Senate committee, Kennedy banter over budget options
BY MICHELLE MILLHOLLON
Capitol news bureau
June 01, 2012
A day after losing a slice of his office’s funding, state Treasurer John Kennedy struck out Tuesday with his budget-cutting ideas.
The state Senate Finance Committee spurned Kennedy’s suggestion that state government contracts and jobs should be cut as it rejected legislation he was pushing.
The day before, the same committee, without explanation, cut $553,480 from the roughly $12 million recommended budget for Kennedy’s office in the fiscal year that begins in July.
The budget trimming followed Kennedy’s criticism of the way Gov. Bobby Jindal wants to balance the $25 billion state operating budget.
Kennedy said Tuesday that he could not explain the cut to his office or the rejection of his budget reduction ideas.
“I can’t read their hearts and their minds,” he said, referring to the committee’s members.
Debate over crafting the state budget is pitting Kennedy and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., against Jindal, a fellow Republican.
The Senate Finance Committee sided with Jindal on Memorial Day by adopting many of his suggested changes to the spending plan. Committee members also quietly slipped in an amendment taking funding from Kennedy’s office.
On Tuesday, Kennedy went before the panel with House Bill 327 and House Bill 328, both by state Rep. Dee Richard, No Party-Thibodaux. The bills breezed through the Louisiana House.
HB327 would reduce state contracts by 10 percent.
HB328 would gradually eliminate 15,000 state government jobs.
Kennedy said HB327 was an attempt to sever needed contracts from lower-priority contracts.
Kennedy launched into a list of what he perceives as lower-priority contracts, citing financial agreements to assist students with social skills through organized play, to help state workers learn diversity and to give spiritual and religious guidance to inmates.
The committee’s chairman, state Sen. Jack Donahue, soon interrupted Kennedy.
“We’ve got the idea, and we have 25 bills or so,” said Donahue, R-Mandeville.
Kennedy said his point was that the state has needs that outweigh some of the contracts’ goals.
“They’re just low priority compared to schools and roads and bridges,” he said.
Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater, the governor’s chief budget aide, said the Jindal administration reduced contracts by more than 30 percent over several years.
He said Cabinet secretaries and department heads are questioned about their contracts to ensure that they are reasonable.
Rainwater said cutting contracts by 10 percent across the board would affect larger contracts, such as those delivering health care to the poor.
“I’m not talking about cutting all the contracts. I’m talking about cutting the ones we don’t need,” Kennedy responded.
He accused the Jindal administration of putting up a straw man by drawing the Medicaid program for the poor into the discussion.
Donahue chided Kennedy for commenting on Rainwater’s remarks.
“Please respond to a question. It’s not an open debate,” he said.
Committee members defended some of the contracts that Kennedy cited as low priorities.
State Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, said one of the contracts is part of the Governor’s Games for children. “I don’t think that’s a bogus contract,” he said.
Kennedy said one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.
“I’m not saying they’re bogus contracts. I’m just saying they’re not as important as LSU,” Kennedy said.
The committee agreed, without objection, to defer HB327 as well as HB328.
The meeting ended on a light note.
State Sen. Gregory Tarver brought his funeral home operation into the discussion while asking a question about state employment levels.
Tarver referred to state workers as “warm bodies” and then decided the reference needed context.
“I’m in a business of cold bodies, but I’m talking about warm bodies,” Tarver, D-Shreveport, said.
“They’re warm when you get them,” Kennedy said.
Rainwater chuckled as he tried to answer Tarver’s question.
“That was pretty good, Sen. Tarver,” he said.