Controlling the Kudzu of State Spending

One of my many anonymous critics on the Jackson Jambalaya blog zapped me last week over my column “A Peek behind Legislative Leaders’ Rhetoric.” In particular, he/she said I lack “a coherent alternate plan” of my own.

Well, I never guessed it might be a columnist’s job to propose a whole budget plan. But, an avid reader could find elements of such a plan already published. Let’s take a peek.

Last month I suggested rightsizing the Legislature by cutting it in half. That step alone would signify legislators are serious about cutting non-essential programs.

In February I wrote about rightsizing universities. By raising admission standards, moving all remediation to community colleges, and eliminating subsidies for out-of-state tuition, enrollment would fall, thereby reducing IHL’s need for more state funding, higher tuition, and more bond money. Previously I supported consolidating university back-office and administrative functions.

Back in 2010, I wrote, “There are no operating or financial reasons for eight universities and 15 community colleges – or 142 state agencies, 152 school districts, 82 counties, and 200 plus municipalities for that matter – to maintain separate back room operations.” Since, I have written favorably about limiting school districts to one per county, thereby consolidating financial, administrative, transportation and other non-classroom services to reduce costs.

I agreed with Governors Phil Bryant and Haley Barbour on their proposals to allow state agencies exemptions from personnel regulations to rightsize their workforces. I supported Barbour’s calls to consolidate school districts and to reduce tax-dollar support for school athletics and community college sports.

I have written numerous times about the excessive costs of our broken PERS system. Charging employers 15.75% of wages is exorbitant. That’s at least $350 million too much per year, most of it coming from state funds. Reducing this burden on taxpayers should be a priority.

There’s more, but maybe you and my critic can sense what I think a coherent spending plan should include.

The key is this – to effectively reduce and control government spending, legislatively mandated changes in targeted agency/institution operations must occur in tandem with budget cuts. Just squeezing budgets won’t work.

As I have written many times over the years, businesses can readily merge and/or shut down unproductive operations, but not government. That’s because government behaves more like kudzu than business. Despite attempts to prune it back, it just grows and grows.

Experts say control of kudzu requires a process to kill or remove the kudzu “root crown” and all “rooting runners.”

That’s legislators’ great dilemma. Every agency has a “root crown” – a powerful legislator, state official, or business group. All have “rooting runners:” take on university funding and you take on the alumni; Cooperative Extension Service funding and you take on the county agents and their friendly farmers, foresters, tomato growers, and quilters; school funding and you take on parents, teachers, and their formidable allies; and so on.

Squeezing agency/institution budgets isn’t so hard. But, a focused plan that takes on root crowns and rooting runners to consolidate/eliminate targeted operations is too hard for most politicians.

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