Wild (West) Showdown

by Jeremy Alford

As agencies buck and lawmakers bounce, the governor and his posse mount up to tame a $2 billion shortfall. Right now, it’s a staring match right out of a 1950s-era Western, a standoff in the midday sun. Gov. Bobby Jindal, a quick-draw gunslinger fresh off his first year in office, faces the challenge of a lifetime — a $2 billion hole in next year’s budget. To set things right, Jindal is rustling not only agencies and departments but also lawmakers and their constituents. All must sacrifice for the greater good, he says.

It’s the stuff that builds character. Yet, at this point in the process, the governor’s performance has been more Blazing Saddles than High Noon.

During the past year, even as Jindal imposed two hiring freezes, state government hired more than 4,200 individuals. On a related front, fiscal conservatives scratched their heads when recent budget cuts touted by Jindal (for the current fiscal year) turned out to be nothing more than shell games; Jindal’s Department of Health and Hospitals replaced state money with federal dollars to show a “decrease” in state spending but not overall spending.

If anyone from the Fourth Floor is wearing the white hat, it’s Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis, the brains behind Jindal’s coming fiscal roundup. As the former secretary of the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, she is among the few top pokes in the administration with hands-on budget experience.

Philosophically, she’s a reinventing-government geek. When retooling the CRT budget in 2005, Davis enlisted the help of David Osborne of the Minnesota-based Public Strategies Group. Osborne has written five books on reinventing government. Davis’ budgeting-for-outcomes process, along with forcing departments to prioritize where cuts can be applied, brought her accolades. She’s a tough one, a former basketball standout from Clinton who literally towers over others in state government.

To balance the books back then, she closed parks, shuttered welcome centers and took promised books away from state libraries. It was clear even then that she had the thick hide needed for her current gig, for which she prepped during her time as deputy commissioner of administration for former Gov. Mike Foster.

When the latest economic crisis rode into town in December, Davis consulted again with Osborne — free-of-charge this time — and is poised once more to make tough decisions. She vows cuts will be made based strictly on performances and outcomes. “I’m not interested in just thinning the soup,” she says.

She has asked each agency to submit a “Strategic Priority Plan” and an “Activity Performance Review” in an effort to prioritize cuts. There’s little proof — yet — that the process is working, but at least the talk is tough, leaving only one guess as to who the real sheriff will be during the spring legislative session. “We’ve challenged [agency heads] to come up with strong performance indicators that are meaningful or risk being excluded from the executive budget,” she says.

For their part, state agencies aren’t turning tail. Expected to take some of the largest lumps, several university heads are rumored to be banding together to push back. “They’re only going to be providing the administration with general areas that can be cut,” a source says. “It’s their intention to force the administration to make the cuts for them and oppose the plans along the way.” Davis says she hasn’t caught wind of the scheme but adds there has been a “back-and-forth dialogue” with higher education officials. They have been granted extra leeway to create their own reduction proposals, she says.

As for how lawmakers might react, look for Jindal to steer clear of committee rooms in the upcoming session, leaving Davis and others to do his fighting. If things go south, Jindal will have deniability. After all, the Legislature, not the governor, has the power to appropriate.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, must choose between what each agency says it needs and where Davis wants them to be. As constituencies learn about the cuts, they’ll pack the Capitol halls to lobby lawmakers. The governor will skip that roundup, too.

Still, Jindal can’t afford to ignore legislative relations. After last year, there’s no way the Legislature will rubber stamp $2 billion in spending cuts, says former state Rep. Warren Triche, who spent 20 spent years in the House, most of it as vice chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. “Look at it this way: nearly every lawmaker has a major campus or hospital in or near their district,” Triche says. “They’re simply not going to stand still for what the governor wants and do everything he says.”

As the session comes to an end in late June, attention will surely turn to how Jindal plans to use, or not use, his line-item veto authority. Will he slash portions of the budget to grandstand and embarrass lawmakers — as he did last year — or will he take a hands-off, don’t-blame-me approach? Timing will be crucial to that standoff. Look for lawmakers to try to pass the budget with more than 10 days to go in the session, thereby leaving themselves time to override vetoes before adjourning. Look for them also to hold off on some key Jindal bills until after the budget is signed (or vetoed).

It’s going to be a wild showdown. Everyone has something at stake, and it’s anyone’s guess as to who, if anyone, will ride off into the sunset at the end of the day