Notes And Thoughts On The Legislative Orientation Yesterday

It was a pretty full day at the Pelican Institute’s Legislative Orientation yesterday in downtown Baton Rouge, starting with a speech by Sen. David Vitter around 8:30 in the morning and ending with a speech by Karl Rove last night.

From a news standpoint there wasn’t an overwhelming amount of earth-shaking stuff going on.

Both the Advocate and the Picayune picked up on Vitter’s speech, which was something of a pep talk for Republican legislators and an exhortation to be bold. Vitter’s perspective, which we share, is that Louisiana’s electorate voted in a GOP majority and essentially banished Democrats from statewide politics for a reason; namely, they want conservative governance in this state. And if the Republicans who are the recipients of the gifts the voters bestowed in the last election cycle don’t deliver on conservative governance, the current moment will be lost.

Vitter brought some specifics to the table as well. After mentioning some of his greatest hits as a state legislator, like for example term limits – without which the GOP would not have a majority in both houses of the state legislature, he talked about a few initiatives Louisiana needs going forward. Vitter suggested doing something about tenure for public-school teachers, for which there is a great deal of support (as evidenced by the overwhelming results in the BESE elections), and he touted increased school choice in the form of vouchers. He hit on the use of one-time state money for recurrent budget items, calling that the same kind of poor discipline that afflicts Washington. And he also talked about the idea of moving away from elected judges, something which is gaining some currency as people see how corrupt judicial elections and their trial-lawyer funding has become, and toward a system of gubernatorial appointments instead.

And of course he suggested dumping the state income tax, since Texas and Florida have been stealing jobs and people from Louisiana for decades thanks to having none.

From then, it was on to a series of panel discussions in two rooms the event had set up. I sat in on half of them and Tom worked the other half; his piece on the events is here.

The first panel I attended was on K-12 education, and our readers may have already seen a writeup on that one – including the gauntlet the state’s educational establishment, in the person of BESE member-elect Lottie Beebe, threw down at the school choice crowd. Beebe didn’t get anywhere with her trashing of likely education superintendent choice John White in a room full of conservatives, but it’s pretty clear White will be painted as “controversial” or “divisive” by the teachers’ unions and their friends in the media – just like Paul Pastorek was before him. And doing so is anything but an accident – turning up the heat on a leader in that fashion is a method by which the critics hope to sabotage his effectiveness.

Beebe’s side is completely outmatched, though. There are nine BESE members who are  on board with moving White into the education superintendent’s office, expanding charter schools and school choice, expanding teacher and school accountability and evaluation programs and doing away with things like tenure so as to professionalize the education field in this state. She’s practically all by herself in opposition; the other BESE member who has been identified with the establishment, Walter Lee of Mansfield, has reportedly begun sniffing the direction of the wind and tacking accordingly.

Beebe says she’s for “reasonable” reforms. That means she’s for meaningless reforms. She’s in a very small minority.

After the K-12 panel was a discussion of criminal justice reform – specifically ways in which the state can begin doing something about the alarming number of people in Louisiana prisons (1 out of 55 citizens, most in the world). A few interesting takeaways on this subject…

  • Almost nobody goes to jail on a first-offense felony. It’s usually your third felony conviction which sends you to the slammer. Prior to that you get probation. But the problem is that Louisiana has a three-strikes rule – meaning that on your third felony conviction you don’t get parole and the state doesn’t get a chance to supervise you once you get out. This doesn’t work out as well as you might like from the standpoint of recidivism; the people who were scared straight by prison time aren’t going to commit any more crimes, but the ones who weren’t are the ones who need to be supervised, and the way the system is set up now they’re being cut loose.
  • The crime rate nationally, and in Louisiana as well, is dropping considerably. It’s largely because the population is aging, and the people who commit the majority of the crimes are males between 15 and 25. Less of those means less crime. Crime is dropping faster in the black community than elsewhere, and that could be significant to the politics of this issue as time goes along.
  • We’re wasting lots of money on our “life means life” rule. We’re paying for medical care for aging crooks who are too old to beat people up or knock over banks, and it’s costing us a fortune.
  • One of the little Ronulan kids in the crowd asked about decriminalizing marijuana and whether that will help. Rep. Joe Lopinto (R-Kenner), a former cop, shot that notion down by noting that mere possession of weed is a misdemeanor and nobody goes to jail for that, plus since jail doesn’t kick in until a third felony conviction we’re just not talking about kids with weed.
  • Prison reform in Louisiana, or better put criminal justice reform, is going to be extremely difficult because unlike a lot of other states we house a great number of our prisoners not in state facilities but in parish prisons. And those parish prisons are now considered to be local economic engines, with the revenue produced from the state paying those localities to house prisoners a big asset to the local pols. Try to do something to reduce the prison population, and you’re going to get howls from local sheriffs concerned about their rice bowls – regardless of whether what you’re trying to do won’t negatively affect public safety.

After lunch was a panel discussion on higher education with an all-star roster. Sen. Conrad Appel talked about the attempt to merge UNO and SUNO, and what a tragedy it was that racial animus interfered with the need to do something about SUNO, but he did mention that good things did come out of that effort – specifically that SUNO got the message they’re under a lot of scrutiny and the status quo won’t cut it anymore, and also that UNO was moved to the University of Louisiana system and out of the LSU system. State Rep. John Schroeder, who might be our favorite guy in the House, talked about the need to renew the fight to create one board of higher education in the state and create a lot more accountability for the state’s higher ed establishment – though Schroeder did note that a great deal of the poor performance of Louisiana’s colleges is baked into the cake by the state’s crappy K-12 schools.

Sean Reilly, CEO of Lamar Advertising and the head of the Flagship Coalition – a group which proposes reforms to reorient the state’s higher ed systems toward something which makes sense – did a great job of tracing some of the problems with higher education in Louisiana. Reilly said historically Louisiana has done a hideous job of delineating clear missions for its colleges, and that’s why you have runaway degree programs at all these schools. What he’s looking for is a three-tiered system in which LSU does most of the top-end educational work and the cutting-edge research, like a flagship university is supposed to do, the regional universities focus on creating professionals with degree programs tailored to that mission and the community and technical colleges focus on job skills.

That’s where Joe May, who runs Louisiana’s community and technical college system, kicked in. May had a short graphic presentation showing the growth of the state’s two-year schools and the improved management of them over the last few years focusing on consolidation of what used to be a spattering of junior colleges and vo-tech schools into a unified system that makes sense. May also brought out an amazing stat – believe it or not, new graduates with Associates degrees in Louisiana actually outearn those with Bachelor’s degrees by about $3,000 a year within 18 months of graduation. Why? Because the job skills you learn at a community college are more in demand in this state.

The long and short of that stat is we are wasting money subsidizing tuition for mediocre students to attend the state’s regional universities rather than routing them through the community colleges. Schroeder said it best: “We’ve turned college into an entitlement program.” And what happens with those mediocre students is they’ll go to, say, Nicholls State for two years, get drunk the whole time while learning absolutely nothing (they barely paid attention in high school, much less when they’ve gone off to college), and then wash out with $15,000-20,000 of our taxpayer dollars up in smoke from subsidizing tuition, probably $5,000-10,000 in in-state tuition paid with nothing to show for it, and maybe another $10,000 or so in student debt. And then they’ll go back home to live with Mom and Dad, and hopefully get a job that they could have gotten right out of high school.

That’s two years and $30,000-40,000 wasted. Instead, said mediocre student could go to the local community college, stay at home while graduating in two years and spend maybe $5,000 on a degree (the taxpayers being on the hook for about $5,000 as well) enabling him or her to get a job that would pay more than the mediocre student would get after a four-year degree from one of the regional universities – and two thirds of the students at those schools DON’T graduate.

Not to mention that you’re not barred from moving on to a four-year school after you’ve gotten a degree from a community college. If the mediocre student in question gets his/her head on straight and acquires some motivation, there’s no reason why another two years at Nicholls can’t produce a degree that makes him/her even more marketable than the AA degree did.

Talk about a stupid system and an institutionalization of bad economic decisions. Schroeder and others in the legislature are fed up with the nonsense, and change is coming even if politics like those practiced in the SUNO-UNO debacle continue (which they will).

Next up was a panel put on by our buddy Melissa Landry of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch on litigation reform, in which a discussion of several issues surrounding Louisiana’s uncompetitive legal climate was had. Chuck McMains, a former state representative and current lawyer himself, noted that the legislative committees handling the court system have traditionally been populated solely by lawyers – and that fox-in-the-henhouse circumstance had a lot to do with creating a legal climate that makes for bonanzas for lawyers.

McMains also noted that this isn’t just about plaintiff lawyers, either. Defense attorneys love litigious jurisdictions, too, because there are lots of billable hours to be found when the ambulance chasers are on a rampage.

One of the elements of this lousy legal climate is a system peculiar to Louisiana in which you can’t get a jury trial for a lawsuit where less than $50,000 is in controversy – instead, you get a judge whose campaign was probably financed almost solely by lawyers. Are those judges impartial? For the most part, probably, but get sued for $40,000 in Orleans Parish, or St. Landry Parish, and your experience probably won’t be so desirable. Venue-shopping is something Louisiana is inordinately lax on as well, and McMains suggested something be done about that.

State Rep. Tim Burns concurred, and both Burns and McMains suggested that some of the rules on class action lawsuits be tightened to the effect that you shouldn’t be able to sue somebody outside of a jurisdiction where the harm actually occurred.

But a large part of the discussion came from the “legacy lawsuits” question we’ve discussed here on the Hayride. Louisiana’s oil and gas industry is getting pounded from these suits, which have to do with environmental damage arising from old oil production. Essentially, let’s say somebody issues an oil lease to Exxon in 1950, and they produce from that lease using the industry standard methods from that time. Naturally, the way you’d drill for oil in 1950 wouldn’t meet current standards and because of that you might have a need for environmental cleanup.

Except that Exxon probably sold its interest in that lease long ago, and between 1950 and now there might be a dozen oil companies who have produced off it. So when somebody files one of these legacy lawsuits alleging environmental damage, they’re going to sue every single one of those oil companies. And amid the chaos, the lawyers are making a killing – and the oil companies are looking at Louisiana as a place they wouldn’t want to do business in if their lives depended on it.

The first of these cases was the Corbello v. Iowa Production case in 2002.

In Corbello, the landowners/mineral lessors sued Shell Oil Company, the operator of an oil and gas terminal on the leased property for many years. The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld a jury award of $33 million against Shell for its failure to restore the leased property to its original condition upon termination of the lease. There was no dispute that the leased property was worth only $108,000, even in its restored condition. The court, however, noted that the lease, which stated that the property would be restored to its original condition upon termination of the lease, was “the law between the parties” and therefore Shell was obligated to restore the premises as nearly as possible to its original condition.

Twenty-eight million of the $33 million dollar restoration award represented the cost that would be incurred in order to prevent contaminated groundwater on the leased property from reaching the Chicot aquifer, the primary drinking water supply for Southwest Louisiana. However, the Supreme Court did not require the plaintiffs to use any portion of the award to actually install a system that would be necessary to remediate the groundwater. The court ultimately found that there was no legal basis to require the plaintiffs to use the monies awarded to it to remediate the site or to protect the drinking water aquifer. In other words, the court awarded an enormous sum of money for remediation purposes, but found no corresponding obligation for the plaintiffs to use the money to remediate the site.

Don Briggs, head of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, says the economic damage to the state’s most lucrative industry from this is significant. He said 30 of the top 50 producers in Louisiana are getting out as a result of the legacy lawsuits.

Finally, a panel on the availability of broadband, particularly in the state’s rural areas. This one was perhaps less successful than the others – Clyde Holloway, the Public Service Commissioner for the central part of the state, gave a somewhat halfhearted advocacy of the need to run broadband lines out in the country so as to offer opportunities for school kids and business people out in the country, though he did allow that folks who choose to live where there’s no broadband are doing so voluntarily.

And at the end of the day, the broadband debate boils down to freedom and economic choices. Land out in the country is a lot cheaper than it is in the city or the suburbs, and one reason for that is you don’t have broadband. Democrats have made this a big deal, in the way of trying to give out more free stuff to people and create a constituency group (poor rural people) dependent on them, and that’s why broadband was part of Obama’s stimulus program. Of course, a good bit of the broadband availability Obama created came at a completely uneconomic price – and government will be on the hook for continuing to provide it to places where nobody lives and even fewer people actually use it.

One of the questioners of the panel, Harold LaCour of Greater Baton Rouge Pachyderms fame, voiced this sentiment when he suggested there be places where broadband won’t work that the federal government reserve as sanctuaries from broadband and where it’s not allowed. Problem solved, and money saved.

Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne closed the main part of the orientation with a quick speech on tourism and the success Louisiana is having there, complete with the plans to celebrate the state’s 200th birthday next year. The best part of Dardenne’s speech, though, was his Boudreaux and Thibodaux joke at the beginning…

Boudreaux shows up at the bar next to Thibodaux and orders a beer. It comes, he looks inside his coat and then he downs it in one gulp and orders another. When he comes, he does the same thing – again looking inside his coat.

After a third, fourth and fifth beer with the same quirky performance with the peep inside the coat Thibodaux finally becomes agitated enough to inquire what’s going on. “Boudreaux,” he says, “I done seen you in here drinkin’ plenty enough and I know you like your beer. But how come you keep lookin’ in dat coat before you put dose beers down?”

“Oh, dat,” says Boudreaux. “I done got a picture of my wife in dere. And Imma go home and see her just as soon as I drink enough beer that she starts lookin’ good.”

A good way to end a long day.

From the panels came a talk by Karl Rove, the architect of George W. Bush’s two successful elections and the current head of American Crossroads, the third party organization dedicated to electing Republicans to Congress and the White House. Rove stressed that Republicans need to be bold, but not suicidal – the example he used being that Scott Walker got about 95 percent of what he would have liked in Wisconsin by gutting the public employee unions in general but leaving the policemen and firemen out of his reform fight, and Walker increasingly looks like a winner as the Left’s attempts to roll back those reforms fell short in the Supreme Court race and legislative recall elections. But in Ohio, John Kasich went for the whole enchilada and wiped out collective bargaining for the cops and firemen along with everybody else in public employment – and proceeded to lose in a statewide initiative in the fall amid TV spots with cops and firemen accusing him of taking them off the streets.

For Rove, it’s a question of being smart. He has a point, though in many cases he’s guilty of advocating positions that are less bold than is necessary. Very often these things are matters of degree and it’s tough to draw a line between bold and suicidal. His point about Wisconsin and Ohio was a good one, though.

Rove said Louisiana is primed for colossal change for the better. He pointed to education in particular and noted that Louisiana is in a position to put in virtually unlimited school choice, noting that in Texas they missed an opportunity to do something like that when they capped the number of charter schools they’d have and conservatives there regret it.

Rove noted that in a week or so Newt Gingrich will run up against the same duration as a frontrunner Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain enjoyed before collapsing, and it will be interesting to see whether he’s able to display more staying power than the previous Not Romneys had. Rove still sounded like he’s a Romney guy, but he insisted that what he cares about is beating Obama and anybody the GOP nominates is fine by him at this point.

But most of all, Rove said that Republicans need to do a better job of making the moral argument about economics. He said conservatives are great at pointing out how low taxes makes for a better economy and more people can prosper as a result and so on, but we don’t do as good a job as we should in exploding this business of “fairness” the Left uses to demonize people who make money. Rove said conservatives should be very forthcoming in decrying a government which takes more than 20 percent of anybody’s income – he says there is a great deal of polling information that says better than two thirds of the American people think more than 20 percent in taxes is too much – and he says we should emphasize the injustice of politicians taking people’s hard-earned money so as to give it to people who didn’t earn it. Rove says that argument is just as powerful, if not more so, than the economic argument.

I got a kick out of meeting him, too, since he said he knew exactly who I am and what we do at this site. How much of that was him working the room or shining me on and how much of it was legit I can’t say, but it felt pretty good anyway.

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