In his first campaign commercial, U.S. Sen. David Vitter says he would reduce the number of vehicles in state government to save a couple hundred million dollars.
“Today’s budget mess? My plan ends the waste, like eliminating thousands of unnecessary state cars,” Vitter tells the viewer in a TV spot that debuted last week.
It’s an old campaign saw.
The state has been trying to get its fleet under control — and voters have been complaining about it — since the 1960s.
Vitter’s gubernatorial opponents joined in, saying that they too would look at reducing the number of state-owned vehicles, if elected.
Vitter cited 10,832 cars, costing $232 million but, when asked, would not explain the source of the numbers. The Metairie Republican did not spell out what that amount represents or how much reduction the state should aim for. His opponents also did not give details.
According to the Division of Administration, the state owned 10,543 vehicles — roughly one for every six state workers — as of Aug. 18. That’s a 17 percent drop from 2009, shortly after Gov. Bobby Jindal took office, when the state owned 12,740 vehicles, or about one for every seven state employees. (Mississippi’s state government has 7,541 vehicles.)
When Gov. Edwin Edwards was in office in 1992, the fleet had 6,752 vehicles, or roughly one passenger car, van or pickup for every 13 state employees.
The vehicles have a variety of uses. The Division of Administration shows that the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry has 612 vehicles, 26 of which are used by inspectors who visit gas stations and grocery stores to check the scales. The unit that oversees pesticides has 19 more.
The department had 1,073 vehicles when Ag Commissioner Mike Strain took office in 2008.
Strain doesn’t take a vehicle allowance, which would pay over 50 cents per mile, but drives a state-owned 2008 Tahoe, which has 140,000 miles, said Veronica Mosgrove, the department’s press secretary. The commissioner has meetings all over the state, she said.
The Governor’s Office has 57 vehicles — three for the Governor’s Office use and the rest for various agencies directly under the governor, with the Office of Homeland Security having the most at 33.
Some agencies have only one vehicle, such as the Board of Regents, the University of Louisiana System and the Board of Embalmers and Funeral Home Directors, according to the Division of Administration.
State Treasurer John N. Kennedy says he drives a state-owned SUV, and the department also has a van that is used for a variety of purposes, such as sending analysts out to check property being used as collateral.
Jan Cassidy, the Division of Administration’s assistant commissioner for procurement, agreed that the fleet could be reduced. But before cutting the numbers, she said, more information is needed.
“The last thing we want to do is to take a vehicle away from an agency and prevent them from getting their job done,” Cassidy said Friday.
The administration is outfitting all 10,543 vehicles with GPS devices that will monitor how, when and where the vehicles are used, feeding all the particulars into a computerized database, she said. The cost is $10 million, but the state expects to save $30 million in fuel, maintenance and insurance costs.
For 2014, the last full fiscal year with complete statistics, Louisiana’s fleet cost about $68 million for fuel, maintenance and insurance.
While the numbers are not great in light of the billions spent on state government, Bob Reid, a founding board member of the Tea Party of Louisiana, said at the end of the day, the number of vehicles is a symptom of the larger problem — bloated state government.
“It’s a passionate issue because we’re sick and tired of the politicians and their incestuous nature of sucking our tax dollars,” Reid said.
His is a passion that has lingered around state government for more than half a century.
Back in 1964, Gov. John McKeithen put together a committee to find ways to cut expenses in the state bureaucracy. He was reacting to voters complaining about the number of cars the state owned.
In one of his first efforts as governor, Buddy Roemer in the 1980s tried to cut spending by removing 400 vehicles from the 8,500-vehicle fleet.
Jindal, too, made reducing the numbers of vehicles a priority. Now the wannabe governors are adding reduction of state-owned vehicles to their campaign platforms.
Obviously, Vitter said in an email, some state-owned vehicles are vital and necessary — like those for first responders — but thousands within the various departments are not essential. “My plan starts with eliminating politicians’ special perks and giveaways like thousands of unnecessary state cars,” he said.
Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, of Baton Rouge, warned against pursuing a one-size-fits-all approach. “We should examine every cost-saving possibility and implement those that save taxpayers the most money,” he said.
Amite Rep. John Bel Edwards, the Democratic candidate, said the first step should be to check with state officials to see how the cars are used and how a reduction would impact their work. “Travel is a necessity of the service many agencies provide. Certain agencies are currently renting cars because of cuts to the fleet and therefore not saving money. I don’t endorse any plan to reduce state owned automobiles until we truly identify such cuts as creating savings,” he said in a text message.
Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, R-Breaux Bridge, mentioned being the father of five, four of whom were teenagers at the same time. “I know how to manage an auto fleet. We’ll be lean, efficient and maximize our resources,” Angelle said.
Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.