Our Views: Small cuts in big budget

In government, often it’s the smaller cuts in the budget that are the hardest to make.

Part of that is the big cuts — closing a state prison, for example — get more attention and produce legislative battles. The ensuing debate is high-profile, but the decision can be made with little foot-dragging on the part of the losing side.

The smaller cuts, though often overshadowed, can be more difficult because agencies can push back vigorously against changes to their operations. It’s a guerilla war within any administration against losing a few jobs here, a few perks there.

Look at Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed fiscal year 2014 budget for examples.

The budget proposes to save $8.6 million in doing what many private-sector operations have had to do in hard times: cut middle-management. Legal offices and internal audit offices for several Division of Administration agencies will be consolidated, as well as human resources staff and other such jobs in other agencies.

Another $6.5 million is proposed to be cut though a consolidation of information technology functions. Another $6 million or so is promised with streamlining purchases of everyday items. There are a number of other similar cutbacks proposed.

In the context of a $24.7 billion budget maybe it doesn’t sound like much. There is probably a story, though, behind each of them: State employees get understandably nervous about potentially losing their jobs, and agencies are reluctant to change, and may feel that they’re losing needed staff.

But if the agencies involved object in public now, legislators — unless tipped off, by insiders, about specific questionable actions — will have very little in the way of legitimate arguments. Ultimately, these kinds of efficiencies ratchet down costs, even if sometimes they result in contractors doing the work of regular full-time state employees.

Another irony about these kinds of moves: These may be the most durable cuts that the Jindal administration ever makes.

Say a new governor in January 2016 wants to reverse policies of the Jindal administration. What is he or she going to say, “Let’s hire more IT people?” Or, “We went too far in consolidating the human resources offices?”

No, those battles will be focused on big issues, such as restoring funds for higher education or another high-profile priority.

There is no guarantee that jobs in operations might gradually come back, but the reality is that these economies are likely to stick, unless there is some manifest breakdown in services to the agencies.

With proper oversight, these changes are justified. And they will be with state government for some time to come.