Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Thursday, June 18, 2009
Baton Rouge, Louisiana


Are institutionalized acts of racism interwoven in the election procedures that regularly take place in Louisiana? Is there a concentrated effort on the part of Louisiana elections officials to put up barriers so that it is more difficult for minorities to participate in the election process? The Louisiana congressional delegation must think so. They voted in lockstep with a large majority of congress to keep Louisiana and a handful of other states under constant federal election watch, branding them as second class states when it comes to running elections.

Republicans and Democrats alike (including then Congressman Bobby Jindal and both current Louisiana U.S. Senators) basically sent a message that Louisiana could not be trusted to run fair elections. The other states in the list include Alabama, Arizona, Alaska, Georgia, Mississippi South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. (Interesting to note that both members of the recent Republican national ticket are from states that also apparently cannot carry off an honest election).

Under the Voting Rights Act, passed back in 1965, these few states must obtain permission or “preclearance” from the Justice Department or a federal court before making any changes that affect voting. Thant’s even the slightest change. If a voting both is to be moved a few feet, preclearance is necessary. The effort is both costly and time consuming. So the current federal law is saying that in a few states, located mostly in the south, state and local officials cannot e trusted to abide by the law. The federal government must look over their shoulder.

The federal restrictions are also a complete waste of time and money. From the time I took over as Secretary of State back in 1980 until today, there has not been one case were elections officials were involved in any questionable activity that compromised the elections process. Not one. I had personally discussed this burdensome process with former Secretary of State Fox McKeithen before his death, and he confirmed of facing no problems of any kind. The same goes for current Secretary of State Jay Dardenne who I discussed this issue with just a few days ago. So what we have in Louisiana is a situation where there are no problems, no elections barriers, no discrimination, just a burdensome federal bureaucracy to deal with.

Certainly there were problems of voter discrimination throughout the south back in the 1960s. And there is a basis for the federal government to intercede when barriers are set up to keep certain groups from voting. The 15th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified five years after the Civil War, guarantees the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” and grants congress the enforcement power. That didn’t stop a number of states, in both the north and south, to put up road blocks including literacy tests, character requirements and other pretexts to keep primarily blacks from voting. And Louisiana was as creative as any other state in either prohibiting or controlling the voting of minorities, particularly blacks. Thus the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

It’s a different world in the Bayou State today where black and white voting registration rates are virtually identical. 30.6 % of Louisiana’s population is black, but African Americans make up 31% of total registered voters. Of Louisiana’s five largest cities, four have black mayors including New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport. Yet by keeping Louisiana restricted with the voting rights provisions, congress has made a finding that the sovereign dignity of Louisiana is less than that of the majority of other states in this country.

An obscure Texas court case may be the catalyst to bring Louisiana and the handful of other state affected up to equal footing with the rest of the country. Arguments were heard last month before the U.S. Supreme Court on the propriety of voting rights requirements in a small Texas water district. Though the case involves a small jurisdiction, the implications stir up a fascinating brew of two of the most freighted issues in constitutional law, race and federalism.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last month, and could bring down a decision within the next few weeks. Whatever the court decides, the decision will be the biggest election-law case on the court’s docket since Bush v. Gore. One compelling argument in favor of doing away with the law is that there are few violations (none in Louisiana), and as Justice Kennedy noted: “There is evidence that it costs states and the municipalities a billion dollars over 10 years to comply.”

One of the knocks on Louisiana is the lack of white votes received by President Obama in the past presidential election. Obama won 14% of the white vote, down from John Kerry’s 24% from four years ago. This was the biggest drop off in the nation, and The New York Times cited this figure as one more reason to keep the Voting Rights Act intact. “Despite his strong national margin of victory-and hefty campaign chest-Mr. Obama got only about one in five white votes in Southern states covered by the Voting Rights Act. And there is every reason to believe that minority voters will continue to face obstacles at the polls.”

In other words, according to the Times, the fact that only a small percentage of white voters voted for Obama shows that the system in Louisiana deters black voters from voting. This of course is a ridiculous effort to find correlation in the inclinations of who you vote for, and the process itself. There is no such correlation.

Here’s the question. At what point does congress, including the entire Louisiana Congressional delegation, wipe the slate clean and accept that we are equals with equal rights, equal treatment and equal expectations? When will our leadership determine that special treatment should not be provided to anyone?

It may take the Supreme Court to give Louisiana the fairness that congress, including members from Louisiana, failed to acknowledge. If our own congressional delegation thinks we are a second rate state and cannot be trusted with seeing that fair elections take place, is it any wonder why the rest of the country holds Louisiana in such low esteem?

“Oh Lord, please let me die in Louisiana, so I can keep on voting and be active in politics.”
Gov. Earl Long
Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim’s syndicated column appears weekly in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the south. You can read all his back columns by going to www.jimbrownla,.com.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Not Insurance Relief from Louisiana Legislature

Thursday June 11, 2009
New Orleans, Louisiana


A dangerous hurricane season this year? Forecasters are predicting nine to 14 named tropical storms with four to seven of them expected to be hurricanes. And three could be major. Or as Dirty Harry would say: 44 Magnum hurricanes, the most powerful hurricanes in the world. So what is the Louisiana Legislature doing to give homeowners protection and relief? Nothing. It’s every homeowner for themselves. So the only question you can ask is, do you feel lucky?

Thought out the gulf south, other states are scurrying to develop legislative strategies to hold the line on rising property insurance costs. In South Carolina, a number of new initiatives passed the legislature including the establishment of catastrophe savings accounts that are tax free, allowing new self-insured procedures for homeowners, and giving tax credits to those who make their homes more storm resistant. Georgia has beefed up its state property insurance association of last resort with the purchase of reinsurance to cover any major disaster.

Alabama is following the South Carolina model mandating companies to give cheaper premiums in exchange for structural improvements to homes. Mississippi is using federal funds to bolster their state run insurance company of last resort, so as to keep insurance rates down. Some $25 million in federal dollars were also obtained in initial funding for the state‘s wind damage mitigation program. Homeowners can get up to 75% of the cost of such improvements, and once the work is done, a significant reduction in premium costs, as much as 50%, is the immediate result.

Texas has adopted a long list of changes in recent years, and recently bolstered its windstorm insurance program to cover damages exceeding one billion dollars. What this means is that Bermuda reinsurers pay the bill instead of Texans. Taxpayers in Texas don’t get stuck like they do in Louisiana. Just last week, Texas legislators became so incensed at the lack of effort by the Texas Insurance Department to lower rates that they voted to abolish the entire department. A special session will have to be called by the governor, but lawmakers made no bones about their desire to get property rates reduced.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who has made insurance reform a front burner issue since the day he took office, continues to push an aggressive insurance agenda. Several years ago, Florida formed a Hurricane Catastrophe Fund that offered cheap backup coverage or reinsurance to private insurers. Since then, 40 new companies have flocked to Florida. Louisiana legislators keep hands off any such changes. The result? Just last week, the AAA Insurance group announced they were pulling out of Louisiana, becoming the latest company to do so.

Florida also brought in Warren Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway to develop a plan for responding to a massive hurricane hit. Buffett’s firm has pledged up to $ 4billion in state bonds if such a disaster would take place. Florida too has a Citizens Property Insurance Company. But while Louisiana’s similar company continually has raised their rates to the highest in the country, Florida legislators has frozen any such rate increase for at least the next three years.

What can be seen here is an aggressive approach by legislators and insurance departments all along the gulf coast to mitigate exposure, provide back up for private companies, and offer reinsurance to the private insurance market. But there is one exception, and that’s here in Louisiana. The legislature in the Bayou state is now in session, and so far, only two insurance proposals of any significance are making their way through the process. First, there exists a fund of some $100 million to attract new insurance companies to the state. The idea has proven to be a mistake and the present law says the leftover money, some $70 million, is to be refunded to policyholders. Paid back to you as a homeowner. Not so say current legislators. They are diverting this money back to the general fund, breaking their promise to the policy holders of the state.

The other proposal working its way through the process involves complicated legislation affecting take out companies that sell property insurance in south Louisiana. Bottom line is that under this new proposed law, many homeowners will see their yearly premiums rise by as much as 20%. So the best you can expect in Louisiana is to lose your promised refund and see your insurance rates go up. That’s it. Nothing else. NO creative thinking or even an effort to copy a number of good, working proposals in other gulf coast states.
So how do rates compare along the gulf coast when data is rev

iewed that is supplied by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners? In the latest figures available, Louisiana policyholders paid 3.31 percent of the state’s household median income for a homeowner’s insurance policy, the most expensive in the country. This was almost 40% higher than the nationwide average. Along the gulf coast, Florida pays 3.16%, Mississippi pays 2.81%, Alabama is at 2.31%and South Carolina comes in at 2.05%

When you look at the comparisons figures or cost per $100 of residential property insurance, Louisiana property owners again lead the nation by paying an average $1.006. Texas comes in second highest at 93.9 cents, Mississippi paid 79.8 cents, Alabama paid 71.5 cents and Florida paid only 69.3 cents. That’s right. Florida, the state that Louisiana insurance officials and legislators dismiss as being too pro active, is at the bottom of the gulf south list while continuing to attract new insurance companies to the Sunshine state.

Louisiana continues to have the highest property insurance rates in the country, and makes less effort by far than any other gulf coast state to get skyrocketing premiums under control. If another major hurricane hit the state, affordable rates would become, for most homeowners, nonexistent. About the best you can hope for during this hurricane season in Louisiana is to keep your fingers crossed and ask the basic question: “Do I feel lucky?”

Well do ya?

“The threat of hurricanes and the Ku Klux Klan; those two things made me decide not to build on the Alabama coast.” Writer Shelby Foote

Peace and Justice
Jim Brown

Jim’s syndicated column appears weekly in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the south. You can read all his back columns by going to www.jimbrownla,.com.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Thursday, June 4, 2009
Baton Rouge, Louisiana


Huey Long was the best friend and supporter LSU ever had. He was called the father of the modern LSU by the Virginia Quarterly Review in commenting that “Huey stroked LSU as if he had been coddling a newborn pet elephant. During fiscal stringency in all other American states, Huey force-fed LSU with increasing appropriations.“ Huey Long force-fed LSU with increasing aproprationas. The Kingfish made no bones about his long term goals for the state’s flagship university. “LSU’s going to be the Harvard of the South.” But that was then. What happened in recent years that caused Louisiana State University to be an also ran, not just nationally, but right here in the Deep South?

LSU’s significant relevance as an educational pillar in the South continued into the 1950s. Prominent writers like Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren made the Baton Rouge campus a gathering point for major literary figures. The Southern Historical Association began publishing its Journal of Southern History as well as the long respected Southern Review, all from LSU. And the LSU Press became the publishing beacon for serious fiction and non-fiction rivaled only by the University of North Carolina Press.

Outstanding young academicians in a variety of fields were attracted to Baton Rouge, and the music department produced grand opera accompanied by its own symphony orchestra under directors of international acclaim. The efflorescence of so much creative and academic talent drew encomiums for Louisiana nationwide
But then came the 60s and other southern states did not have the huge reservoirs of oil and gas. Education became a key to their survival. But in Louisiana, who cared about having a college degree when an oil field worker with a tenth grade education could make as much or more than many professionals with graduate degrees? A college degree became less relevant. And that’s when politics came into the mix.

With the economy running on auto pilot in Louisiana and unemployment running way behind other southern states, the cry for “keeping the flagship university strong” fell on deaf legislative ears. Rural legislators were more concerned about beefing local colleges up to LSU status, and even building unneeded new colleges and trade schools. And LSU became its own worst enemy by not aggressively making their case of why a flagship university was, and is today ,critical to the economic well being and future of the state.

The leadership of LSU made three key mistakes that allowed them to fall into the fiscal abyss the university finds itself in today. First, it did not aggressively defend and promote its status as the flagship. As THE leading focus for higher education. I was around the state capitol as an elected official in various capacities trough the 70s, 80s and 90s. LSU was just one of the many education interests lobbying the legislature and the Governor. They did not consider themselves in any unique category, and so were not given any special deference as the flagship. They simply did not make their case as key universities in other states did.

In North Carolina, there is one board for higher education. The centergy is around the flagship, my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When the Louisiana’s constitutional convention was held in 1973, LSU was nowhere to be found, as it should have been, to lobby for a single college board. So now we have every college in the current four board system pushing to be a little LSU.

The second mistake made by the LSU leadership was the major failure to develop a solid endowment plan.LSU could well have the lowest endowment of any major college of its size in the country. As much as 15 percent of the total amounts spent by major universities to cover costs can often come from its endowment. Income is built up over a number of years by actively encouraging alumni to make regular contributions to a university fund. Successful college endowments grow through investments and are a significant income source for any major university in the country. Not so at LSU.

As you would expect, the nation’s top-rated universities also have the highest endowments. Harvard leads the country with an endowment approaching $26 billion. A number of state universities have endowments that are significantly above $1 billion. My alma mater, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has topped the $2.3 billion level gaining some 13 percent in one year on investments of new funds into the endowment.

How about the Southeast Conference? The University of Florida comes in strongly at almost $1.2 billion. The University of Alabama has an endowment approaching $1 billion. The University of Tennessee system is now at $954 million. How about our backwards friends up in Arkansas to the north? $810 million endowment. The University of Kentucky- $957 million. Any number of smaller southern schools are above this level. So where’s LSU? Just topping $650 million, one of the lowest percentage increases in the country. LSU barely edged out Berry College in Georgia
US News and World Report recently released its annual university rankings. How did LSU do, not nationally, but just right here in the Southeast Conference? Vanderbilt was ranked 18, Florida was 49, Tulane was 58, Georgia-58, Alabama-83, Auburn-96, South Carolina-108, Tennessee tied at 108, Kentucky-116, Arkansas 125 (What! Arkansas?) And finally, dead last in the rankings of 130, LSU tied with Sanford. No, not Stanford in California, but Sanford, a small college in Birmingham.

James Carville dismissed many of the state’s problems by saying that Louisiana is not just a way of life; “It’s a culture all its own.” But every state has its own special ambiance, or way of life that is unique. Maybe they don’t throw mardi gras beads and use Tabasco sauce. Saying Louisiana is “special in its own way” is a cop out if its leadership has not made the commitment to accentuate its best and brightest.

Dr. Robert Berdahl, Chancellor of the University of California, raises concerns about the dangers to any state’s flagship university. “Once built, a state’s top university can easily be destroyed by political intrusion or financial neglect. But a strong, well financed flagship with solid leadership is vital to every state’s future.”

Louisiana is at a cross roads. If the state’s leadership does not work to protect and promote a high degree of excellent achievement at LSU, the best and the brightest students will leave the state or settle for a less challenging education offering them few opportunities in the future. And all of us will suffer from such a loss.

“Half the crowd in Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night can’t even spell LSU.”
James Carville

Peace and Justice.
Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s weekly column is syndicated in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the South. You can read his previous columns going back to 2002 at