sever your fingers with a table saw.)

After making a few pieces for myself, I began crafting simple tables for flood victims. Next, I made furniture for a refugee family and have recently finished tables I will donate to a non-profit that rehabilitates homes for elderly people. It’s sacred, prayerful work. Bending over a workbench for hours isn’t great therapy for a sore back, but making sawdust is a salve for mind and soul.

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.