The secretary of state's office was the perfect location. Nestled alongside the corporate hubbub of Essen Lane and several miles from the heart of downtown Baton Rouge, where state government thrums loudly in the shadow of Huey P. Long's house, the office represented an off-the-grid haven where Louisiana's statewide elected officials could meet in private. They certainly would have been noticed at the State Capitol, filing one after another into the same room after walking past hundreds of state employees who excel at passing intel.
And that's how it started. Driving their taxpayer-supported rides, complete with special Louisiana plates that are as much about status as anything else, they dribbled into the conference room set aside in late August. The Democrats — Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell — showed up, as did the Republican statewides: Treasurer John Kennedy, Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon and Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, their host.
All were accounted for, except GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal. This meeting required, demanded even, that Jindal stay on the sidelines, or better yet seated in the bleachers. How could they be expected to speak candidly if the Big Dog was staring down on them like political interlopers?
Caldwell, with his north Louisiana twang and no-holds-barred demeanor, had organized the gathering. Dardenne, Caldwell's antithesis with his city smarts and suave oratory, offered his conference room as a "central location." The time had finally come.
Most knew going into the meeting that Jindal's administration would be a topic of discussion, but all were urged to bring their own problems to the table. In that sense, the statewides viewed the gathering as a mutual-assistance club of sorts, like Benjamin Franklin's Philadelphia Junto. Nonetheless, some of the anti-Jindal sentiment let loose later during the meeting lent itself better to an ancient scene of Liberatores plotting against Julius Caesar, only without the bloodshed.
WATER AND COFFEE HAD BEEN MADE available, but the men, whose schedules demand that they live only for the next meeting, wanted to get down to business. Caldwell convened the gathering. Among other things, he explained that there were growing concerns about the administration's plans for so-called outcomes-based budgeting, which some interpret to include a process where departments could bid on each other's services and potentially take them over if they can deliver them more efficiently.
To Caldwell, this concept was the latest in a long line of budgetary oversteps, such as the administration telling the attorney general he couldn't hire certain experts for cases he's trying, even though his office is running a surplus. "Our individual and legal authorities cannot be compromised," Caldwell says. "And there's no reason for us to be fighting against each other."
Strain, another statewide of country ilk whose ever-present belt buckle shows more rural roots than his speech, was among the most animated of the bunch when it came to this topic. He already has had to eliminate 25 employees and cut his budget by $8 million. Strain has received accolades for transforming a department that was widely perceived as having serious problems. "I've already streamlined my department," Strain says. "We shouldn't be bidding against each other for services."
They agreed on that much — the statewides would not take part in any bidding process and would not swallow whole Jindal's grand budget experiment. As in most political battles, this one had come down to money and turf.
At least one official veered from the path. According to sources in the meeting, Donelon, who did not return a call seeking comment, spent part of his time passionately railing against Legislative Auditor Steve Theriot, who has been seeking emails from Donelon's office for more than a year. In the past, Donelon has argued that Theriot has no legal authority to demand the emails, but the courts disagreed, and Theriot is on the offensive. Last week, Theriot announced his retirement and will leave office later this month.
The records requested date back to 2007 and involve fraud investigations, employee sick leave and other internal affairs. Donelon asked the other statewides to stand together to keep Theriot out of their departments. When he completed his rant, however, none of the others commented.
Asides aside, the only thing left to do was present the group's arguments to Jindal. Dardenne, a former state senator who thrived on building consensus, carried out the task. He personally called the governor and set up a meeting to be held in roughly seven days' time. For Jindal, the phone call must have been at least slightly jarring — to learn every statewide elected official, except for him, was just moments before in private conference discussing his proposed policies.
Indeed, it may have been a wake-up call. "In my 20 years as an elected statewide official, we never really met collectively in anything other than social settings or to break bread," says Jim Brown, former insurance commissioner and secretary of state. "Rarely would an issue come up that would bring us together, aside from pay raises, or create an adversarial role with the governor. For something like that, you'd have to go back to [former Govs.] Earl Long or Edwin Edwards."
It's quite possible to imagine Long or Edwards denying their conspirators a face-to-face meeting. Jindal, on the other hand, has become an old pro at putting out fires both real and imagined — and he probably recognizes a potential political threat for what it is, especially when it involves six statewide elected officials lined up against him.
THE MEETING WITH JINDAL was held a week later, as scheduled. By all accounts, the governor was gracious. He invited them all to the governor's mansion at the end of a workday, so there would be few distractions. The mansion was emptied of all nonessential bodies, and Jindal kept only a few key staffers by his side.
Among the statewides, only Kennedy was missing — an oddity, given the treasurer's well-documented tiffs with the administration over financial matters. While Jindal created the Commission on Streamlining Government this summer to address the state's anticipated multi-year revenue shortfall — now clocking in somewhere around $1 billion annually for the next three or four years — Kennedy, as a commissioner with brazen ideas and a knack for getting media coverage, has made the commission all his own.
He says his absence shouldn't be construed as a slight to the governor or what the statewides are trying to accomplish. "I missed that meeting and really only listened at the initial meeting," Kennedy says. "Look, there's a lot of frustration among the statewide elected officials, and I understand that. But in the end, everyone wants to work with the administration."
As Caldwell recalled, Jindal promised the statewides who gathered that his administration would not encroach on their constitutionally protected authorities or force them into any kind of budgeting process that would water down their respective powers. Aside from that concession and some political chitchat, Caldwell added that Jindal kept the meeting light and promised to be more attentive.
That bit of ego stroking probably went a long way, especially since Jindal has been treating statewide officials quite differently than did his predecessors — no regular lunches, no phone calls to take part in press conferences and few opportunities to sit at the policy-making table. In short, it was a nice change of pace.
"I felt good about the meeting," Caldwell says. "It was really the first time I was able to spend real time with the governor since taking office (in January 2008)."
The statewides stressed to Jindal that their combined budgets are less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the state's total budget, which should be reason enough to let them retain budgetary control. Moreover, they told him that each department head in the room was elected by the voters and should be accorded some deference.
"The tenor of the meeting was receptive, and he even encouraged us to keep meeting, which we will," Caldwell says. "And I have a feeling he'll meet with us again, too."
Kathleen Blanco, who has served as governor and in statewide office as lieutenant governor, public service commissioner and state representative, says it would be in Jindal's best interest to keep the statewides close to his inner circle, especially since they're meeting privately to discuss specific policy issues, which was a rarity during her tenure in state government.
Besides the obvious fact that statewides are often political competitors, Blanco says they're also carrying out parts of the governor's mission and can offer expertise not found in the administration. "We had regular meetings during my administration and it really gave us a sense that we were working on the same team," Blanco says. "As for when I was lieutenant governor, we never felt the need to plot against the governor or fret about the governor. (Former Gov.) Mike Foster worked closely with us. We built the state park system together and I even got him to wear a tuxedo for an event once, and that was a challenge. Believe me."
WHILE IT'S EASY TO DIRECT THE STATEWIDES' COLLECTIVE BEEF at Jindal, a more direct path would aim it at Commissioner of Administration Angéle Davis. Since well before taking office, Davis has been a champion of the reinventing-government strategies of David Osborne of the Minnesota-based Public Strategies Group. In very basic terms, the strategy requires department and agency heads to prove in their annual funding requests that their individual activities are worth the money being assigned to them.
Known informally as "outcomes-based budgeting," it's a work-in-progress in Louisiana, having started here only last year. So far, it has been publicly discussed by the administration only in broad terms. Even the state treasurer is waiting to see the complete picture. "I don't have a taste for this new flavor of budget yet, but I do plan on trying to participate," Kennedy says. "Except for the bidding. I won't have anything to do with the bidding of services."
Sources close to the governor's office contend "misinformation" and "hogwash" is being passed off to statewides as fact, causing them to stir without warrant. In fact, one high-ranking official called the statewides' reactions "whining."
When contacted for comment, Davis offered up the same line, but with a diplomatic touch. "Nobody ever said that this budgeting process entailed taking away anyone's constitutional authorities, so it sounds like a whole lot of needless worrying based on misunderstanding," Davis says. "The simple fact of the matter is that every department, every year, competes with each other for a share of general-fund dollars in the budget."
Knowing the state is facing a nearly $1 billion shortfall for the next fiscal year, every department "without exception" needs to prioritize what it does and seek ways to improve performance, cut costs and maximize efficiency, she says. "We have made changes to the budgeting process to welcome those creative solutions," Davis adds. "It's what small businesses and families all have to do when money is tight. I imagine that the taxpayers expect nothing less from all of us in state government."
Louisiana government has made attempts throughout the years to do "performance-based budgeting," although it was difficult to find evidence of wide-scale implementation and actual spending decisions being based on performance data. Now, Davis and her team are trying to take it to a level that's devoid of across-the-board cuts. Davis wants to shift the focus away from the usual continuation-budget practice of adding or subtracting from the base costs of government and toward outcomes.
In the past year, Davis has required departments to submit more meaningful performance information based on this result-driven system, such as Activity Performance Reviews that are meant to zero in on the smallest of activities, and Strategic Priority Plans that prompt department heads to prioritize funding lines.
And then there's the talk of bidding on services, a concept that has always been a part of Davis' passion for the reinventing-government trend. Administration officials contend the bidding process is often misunderstood and won't result in department heads going after each other's services. Dardenne, for one, suggests that couldn't happen even if the administration wanted it to. "Many of us have constitutional authorities that are inconsistent with this notion of bidding on activities," he says. "We can't be subjected to that."
THE STATEWIDES HAVE EVERY REASON TO FEEL THREATENED, Brown says. The Commission on Streamlining Government is considering many bold ideas and investigating the best practices of other U.S. states, many of which have no elected treasurer or agriculture head, for example, or already have combined certain departments and agencies that stand alone in Louisiana. It's just another reason for statewides to continue meeting privately to guard their interests, he adds.
Even if they survive this round of streamlining, deficits are scheduled for future years and Jindal's commission will surely be back for the sequel. "I think some of them consider these threats to be very real," Brown says.
Coupled with the satisfaction gained from closed-door access to Jindal and the spoils of a unified front, it's no wonder all of the statewides interviewed for this story want to keep the gatherings going. "We have plans to continue meeting regularly," Strain says. "Absolutely." The strategy will certainly play out more publicly next year when the Legislature meets to consider recommendations from Jindal's commission. Legislative budget hearings will surely be contentious.
As for Jindal, this new collective could mean his administration will not be able to ramrod blanket budget policies through state government. Statewide elected officials will have to be treated as a separate special interest. If nothing else, it will be smart politics. Think back to June, when Louisiana's four living former governors called upon Jindal in their own private meeting to reduce his planned cuts to education — and he agreed. It grabbed headlines and provided editorial fodder for weeks.
Now just imagine if all six statewide elected officials did the same thing — and in public, rather than in the conference room of Dardenne's office. "We are elected by the people of Louisiana and not appointed or hired," Caldwell says. "There's a great deal of institutional knowledge and experience in the group. The governor would be an idiot not to coordinate with us."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.