Saturday, April 14, 2018

The bully state

Honey, wake the kids. You don't want to miss this. Clancy DuBos is actually saying some pretty smart things. And he's saying them about the prospect of a Louisiana Constitutional Convention, which is especially remarkable because Clancy has pushed pretty hard for that in the past even though it isn't really such a great idea.  But here he explains precisely why it's not likely to accomplish anything.
Truth is, Louisiana has a constitutional convention every time our Legislature convenes. Legislators can propose constitutional amendments every year, and many of them do, but none has ever proposed a global fix to Louisiana’s fiscal train wreck. Instead, our lawmakers have proposed — and we, their constituents, have approved — a hodgepodge of fiscal amendments since our constitution was adopted in 1974.

Last month Sue Lincoln wrote about the convention scheme at the Bayou Brief.  I even spent some time on it. But Clancy only needs one paragraph to say the most important point.  If lawmakers really wanted to fix the budget, then they would do that. The problem is mustering the "political will" as Clancy puts it.  What that means, in practice, is actually taking power back from the reactionaries. I suspect Clancy is envisioning a typical reach-across-the-aisle effort to "get things done" or whatever, though. Which is really the sort of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. But nevermind that right now. Our boy is on a roll.
What began as a much-needed rewrite of Louisiana’s unwieldy 1921 constitution (one of the longest and most-amended in the nation) resulted in a streamlined version of the Huey Long model of state government. The 1974 constitution was more concise than its predecessor, but it did not change what is fundamentally wrong with Louisiana government: We concentrate power (and money) at the state level and stifle local governments’ ability to serve people where they actually live and work
This is not just a Louisiana problem either.  Conservatives have been using state governments as power choke points for decades.  There's a very good recent book about this by Nancy McLean called Democracy In Chains.  McLean traces the roots of the modern neoliberal project to James Buchanan and his founding of what is known as the "Public Choice" school of economics. Buchanan first became involved in politics in shaping reactions to post-Brown desegregation efforts. His project ended up becoming the founding strategy for a half-century's worth of right wing movements.

Here is an interview with McLean where she talks about the role of the state governments in Buchanan's scheme.
The Republican Party leadership bases its pitch to voters on a set of anodyne phrases. “We are the party of freedom, and liberty, and small government.” And that sounds good. Who is against freedom? Who wants super-intrusive government? But when you actually look at what they’re doing, they are freeing corporations to do whatever they want to their workers, the environment, retirees, and so forth and so on. When they say they’re for limited government that isn’t really true.

If you look closely, what they’re doing is limiting the branches of government that are the most responsive to voters: local government and federal government. But they are for extreme power for state governments, which they find much easier to control. We are seeing this happen all around the country where these Koch-funded state policy network organizations and the American Legislative Exchange Council are working hand-in-glove to push what is called “preemption.” They use the power over state governments to prevent localities from doing things like raising wages, enacting anti-discrimination ordinances, even passing plastic bag ordinances! It’s just a huge power grab.
At last week's Loyola event featuring four of the six living Mayors Of New Orleans, this preemption issue came under heavy criticism.  Mitch, in fact, seems to think it's going to get worse before it gets better. He's probably right about that.

Here is an example from this year's legislative session.  Danny Martiny (R-Metairie) has just passed a bill through the Senate that will preempt municipalities from enacting their own "inclusionary zoning" ordinances. The City Council is, understandably, upset.
The New Orleans City Council is urging lawmakers in Baton Rouge to oppose legislation that would stop local governments from requiring private developers to include affordable housing in their residential projects -- a practice known as inclusionary zoning.

Council members are united against the bill state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, has sponsored. All but Stacy Head, who was absent, were made authors of a resolution making their opposition official last week.

"This should be a decision for New Orleanians, made by New Orleanians, in front of New Orleanians and not up at the state," Councilman Jason Williams said during the council's April 5 meeting
I'm not a big fan of inclusionary zoning  Most often than not, it serves as a sop to developers of luxury housing enabling access to tax subsidies and exemptions from various other rules. The meager amount of "affordable" (often even the definition of this is labored)  housing built in exchange is insufficient to the need.   Nevertheless, it's absurd that the state would act to block the city from administering its own zoning rules. Martiny frames this basic local governmental function as a privilege the city has somehow forfeited.
In the year since a similar bill was defeated in a House of Representatives committee by a single vote, the City Council has been unable to approve a blanket inclusionary zoning policy. In fact, it has not  even voted on such a proposal. Martiny noted that weakness when the Senate approved his bill Monday, with a 26-11 vote.

"Because the bill failed (in 2017), they then had another year to deal with it," Martiny said. Had the council acted, he added, it "probably would've given them at least a little leverage to have been grandfathered" under any bill that came back before the Legislature.
Yeah, see, it's your fault I keep smacking you with your own arm.  Why are you hitting yourself? None of this makes any sense. All that's happened is the Home Builders Association wants to be shielded from a policy the city might impose on it. So they've turned to the State Legislature where they can exert more influence. The end run subverts the locally elected authority and tilts the balance of power away from direct democracy. It's a common play and an historically successful one at that.

In any case, the root of the problem here lies in a sophisticated, national political strategy, not some isolated quirk of the legal system.  As such it's something that is much better addressed through, "finding the political will" to build a contravening strategy than it is by drawing up a whole new constitution.

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