Legislator, treasurer on quest to cut consultants

For the fourth year in a row, state Rep. Dee Richard is on a mission to reduce the number of contracts scattered across state government. His co-pilot for the journey is state Treasurer John Kennedy.

Kennedy has visited Thibodaux, Lafayette, Eunice, Shreveport and Monroe in recent weeks to meet with college leaders about the proposal, which he contends would generate nearly half a billion dollars in savings for the campuses.

He spent part of Saturday morning in Alexandria, where he addressed the Association of Louisiana Faculty Senates.

The purpose of all those miles is to drum up support for legislation that, thus far, has Richard and Kennedy tilting at windmills. To gain traction, Richard dedicated any savings realized to higher education, a point Kennedy is trying to drive home on college campuses. Richard also removed Medicaid contracts that provide health care to the poor from the mix.

All of the work seems to be paying off. Richard and Kennedy appear to be picking up support in their problem area, the state Senate. Their big stumbling block will be getting the governor’s signature.

Each year for the past three years, the proposal zoomed out of the Louisiana House only to stall in the state Senate.

Usually, the bill dies in the Senate Finance Committee. In 2011, Richard made it as far as the Senate floor and no further.

This year, his goal is to get the proposal before Gov. Bobby Jindal. Given that his aides oppose the bill, Jindal seems likely to dispose of it with his veto pen, but Richard holds out hope.

“He’s crawfished on Common Core, so who knows? I’d love to see it get to his desk,” said Richard, No Party-Thibodaux.

The governor did abruptly back a failed legislative bid to toss out the Common Core academic standards.

However, his chief budget adviser was clear about her opposition to Richard’s House Bill 142 earlier this session.

Still, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, said he is pleased that Medicaid contracts are protected in this year’s version of the bill. “To me, it’s more palatable,” he said.

Donahue’s next assignment for Richard and Kennedy is to enumerate the contracts that would be cut.

HB142 would reduce state contracts by 10 percent. The bill targets those contracts approved by the Office of Contractual Review and excludes Medicaid provider contracts.

Had the legislation passed in 2013, it could have cut state government spending by $306 million. However, some of the dollars reduced likely would have been federal funds.

Kennedy said state government is littered with contracts that cost taxpayers billions of dollars. He said the contracts have included paying a California consultant $94,000 to assist students in organized play, $19,500 to coordinate Golden Glove boxing tournaments and $250,000 to provide data to parents on informed school choice decisions.

For a state fraught with financial challenges, Kennedy believes cutting consultants is the solution. The idea was born in the Commission on Streamlining Government, which studied ways to trim costs. The idea has floundered.

“Even if I’m halfway wrong — and I don’t think I am — that’s $250 million in savings right there,” Kennedy said.

The Jindal administration counters that consultants don’t just work with children at recess. Contracts ensure that abused children receive counseling. They provide direct services to the public.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols told the House Appropriations Committee that the governor’s staff has worked hard to reduce contract costs. She said they succeeded in reducing contracts by more than $1 billion since the governor first took office in 2008.

“We’re doing the work that the treasurer indicated we need to be doing, which is looking at the contracts, looking at the expenditures that need to be reduced,” Nichols said.

She said HB142 may exclude Medicaid contracts, but it doesn’t exclude other health care contracts and mental health services.

The Jindal administration opposes a hatchet approach to cutting expenses, especially when some of the dollars trimmed could be federal funds.

“You won’t be guaranteed to get (state) general fund savings. But what you will be guaranteed to do is reduce your overall federal dollars,” Nichols said.

Richard said he’s tired of the state general fund cuts to higher education. He’s tired of the state leaning on public colleges and universities to ease the strain on the “state fisc” by raising tuition.

“For her to say they’ve cut $1 billion in contracts is absurd to me,” he said, questioning the accuracy of Nichols’ estimate.

Richard also realizes time is running out. He said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, told him this is the last year the proposal will find his support. The job of defying the governor by pushing the bill only to see it die in the Senate gets tiring.

That’s not to say Richard is giving up. Jindal leaves office in a little more than a year’s time. A new governor will be coming in.

“If I don’t get it this year, I’ll wait for the next administration,” Richard said.

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