Thursday, February 24, 2011

Reapportionment Blues

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Shreveport, Louisiana


It’s redistricting time for legislators, both in Louisiana and throughout the country. Criticism that decisions are being shaped behind closed doors is raining down on this politically sensitive process. Lawmakers in my home state have scheduled a number of meetings to discuss the process of divvying up the various political boundaries including congressional, public service commission, and their own legislative districts. Many of the sessions are not open to the public. “Wrong!” cry the press and the good government groups. But the question should be, why are legislators meeting at all?

By federal law, all election districts must be reapportioned every 10 years to reflect the latest census figures. This puts Louisiana elections officials in a bind because census figures have just become available that reflect changes over the past ten years, and the state is just months away from a gubernatorial election. But should legislators, who have a vested interest in how the redistricting lines are drawn, actually be the ones to do the drawing, anyway?

The problem is one of gerrymandering, where district lines are not drawn to reflect geographical or political balance, but to favor the incumbent or some other partisan choice. When legislators do the redistricting, the norm seems to be that the state ends up with meandering footprints meticulously designed, it would seem, to ensure that no incumbent will face serious opposition, regardless of how the political winds are blowing. As one local political observer said, “Think about it this way. In elections, people choose their legislators. In reapportionment, legislators choose their people.”

Gerrymandering, by the way, means to manipulate the electoral boundaries for political gain so as to give undue influence to an incumbent or other favored candidate. The name comes from Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who in 1812 created winding districts that looked like salamanders to favor incumbents. Thus the convoluted word – “gerrymandering.”

What most voters want to avoid is the self-dealing by legislators where voting districts slash across communities of interest and geography. A blatant example of winding, disjointed gerrymandering is the Louisiana third congressional district. It winds from the Mississippi border south of New Orleans though the southern part of Jefferson Parish and all the way through south Louisiana up to Lafayette, some 300 miles in length.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger led an effort in his home state to get legislators out of the redistricting business. “The politicians have divided a neighborhood”, he says. “They have divided cities, towns and people, and this is what we what to eliminate. And this is why we need redistricting, because the district lines were drawn to favor incumbents rather than to favor the voters.”
So the question for Louisiana voters is this: Are they that concerned that the legislature is, for all practical purposes, creating their own voters? Is this healthy in the Bayou State -- or in any other state? Many think it’s not.
“The self-dealing quality of legislators drawing districts for themselves or for their partisans has basically collapsed the enterprise,” says Samuel Issacharoff, a law professor who is an expert on redistricting. “There’s an increasing sense of revulsion among voters at this self-dealing. It is somewhat scandalous that there are few competitive elections anymore.”

So what are the alternatives? What are other progressive states doing to transfer the power of redistricting to a system less driven by self-interest? Fourteen states have assigned the task to officials or panels outside the state legislature. And independent redistricting wears the cloak of good-government reform, as long as a consensus can be built on just who will serve on such panels. How do you pick the members? How can such a system be put in place that assures voters the final result will be fair, non-partisan, and keep local interests balanced?

Louisiana and every other state in the country have a number of bright people with solid business and educational backgrounds that are capable of taking on this controversial task. There are several respected demographers in the Bayou state, and a number of well-qualified professors at Louisiana universities. Retired judges fit the category as well as representatives of some of the state’s good government groups.

When I was first elected to the Louisiana legislature back in 1971, legislative redistricting had taken place just months before. But the reapportionment plan did not pass federal court muster, and was thrown out just weeks before the primary election date. Ed Steimel was head of the Public Affairs Research Council at the time, and was appointed by federal judge Frank Polozola to serve as a “special master” to redraw the district lines. Based on Steimel’s rework, the old plan was thrown out and the new court ordered plan put in place. There was general agreement that the Steimel Plan was fair and kept the district more cohesive and less spread out. (It must have been good as I won my senate seat easily in the first primary.)
One idea would be to create a Louisiana Fair Reapportionment Practices Commission made up from a cross section of various recommendations. Let nominations come from the legislature, the Supreme Court, the good government groups like PAR and CABL, the various college boards, and perhaps a key business group or two. Then put all the submissions in a hat, and draw out eleven names to serve as members to begin their work right after the new census data is made available.

The goal for such a commission is simple – put the important issue of redistricting into the hands of those with non-partisan interests, instead of those who in the past have been allowed to define the terms of their own cartel. Simply put, it’s just wrong for legislators to draw these districts and then run in them. There needs to be a better way.
“If you’re hanging around with nothing to do and the zoo is closed, come over to the legislature. You’ll get the same kind of feeling and you won’t have to pay.” Sen. Dudley LeBlanc

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the South. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at

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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Lessons to be learned from Green Bay

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011
Baton Rouge, Louisiana


So who ya’ rootin’ for in the Super Bowl game on Sunday? It’s an easy choice for me living down here in Louisiana. The Packers are one of the best examples of how a sports franchise should operate. They don’t go to the state capitol hat in hand, looking for a handout. The team is owned by citizen stockholders all over Minnesota, and the Packers’ management doesn’t regularly try to blackmail public officials into giving more handouts under threat of picking up and moving the franchise.

Recently, when it came time for Green Bay to revamp and refurnish legendary Lambeau Field, the state of Wisconsin didn’t put up one penny. All proceeds to pay for the renovations came from the private sector. Season ticket holders were charged a one-time user fee of $1,400, which fans can pay over several years. In addition, the Packers did a stock offering, just like many corporations do for capital improvements. And finally, the packers took out a team loan to be repaid out of yearly revenues. No sweetheart deals from the state, no special considerations, no coming to the public trough for taxpayer money.

What happens in some states, including my home state of Louisiana, is that team owners cry wolf saying that they will have no choice but to move their franchise elsewhere if, the tax incentives and outright dollars are not bountifully offered. But a review of the NFL team financial arrangements will show that team income is structured in such a manner that it is theoretically possible to run a profitable franchise even in a small location like my old home town of Ferriday.

Unlike other professional sports operations, television revenues are not sold by individual teams. In baseball, the New York Yankees get broadcasting revenues significantly greater that what a smaller market team like the Kansas City Royals receives. In pro football, every team shares in one gigantic pie. Little Green Bay receives the same television revenues as does a team in New York or Chicago.

The other major factor that lets a small market stay competitive without taxpayer dollars is the National Football League salary cap. Not only is the incoming revenue approximately the same for each team, expenditures are also more or less the same, as each team shares the same parameters as to just how much can be spent on team salaries. This means salary limits, which allows a small market team like Green Bay to stay competitive year after year.

Finally, the Packers have bought up 28 acres spending more than $27 million to develop an entertainment district. This would give the team revenues that it would not have to share with other clubs. It is a business strategy that a number of NFL franchises are undertaking. Yes, the New Orleans Saints are following this diversity approach. But here’s the difference. The Saints get it all paid for by Louisiana taxpayers.

The Saints receive $6 million in direct funding, from the state of Louisiana, each year. But there is much more the Saints will receive that is every bit as valuable as direct payments. $85 million will come out of the state treasury to upgrade the Superdome. But the upgrades greatly benefit the Saints and mean significantly more profit. Most of the money will go towards building new luxury boxes and new club lounges, all which mean more high priced tickets for the Saints to sell. The state pays the cost, and the Saints get the income.

Then there is the agreement for the state to lease office space in a downtown office building adjacent to the Dome being purchased by the Saints owners. The state is to lease more than 320,000 feet at $24 dollars square foot, which is one of the highest rental rates in the state today. So the Louisiana taxpayers are basically paying the cost of the building the Saints ownership is buying.

But what about all these projections of how much the economy in New Orleans will be positively impacted, with millions more in tax revenue. Figures are being wildly thrown around, with little study, indicating a $500 million economic impact. A University of New Orleans study, quoted in a New Orleans Times Picayune editorial, estimated some $22 million in state revenue is produced by the Saints. Here’s the fallacy. Any such study assumes that all of the dollars spent at Saints games are dollars that are new to the region’s economy. Most dollars spent going to the Superdome are dollars that would have been spent on other leisure activities in the area. There are numerous choices as to how to spend leisure dollars. Going to a football game is just one.

The Brookings Institution’s recent 500 page study titled, Sports, Jobs and Taxes, concluded that professional sports teams “realign economic activity within a city’s leisure industry rather than adding to it. Professional sports,” they write, “are not a major catalyst for economic development.” They are saying, in effect, that all the public subsidies accomplish is to help shift spending from other forms of entertainment to stadiums like the Dome, with little net employment gain or significant increase in new tax dollars.

A later report by Brookings found that numerous other studies have concluded the same thing. “Independent research by a number of independent groups has uniformly found that there is no significant positive correlation between sports facility construction and economic development.” Consultants, often hired by team owners who say otherwise, according to the Brookings study, “are peddling snake oil.”

So I’ll be pulling for Green Bay on Sunday. They got to the Super bowl as a wildcard team, and played some outstanding playoff football. But more important, the Packers represent the best of the American free enterprise system. They built a championship team by paying their own way without trolling for taxpayer dollars. It’s the way a franchise should be run. Go Packers!
“The Green Bay Packers never lost a football game. They just ran out of time.”

Vince Lombardi

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the South. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at

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