Gorging on Government

by Jeremy Alford

Even with massive budget cuts, the state is adding new layers of bureaucracy.

First there was a state-sponsored 30-member board to oversee hurricane recovery efforts. Then came another 19-member panel to regulate revamped building codes, and a slew of inspectors will need to be hired to carry out its mandates. An 11-member consolidated levee district with some form of jurisdiction over southeast Louisiana could soon follow, as could a new undersecretary of transportation, complete with staff, to manage statewide flood control.

The calamities of Katrina and Rita demanded action from the state, but officials are adding new layers of government at lightning speed during a time when resources are scarce. Lawmakers cut a whopping $630 million from the state budget last year, and it's nowhere near what's needed 'another 20 percent budget cut is predicted this spring.

The administration contends there is little reason for concern. Terry Ryder, executive counsel for Gov. Kathleen Blanco, argues that all levels of government are "just feeling their way around" and trying to balance finances as new services and programs are needed. It's an issue no one has ever dealt with before, he adds, and if there comes a time to hold back, it will happen.

"The governor will do whatever the governor needs to do to get through this," Ryder says.

Meanwhile, the governor's primary opposition ' the GOP ' believes the state could be overreaching and trying to do more with fewer resources. The end result of all these additions might be a state bogged down in a costly, bureaucratic mess, says Rep. Jim Tucker, the Terrytown chairman of the Republican Delegation. "That's a real concern for me," he notes. "We don't have the latest budget figures yet to see if we're really spiraling out of control, but we could end up with a government that is not reflective of the money or resources we actually have."

Then there's the question of effectiveness ' or ineffectiveness, which could translate into wasted money or public outrage.

Creating new bureaucracies to give the appearance of addressing a problem is nothing new, says Dr. Kirby Goidel, director of the Public Policy Research Lab in Baton Rouge. But because such efforts generally address past mistakes, the new bureaucracy often proves ineffective in dealing with new crises ' on the federal level, think FEMA or the Department of Homeland Security.

"If the new bureaucracy doesn't replace an existing bureaucracy, however, or if it doesn't have a clear purpose and time frame to work in, it can add another unnecessary layer," Goidel says.

For instance, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which has 30 members on its board of directors, was created by the governor to deal with the large amounts of federal money pouring into the state. As an independent panel, in theory, it can assure fiscal accountability and avoid corruption. But no one knows how long the authority will be needed or what roles it will take on in coming months.

The entity is expected to be added into state law during the ongoing special session. That's a necessity because the authority will grow in size over time and will require additional funding and staff, says Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, a nonprofit organization that monitors state government.

Brandt is dead on the money. Lawmakers predict the LRA will require 15 full-time employees with a budget of $122,000 from the state and $221,000 from the feds.

Yet Brandt is confident the expansion will be balanced against smart cuts. "While we always have to carefully watch to prevent the unnecessary growth of state and local governments, I don't think the actions proposed in this special session are a significant danger on that front," he says.

That's a forward-looking assessment open for debate.

"Whether these new bureaucracies can ultimately solve the problem they were created to address ' or whether they end up reflecting the same problems that affected the system before they were created ' is something only time will tell," Goidel says.

It's easy to argue that local governments will need to shrink and might even be forced to do so. The special session is expected to yield legislation that would consolidate local offices in New Orleans and merge levee boards in the region.

Arguments about growth on the state level can also be easily debunked. Money for new building inspectors, brought about by a statewide code approved in November, could be offset by license and permit fees. Additionally, it's doubtful a new undersecretary of transportation will be approved by the Legislature this year, as proposed by a group of lawmakers.

But there's much more on the horizon to consider.

Tax elections will be needed for all new levee boards. The governor wants the Office of Emergency Preparedness to be an official agency, and she's also pushing the creation of a Disaster Recovery Unit, which would have 27 new jobs at nationally competitive pay scales.

And most recently, state lawmakers discussed adding more structure to the 16-member Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which was created in November to serve as a hub for coastal restoration, hurricane protection and flood control.

All of this comes as the state is expecting a $786 million shortfall in its general fund for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Dr. Robert E. Hogan, associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University, said the state could possibly end up with more bureaucracy than ever before, as eliminating bureaucracy is more difficult than creating it. As for whether the state will be able to afford all the changes, Hogan offers a wry observation.

"I would say that I do not know if Louisiana has ever had a government that reflects the current state of the economy," he says.