Thursday, April 23rd, 2009
BRING LOCAL AND STATE GOVERNMENT
IN LOUISIANA INTO THE TWENTY FIRST CENTURY!
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 7000. 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.
Start with the 64 parishes. In the rural farming economy of the early twentieth century, each parish served as the synergy of daily life in Louisiana. There was a need for local road and water districts to take care of rural needs. Government, by nature, was local. Police jurors and sheriffs ran their respective local districts like a fiefdom. When election time came around, rural voters were enmeshed in electing local candidates who directly touched their lives.
The sheriff was there to not just keep you safe, but to offer a ride to town for groceries or a doctor’s visit in many cases. The local police juror kept the ditches from overflowing and could see to it that a little gravel was spread on the dirt road leading to your farmhouse. Baton Rouge was often a two day ride on horseback or an all day trip by car over muddy dirt roads. What happened or did not happen at the local courthouse had a direct bearing on the daily lives of a majority of Louisianans.
But that was in days gone by. Times have changed, and the state has assumed the vast majority of public duties including funding and administering highway construction, flood protection, healthcare, and an array of other public needs. Yet the local governing structure, with thousands of commissions, districts, and boards, hasn’t really changed in the past 75 years.
Many parishes, particularly in my home area of Northeast Louisiana, continue to lose population every year. Every one of the six parishes I represented as a state senator in the 1970s has lost some 10 to 20 per cent of its population in the intervening years. Yet here are still the same number of elected officials, the same number of local boards, commissions and other governing bodies that have existed for decades. Just one example: In Caddo Parish, the student enrollment in public schools has dropped since 1970 from 60,000 to 40,000. Yet there are eight more additional schools that have been built since 1970.
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 a 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 roses for my wife, do I really need a licensed florist, 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 abut 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.”
The Louisiana Legislature comes into session next week. This is a time of financial crisis on both the state and national level. Lawmakers have no problem telling the private sector how to run their businesses in order to receive state and federal help. If we demand reorganization of companies like General Motors and poultry processors in North Louisiana, then isn’t it time to demand the same reorganization of state and local government? Consolidation could save the state in excess of 300 million dollars a year. And when there is a billion dollar hole to fill, that ain’t chump change.
‘You never want a serious crisis to go to waste….What I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before..”
Peace and Justice.
Jim Brown’s weekly columns going back to 2002 are archived on his website at www.jimbrownla.com.