Notes On The Pelican Institute’s Policy Orientation For The Louisiana Legislature

I returned home early this morning from the front-lines of conservative pontificating at the Pelican Institute’s Policy Orientation for the Louisiana Legislature to report that the think-tank put on a good conference that should have been attended by more legislators, despite Christmas being around the corner and the whole thing having been put together rather hastily.

There weren’t a lot of people there that I knew, but I was happy to run into Lance Harris, an Alexandria businessman newly elected to represent District 25 in the state House.  Harris is an amiable guy and, incidentally, one heck of a piano player. I wanted to give him props because he is one of the few legislators I saw remain for the entire day’s events, often sitting up front taking a lot of notes. I want his constituents to know they elected a man who apparently gives a damn.

Hayride proprietor Scott McKay and I spent the day at the Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center attending separate meetings in sections of the Riverview Ballroom, where the thermostat was obviously controlled by Democratic operatives in a plot to run us all off or to have Republicans slowly succumb to pneumonia before the Legislative Session begins. Anyone who was there will know what I’m talking about.

Scott was nice enough to let me attend what seemed to be the more interesting of the meetings on the agenda, though none I went to them turned anywhere as contentious as a panel on education reform he went to did. Maybe there was a method to his madness.

Louisiana Energy, The Future of Natural Gas: The first meeting I went to was one on natural gas, in which panelists discussed how Louisiana’s reserves have the potential to create an energy boom to rival the oil bonanza of the 1970s and early 1980s. Discoveries like the Haynesville Shale and new fracking technology are bringing something historically scarce to northwestern quadrant of the state—good paying jobs—and, according to panelists, setting Louisiana on a course to become the first energy independent state in the country. That’s with the caveat, of course, of getting things right in Louisiana.

Panelist like Sen. Robert Adley, whose District 36 seat sits atop the Haynes Shale, talked about the need to invest in infrastructure to deliver liquefied natural gas to automobiles, which everyone agreed would be the best use of the resource to fill Louisiana coffers. Before that can happen, the federal government has to get out of the way by removing costly regulations that drive up prices of converting engines to accept natural gas fuel.

Incidentally, I asked Adley, who has spent most of his life making money in the energy business, what he thought about the new Sundrop Fuels plant being built in Alexandria. While he said that he wasn’t that familiar with the technology behind turning wood waste into green energy, he—like me—is skeptical and cautioned that we should be careful not to be led down the same road we were with ethanol a few years back.

Health Care, Controlling Cost at the State Level:  Trouble with Louisiana’s healthcare system was discussed in a panel that could just as easily have been called, “We Will All Die Soon”. Okay, maybe that’s a little hyperbole on my part, but things are pretty bleak with Obamacare looming. Despite whatever the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals tries to do to protect medical services in the state, Obamacare will add 353,000 people to Medicaid roles by 2014. That’s  if the Supreme Court doesn’t rule it unconstitutional or if a new president is elected and works fast to repeal it.

Medicaid is already broke and there is no way that Louisiana will be able to absorb the impact, which means services will have to be cut and poor people who really need help will be left high-and-dry. Death panels might soon become more than a Democrat talking point used to discredit Sarah Palin.

Criminal Justice Reform: A panel that discussed juvenile justice touted the Missouri-model as one that needs to be followed in Louisiana. Missouri implemented a plan a few years back to re-invent its juvenile offender detention centers into smaller centers designed to hold between 10 and 30 youths.

The centers are located throughout the state to keep young people closer to home. These centers don’t look like traditional jails, but like more of a “home setting” that uses educational staff to teach kids positive behavior and help drop-outs get back into school or obtain a GED.

It seems to be working because reportedly fewer than eight percent of those released from juvenile detention center end up there again or end up in state prison. In case you were wondering, that’s far less juvenile offenders that go on to the Big House here in Louisiana, a state that sends more people to prison than any other in the nation.

 K-12 Education, Expanding Education Options in Louisiana: I next went to a panel on expanding K-12 education. It was a discussion on charter schools that touched a little on online education. The panel was led by Caroline Roemer Shirley, daughter of Buddy Roemer and executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.

Charter Schools in the state, most of which are in New Orleans, are giving kids a way to escape failing schools but are meeting with opposition from those who don’t want to see money diverted from public schools. Panelists talked about the need to make sure legislators don’t work to institute a new cap on the number of charter schools in the state and that they try to implement policies used in successful public schools in schools that aren’t successful.

One hurdle that needs to be overcome is an egalitarian notion that the “lottery system” that decides which kids end up in charter schools is unfair because not all students in failing schools get the opportunity to attend charters. The best point made in this respect was from a spokesman from the Black Alliance for Educational Options, who likened it to firefighters deciding not to save everyone trapped in a three story burning building because only those on the first floor could be saved.

Pension Reform, Crafting a Plan for Public Benefits: Like the juvenile justice panel, one about pension reform looked at a system implemented in another state –Utah—to deal a Louisiana problem. The Unfunded Accrued Liability in Louisiana has ballooned to $18 billion with a large portion of salaries from workers like state police going toward back-loaded pension programs.

On the panel was Utah State Sen. Daniel Liljenquist, who discussed how his state transformed its pension system from a defined benefit model to a defined contribution plan.  Utah’s newly hired state workers can put 10 percent of their salary (12 percent for safety workers and firefighters) into a defined contribution plan. Employees can also choose a defined benefit plan, but that’s no-longer open ended and it’s capped at 10 percent input.

This new systems helps workers by being able to own their own retirement plan that they can take to another job. It also keeps lawmakers from robbing pensions to pay for other things. It helps get taxpayers off the hook as Utah’s plan will eventually cut half the state’s pension liabilities and not have to face the risk of tax hikes during stock market declines.

 

That pretty much wraps of the day’s events, except a side-note about attended a dinner with Karl Rove last night. I believe Scott is going to write a little about some of the things Rove said, but I just wanted to mention that I got a nanosecond to speak with him after his speech and found him to be a really nice man with a warm handshake. Doesn’t it always ring true that things turn out to be exactly the opposite from the way most Democrats tells us they are?

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