CROSS-WISE: Failing the Test

by Pearson Cross

Don’t be fooled by a scorecard that aims to intimidate legislators rather than inform the public.

Don’t be fooled by a scorecard that aims to intimidate legislators rather than inform the public.

Americans for Prosperity’s website asks provocatively, “On the important issues, where does your state legislator stand?” Curious to know, I scrolled down the page to find that one of my legislators, Rep. Nancy Landry, had “voted against taxpayers” at least once, while the other, Sen. Page Cortez, had “voted against taxpayers” on two occasions. Outraged by this perfidy I clicked on the “Make your Voice Heard!” tab, which took me to links like “Repeal the Death Tax,” “Say No to Medicaid Expansion Today” and “Stop the Gas Tax Hike.” Clicking on the “take action” tab of the “Say No to Medicaid Expansion” page, I was led to a form that, when filled out, urged Cortez to “Please Listen to me! Don’t expand Medicaid.” The form stated that “adding 450,000 Louisiana residents to a broken, costly system is exactly the wrong policy for our state.”

What led me to the Americans for Prosperity website in the fi rst place was another instance of a phenomenon that increasingly has become a part of our political landscape: scorecards. They come in all shapes and sizes. They are issued by conservative and liberal groups alike. Conspicuous scorecards in Louisiana are promulgated by the Louisiana Family Forum, the Louisiana Association of Educators, the Louisiana Right to Life Federation and, in a recent example, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

LABI’s recently released scorecard created quite a stir when it gave a grade of “F” to 94 of the 105 members of the Louisiana House of Representatives and 30 of Louisiana’s 39 senators. For the record, Cortez got a “D” (64 percent) while Nancy Landry was one of the few representatives to be awarded an “A” (92 percent).

How does this work? What does an “A,” “D” or “F” grade mean? Most scorecards work essentially the same way: The interest group scans the legislative agenda and flags bills based on their relevance to the larger concerns of the group creating the scorecard. Then, the interest group records the votes of all the legislators on these particular bills. From this record the interest group is able to determine the percentage of times a legislator either supported or voted against its bill. For example, LABI flagged Senate Bill 48, which was brought by Republican state Sen. Jack Donahue of Mandeville. This bill would have “established a guaranteed floor for the TOPS tuition payment rate at the 2015-16 level and required legislative approval for any future increases.” Thus, a vote for passage would be a vote “with LABI” (it passed 27-9 with three abstentions).

So, what’s wrong with this? Don’t scorecards allow a group to keep track of its priorities in the Legislature and, ideally, inform its members and the electorate about the actions of elected officials? In a word, no. Two reasons: First, scorecards are created to promote the specific interests of the group creating them. They are not created to provide a comprehensive or unbiased view of the legislator in question or to illuminate the legislative process. Explaining why his organization had given so many “F” grades, Stephen Waguespack, president of LABI, criticized lawmakers for “refusing to control government growth, make reductions in less critical services and even debate structural reforms to the state budget.” Waguespack ignores his and LABI’s conspicuous role in laying the groundwork for 2015’s budgetary disaster during the years when he was serving as Gov. Bobby Jindal’s executive counsel, chief-of-staff and policy director. During those years legislators voted with LABI to reduce tax burdens on individuals and businesses and to create the expandable tax exemptions that, along with falling oil prices, created the budget debacle of 2015, a debacle legislators responded to by raising a number of taxes, thereby sparing higher education and health care services. But of course none of this nuance is reflected in the scorecard, which merely records votes for or against a bill. A legislator’s votes for or against a bill may be prompted by any number of factors — factors that are likely to be devalued by special interest groups that tend to be myopic in the pursuit of their own narrowly conceived interests.

Second, grades on scorecards may not show much continuity year to year. Many of those getting an “F” in the House of Representatives this year have received higher scores in previous years. Did they suddenly become bad legislators? That’s the impression giving a legislator an “F” makes. Regardless of how many times that legislator has carried the water for an interest group before, the scorecard says that legislator is a failure. The truth may be that he or she is an excellent legislator with the best interests of his or her constituents at heart who was faced with some tough choices. But these kinds of considerations don’t fit easily on scorecards or in organizations where the focus is on “what have you done for me lately?” Headlines aside, most voters don’t have the time to follow politics very closely and are unlikely to know how their representative voted on any particular bill or issue. This description does not, however, apply to state legislators who are well aware of how they voted on every critical issue and are uniformly sensitive to bad publicity. This, then, is where scorecards have their largest effect: on the behavior of individual legislators. Hence, the counterintuitive truth behind scoreboards is that they are designed to intimidate and influence legislators who, as a group, are risk-averse, always worried about how their actions (votes) might be received by their constituents. A damaging scorecard threatens them with bad publicity, which may diminish their financial support and potentially (although rarely) encourage a challenger in the next election cycle.

This was a point that Waguespack made crystal clear when he stated that, as a result of the Legislature’s dismal performance, LABI’s political action committees would be “changing the endorsement rules.”

A column published on the conservative blog The Hayride by Kevin Boyd put it even more bluntly: “We expect that the business community will decide to punish many of these guys for their votes this year. This is certainly good news for challengers who are looking to raise money.” That so many legislators saw the need to buck LABI this legislative session and risk condemnation indicates the seriousness of the budget crisis they faced.

Unknown to most, scorecards also allow national groups to penetrate state and local politics seamlessly. Americans for Prosperity, for example, is a national special interest group that maintains a legislative watch for every state, not just Louisiana. Its mission statement makes it clear what its focus is: “We’re persuading public officials to embrace an agenda of economic freedom.” Its board of directors includes Richard Rink, executive vice president and member of the board of directors of Koch Industries. Regardless of how you feel about the Koch brothers, after Louisiana’s humiliating experience with Grover Norquist, whose organization, Americans for Tax Reform, promotes the “Pledge” that tied Jindal and the Legislature in knots this past session, the perils of a national group intervening in Louisiana politics should be obvious to all.

Generally speaking, scorecards are blunt instruments used to intimidate legislators rather than inform the public. What little information they convey is designed to inflame the public with half-truths while generating dollars for their sponsors and causes.

Dr. Pearson Cross is an associate professor in the Political Science department at UL Lafayette. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University (1997), and his principal areas of teaching are state and local politics, Southern and Louisiana politics. Contact him at [email protected]