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Gorging on Government 

New layers of government are cropping up to deal with the hurricanes' aftermath, but is there a possibility all this bureaucracy could outstrip the state's limited resources?

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 -- a slew of inspectors will need to be hired just 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.

There's little doubt that the calamity deposited by Katrina and Rita last year demanded action on the part of 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 more cuts likely will be needed. Recent estimates foretell another round of deep cuts 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. "The governor will do whatever the governor needs to do to get through this," Ryder says.

Meanwhile, the governor's loyal opposition -- the GOP -- believes the state could be overreaching by trying to do more with less. The end result could be a state bogged down in a costly, bureaucratic mess, says Rep. Jim Tucker, the Terrytown chairman of the Republican Legislative Caucus. "That's a real concern for me," Tucker says. "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.

As a political imperative, 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. Because such efforts generally address past mistakes, he says, the new bureaucracy often proves ineffective in dealing with new crises. On the federal level, think FEMA or 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 hints of corruption. But no one seems to know how long the authority will be needed or what additional roles it might assume in coming months.

The entity is expected to be embedded into state law during the current 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 that monitors state government.

Lawmakers predict the LRA will require 15 full-time employees with a budget of more than $440,000 -- split between the state and the feds. Yet, Brandt believes that expansion will be offset by budget 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 that is open to 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. Lawmakers in this special session will consider bills to consolidate local offices in New Orleans and merge levee boards in the region.

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

Tax elections will be needed for most if not all the new levee boards. The governor wants the director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness to report directly to her, possibly in a new cabinet position. She's also pushing for the creation of a Disaster Recovery Unit, which would have 27 new jobs at nationally competitive pay scales. Also recently, state lawmakers discussed in a committee meeting possibly 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 $786 million less in its general fund than what had been forecast (before Katrina) for the new fiscal year that begins July 1.

Are state officials gorging themselves on government?

Dr. Robert E. Hogan, associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University, says the state could possibly end up with more bureaucracy than ever before. After all, eliminating bureaucracy is certainly more difficult than creating it. As for whether the state will be able to afford all the changes, Hogan offers a comical assessment: "I would say that I do not know if Louisiana has ever had a government that reflects the current state of the economy!"

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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