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Sep 28, 2009 9:23 AM by sleonard

Louisiana Budget Cuts and Spending

 BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - As a state commission considers ways to cut Louisiana's budget, disturbing tidbits about spending have emerged, such as the fact the state owns one vehicle for every seven full-time employees and built a new environmental lab even though it was far cheaper to outsource the lab work.
      Yet as the streamlining commission gets down to work, larger questions come to mind.
      - Why does the state need a commission to get state government leaders to handle budget issues, essentially performing their fiduciary duties?
      - If department heads recognize past misuse of taxpayer dollars enough to announce it to a commission, why don't they take action themselves to correct the matter?
      - And if well-paid state agency chiefs have been charged by Gov. Bobby Jindal to cut waste and find efficiencies, and if state lawmakers say they are committed to combing through the budget to
trim costs, why don't they just do that?
      Cabinet secretaries already have the authority to make some changes within their departments - and they have repeatedly told the streamlining commission they're trimming spending and revamping
operations to be leaner and more efficient.
      Meanwhile, lawmakers hold the purse strings and make the final decisions on how to cut costs. Traditional budget hearings could tell lawmakers the same things they're learning in meetings of the
streamlining commission. Outside testimony and consultants such as those used by the commission could be brought into those hearings.
      So, why hide behind a commission? A political buffer for tough decisions comes to mind.
      "These commissions likely are mechanisms to provide political cover for ideas and recommendations that have already been developed but would be too controversial for the current players to propose," the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana has said.
      Isn't that why we elect our officials, to make tough choices?
      The commission was Jindal's idea, put into state law by the Legislature. But will voters really buy into the notion Jindal and the Legislature are only doing what a streamlining panel recommended? Won't voters recognize the decisions of where to cut state services, public colleges and health care rest squarely on the decision-makers, Jindal who proposes an initial budget and lawmakers who devise the final spending plan?
      The state expects a shortfall of more than $900 million to continue current services and meet inflationary costs in the 2010-11 fiscal year that begins in July 2010. That's projected to worsen to $1.9 billion a year later, when federal stimulus money plugged into Louisiana's budget falls away.
      The decisions that have to be made aren't going to be easy - and a sweeping and thick report from a commission won't mask the gravity of the choices or cover the elected officials who will be
held accountable for making them.
      The 10-member streamlining commission is packed with government insiders, half of whom already work on the annual budget each year, including the governor's top fiscal adviser Angele Davis and four legislators. The chairman is Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Covington, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee.
      "Commissions are a device designed to recognize that we don't have a clue or if we do have a clue, we don't want to do what the clue tells us to do," said LSU System President John Lombardi.
      Lombardi's scorn was directed at a separate panel with a similar mission: to recommend ways to cut costs on Louisiana's public college campuses.
      "They will propose things that are undoable. They will propose dramatic and radical transformations of the world in ways that our political process can't possibly comprehend and that our fiscal resources can't possibly afford," Lombardi told a Baton Rouge luncheon last week about the higher education commission. "So at the end of the day, we'll have a nice report, and it will be
uplifting reading."
      The Commission on Streamlining Government's report is due by Dec. 15. The recommendations will be considered by lawmakers in the legislative session that begins at the end of March.
      ---EDITOR'S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the state Capitol for The Associated Press.      
      (Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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