SADOW: Pearson Gets Mugged Trying To Save The State A Few Bucks

Given the state’s populist political history, is it any wonder Louisiana legislators won’t stop doling out considerable corporate welfare to the newspaper industry when they think it’s their obligation to submit to a shakedown by it?

Wednesday, HB 141 by state Rep. Kevin Pearson got tuned up so badlyby the House and Governmental Affairs Committee that it got put up life support with the plug scheduled to be pulled by session’s end. The bill would have scrapped the requirement that at least 60 days before introduction any bill affecting retirement systems have notice of it printed in the state’s official journal, currently (as it has been for decades) the Baton Rouge Advocate. The Constitution requires this publication, at no cost to the state.

In front of the committee, Pearson laid out a very simple case for it. There’s nothing special about these bills that forces their publishing in agate that could not be done elsewhere. For example (one he did not use but which his bill would permit), why not put them in the Louisiana Register, where the effort to put them out there might cost pennies a bill, if even that, as opposed to the estimated $40 apiece coughed up toThe Advocate?

Because these aren’t supposed to cost money to taxpayers, traditionally around the capitol if by their own volition legislators bring up such a bill, they pay the tab, typically out of their campaign accounts. If it’s by request, such as by a retirement system, the legislator asks the system to reach into its own budget to pay up – money which otherwise could be budgeted for retirees’ coffers.

But he got as icy a reception from his colleagues as if he had stolen thehockey stick from the faithful that worship the idea of significant anthropogenic climate change. The most bizarre commentary came from state Rep. Steve Pugh (a Republican!?), who argued that as a means of economic development newspapers deserved to continue to receive subsidization in this form. Pearson, perhaps resisting the temptation to draw a parallel about whether government should have subsidized the buggy whip industry circa 1900, replied that some didn’t think this ought to be government’s job in any event.

Thus the bill, after a half-joking move to defer it involuntarily (meaning executing it then and there instead of letting it linger), was deferred voluntarily, sidelining it for the session. Most amazing of all, considering there were about 80 bills that would qualify in this session for this treatment, the amount of money being shunted to The Advocate this year as a result totals around $3,200. It’s not going to make or break the newspaper, now owned by successful businessman and failed political candidate John Georges where that represents0.00091 percent of his net worth. It’s not even a month’s salary for a reporter.

So think of it as “protection money.” Even though GOP politicians like Pugh in desperate need of a spinal transplant to get the backbone they apparently lacked from birth rarely have anything nice written about them in the pages of The Advocate, maybe getting $40 squeezed from them from time to time makes them think it won’t print as many bad things about them. Or maybe they think it can secure a donation from a guy who has given over the past decade to campaigns of state and local candidates $73,615 (although only once since assuming ownership of The Advocate)?

Therefore, the reaction to this trivial proposed change makes it no surprise that, instead of any effort this session to get rid of the general subsidization of newspapers by state and local government by legislators, they’re trying to solidify the monopoly granted to newspapers over this business. While there’s no real reason in this day and age of technology even to have a journal of record requirement, at the very least if the state is going to stick with having taxpayers transfer millions of dollars at all levels to newspapers for what essentially is duplication, it could expand the field of providers to outside of print journalism.

But the only thing bills filed this session dealing with the issue do is totry to put more newspapers on board the gravy train. Among others, past recipients of Georges’ campaigning largesse state Rep. Neil Abramson and state Sen. Danny Martiny have introduced bills that would allow the New Orleans edition of The Advocate to win contracts. While proponents argue this increased competition could bring down prices, its real effect would be to curry more favor from newspapers by making more of them eligible, principally Georges’, to win a contract by relaxing the all-but-one-day-a-week printing requirement and/or having been in business for a few years.

Given the attitudes expressed in the HB 141 hearing, it’s little wonder we should expect this corporate welfare to continue – and demonstrates yet again how populism has burrowed like a tick into the consciousness of even those who, like Pugh, at other times rail against wasteful state government spending but see no problem with it when it goes to a newspaper. It’s more proof that principled conservatism and true reform still have a long ways to go before gaining a significant foothold in the landscape of Louisiana’s public policy.

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