Treasurer John Kennedy on next governor: Needs to be cross between Socrates, Dirty Harry _lowres

Advocate Photo by WILL SENTELL -- State Treasurer John N. Kennedy told the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge Wednesday that Louisiana’s next governor needs to be a cross between Socrates and Dirty Harry to get a handle on out-of-control government spending.

Because our chronically out-of-whack state budget is the issue that dwarfs all others right now, and state Treasurer John Kennedy is the only major public official who has come up with specific plans to fix it, the obvious question is why isn’t he running for governor.

The answer is equally obvious: He is the only major public official who has come up with specific plans to fix it. Once he started talking turkey on the campaign trail, loud squawking would commence. There is no way to force revenues and expenditures into balance without leaving some powerful interests out of pocket, but spelling that out isn’t going to win an election.

It is thus unrealistic to blame the gubernatorial candidates for declining to address the nitty-gritty, as they did at a recent forum. U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and the lone Democrat, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, asked who was in line to pay higher taxes, all dodged behind a hail of blather about leading us, in ways to be revealed after the inauguration, to the promised land.

They spoke as one also in relation to Gov. Bobby Jindal, although Angelle, as a former inmate of the administration, was somewhat more muted in his denunciation. As to what should be done about the fiscal disaster Jindal will leave behind, all four promised to call the legislature into special session pronto.

Jindal, of course, wasn’t paying attention, because he was too busy trying to boost his Iowa poll numbers as champion of Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis and misfeasors for Jesus everywhere.

Meanwhile, down in faraway Louisiana, a special session is clearly a sound plan. By the time the next governor takes over, we will be halfway through the fiscal year and, according to Dardenne, Jindal designed his last budget to stand up only until he left office. As it turned out, that proved too optimistic, for gaps started to appear within weeks; come January, further shortfalls will presumably have emerged.

Jindal could not have engineered the crisis single-handedly, so the special session will give the next governor immediate access to vast institutional knowledge of how not to run the state. Legislating our way out of this pickle will, however, require the courage to step on a lot of toes, and that is not how politicians got where they are.

Still, according to Kennedy, at least legislators need not close the budget hole by raising taxes in a commensurate amount. For years, he has been hammering away to the effect that Louisiana has a “spending problem” rather than a “revenue problem,” and, while that line has become something of a cliché, the figures show that it becomes truer every year.

The state budget in 2004 was $16.5 billion, and now it has grown to $25 billion with no perceptible improvement in public services. A small state such as Louisiana should be able to meet all its needs and then some with revenues of that size. Why taxpayers are not getting value for their money is, to Kennedy, blindingly obvious.

His pet peeve is 19,000 consulting contracts handed out to the tune of $2 billion a year at the whim of the administration. Kennedy will not be alone in wondering, for example, why the state should pay to promote seat belt usage among Hispanic residents of Rapides Parish. He can give you many equally absurd examples at the drop of a hat.

He also complains that 22 percent of state civil service managers supervise just one body. Meanwhile, fraud and mismanagement have helped push Medicaid expenditures over $8 billion a year, and there are plenty more opportunities to economize.

Even if legislators took advantage of them all, we’d still have a severe case of the shorts. Balancing the operating budget would be just a start. Then we’d have to come up with many billions more to deal with crumbling infrastructure and a disappearing coastline.

Still, Kennedy’s claim that much of our budgetary woe is the result of prodigality can hardly be disputed. We can talk about that later, though.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@ theadvocate.com.