Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Indiana Jones One Ups Louisiana Legislature

Thursday, May 29, 2008
Baton Rouge, Louisiana



Robert Redford posed the question at the end of the movie, The Candidate, which should have been asked by the newly elected Louisiana Legislature: "What do we do now?" The new guys and gals in town started off with a bang declaring a home run after a successful special session on ethics reform. It was more like a double, but the public perception was that they were on the right track. But now the question is being asked, where they go from here? More specifically, are they resting on their laurels?

With just a little over three weeks to go until the current legislative session comes to an end, the focus so far seems to be on Sazerac cocktails, significantly higher automobile insurance rates, droopy pants, lap dancing, a misguided effort to allow scatterbrained (literally) motorcycle riders to go helmet less, and an unrealistic effort to immediately wipe out the income tax at a cost of over $4 billion.

By any objective measure, most of these proposals should go by the wayside, and the focus should be on educating our kids, particularly at a very young age. Yet the legislature, in its wisdom this week, stripped from the Governor's budget some $14 million on new programs for improving reading skills of pre-kindergarteners. To no avail, the state superintendent of education point out that Louisiana ranks 50th in the US by the National Assessment of Education Progress, which measures key early learning skills.

A significant number of kids in Louisiana need "catch-up help" from the day they enter kindergarten. Louisiana has one of the highest percentages of poor families found anywhere in the country. And there is a great disparity in the ability to read, and even to communicate, involving children from different economic levels.

A few months ago, I had as a guest on my radio show Professor Todd Risley, who published a study entitled "Meaningful Differences in the Every day Experience of Young American Children." He explained that there is a great difference in both the number of words and the prohibitive or affirmative tone of words heard by young children, depending and whether their parents are on welfare, in the working class or professionals.

Simply put, Professor Risley determined that a child’s verbal development is not so much about IQ or social economic status. It's more about how a kid is talked to and how positive the tone may be. This is interesting stuff here. Risley’s study found that by age 3, children of welfare parents heard 10 million words, where those with working-class parents heard 20 million words. If the parent was a professional, the child heard 30 million words. In addition, he found that with children 13-18 months old in welfare families, almost 80% of the feedback to the child was negative. That's right, 80%. In working-class families the percentage dropped to 50%. And when he studied professional families, more than 80% of feedback to the child was affirmative.

Here's what all this means. In a state that is as poor and under educated as Louisiana, it's not just important, but imperative that a pre- kindergarten program be mandatory in every single school in the state. Waiting to teach a child to read until the first grade is obviously a big mistake. Kids who do not learn to read in the early grades almost never recover academically, and fall further and further behind with each passing grade. Reaching the middle school years, they literally cannot read their textbooks and often become academically frustrated and disruptive. Hopelessly behind, these kids begin dropping out of school in large numbers by the eighth grade.

There are two messages here. First, Louisiana parents, grandparents, babysitters, uncles and aunts all need to talk and read to children from birth on, using big words, and giving lots of positive reinforcement. This can be done for free.

The second message is that the legislature needs to put many extraneous matters aside, and make a top priority early learning development. You can talk all you want about economic development. But the best economic stimulus package is an early foundation for learning. Governor Buddy Roemer said it well in the campaign of 1987. The oil and gas of Louisiana's future is in the minds of our six year olds.

Cutting $14 million from Governor Jindal's budget on a new reading program for improving reading skills of preschoolers was a mistake. Hopefully, reasonable minds will realize that a correction is necessary, and see that these funds are restored.

Indiana Jones came back to the big screen this week. In Indy's last movie, he was in pursuit of the Holy Grail. The ancient crusader guarding the Grail revealed that one could gain it only by drinking from the correct cup. You may remember that the bad guy drank from the most ornate cup and suffered a horrible death. Quoth the crusader, “He chose poorly.” Indiana Jones picked the simplest cup. The knight nodded with approval, “He chose, wisely!”

When it came to helping close the gap of those less educated at an early age, the Louisiana House of Representatives last week chose poorly. They have just a few weeks left to make proper amends and chose more wisely.


"I learnt most not from those who taught me, but from those who talked with me."

St. Augustine

Peace and Justice.

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s column appears weekly, and is published in a number of newspapers and websites throughout Louisiana. You can read past columns by going to Jim’s website at Jim’s regular radio show on WRNO, 995fm out of New Orleans can be heard each Sunday from 11:00 am till 1:00 pm.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Bastards No More In Louisiana

Thursday, May 22, 2008
Baton Rouge
, Louisiana



In the year 1967, I was a newly minted Louisiana lawyer, still wet behind the ears, but scrapping out a law practice in my newly adopted hometown of Ferriday. One of my first cases was representing a young mother whose child was killed when a truck ran off the road and into the family driveway. It seemed like a pretty cut and dried wrongful death case and I was waiting for the insurance lawyer to send me a settlement offer. He called one morning and said quite bluntly: "We're not paying nothing. The kid was a bastard."

Unfortunately, his conclusion was right, at least as far as the law goes. Not just in Louisiana, but throughout the entire country. If you were an illegitimate child, your parents had no constitutional recognition or protection for any type of legal recovery.

40 years ago this week, the US Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, repealed centuries of settled law by granting parental rights where children are born out of wedlock. And it was a Louisiana case that brought about this significant change.

Before this Louisiana decision with national repercussions, any child throughout the country born outside of marriage was fillius nullius, or the child of no one. In fact, as reprehensible as it sounds, in early America it was a lesser crime to kill a person who had been born to an unmarried woman. If you went into a courthouse to check on a child’s birth certificate before 1965, it was often stamped "bastard.”

Shotgun weddings were often the norm, particularly in the white community. Many young girls were sent off to "homes for unwed mothers," where quiet birth was given, and many new babies put up for adoption. The climate of tolerance did improve as the 60s wore on with the advent of birth control and changing values post-Vietnam.

But Louisiana led the fight to the bitter end, defending its laws of what legitimacy meant. In the state’s brief before the US Supreme Court, Louisiana officials firmly stated: "Louisiana's purposes... are positive ones: the encouragement of marriage as one of the most important institutions known to all, the preservation of the legitimate family as the preferred environment for socializing the child... Since marriage as an institution is fundamental to our existence as a free nation, it is the duty of... Louisiana to encourage it. One method of encouraging marriage is granting greater rights to legitimate offspring."

40 years ago this week, Louisiana began the changing process. In the years that followed, the US Supreme Court reinforced this direction, requiring nonmarital families access to public benefits and giving all children a right to financial support from their parents. A few years later, all fathers, not just married ones, were given a constitutional right to a relationship with their children. This seems pretty obvious today, but it was part of a major changing pattern across the country that all began right here in the Bayou state.

The problem today is not giving legitimacy rights to children of unwed parents. That is a settled issue. Now, these same kids are often abandoned by their fathers. Absent fathers are pervasive in Louisiana and throughout American culture. Father absence is pathological and severely affects the abandoned child’s capacity for self-esteem and intimacy.

So the child gains legitimacy from one source, but looses it in another by the dad that went away. And no judge can compel parental responsibility. A child born out of wedlock and being raised in one or even no parent homes is a growing fact of life in Louisiana. And the social consequences burden not just the child, but the whole community.

Too often, the blame for the failures of so many kids is directed at teachers, the schools and government. But it all begins and ends at home. And no Supreme Court is going to find a solution for this enormous problem that is at the root cause of so many failures in our society today.

How proactive should governors and presidents be in proposing new programs that require government intervention? How far do you go in telling parents what their responsibilities are, and creating consequences for those that do not follow the rules set by government?

A Maryland school district has ordered parents of more than 2,300 students to court next week for failure to immunize their children. The parents could face fines and jail time if they do not appear. Is this just governmental intervention?

Several jurisdictions are considering fining and even jailing parents whose children continue to skip school. How about the juvenile who commits a crime at two o'clock in the morning? Is the parent responsible for seeing that this young person meets curfew requirements? Do you terminate a juvenile delinquent who continues to disrupt classes a regular basis? What happens when you kick this kid out of school? Is he back on the street heading towards much more serious crime?

You can make a solid argument that education in general, and dealing with an underclass of kids who have little parental involvement their lives, should be the single major focus of more backward states like Louisiana that have so far to go just to catch up. Whatever the accolades that are presently being directed towards the new governor and the legislature, their success or failure will ultimately be determined by what hard choices they make in addressing these complicated and difficult issues involving parental responsibility. Yes, any way you cut it, it all begins at home.


“There are no illegitimate children - only illegitimate parents. “

~Leon R. Yankwich

Peace and Justice.

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s column appears weekly, and is published on a number of newspapers and websites throughout Louisiana. You can read past columns by going to Jim’s website at Jim’s regular radio show on WRNO, 995fm out of New Orleans can be heard each Sunday from 11:00 am till 1:00 pm.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Louisiana and the East Coast-Big Differences

By; Jim Brown
Thursday May 15th, 2008
Northampton, Massachusetts
Has America become so homogenized that we are thinking more alike regardless of what part of the country we come from? We all get the same evening news, the same TV shows, and the same radio talking heads telling us what, in their opinion, our opinion should be. Are Louisiana's interests and priorities along the same track as those expressed by locals along the east coast? I decided to take a look.

I make it a habit of taking a road trip somewhere around the country every few months, to get a sense of outside perspectives on Louisiana, and what we do or do not have in common with other parts of the country. In New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts this week, I found the same issues on the front burner that concern many Louisianians, but often different opinions.

Katrina and Rita were catastrophes that have faded from memory, and are stories for the history books for most of these easterners. They had "moved on" from any major concern a long time ago. This might well be as much a reflection on Louisiana leaders who failed to develop a major public relations effort to keep the hurricane protection problem on the front burner.
Former Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and present New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin both dropped the ball in not organizing a long contingent of outreach groups to sell Louisiana's needs nationwide. In earlier columns, I joined others in suggesting that teams of civic leaders and elected officials work the country state-by-state, making appearances before editorial boards and civic groups, bringing the story of the state's great need for flood protection and wetlands help. Minor efforts were made, but our public officials really missed the boat on the opportunity to build a consensus for the need of additional recovery dollars. Too many other regional and national problems are now on the agenda in other parts of the country, and there is little interest to do more than has already been done.

The price of a gallon of gas is off the charts in these east coast states. The cheapest gas I could find in Connecticut, and I really looked, was $4.16 a gallon. That was the cheapest. As you can imagine, there was lots of complaining from the locals. I suggested an obvious place to begin in order to lower the price. More domestic production. More drilling off the coast. Heads began shaking, or I received blank stares. "Drill off our coast? Have all that pollution, and major oil spills? No way!" I heard these sentiments repeatedly.
Marine researcher Humberto Fontova did a major study of oil production and its environmental effects on Louisiana coastal waters recently and here is what he found. For fear of oil spills, as of 2008, the U.S. Federal government and various states ban drilling in thousands of square miles off the U.S. Coast. These areas, primarily on the Outer Continental Shelf, hold an estimated 115 billion barrels of oil and 633 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This leaves America’s energy needs increasingly at the mercy of foreign autocrats, despots and maniacs.

Of the roughly 3,700 offshore oil production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, some 3,200 lie off the Louisiana coast. Yet Louisiana produces one-third of America's commercial fisheries and no major oil spill has ever soiled its coast.

On the other hand, Florida, which zealously prohibits offshore oil drilling, had its gorgeous "Emerald Coast" panhandle beaches soiled by an ugly oil spill in 1976. This spill, as almost all oil spills, resulted from the transportation of oil – not from the extraction of oil.

But forget cheaper oil and less pollution for a second. All fishermen and scuba divers out there should plead with their states to open up offshore oil drilling posthaste. I refer to the fabulous fishing – the EXPLOSION of marine life that accompanies the erection of offshore oil platforms.
The original plan, mandated by federal environmental "experts" back in the late '40s, was to remove the big, ugly, polluting, environmentally hazardous contraptions as soon as they stopped producing. Fine, said the oil companies.

About 15 years ago some wells played out off Louisiana and the oil companies tried to comply. Their ears are still ringing from the clamor fishermen put up. Turns out those platforms are going nowhere, and by popular demand of those with a bigger stake in the marine environment than any "environmentalist."

Every "environmental" superstition against these structures was turned on its head. Marine life had EXPLODED around these huge artificial reefs: A study by LSU's Sea Grant college shows that 85 percent of Louisiana fishing trips involve fishing around these platforms. The same study shows that there's 50 times more marine life around an rigs and pipelines in any given year.

The Flower Garden coral reefs lie off the Louisiana-Texas border. Unlike any of the Florida Keys reefs, they're surrounded by dozens of offshore oil platforms.
These have been pumping away for the past 50 years. Yet according to G.P. Schmahl, a Federal biologist who worked for decades in both places, "The Flower Gardens are much healthier, more pristine off the Louisiana coast than anything in the Florida Keys. It was a surprise to me," he admits. "And I think it's a surprise to most people."

"A key measure of the health of a reef is the amount of area taken up by coral," according to a report by Steve Gittings, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's science coordinator for marine sanctuaries. "Louisiana's Flower Garden boasts nearly 50 percent coral cover. In the Florida Keys it can run as little as 5 percent."

Most of the red snapper you eat in Florida restaurants are caught around Louisiana's oil platforms. We see the Florida-registered boats tied up to them constantly. Sometimes us locals can barely squeeze in.

So here is the bottom line. We can see the price of gasoline continue to rise, and realistically reach five dollars a gallon or more. And we can stand by as the amount of fishing along the Gulf continues to diminish. Or, the nation can follow Louisiana's lead, reduce the price of gasoline, continue an abundance of quality fishing, and dramatically reduce our oil dependence from countries of questionable allegiance.

If the reaction I received along the east coast this week is any indication, Louisiana still has a lot of educating to do. And this is a challenge, hopefully, the new Louisiana Governor and other state leaders will take on. The telling of the post hurricane story was weak and uncoordinated. There is a great opportunity to make amends in a way that will help both Louisiana and the nation as a whole.

-- It is evident that the fortunes of the world's human population, for better or for worse, are inextricably interrelated with the use that is made of energy resources. -- M. King Hubbert

Peace and Justice.

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s column appears weekly, and is published on a number of newspapers and websites throughout Louisiana. You can read past columns by going to Jim’s website at Jim’s regular radio show on WRNO, 995fm out of New Orleans can be heard each Sunday from 11:00 am till 1:00 pm.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

Baton Rouge, Louisiana



So what's all this controversy about earmarks? “Pork-Barrel Spending” shout editorial writers all over Louisiana. On the national level, Republican presidential nominee John McCain has "vowed to veto all earmarks as president, and to make the authors famous." All these so-called pet projects by legislators have even caused Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to threaten line-item vetoes of special projects added in to the new state budget. So can any of these local requests be justified?

The state capital’s local newspaper editorialized that no earmarks or local grants should "beyond state government’s tab unless they have a direct relevance to state agencies’ missions.” But the devil is in the details. Who's going to define the mission of any state agency? Isn't that the job of the state legislature? Where is it written that only the executive branch can pad its budget with local projects funded to private groups? You might be surprised to read that in a number of state governmental agencies dole out tax dollars to private groups all the time.

A review of the Lieutenant Governor's budget shows vast discretion in handing out tax dollars to private organizations and individuals. Grants are given to a cross section of many in the private sector working in dance, theater, music, crafts, photography, creative writing, folklife, filmmaking; the list is extensive. As long as the funds are doled out by someone in the executive branch, apparently there is no problem.

The Insurance Commissioner has given millions of dollars to private insurance companies on a wing and a prayer with the hopes that they may sell more insurance policies in Louisiana. This corporate welfare handout raises eyebrows in other states, but is the norm here in the Bayou State.

But how bout them Hornets? The New Orleans basketball franchise is on a roll now on their way to perhaps being the next NBA champs. They are receiving big bucks from the state, but look at the impact they are having in the local New Orleans economy. And the impact is big. They are drawing some 18,000 fans into a metropolitan area of close to a million people. Sure this is good for the local economy, but is it fair to subsidize a New Orleans sports team yet disregard a smaller investment with just as much local impact?

Here’s an example. A state legislator from North Louisiana is proposing a grant to build a 500 seat rodeo arena in Winnsboro. Rodeo enthusiasts from several states would come to this small rural town a regular basis, eat in local restaurants, staying in local motels, and bringing new money into the local economy. You can argue that the percentage economic impact is every much as great as or greater than a basketball team receiving state funds in a much greater metropolitan area. But this is looked upon as pork.

How about the state’s economic development approach to giving generous tax breaks and outright subsidies to companies that threaten to take their business elsewhere, or who are being enticed to relocate in Louisiana? The most recent example is the giving of more than $8 million in tax dollars to a chemical company that was already here in Louisiana, have 90% of its employees in the state, and has the large majority of its customers here also. Albemarle Corp. has moved its headquarters and some 30 execs to Baton Rouge. The company is presently located in Richmond, Va. It seems only natural that the corporate big wigs would leave the small Virginia town and relocate to where the main operations and customer base is located. So are they justified in receiving millions of dollars in public money?

Just last week, USA Today published a major front-page story questioning the use of tax breaks and subsidies to lure new businesses. Several economists were quoted as saying there is little evidence to show that tax breaks have a lasting effect on the local economy.

"The impact of incentives dissipates quickly, so in a few years, there's no benefit to employment or to the local economy," says University of Nebraska economist John Anderson. And from the current mayor of Kansas City, Mark Funkhouser: “Tax breaks and subsidies take money from services -- such as police and schools -- that make a local economy successful. Tax breaks are like taking a painkiller to mask the underlying problem, richer quality-of-life issues like better education."

The issue in all this is whether the legislature should be able to adjust the executive budget and add public funding for private projects if a majority feels such funding is justified. Or should the executive branch have almost unbridled authority to fund, in its discretion, any number of nonpublic projects with taxpayers dollars?

Right now, there are few rules to the road. Maybe a decision should be made that tax dollars are to be used exclusively for public purposes. All the private projects that are being proposed are really doing little for the root problem of most of the state's ills. Until an across-the-board educational standard is dramatically raised at the elementary and secondary levels, diverting public money into hundreds of private projects, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, is a significant drain on the tools needed to reach those quality-of-life issues the experts talk about.

Are we patching our problem with short term subsidies? Maybe it’s time to go back to square one. Government in Louisiana seems to be living day to day, year to year with no long range thinking. A complete revamping of when, if ever, to spend tax dollars or give tax breaks to the private sector is long overdue.


A tax loophole is "something that benefits the other guy. If it benefits you, it is tax reform.''
— Russell B. Long, U.S. Senator.

Peace and Justice.

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s weekly column appears in a number of newspapers throughout the State of Louisiana. You can read Jim’s Blog, and take his weekly poll, plus read his columns going back to the fall of 2002 by going to his own website at

Jim’s radio program on WRNO (995 fm) from New Orleans is on the air each week, with a Sunday show from 11:00 am till 1:00pm. Other changes will be announced in the weeks to come.