Columns » The State of the State by Jeremy Alford

Bad Roads Ahead


It would not look good on Jindal's resume if he were to veto bills intended to rein in spending. He'd much prefer the House or Senate do his dirty work for him.

As it passed both chambers, House Bill 783 would direct $325 million to rural road construction. Which roads? No one knows. Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration, which is backing the bill, hasn't given lawmakers a list. The bill's sponsor, Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, can't even speak generally about the projects.

  Here's an easy prediction: lawmakers who consistently voted against the administration this session won't be seeing any steamrollers pressing fresh asphalt in their districts. So remember House Bill 783 if your summer travels take you down any of Louisiana's scenic — but often bumpy — back roads.

  There's more bad news. HB 783 will get its funding from a new batch of 20-year loans. While Treasurer John Kennedy and others rightly note that interest rates are in the cellar right now, does it really make sense for a state that's broke to go deeper into debt?

  Louisiana faces a $211 million budget shortfall for the current fiscal year (which ends June 30). One strategy being floated by Fannin involves doing nothing. He's not joking. Budget leaders are seriously considering carrying a deficit and addressing it next fiscal year — and taking out 20-year loans for a list of unspecified road projects. Bear in mind that state revenue forecasters have predicted a $303 million revenue shortfall for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

  Fannin's do-nothing strategy apparently has some support. Viable solutions are being ignored or panned. Last week, the Appropriations Committee passed House Bills 327 and 328, which will cut consulting contracts by 10 percent and reduce 15,000 government positions over the next three years. The Advocate of Baton Rouge, which won the Louisiana Press Association's Newspaper of the Year award, dedicated 131 words to HB 327 and HB 328. The Times-Picayune, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, didn't cover them at all.

  Kennedy made a rare appearance before the committee to support the bills, which are authored by Rep. Dee Richard, a Thibodaux independent. Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater opposed the measures, arguing they would stand in the way of Jindal's future privatization plans, whatever those might be.

  Next year's budget already abolishes 6,371 state governmental positions, Rainwater said, adding that the goal of 15,000 reductions is based on outdated turnover rates. "The number of full-time employees in state government are already at their lowest levels in 20 years," he said.

  The treasurer countered with numbers from the Legislative Auditor's Office. He also slammed several contracts, including one for $94,000 to teach students "social skills" through organized play and another for $43,000 that focuses on seat belt use in the Hispanic communities of Rapides Parish.

  Rainwater said you have to dig deeper to plumb the real value of contracts. He said there's already a system in place for prioritizing and that the 10 percent goal wouldn't be realized without impacting larger contracts for services like health care. As for smaller ones, Rainwater contends that if every contract under $50,000 were eliminated, it would reduce related costs by only 1 percent.

  Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, practically growled at Rainwater during the hearing. He complained that other areas of government spending have had to be reduced in recent years because of budget shortfalls. "Would it not be reasonable that some of these current contracts ought to get the same kind of attention?" Schroder asked.

  Good question.

  The Senate stopped similar bills last year, and it may do the same again. Even if Richard's bills both pass, Jindal surely will veto them.

  With one eye always on his national ambitions, the governor no doubt would prefer not to have to do that. After all, it would not look good on his resume if he vetoed bills intended to rein in spending.

  No, he'd much prefer the House or Senate do his dirty work for him.

  All it will cost him is a few more country roads — and 20 years of debt that the rest of us will have to pay.

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