Has it come to this: people exercising their constitutional rights, whose policy preferences are given second-class status because they are less numerous than those in the wagon that they pull, are selfish for doing so?
That’s an apt description of the reactions from opponents of the drive for south East Baton Rouge Parish to incorporate itself into its own separate municipality, proposed to be named St. George, removing itself from a metropolitan government that would have only the northern and central parts of the parish that are not the municipalities of Baker, Central, and Zachary and the city of Baton Rouge remaining. This presently southern unincorporated area of the parish would create a city of around 107,000 people and become almost as large in land area as Baton Rouge itself.
The process is simple: collect signatures on a petition without time limit representing a quarter of the registered voters in the area, which then triggers an election where a majority of those voters can approve of the new municipality. The politics behind it, by contrast, are complex.
A couple of years ago concerned families in the area pressured the Legislature to create an independent school district in a large part of the area, voicing a frustration that the East Baton Rouge Parish School District pursued policies that put vested interests among politicians, administrators, and unions ahead of children’s education. That paid off this past year in the creation of such a majority-black district that while would not have been ranked a high performer compared to others statewide it would have been scored higher than the consistently lagging EBRPSD, except that no means of financing was provided. Legislators signaled they did not feel comfortable carving a district out of an existing district without some municipality to anchor it.
So, backers of the breakaway district went about creating that municipality, which if then the district were altered to conform to that would make it even better performing than in its present version at the expense of the EBRPSD. This tossed opponents from the frying pan into the fire, for now the proposition was about more authority over more people and they could no longer control the process, as now it didn’t matter that they had the backing of almost all elected officials in East Baton Rouge outside of the district for the policymaking locus has shifted from their having the majority of power to that now being in the hands of the people of the district.
Naturally, in response they have set about on a campaign of misrepresentation and scare-mongering. It started with Mayor-President Kip Holden insinuating the enterprise was racist, but now has become less bigoted and more sophisticated in the attempt to discourage success of the petitioning process. It continued in the alarmist mode when a paid shill for city-parish interests imagined the new municipality would remove $90 million from EBR coffers, but took a more reasonable tack in embracing the view from local academicians that this figure was $53 million, or a fifth of the current EBR budget, based upon the idea that a quarter of the residents in areas covered by the city-parish government would separate but take 40 percent of the sales tax revenue with them.
Some opponents, perhaps lacking confidence they can defeat the petition/election process, have approached going berserk over the possibility of breakaway. EBR Metro Council member Denise Marcelle, playing the role of Pharaoh, threatens extralegal annexation of the area by fiat to stop it, laying bare for observers the real reason why it has come to this: it’s all about money and power, to the point where elites feel they have the right to impose their will on their employers to enjoy both. The strategy of talking about how the move in and of itself would make the whole suffer, with the undercurrent that the selfish few would act so to harm the many, is to distract from the fact that the portion that wants out of the current arrangement does because of poor policy choices made by majorities of existing political elites of which they disproportionately bear this burden.
While it mainly rests with dissatisfaction of the poor-performing EBRPSD, that the area with both the state’s major university and its capital does so poorly relative to the rest of the country in terms of income testifies to the fact that this local government has created policy insufficient to rectify this shortcoming. Part of this underperformance does get weighed down by the inadequacies of the school system – it’s more difficult to spur economic development when the product coming out of the schools is substandard – but city-parish politicians can both pressure schools to place a higher primacy on children’s learning and less on satisfying special interests and come up with policy more towards growth and efficient government less enamored with redistribution and attention to special interests. Already, St. George organizers have done precisely this with a governance plan long on efficiency through contracting.
In other words, it is not that portion of the citizenry that wants this policy change that is the enemy that elites try to demonize as not having its mind right with total commitment for EBR, but that enemy is themselves, because of the poor policy choices that they have made (such as employee benefits even more generous than the gravy train offered by the state). The easiest solution is for them to put ego and interests aside and change their policies, for those and the intransigence in holding onto them are the actual cause of the schism. Trying to delegitimize dissenters who have real grievances and who are following constitutional means by which to redress them isn’t just a dereliction of duty, it’s politics at the rankest and lowest level.
And this approach does nothing to address the disease affecting both schools and city-parish government that they disavow to have nurtured, the officials of the latter of which would do well to emulate ideas expressed in the St. George governance plan. When leaders appear unserious in that task of restoration and rejuvenation, it is not selfish to want to exit that scene, but instead draws upon the very foundational aspects of American government.