This is the fourth in a series of reports looking at key issues in advance of the Oct. 22 election.
In 2007, when he was running for governor, Bobby Jindal listed what he perceived as the state’s spending problems.
Jindal outlined the issues in an “action plan” distributed by his campaign on Louisiana’s budget history. He cited:
• The tripling of the state’s operating budget in 12 years.
• A high state employee per capita ratio.
• Not enough public access to the state’s finances.
Jindal said in his campaign literature that the state needed to do away with slush funds, eliminate wasteful spending and make the Legislature accountable to citizens.
Four years after vowing to rein in what he characterized as runaway government spending, Jindal is seeking a second term Oct. 22.
His aides maintain that the governor reduced state spending, eliminated nearly 10,000 full-time state government positions and downsized the state vehicle fleet during his first term in office.
The website La Trac, http://wwwprd.doa.louisiana.gov/LaTrac/portal.cfm, details state contracts and expenditures.
Republican and Democratic legislators agree that the budget shrank, the state workforce decreased and the public’s ability to see where the state’s dollars are going increased under Jindal.
“He certainly deserves credit,” said state Sen. Mike Michot, R-Lafayette and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Michot said there are fewer state workers today than there were four years ago. He said the governor made real spending cuts and forced increased disclosure from community organizations and other groups that receive state dollars.
Political commentator C.B. Forgotston, a frequent critic of the governor, said Jindal exaggerated how much spending he actually cut. He said Jindal took credit for trimming the state budget without mentioning the natural reduction that occurred with the tapering off of federal recovery dollars stemming from the 2005 hurricanes.
“Overall, the only reductions I’ve seen in the size of state spending is simply a result of the elimination of federal funds for rebuilding following hurricanes Katrina and Rita – not the result of the elimination of any ongoing programs,” Forgotston said.
State Sen. Lydia Jackson, D-Shreveport, said the governor’s progress on non-governmental organizations – called NGOs in state government lingo – that receive state dollars is a mixed bag.
For years, the dollars for NGOs were derided as slush funds because they usually were distributed to rural and minority legislators in favor with the governor. Jindal vowed to force NGO organizers to file reports online detailing their organizations’ structure, relationships to elected officials and planned use for state money. Those reports are now published on the Legislature’s website.
Barry Erwin, president of the Council for A Better Louisiana, a nonpartisan group that studies state issues and lobbies the government, said much of the secrecy has been banished from the NGO process, tightening up an area that was ripe for abuse.
“We have come a long way when it comes to state funding for various non-governmental organizations and it’s certainly become much more transparent. In the past, funding for a lot of those entities just came out of nowhere and no one really knew who they were or what they were doing,” Erwin said.
Jackson said there is more public information on the organizations and their purposes than in the past. But, she said, it still is unclear which legislators are sponsoring them. She also questions whether some oversight was lost with the dismantling of the so-called slush funds that the governor controlled.
Michot said the governor took a hard line on NGOs that failed to disclose the necessary information prior to receiving an appropriation in the state budget. He said the governor used his line-item veto power to purge them from the budget.
On the issue of which legislators are pushing budget committee members to put projects for their districts in the state spending plan, Michot said the public is largely kept in the dark.
“There probably needs to be a clearer link,” he said.
The governor’s press secretary, Kyle Plotkin, said Jindal did not have time to respond to criticisms about budget issues Monday.
Plotkin said the administration is hopeful that future bodies will disclose which legislators are pushing for NGO funding for their districts.
Plotkin said the governor reduced the state budget by $9 billion during his first term. He did not say how much of the reduction is related to a drop-off in hurricane recovery and other funds sent to Louisiana by the federal government.
Plotkin said the $9 billion drop is based on what is called the “existing” budget, which was the $34 billion state government was authorized to spend when Jindal took office in the middle of the fiscal year. The actual budget ended up being $29 billion once the books were audited to calculate how much actual revenue was collected and spent that fiscal year, according to the Jindal administration’s budget documents.
Plotkin said he derived the $9 billion decrease by taking the current 2012 fiscal year’s $25 billion budget and subtracted it from the $34 billion that legislators at one point expected to spend in Fiscal Year 2008.
As a candidate, Jindal also complained about the size of the state work force, which he said would employ more than 100,000 people in 2007. He said more heavily populated states like Tennessee, Arizona, Colorado, Wisconsin, Maryland, Minnesota and South Carolina employed fewer state workers.
Today, the state’s work force stands at 79,475 full-time employees, according to the state Division of Administration.
“We certainly reduced the work force and that’s important,” said state Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington. Schroder has complained the majority of the state’s money is spent on personnel.
Erwin said the state needs to be careful going forward about further funding cuts, especially after making reductions to account for revenue drops.
“Some of those cost savings we saw were temporary fixes which you can do in a budget crisis, but you can’t sustain,” he said. “We can’t leave funding for public education flat forever; we can’t cut travel and have hiring freezes forever; and we can’t deny pay raises to teachers and state employees forever so there are pressures building that will continue to grow the cost of state government,” he said.
State aid per students has not risen in three years.