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The Pelican Institute: Louisiana’s First “Astroturf” Think Tank

A few days ago, The Pelican Institute for Public Policy published a report titled Why Louisiana Should Not Build High-Speed Rail by Randal O’Toole of the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute. (Apparently, the days of high speed rail have already come and gone, even though we have never had a national high-speed commuter rail network, and besides, no one is going to want to ride a train, even though most of us have never had the option. Oddly enough, Mr. O’Toole’s report does not include the words “hurricane,” “evacuation,” “New Orleans,” or “Baton Rouge;” it’s almost as if this is a boilerplate, fill-in-the-blanks diatribe against rail in general).

The Pelican Institute is a Louisiana-based think tank founded last year by native New Yorker and Tulane grad Kevin Kane. Jeb Bruneau, son of former State Representative Peppi Bruneau, is its Vice President. (Peppi, as some may recall, was accused of timing his retirement announcement to maximally benefit Jeb’s campaign for the seat. Jeb lost anyway). Though it labels itself as “non-partisan,” the Pelican Institute is undeniably bent toward conservative and libertarian political philosophies, with a concentration on limiting government. Last year, in an article in The Wall Street Journal, the Pelican Institute was described as a group of up-and-comers confronting the entrenched corruption of Louisiana through serious policy research. Quoting:

“Having a think tank under Edwin Edwards would have been meaningless,” says Stephen Gele, a member of the Pelican Institute’s Board of Directors. “You could have done a 50-page paper, but who would have read it? Edwards would have made up his mind over a game of Bourré” — a Cajun gamblers’ pastime, similar to Spades — “and that would have been the end of it.”

Fighting words, to be sure.

Earlier this year, the Pelican Institute, along with Citizens Against Waste in Government, published the 2009 Louisiana Pork Report, a 36-page report that reads more like snarky opposition to government than serious policy analysis.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for calling out wasteful government spending, but there are numerous problems with the Pork Report.

It’s not even worth the time or energy nitpicking through everything in this ridiculous report. To me, its credibility is immediately undermined by its criticism of the Alexandria Zoo:

The Alexandria Zoological Park was built in 1926, near its present location. It started with discarded pets such as rabbits, goats, and deer. In the late 1960s, the US Department of Agriculture threatened to close it down. A full-time zookeeper was hired and the city started making some improvements.

Today, the zoo has a larger variety of animals than when it first started, and it is a major tourist attraction. But the question is whether taxpayers or visitors have to support it. People pay for entertainment all the time such as movies and eating out, and those activities are supported by the money they spend. That’s how businesses stay alive. The zoo should not be any different. Yet lawmakers approved $175,000 for the zoo in 2008.

News flash to the New Yorker and the DC-based CAWG: The zoo is not and has never been a private business, and it’s not simply an “entertainment” option. It’s a habitat for over 600 animals, including nearly 30 endangered species, and it’s one of only three accredited zoos in the State. It’s a major quality of life destination in Central Louisiana, and there is absolutely no doubt that our zoo adds value to the entire region.

Regarding that $175,000: I’m sure that the good men and women of the Zoo and the non-profit Friends of the Alexandria Zoo will be thrilled to have the support of the State.

Unfortunately, the check must still be in the mail.

The report lambastes Mayor Cedric Glover for spending $4,475 to attend the United States Conference of Mayors and the Presidential Inauguration in Washington, D.C., yet it says absolutely nothing about the tens of thousands of dollars taxpayers have spent to send Governor Bobby Jindal across the country for campaign fundraisers. It criticizes Shaw Group for utilizing $210 million in state incentives, but instead of telling us what, exactly, those incentives were for, it focuses on Shaw CEO Jim Bernhard’s political affiliation. Even though Jindal approved those incentives, the spending is labeled “wasteful” because Bernhard donated to Kathleen Blanco’s gubernatorial campaign.

That’s what The Pelican Institute is: A group of partisan ideologues masquerading as an objective, intellectual “think tank,” outsourcing their “analysis” to established conservative think tanks like Citizens Against Government Waste, the Reason Foundation, and the Cato Institute because they don’t actually employ any real scholars themselves.

The Pelican Institute. Neither pelicans nor an institute. Discuss.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. As a fellow Tulane grad I am all too familiar with these rich New Yorkers who spend 4 years at Tulane drinking mom and dad’s 50K a year away only to tell all the Louisianians how much their state sucks and how they need to change it.

    Most of these guys never even leave Orleans and Jefferson Parish during their time at school and I can pretty much guarantee that this “thinker” has never been to Alexandria or visited the zoo. The fact that he makes one of the highest ranked zoos in the country sound like an overgrown petting zoo shows that. That and he obviously isn’t aware that most of the zoo’s funding and support is local and always has been. In Alexandria we choose to tax ourselves to fund our zoo. We volunteer, pay our Fotaz dues, and cherish something we built and is ours. Certainly we hope the state and federal budgets include funding for this great community asset, but the Pelican Institute’s attitude shows an entirely ignorant view of the zoo and our community. This wreaks of that all too usual attitude that things like zoos and parks and tourist attractions should only be located in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

    As for Rail, I find it totally hypocritical for someone who grew up with the benefit of rail service and who has the opportunity to use it every time he travels home to tell us that we don’t need it. What a piece of crap.

    August 1, 2009
    • You should see the interview with this Kane guy, during which he brags that he helped to kill an additional tax on cigarettes by scaring up some statistics (overnight!) from a marginal think tank group in Michigan, suggesting that if we raised cigarettes by $1, “smuggling” would increase by 30%.

      http://freestateblogs.net/node/6633

      Maybe I should start calling my blog “The CenLamar Institute.”

      Maybe people would take my opinions more seriously if I filed a few documents with the courthouse and declared myself an online think tank.

      Sheesh.

      August 1, 2009
      • Let’s call it the Free State of Trout because we seem to always be talking about something fishy.

        August 1, 2009
    • Ace Midnight #

      Since I went to the “cow college” in Baton Rouge, instead of a sophisticated private university in New Orleans, I may not know much about anything. I don’t know anybody at “The Pelican Institute”. Further, I am a frothing at the mouth, illiterate conservative. However, the only argument against light rail for Louisiana is cost effectiveness.

      From my perspective, I always use subway/light rail when it is available (except the streetcars in New Orleans, which I use sparingly), particularly in Minneapolis and New York. I even Amtracked from Philadelphia to New Haven to avoid flying (and at $65, it was a bargain). I think a light rail line from Slidell to downtown New Orleans, to Metairie, to MSY(Armstrong) to Baton Rouge, could operated profitably. A park and ride system could slowly be established to increase flow to the major terminals (and provide a limited mass transit alternative to buses, as well). Eventually, Lafayette, and perhaps Mandeville, Covington and Hammond/Pontatoula could be included.

      However, I can’t see light rail turning a profit north of I-10, at least not in the foreseeable future. That said, I will use it, if available, because I HATE to fly, I hate taxis and I hate buses.

      August 2, 2009
  2. alexcenla #

    Rail today is ONLY a cheap option for mass distribution of goods, nothing more. It is only viable in the more population dense upper eastern states.It is relied upon there for daily transportation.
    As to that orginazation being a think tank, its more of a thunk tank.
    A “Think Tank” with out any thought, will check their fact’s first.

    Alex “Think Tank” Cenla :)

    August 2, 2009
    • I think one aspect of rail, high speed or regular, is that it is one of the biggest tools for lessening the disadvantages of rural life.

      If you actually spend some time in parts of the country that have rail systems you can see the impact. People are able to live in small towns and villages and still enjoy access to the assets and resources of a hub city.

      One of the biggest problems with living and worse growing up in a place like Jonesville, or Jena, or Leesville is that your world is pretty much limited to that small community around you. Now that’s not to say that those aren’t nice places, but to be able to hop on a train, pay 5 bucks and be dropped of right at the shopping, libraries, museums, zoo, what have you of the bigger cities completely changes life for those people.

      And that’s not to mention the ability to walk or bike from your house (or drive) to the train station nearest you and catch a train to a town that would take you 45 minutes to drive to and to be able to go to work there without the cost of driving every one of those miles.

      I keep hearing about how rail service would only work in large metropolitan areas and this is really backward thinking. Rural rail is probably much more important to development and raising the overall status of our citizenry than metro systems. People who live in cities general already have access to transportation (be it public or their cars) that can get them to the resources they need. It’s people in outlying areas that would benefit and finally be able to be part of the greater communities than outsiders from them.

      August 2, 2009
      • Dominic #

        This is a very interesting point you raise. To use a historical lesson, it reminds of the book Peasants into Frenchmen (dealing with the creation of the modern French nation in the 19th and early 20th century), which argues that one of the most important factors in the development of France as a cohesive nation was the establishment of a rail system with hub cities. Not because metro areas used them efficiently, but because it connect rural areas to urbanized ones.

        August 5, 2009
  3. alexcenla #

    Look at poor old amtrack…All the rail companys shut down passenger service because of one thing. No passengers. No revenue. 1960’s onward……Auto and bus much cheaper..Nice pipe dream Drew, but not in todays world.
    Alex

    August 3, 2009
    • Patrick #

      Rail lines in New Orleans are a great option. We have long distances to go with minimal in between destinations. New Orleans downtown to Slidell is about 30 miles. Nearly half of that is Open water and swamps. i.e. Just miles of highway for nothing. (Same thing for the causeway. Why drive across a 27 mile span when there is no need for independence)

      Want more? Once in Slidell run it to the beaches.

      New Orleans is a tourist town, and they generally don’t rent cars.

      New Orleans is hurting for workers. While most downtowns are hurting, New Orleans seems extra hurt as much of the workers don’t have places to live. Many now live on the north shore, and those cities could easily use a boost in population and development. Something rail would bring.

      We are a relatively narrow town running rail Slidell to kenner via New Orleans would free up many bus lines, and boost traffic to the malls, hotels, airport, etc.

      Think of the lack of parking in the French Quarter/CBD, Magazine, St. Charles areas. A rail system would free up the highways and city streets for things such as Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras, and many other festivals.

      Traditionally development is spurred along rail lines as the developers know they won’t be moved in a year or two.

      The slidell line is affordable. The government owns much property to the east, and we have an existing bridge that will be vacated with the opening of the new Twin Span. If the remaining span of the old one gets damage, and we’ve seen ridership, we can build a new one.

      There is already talk of light rail, and money was outlined in the stimulus package.

      http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2009/02/louisiana_to_seek_new_orleansb.html

      Now if they plan on removing the I10 claiborne highway bridge something will have to be done.

      http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2009/07/photos_for_iten.html

      August 9, 2009
  4. Alex, in the early 70’s when passenger service was failing gas cost around 35 cents a gallon.

    In the 1970’s airfares were less than the cost of train fares. Buses had extensive service networks and the fares were lower than all other modes of transportation.

    Today trains are cheaper than all other forms, gas costs (depending on season) $2.50-3.50 per gallon. Bus Fares can approach the price of airline tickets and a cross-country round-trip flight can run more than many people make a month.

    The pipe dream is not that we can’t benefit from trains. The pipe dream was that we didn’t need them.

    The move from rail transport to automobiles was not entirely financial. Take L.A. for example. General motors leased them a fleet of new buses back in the lat 60’s for next to nothing but the city could only have them if they tore up all the streetcar tracks in the city.

    Oil companies, tire companies, and car companies all lobbied congress to eliminate rail service for most of the country. They have done well off this deal, we have not.

    August 3, 2009
    • Ace Midnight #

      Drew,

      When you said, “The move from rail transport to automobiles was not entirely financial. Take L.A. for example. General motors leased them a fleet of new buses back in the lat 60’s for next to nothing but the city could only have them if they tore up all the streetcar tracks in the city.”, I laughed out loud. That’s the plot (more or less) of the film, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’.

      Quote: “Nobody’s going to drive this lousy freeway, when they can take the Red Car for a nickel.”

      August 5, 2009
  5. alexcenla #

    True…But its a no win dream any way you look at it.
    And sad because train travel is so much more enjoyable and can I say also educational or is that a dirty word? If you have not taken the train from Durango to Silverton, it is a must do! That shows you what it was like back in the days trains were the main way of people moving…Every time I go to Colorado, I take that trip. Probably done it a douzen times and still a thrill.

    August 3, 2009
  6. Alex:

    I don’t believe we should foreclose opportunities and possibilities for high speed rail simply because the current system is under-funded and far too limited. I don’t think it is fair to suggest that our culture will not value nationwide commuter rail service because it currently doesn’t value rail. “It could not ever work because it does not work now” is not a legitimate argument in this case; we don’t have a nationwide high-speed rail network right now. It doesn’t work now, because it can’t work now without improving and expanding infrastructure.

    We’re building, expanding, and improving Interstate highways every single day, and the cost, per mile, of building Interstate is substantially higher than rail.

    For decades, Americans have been hoodwinked by the promise and allure of automobile transportation. And don’t get me wrong: I couldn’t get anywhere without my car. Still, cities planned around the automobile will likely have to confront sustainability issues, and if they fail to do so, I believe they will only become less competitive in the national marketplace.

    I was living in Houston when they rolled out their light rail commuter line from Downtown to the Medical Complex. Within two years of operation, they had already met their ridership goals for 40 years, and there is no doubt that light rail directly resulted in over a billion dollars in private investment.

    In recent years, rail has made money for cities. I don’t see any reason it couldn’t make money for the country.

    August 4, 2009
  7. Dominic #

    I for one am peeved at this “institute’s” name. How dare they abuse one of our state’s proud symbols.

    August 5, 2009
  8. paul #

    “That’s the plot (more or less) of the film, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’.”

    Be that as it may, look up the National City Lines case and learn that Standard Oil, General Motors, Goodyear Tire and Rubber were all involved in a holding company to sell and supply materials for “trackless trolleys.” Many US cities had useful streetcar lines — some were even built by those lines. Seems odd that all of them would tear up public infrastructure right around the same time: it’s almost as if they were talked into it. And Atlanta, LA, and Seattle, et al, are now building out new systems to replace the “trackless trolleys” with what they removed 60 years ago.

    January 26, 2010
  9. Michael Schmitt #

    Does anyone here think that in 75 to 100 years from now we will have the same transportation system we have today? Will we still have traffic jammed highway? Will we still have semi-trucks pounding the interstates into concrete dust? Will we still have airplanes clogging the sky to go 300 miles? Your very young children will be alive then. Is that the future you wish for them?

    January 27, 2010

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