It takes a special kind of Republican to second-guess Gov. Bobby Jindal, who's among the darlings of the national GOP and unquestionably the top conservative honcho back home in Louisiana. Then again, it also took a special kind of Democrat to repeatedly undermine former Gov. Kathleen Blanco when she was in office.
Maybe it's just that Treasurer John Kennedy, a popular-Democrat-turned-lonely-Republican, has a problem with authority figures, even if he is one himself. Or maybe it means Kennedy, who lost a run for the U.S. Senate last year after losing as a Democrat to David Vitter in 2004, is ready to tilt at the ultimate windmill and take on Jindal. "I'm having a lot of fun with what I'm doing right now," Kennedy says. "I'm planning on running for re-election."
Jason Redmond, the deputy state treasurer and Kennedy's political brain trust (at least during Kennedy's finer moments), shared a laugh with his boss when the question was raised. The two were mulling around, shaking hands and exchanging courtesies in the minutes before the Baton Rouge Press Club kicked off its weekly gathering last week.
As soon as Kennedy started to speak, you could tell he was hitting his old stride again as the state's budget hawk. His bold proposals have been well reported in recent weeks, thanks to his outspoken service on Jindal's Streamlining Government Commission. As chairman of a subcommittee on efficiency and benchmarking, Kennedy has voted for 19 action items, along with members of the advisory group.
Chief among them is a proposal to reduce the state's workforce by 5,000 positions annually for a period of three years. The 15,000 jobs would basically come from unfilled vacancies. Kennedy says Louisiana's turnover rate fluctuates between 15 percent and 22 percent. "No one would be fired," he says, adding that the goal would be to establish only five layers of management in each department, or one manager for every 10 or more employees.
The subcommittee's proposal further calls for 20 percent of the savings to be used to increase the salaries of state employees who are taking on additional responsibilities. Kennedy also advocated eliminating some of the state's 305 statutorily dedicated funds, which today hold nearly $3 billion for everything from boll weevil eradication to post-conviction DNA testing, from shrimp marketing to pet overpopulation.
By law, Kennedy says, those funds cannot be cut, which places them ahead of health care and higher education, both of which can be cut. "It's time for us to take a look at which funds are appropriate and which are not," he says. One approach offered would involve placing an expiration date on all dedicated funds — excluding those in the Constitution — and forcing recipients to justify their state dollars.
Even though speculation over the possible closure of a four-year university has produced more anxiety than action, Kennedy brought up the topic on his own during his address and labeled it a "bad idea." The state's five-year budget outlook forecasts a $1 billion shortfall in Fiscal Year 2011, which begins next July, and a $2 billion reduction in Fiscal Year 2012. "But it could go higher than that," Kennedy says.
In response, House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, has created the Postsecondary Education Review Commission to reduce the impact on Louisiana's colleges and universities. While concrete recommendations have yet to come forth, scuttlebutt about the closure of one or more four-year universities has run rampant. When asked last week which university in particular he was concerned about, Kennedy refused to comment further. "In my judgment, we do not have too many colleges," he says.
The treasurer also continued to lobby for a single board for higher education, rather than the various panels running the show now. Louisiana presently has three systems of higher education — the LSU System, the Southern System and the University of Louisiana System. Each also has its own board of supervisors. "We need a government structure for higher education that looks like someone designed it on purpose," Kennedy says.
As the state ramps up efforts to control its estimated $3 billion shortfall over the next two years, Kennedy says he's worried there won't be enough political will to enact real and meaningful reforms. The easy way out, he says, would include taking even more money from Louisiana's citizenry. He went on to cite the low taxes in Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Texas as the reasons for those states' successes during these dire economic times. "I do not believe we should raise taxes," Kennedy says. "We cannot afford to lose more people."
As Hammond attorney C.B. Forgotston recently put it on his popular blog, "While the Rhodes Scholar is out campaigning (for whatever office he will next seek), state Treasurer John Kennedy has rolled up his sleeves and is working on the fiscal problems about to befall our state." Of course, by "Rhodes Scholar," Forgotston means Jindal, although Kennedy's own Oxford bona fides are nothing to sneeze at.
Kennedy made sure Jindal got the message when he came out against the administration's plan to spend more than $100 million on a computer upgrade. It was a strong, principled stance, one that surely makes sense to voters who have to choose almost weekly between gas or food, prescriptions or daycare.
Jindal will have to address that position — and Kennedy — sooner or later, because Kennedy isn't going away. And he's not going anywhere quietly.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.