Walter Pierce

re: Dropping the dead weight

by Walter Pierce

As a budget crisis again looms, the work of the Commission on Streamlining Government couldn’t be more timely

State Treasurer John Kennedy is sitting in the conference room at The Independent office, one stop among many he’s making around the state to promote his quest to put state government on the South Beach Diet. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Louisiana faces a $1 billion budget shortfall next fiscal year and, if oil and gas prices don’t significantly rebound, somewhere around a $2 billion shortfall the year after that. That translates into more cuts to higher education and health care and fewer services from state agencies. We will fill our potholes with the shells of Chinese crawfish.

Louisiana’s treasurer is a big, well-dressed fellow. He reminds me of my Presbyterian kin — well-educated and soft-spoken, but comfortable in his southeastern drawl. John Kennedy does not have sideburns.

“Rational folks fix the roof when the sun’s shining,” he says. “We wait until it’s a crisis,” meaning, when it’s raining cats and dogs. Adjusted for population, Louisiana has more state government employees than any state in the south and the eighth-most in these United States. Nothing wrong with that at face value — government jobs are jobs all the same; state workers pay income taxes and sales taxes and property taxes. They are our gainfully employed neighbors.

But thousands of positions — 5,000 by Kennedy’s estimate — could be reduced each year by simply not filling vacancies. The state treasurer heads up an advisory group to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Commission on Streamlining Government. Kennedy’s group estimates the state could save in excess of $600 million annually by not filling those 5,000 positions. The advisory group recommends taking 20 percent of those savings and giving raises to state employees who take on additional work. Will the CSG take up the advice, and will state lawmakers have the courage to do it? Let’s not hold our breath.

The advisory group’s list of recommendations is long — 36 in all, from consolidating the separate university systems and better utilizing state-owned property to streamlining state auditing programs and rehabbing the main charity hospital in New Orleans rather than building a new one. If every one of the recommendations were adopted — highly unlikely — the state could save billions. But Kennedy points to just a few, including shrinking the state payroll, that could save close to a billion right away.

As an example of how difficult it is to retract the intractable, Kennedy points to the Crescent City Connection. The bridge spans the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Gretna on the West Bank and is operated by a division of the state Department of Transportation and Development. It’s free to cross the bridge headed to the West Bank. But to cross from the West Bank to New Orleans costs a dollar — technically, 50 cents per axle. The CCC generates $22 million annually in tolls. But it costs the state $27 million a year to pay all the toll booth operators, security officers, maintenance personnel and satellite employees and contractors related thereto. It would be cheaper to eliminate the toll. Not much cheaper, but cheaper. State lawmakers have so far balked at the idea.

The fracas reveals one of the many turf wars that will no doubt erupt when the CSG makes its recommendations. Louisiana has lived on the fiscal equivalent of boudin and cracklins for decades. Switching to beans and veggies will be nothing short of painful