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LA should join cash welfare recipient drug testing wave

Despite meeting the derision of some in the past, trends across the country point to the desirability of Louisiana’s joining other states in requiring drug testing for cause of welfare cash recipients.

Since a U.S. circuit court of appeals decision over a decade ago essentially ruled that drug testing to receive federal benefits constituted an unconstitutional search unless suspicion of use was established, a dozen states have passed laws that require such testing when suspicion is present. That can be established as simply as administering a test that queries about behavior. Additionally, most states, including Louisiana where this applies to benefits administered by the Department of Children and Family Services (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), have not opted out of the federal welfare reform law that requires felons convicted of drug crimes to face mandatory testing for receipt of benefits, and 18 have had legislation to adopt testing introduced in the past year. Perhaps the most high profile discussion under way will happen in Wisconsin, where the political left’s bĂȘte noire Gov. Scott Walker, a potential presidential candidate, supports such legislation that includes a wide array of public assistance programs.

Louisiana is not one of those that has gone past the TANF rules, but has its own history regarding such legislation. A few years ago bills of this nature appeared regularly in the Legislature, with the last couple of attempts making it out of the House. But the Senate stalled them and 2012 marked the last bill filed of this nature.


Evaluation results call for more rigorous expectations

State Rep. John Schroder rightly expresses skepticism about the continuing amazingly high performance level of state employees even after a change in evaluation procedures from the prior system that showed similarly high levels. It’s because little was changed, which does little to move Louisiana forward on this issue.

As previously noted in this space, much grander and more substantive reform had been offered up by the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration. But after predictable resistance from the civil service, watered-down alterations got enacted, and in the first year of full use, in terms of statistics, the almost perfect qualified rate remained essentially unchanged, with almost no requests to fire people for low performance.

Schroder commented, “Why do evaluations if everyone is going to come out with flying colors? I’m not persuaded that almost every single employee is doing a great job.” By contrast, Director of State Civil Service Shannon Templet said they must be, for two reasons: the new protocols were more than before evaluative of tasks and that the proportion of those employees rated qualified was not significantly higher than what was found in the private sector.


Workable solutions elusive to reduce LA roads backlog

Like everybody else, putative Louisiana gubernatorial candidates struggled with offering solutions to the state’s tremendous roads and bridges backlog of $12.3 billion, if their discussion of this topic at a forum designed for that purpose conducted last week indicates anything.

As the state makes little headway on this amount and seems slowly slipping behind in maintenance as well for roads, the issue has grown in prominence. This year, the state had allocated roughly $925 million in its capital outlay budget for roads, or about half of all total capital outlays, most coming from cash generated from bond sales. This upcoming year the figure predicted is $649 million, which doesn’t seem likely to reduce that wish list.

This total can be a bit deceptive, because little bits and pieces of capital outlay requests can be found strewn through the state’s operating budget as well. The largest portion is extra compensation beyond legal requirements that the state gives to parishes for roads, around $16 million. With the $60 million siphoned from the main funding mechanism for roads construction, the Transportation Trust Fund, to pay for operating expenses of the State Police, together these could reach the goal of over $70 million a year for maintenance if kept for that purpose.


NW LA BESE election may act as CCSI bellwether

The new 2015 in northwest Louisiana brought some interesting changes that may signal where state policy could be headed in this election year.

After 26th District Judge Jeff Thompson got himself elected unopposed, his vacated state representative slot was to have an election to fill it. Instead, none occurred there as well when only lawyer Mike Johnson qualified, after a former candidate for the same office in a different district Richey Jackson deferred. The Republican will have to run again later this year to retain the 8th District seat for a full term.

Johnson, a former radio talk show host and former dean of the law school proposed by Louisiana College that now faces uncertainty as to whether it actually will come into existence, is best known as a constitutional lawyer who has defended, often successfully, First Amendment religious-based claims. His abilities in this area and his socially conservative agenda should give opponents of these issue preferences heartburn, as he should prove to be an extremely effective advocate in the House for those.


Lack of planning, courage triggers LA college crunch

Unfortunately, crisis budgeting is not synonymous with making the delivery of Louisiana higher education efficient or even effective, although it can serve as a starting point for that overdue process. Problem is, that process should have started long ago.

While premature to review specifically what could be attempted to keep the state’s institutions operating at an adequate level should large budget cuts become necessary, it’s helpful to understand the larger parameters of what the challenge is and what definitely would not work. Discussion must begin with the fact that Louisiana is saddled with too many institutions chasing too few students and not providing all that efficiently as a result.

Consider that, as of the latest data, Louisiana among the states and the District of Columbia ranked 18th in per capita spending on higher education, in part because it was in the top ten in number of institutions per capita. It also historically grew abnormally dependent upon taxpayer aid, as today, even after years of 10 percent annual tuition increases for most schools, it still ranks fourth from the bottom in average tuition, whereas the ability to pay by residents was higher in terms of per capita income, a dozen states being lower. Had the system not been so deferential to student finances and asked so much of taxpayers, it might have been induced to greater efficiency by now and less vulnerable to reducing state aid.


Vitter triumph directs end to campaign finance limits

That Sen. David Vitter beat the system constricting the use of campaign donations gives a clear signal that Louisiana needs to rid itself of any limitations on political speech in state elections.

When Vitter launched his gubernatorial candidacy a year ago, that only meant he had taken the idea a step further than some dozen years earlier. For back then, in the waning of Gov. Mike Foster’s terms, Vitter, then only three years in the U.S. House of Representatives after several years in the state Legislature, had contemplated making a run for governor. His idea would have been to use money in his federal campaign account to fuel the run for the top office.

But his fellow Republican but political foe Foster (at loggerheads, trivially, over allowing another Indian casino) would have none of that, and pushed legislators, enough of whom had their own partisan reasons for wanting Vitter out of the race, to pass a law prohibiting the use of that money, roughly a million dollars then. In part, it led Vitter to passing on the chance.


LA bishops wise to disregard ideology-driven agenda

Social Justice U. strikes again with a pushing of a political ideology that carries the university further away from the spiritual to a secular agenda, one that Louisiana dioceses seem willing recklessly to follow that only can reduce its influence in public policy on things that matter.

Researchers at Loyola University in New Orleans, a nominally Catholic college under the auspices of the religious order Society of Jesus, has for years proclaimed itself “Social Justice U.” and is replete with trendy features to back its boast, such as its community participating in various marches and vigils to protest the outrage of the day, and with various centers with the phrase in their names or in their mission statements. One such unit, the Social Research Institute, decided to create a report arguing that not only should society see that all people live decently, but that they live quite “a modest, dignified life.”

According to its definition of this level, that equates, at a bare minimum for a couple with one child, to around $55,000 to ensure “economic security,” claiming this constituted a “no frills” existence. Contrast this with the federal poverty limit – the amount below which many welfare programs kick in, although some start lower and some begin higher – of the same kind of family, which is presently about $20,000. For this $35,000 annual difference, the authors recommend, it is the responsibility of people through their government to compensate.


Reducing testing's role invites regression in education

Louisiana’s education policy-makers need to resist any changes at the federal level that may prompt foes of reforms in this area over the past few years to claim these as justifications for retreating down the long path of educational excellence, and embrace state-based school accountability alterations that will complement these reforms.

This week, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s committee dealing with school and district accountability heard a report it commissioned on potential improvements to its rating system for schools. Currently, while it varies among levels of schools, all scales used take as its major input, at least half of the appropriate rating, achievement of students on tests and then a letter grade gets assigned as a result to the school.

The study recommended that the grade be computed at least half on aggregate student academic growth rather than level of achievement, mimicking that component for assessment of many teachers in schools, in that level of achievement has too many exogenous factors such as socioeconomic background of students affecting it. Also suggested was to create more gradations in the letter grades, such as awarding plusses and minuses, because otherwise movement from one category to another took such an amount of change that this could encourage staffs from satisficing with a particular non-poor grade and discourage them from trying to move out of it if much effort would not be rewarded with an incrementally higher grading.


Legislature must lead in more LA pay raise reform

That the more Louisiana’s system of evaluating the majority of its employees has changed when it really remained the same illustrates the unfinished business remaining to creating a more efficient state civil service.

Last week, the Department of State Civil Service issued statistics regarding the past fiscal year’s evaluations of the roughly 39,000 employees that fall under this rating system for civil servants. While around 3 percent could not be rated mostly for reason of insufficient length of time of employment, about 96 percent ended up qualifying for a raise, although about a tenth of them will not have one as their agencies’ budgets lack funds to deliver it. This concluded the first full implementation of changes made in 2011 that at the time sparked controversy.

Needlessly, as it turned out. After pulling back on a more far-reaching overhaul, Gov. Bobby Jindal accepted a much more tepid set of adjustments that only marginally created incentives for a more efficient workforce through compensation policy. The data from last year verified that, from a system which had raised almost every employee’s wages annually and almost always with uniformity, the state now has a system that awards about as many of these proportionally with a slightly greater range of variation. Administration officials asserted still this represented improvement because with a different worldview installed that spells out expectations of employees that this approach would raise the standard of performance.


Unproductive LA tax credits finally may get whacked

As the good news/bad news trajectory of oil prices overall negatively impacts Louisiana’s bottom line, political cover to rid the state of counterproductive tax exceptions could be at hand.

It’s not so much that revenues from the state’s excise tax on extracted oil comprise a large part of the state’s budget – the 12.5 percent levy’s proceeds making up about a fifth of budgeted revenues – but that a shortfall can be spread only around a limited portion of the entire budget. When last year voters unwisely locked in reimbursement rates for nursing homes and hospitals and cordoned off tens of millions of dollars to build artificial reefs until the end of time and still never could spend it all, that put over 80 percent of the budget off limits to reductions in the normal budgeting process for next fiscal year (most of this money could be touched if a budget adjustment during a fiscal year would occur with supermajority legislative approval). This means for FY 2016 one area is set up most for reductions, higher education, and another somewhat so, what has been left unprotected in health care.

The latter, since its levels of expenditures are the largest in the budget, presents an opportunity to cut with the pain most spread out, even after a few hundred million bucks got removed from the equation with the vote last fall. However, it lately has borne mid-year cuts when necessary, and another unfortunate development new to the calculus is that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, in order to create the ruse that it actually was not going to cost the country extravagantly, dramatically has lowered its temporarily boosted reimbursement rates for Medicaid to doctors. The state holding back even more from the rate only would compound the impact of lower quality care through greater wait times and increased costs by pushing recipients to emergency rooms.