Baton Rouge’s Out Of Touch Rag Strikes Again

Has there ever been a local newspaper more out of touch with the market it represents than the Baton Rouge Advocate?

It’s a question worth asking, and it has been for some time. Today’s assault on the tax relief granted to Louisiana’s citizens in 2007 and 2008 in that paper’s editorial pages brings to light another example of glaring economic illiteracy and sharp divergence from the majority of its readership which is all too familiar these days.

Two prior examples of this divergence in the past year come to mind. The first was last year’s failed (for the second time) bond issue in the capitol city. Mayor-President Kip Holden had attempted to smash through a billion-dollar bond to fund a wish list of public-sector projects, including a riverside theme park on land the city didn’t have title to, in the midst of a recession. Despite a month or more of articles in its own pages on shenanigans by the mayor to rig the vote to his favor, the controversy over the Audubon Alive site and access to it, the lack of candor by public officials in addressing questions about the plan and other issues, the Advocate came out with full throat to support the bond.

And it wasn’t just beaten. Despite a 50-1 advantage in spending by the mayor compared to the Tea Party groups in town who rallied to defeat the bond, it was drummed by a 65-35 count. It seems the voters in East Baton Rouge Parish did a better job reading up on the bond than the paper’s editorial board did.

A 65-35 shellacking is highly uncommon for a candidate or proposition supported by a local paper. Ask around and you will not find many examples of such a divergence between the only newspaper in town and its target readership.

Another example of the out-of-touch Advocate came in April. This was less noticeable in the public eye, as the paper’s coverage of it didn’t include anything which would tip the readers off. But on April 12, I was invited to a small news conference put on by Rep. Bill Cassidy at his Baton Rouge district office to meet Joe Barton, ranking Republican on the House Energy & Commerce Committee, who was making a tour of energy states to talk about Cap & Trade legislation. When I say small, I mean “intimate” – there were only four media types there – myself, David Jacobs from the Baton Rouge Business Report, someone from the Livingston Parish News, and Ted Griggs, the Advocate’s business writer.

Now, you would expect that the business writer for the newspaper in Baton Rouge would be very attuned to the economic issues surrounding cap and trade. Enormously so. Baton Rouge has been described as The Chemical City, and within our area lies the beating heart of the nation’s petrochemical sector. No industry seems more susceptible to cap and trade legislation’s effects than petrochemical does – the refineries, processing plants, factories and other facilities which turn crude oil and its assorted components into household products and industrial ingredients depend on a stable regulatory regime for their very viability. And since before I launched the Hayride as an alternative news commentary medium I was a corporate recruiter working with engineers and construction managers, I had seen first-hand the damage that the mere suggestion of cap and trade in Congress had done.

The recession certainly had something to do with the slowdown in the petrochemical sector, but plant managers up and down the Mississippi had told me that they were neither hiring new people nor engaging in expansions. You see, while the larger facilities typically will spend $5-10 million per year (or more) in updating their physical plants – which incidentally keeps engineering firms and industrial contractors in the Baton Rouge area in business – there was little motivation to continue those upgrades and expansions when the owners of the plants foresee massive tax and regulatory burdens coming down the line. All those plans were shelved. And the result was devastating to the engineering business throughout South Louisiana. Ford Bacon & Davis laid off over 100 engineers. Wink did the same. Jacobs had a bloodbath. Spectrum all but went out of business (and I think they actually did go under).

But after Barton launched into his discussion of why cap and trade was such a bad idea and it became time for questions, Griggs asked him “what about global warming?” And when Barton responded that after 20 years of beating that drum its proponents had yet to show any real evidence it was happening, not to mention the fact that the East Anglia fraud had damaged any claim there was real science behind global warming theory, Griggs didn’t seem like he could have been more shocked had Barton slapped him with a fish.

I found that amazing. If the Advocate’s business writer isn’t covering the petrochemical industry inside and out and isn’t aware of that industry’s point of view – and if Griggs is interested I can supply him with Dan Borne’s contact information and Borne’ will be more than happy to educate him on alternative viewpoints to Al Gore’s on climate change – then what on earth does he do all day?

And now we have yet another example of the Baton Rouge newspaper being scandalously out of touch with the market it serves. The Stelly Plan was a hugely unpopular idea from the time it was passed in 2002 to the time the legislature started chopping it down in 2007; it did real damage to job creation in Louisiana because it assaulted the income of the business class. Stelly accelerated the exodus of college graduates out of Louisiana – to states like Texas, which has no state income tax – and made Louisiana increasingly uncompetitive in the South. One reason we’re about to lose a congressional district  after reapportionment is that we’ve gained practically zero population in the past decade. And while part of that trend is due to the effects of Katrina, we were losing population even before the hurricane came. Any population gains we’ve had in the past decade have come since the legislature took the axe to Stelly – which the Advocate is now saying was a bad idea.

Louisiana’s tax receipts are down a little since the recession began, but what has really caused the state’s budget problems is a complete abdication of fiscal discipline. Our state budget has tripled in 15 years. We have more state employees per capita than practically any state in the country. We have more six-figure state employees than any state in the South. We have a licensing board for florists, for crying out loud. We’re carrying an overabundance of four year public colleges which in good times prevented us from funding the truly important ones on a nationally competitive level and now prevents us from funding any of them at a merely acceptable level. We’re holding on to an antiquated Charity Hospital system when that model has been proven as inefficient in delivering services in a cost-conscious and effective manner.

And on, and on.

This entire controversy can be laid at Gov. Bobby Jindal’s feet for failing to show the kind of fiscal discipline that a Chris Christie has shown in New Jersey. Jindal has been admirable in his insistence upon balancing the budget without a tax increase, but he isn’t pushing to alter the state’s constitution to aim at the waste – instead, we’re still doing the ridiculous dance of slashing higher education and health care every time there’s a shortfall rather than do something about all the protected spending which goes on unabated – and he’s not taking the steps needed to break down our outmoded governmental models to replace them with something more efficient and effective. So perhaps a lack of decisive leadership by the governor offers an opening for economic illiterates at the Baton Rouge paper to print revanchist editorials decrying “tax breaks for the rich” as the unemployment rate inches upward.

But that’s no excuse. Stelly was done away with because that’s what the people of Louisiana wanted. In fact, what the people of Louisiana really wanted was to do away with the state’s income tax in the first place, and that could have passed through the legislature in 2008 had Jindal jumped aboard the proposal when it was made. Would our budget deficit have been made worse had he done so? Probably, but our economy would have been better, our property and sales tax receipts would have been stronger, our job creation would have benefited and perhaps less Louisianians would have needed the government services which necessitate a large budget in the first place.

These things don’t apparently impact the Advocate’s editorial board, since they fail to grasp the concept that government doesn’t have a higher claim to the product of an individual’s time and effort than the individual does. They think that if the government has a deficit it’s somehow “responsible” to increase revenues to resolve it – and thus it was a mistake to roll back the Stelly tax increases. This is bad economics, bad philosophy and – at a time when some 31 percent of Louisiana’s “likely” voters (meaning the folks most attuned to current events and most likely to actually read the newspaper) call themselves Tea Party members and 52 percent say they’re Tea Party sympathizers – incredibly bad politics.

How much longer can the paper continue to stand at odds with its readership before it pays the price on the bottom line? There are newspapers dying all over the country. Dumb editorials like the one today will likely be the death of this one.

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