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Do we need all these elected officials?

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Baton Rouge, Louisiana



A number two guy in Louisiana?  Lieutenant Governor! What Lieutenant Governor?  If Gov. Bobby Jindal has his way, the number two spot in the state hierarchy is a gone pecan.  But hey Governor, why stop there?  Do we really need more elected public officials than any state in the country?

It’s not like Jindal has a philosophical problem with too many elected officials. When he was campaigning for the state’s top two years ago, there was nary a word about eliminating any elected officials.  But with the present Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu stepping down in May to assume the new duty of Mayor of New Orleans, the Governor saw an opportunity.  No incumbent, no immediate election, so few feathers to ruffle.

Jindal’s problem is that with term limits for legislators, there are a number of ambitious potential candidates looking for a place to politically land. But why stop with only the second spot?  If the ball starts rolling, why not take a look at a number of public offices, many that exist in only a few other states, and mark them for appointment or even full elimination.  If more efficiency and saving money is the ballet cry, then let the open flood gates begin.

Jindal says eliminating the post of Lieutenant Governor would save the taxpayers one million dollars.  This may be a stretch, since the post only pays $125,000.  The second in command does have several state troopers to drive and protect. I’ve never heard of anyone profiling any Lieutenant Governor for harm, and the other statewide officials seem to do fine by driving themselves, so there is money to be saved by eliminating this spot.

A better idea, particularly for Jindal, would be to emulate 25 other states and have the lieutenant governor run on a ticket with the governor.  They supposedly work as a team in running the executive branch along the lines of the president and the vice president.  One would think this would be particularly appealing concept for Jindal, who spends a great deal of time out of the state pursuing his national agenda. Only five states have no lieutenant governor.  So by having his own personal pick, Jindal and future governors just add a high profile additional member to the governor’s team to fill in or appear when the governor has other priorities.

What about other statewide offices?  How many are really that critical to protecting the public interest that they require a statewide election?  Jindal has suggested the Secretary of State should be the second in line to be elected.  I know something about this job, holding it for two terms and being unopposed my re- election.  The duties are important: overseeing corporate filings, running the election process, and administering the state archives.  But most of this is ministerial.  No major policy involved, and the job is appointed in numerous states, particularly the bigger states like Florida, Texas, and New York.

 By the way, the constitution in Louisiana charges the Secretary of State with being the keeper of the Great Seal.  I spent eight years looking for this major symbol of the state’s identity but never found it.

Agriculture commissioner?  An overwhelmingly appointed job throughout the country.  And electing the insurance commissioner is a dying process.  Only 12 states presently elect their insurance commissioner.  California does elect, but the present commissioner has called for the office to be appointed in the future.  I held this office, too, for 12 years, and can say from experience that having an elected commissioner brings no special benefit to the office. If anything, appointing the job stops all the campaign fund raising from the insurance companies that the commissioner is supposed to be regulating.

And why stop at statewide elected officials?  With tax dollars being scarce, this might be an excellent time to do some real streamlining on both the state and local level. Just how many boards, commissions, water districts, sewer districts, parish auditors, law enforcement offices, and a whole list of other special districts are spread throughout Louisiana? No one really seems to know.  Some estimates are as high as 7,000.  But can you believe no agency, public or private, can list all the public bodies that exist in Louisiana today?  And if no one knows the number, than it goes without saying that no one knows the overlapping cost.

Do we need 64 parishes?  Would 45 work more efficiently and save millions?  Do cities that take up the bulk of the parish like New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Shreveport really need both an elected sheriff and a police chief? Some of the small, rural parishes have as few as nine thousand people per district judge.  The average is more like 20,000 per judge.  Should consolidation be undertaken?  Why does every parish elect a coroner?  Back in the 70s in my home parish of Concordia, the job was held by a local logger.  Couldn’t this job be run by professionals on a regional basis?

As demographer Elliot Stonecipher has pointed out in a recent study, Louisiana’s population is exactly the same today (4,410,000) as it was in 1985.  Yet far from any reduction in local and state governmental entities, the numbers have significantly increased.  Over the past century, little has changed involving how local government operates, and the system in place is still run by the same archaic institutions that were put in place before the invention of the telephone, light bulb, automobile and of course, the computer

On the state level, the same overlap and duplicity exists.  Four boards to govern higher education?  How come states like California and North Carolina, where colleges rank at the top of all national lists, seem to get by quite well with just one board?  And how about the slew of state boards and commissions that almost seem to make up ways to regulate where none is needed? If I go to Whole Foods and buy a dozen valentine roses for my wife, do I really need a licensed florist, who has to be tested and certified through a floral board, to wrap them up for me?  Or a board to oversee someone I hire to help decorate my office or home?

 In a recent interview, former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw talked about the problem and the opportunity:  “Every state and every region of the country is stuck with some form of anachronistic and expensive local government structure that dates to the horse-drawn wagons, family farms and small-town convenience.  It’s time to reorganize our state and local government structures for today’s realities rather than cling to the sensibilities of the twentieth century.”

So Governor, let the process begin.  The Louisiana Commission on Streamlining Government is now meeting.  Their mission could well be extended by executive order to put all these public positions on the table. Then, instead of just dealing with a one shot political office, the state has the chance to make a quantum leap for decades to come.


  “Once a man holds public office, he is absolutely no good for honest work.”Â  Will Rogers

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s weekly column appears in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the south.  To read past columns going back to 2002, go to www.jimbrownla.com.  

5 Responses
  1. Ray Canada

    Your column is right on. Not only is it grossly more expensive, it has every elected official supervising something setting separte policies. Those policies probably conflict with the governor’s policies. It leaves the Governor having to negotiate with essentially department heads. Not a good organization.

  2. . Interesting take on your column. I think you’re right in many aspects, that we may have almost too much government in certain areas, but that’s so difficult to rectify. It would be hard to find a parish willing to give up their independence!

  3. I. B. FREEMAN

    Good post Jim.

    I submit one more idea for your opinion–spin off the state run colleges into private institutions and let them compete for students with state vouchers. That is the only way we are going to make the obvious tough decisions that should be made in our system. Do we really need 3 4 year colleges within 50 miles of Monroe? why not merge Southern and LSU? ect. Politicians will never deal with those ideas so I say spin them off and let the market decide who survives. We would have better schools and spend less. (not to mention brick and mortar colleges have seen their biggest enrollments already. very good college degrees with be available soon online)

  4. Susan Saunders

    Dear Jim, Silly man: If we did streamline government, public officials would have to work really hard: Like, eight hour days. What are you thinking! (By the way, I do enjoy your blog. John and I read your book in January along with Edwin’s biography and got very sad. Great books, though.)

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