On Monday, Melinda Deslatte’s Associated Press article on the size of Louisiana’s state payroll pointed out why the question of “what should we cut?” in an effort to close the $1.6 billion hole in the state’s budget isn’t the right one.
“What should we keep?” is the better question.
Deslatte notes that the state agencies can’t even agree on how many employees they have, much less which or how many of them will have to be laid off in an effort to downsize state government.
Meanwhile, the governor’s Division of Administration and the Department of Civil Service don’t even agree on their numbers for full-time employees, or what are called “full-time equivalents” in the data.
The division says the state has nearly 83,000 full-time employees, while the civil service department says the state has nearly 87,000. They do their counts with different workers included — and neither one includes legislative agencies, which have nearly 600 workers.
And the mentality within the Jindal administration, headed by a relatively-popular governor who’d like to be known as a conservative, seems to be that preserving an outsized state governmental apparatus despite study after study showing that apparatus does not deliver value for the taxpayer compared to other states. Division of Administration spokesman Michael DiResto outlines the strategy of attempting to preserve the current system despite the overwhelming evidence that Louisiana can’t afford a government of this size and scope:
“You’re trying to avoid as many layoffs as possible, and you’re trying to make sure the departments can still function,” said Michael DiResto, a spokesman for the governor’s budget office, the Division of Administration.
The fact is, some of the state’s departments shouldn’t be functioning. Many of them are redundant, some should be handled by local governments and some could be eliminated altogether. But no one in Louisiana’s government seems to be willing to stake political capital on specific plans to reorganize, trim down or do away with needless bureaucracies.
State treasurer John Kennedy seems to understand the situation better than most at the Capitol, and Kennedy has proposed eliminating 15,000 state jobs through attrition over the past three years. But Kennedy is selling his plan based on not having to fire anyone. And while that’s a laudable goal, Louisiana has too much government. $1.6 billion too much, as it happens. And Kennedy rightly recognizes that “Labor is the biggest expense. You can’t get control of the problem without addressing labor.”
Further, you can’t just trim around the edges when you have a structural budgetary problem, because when the economy recovers and revenues go up the politicians will just grow those edges again, setting up another crisis of $1.6 billion or more in the future. Instead, you have to redefine the scope of what the government does so that it’s not possible to have a $1.6 billion deficit.
And that involves looking at government from the opposite end. It involves identifying what the core functions of government are and keeping those at the highest cost-effectiveness possible. And it involves pulling the plug on everything else.
This isn’t being done. And it’s a shame, because should someone in the state’s political class engage a real discussion about the size and scope of a government which has never delivered on its expensive promises to the people of this state, that someone would likely find a huge amount of support in an election year.
After all, it’s not hard to get attention as a serious agent of change when the people currently running the state can’t even accurately count the number of state employees our tax dollars are paying for.