When Jack Donahue, a Republican contractor from the Mandeville area, trumped longtime state Rep. Pete Schneider with 64 percent of the vote without a runoff two years ago, heads turned. Even before that win, Donahue already was a mover and shaker in St. Tammany politics, serving on practically every board under the sun. The vote of confidence he received from one of the state's wealthiest districts prompted the Louisiana Legislature Grass-Roots Guide, a publication overseen by power lobbyist Randy K. Haynie, to predict, "Look for him to be part of the new leadership in the Legislature."
Today, a year and a half into his first term, the early predictions about Donahue are coming true. He has grabbed headlines for embodying the Northshore's anti-tax vibe and for raising hell during last year's ethics session about the kinds of state work lawmakers should be allowed to pursue. He is, after all, a contractor.
Now he's getting ink for being the chairman of Gov. Bobby Jindal's Commission on Streamlining Government, which is charged with reducing the size of the state's bureaucracy and cutting spending as billion-dollar shortfalls loom.
While a number of elected officials sit on the commission, including the state treasurer, House speaker and Senate president, Donahue could grab the spotlight because he chairs the group and authored the legislation that led to its formation. He's already on the hot seat: At the commission's first meeting two weeks ago, Donahue told reporters the organization could cost taxpayers roughly $10,000; the panel has to produce only one set of recommendations, due Dec. 15. Columnists and bloggers reacted predictably.
In an interview last week, Donahue said the cost could grow, even though the state budget has zero dollars set aside for the commission. "No, there is no money for the commission in the budget," he says. "If the commission does go forward with some of its ideas, it would probably be under $20,000 and we should be able to easily get an appropriation for that." As for where the money might come from, Donahue says the Senate, House and Governor's Office might all be asked to pinch their own operating budgets.
Some of that cash might be used to hire Christel Slaughter of SSA Consulting as a facilitator. The decision to bring on Slaughter, who was traveling out of the country last week and could not be contacted, will likely come out of the commission's next meeting on Aug. 18 (two more meetings are tentatively set for early September). Donahue says he recommended Slaughter because he was impressed with her work on Blueprint Louisiana, a good-government group that has made small yet substantial ripples in the pond of state government. He adds that Slaughter also helped pass the legislation creating the commission this spring.
Should she have a role to play, Donahue says it will be "the outside coordination of all the committees and meetings." So far, Donahue says he has established five working groups that will make recommendations to the full panel on everything from health care to law enforcement. Meanwhile, the Senate staff will do the heavy lifting and research. "If we hired someone to do all that, it would cost a fortune," he says.
Some members of the panel, however, were not clear on that structure last week, even after the commission's initial meeting. Early last week, Treasurer John Kennedy sent out a letter to several parties, including Slaughter ("in your role as facilitator"), requesting information on 25 areas of interest, from the five-year average turnover rate of state employees to attempts by the Louisiana State Police to buy gas in bulk. By mid-week, Kennedy's office had received no reply, but Donahue says Senate Chief of Staff Jerry J. Guillot is divvying up the workload to get Kennedy his requested data.
Whether the commission can meet its goals during the next few months will be an interesting process to watch. Donahue says the Legislature will probably shy away from many of the hard-line recommendations, but people are beginning to realize how much significance the commission could have. So far, special interests are staying at bay, he adds, but "good government types and state employees" are contacting his office on a daily basis. For now it's nothing but rhetoric and planning, both of which Donahue seems to have mastered. "We're going to be meeting regularly and getting down to business," he says. "Louisiana is going to change. You just wait and see."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.