Even though it has been more than two months since lawmakers created two advisory panels to pull Louisiana out of its fiscal freefall, Gov. Bobby Jindal just got around to sending letters to members of those commissions last week outlining what he sees as the goals of each group.
One letter went to those working on the Postsecondary Education Review Commission, which is looking for ways to reduce expenses at state colleges and universities, while another went to members serving on the Commission on Streamlining Government, which is charged with hacking away at everything else. Jindal's two missives, though different in topic, had practically the same beginning and end:
Dear [COMMISSION] Member:
I would like to thank you, once again, for the time, work and commitment you have demonstrated through your service on the [COMMISSION]. The work of this body will be critical in evaluating [COMMISSION'S CHARGE]...
Now is the time to drive the reforms needed to create a strong and sustainable [INSERT IMPACTED SERVICES HERE]. I am looking forward to your thoughtful and bold recommendations, and I stand ready to work with you to implement the changes needed to best serve our citizens and our state.
With regards and appreciation,
What this proves is that Jindal, or his scribe, knows how to cut and paste. Hopefully, that won't turn out to be a metaphor for how the administration handles the state's budget problems, which are monumental. Louisiana's five-year budget outlook forecasts a $1 billion shortfall in fiscal year 2011, which begins next July, and a $2 billion shortfall in fiscal year 2012.
While the sagging economy and other culprits share the blame, Jindal says the "most significant factor" is the cut in federal health care funding for those using Medicaid. Over the next two years, Medicaid's formulaic change will cost the state more than $700 million.
Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, chairs the streamlining commission and says he's working to move the state away from the bad practices of old. "When spending, we do so without clear overall objectives," Donahue explains, "and when cutting, we do so across the board with little to no thought given to the state's priorities."
Aside from that mantra and a goal to reduce costs by hundreds of millions of dollars, nothing earth-shattering has come out of the group, unless you count the outside-the-box recommendations of state Treasurer John Kennedy, who oversees one of the commission's subcommittees. Some of the ideas floated by Kennedy, a Republican, have helped create — or rather play into — the image of a GOP governor who's thinking too "inside the box." Of course, Kennedy was once a Democrat sharing party ties with former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, and he gave her the same kind of grief, in his own wonkish, budget-hawking way.
So far, Kennedy has suggested cutting state government's bloated workforce by 15,000 over the next three years and eliminating the pork trough that feeds so many nonprofits during the annual legislative budget process. This is old hat for the treasurer; he nailed Blanco on the same topic several times. Kennedy is usually on mark with his message, even if his antics seem rehearsed. (His press team sends out notices when he's going to introduce particularly interesting motions.) Whatever his motives, Kennedy's contributions to the process are substantive, and more is definitely needed.
If that weren't enough, Kennedy is also sticking his nose into the Postsecondary Education Review Commission's business, even though he does not serve on that panel in any capacity. Without question, the education commission could use a swift kick, as it has met only once since being created during the summer. Another meeting is scheduled later this month, at which time the action should be fast and furious, according to sources close to the process. Those same sources add that Jindal is actively involved and offering guidance whenever he can.
Last week, Kennedy penned an op-ed on why Louisiana needs a single board for higher education. In doing so, he showed once again that the quill can indeed be mightier than the sword, especially when he compares the Bayou State's educational system to the religious factions of Iraq: "We are one state, but we have three systems of higher education — the LSU System, the Southern System and the University of Louisiana System. Each has its own board of supervisors. Consequently, the higher education boards in Louisiana resemble the factions in Iraq: just as the Sunnis fight the Shiites who fight the Kurds for political power and natural resources, the three systems of higher education in Louisiana scrap over turf and scarce taxpayer dollars in a political free-for-all that plays out every year in the Louisiana Legislature."
Kennedy's suggestions are ripe for discussion, but none seem to be sticking just yet. That's not a good sign. If the two commissions do nothing except cut and trim around the edges — instead of consolidating, eliminating and making tax dollars match government services — the state will end up where it started: not ready for the next recession. If there isn't an increase in unique thinking on this subject soon, then you can bet your bottom dollar that Jindal will offer [INSERT EXCUSE AND BUCK-PASSING HERE] as the reason why.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.