Bill advances that would cut state contracts

Advocate Staff Photo by MICHELLE MILLHOLLON -- State Treasurer John N. Kennedy, right, visits Monday with state Education Superintendent John White before a state Senate committee hearing about legislation that would  reduce the number of contracts scattered across state government. James H. Napper II, Kennedy's executive counsel, is on the left. Show caption
Advocate Staff Photo by MICHELLE MILLHOLLON -- State Treasurer John N. Kennedy, right, visits Monday with state Education Superintendent John White before a state Senate committee hearing about legislation that would reduce the number of contracts scattered across state government. James H. Napper II, Kennedy's executive counsel, is on the left.

After meeting defeat year after year, state Rep. Dee Richard finally found success Monday in his bid to reduce the number of contracts scattered across state government.

Richard announced the news later in the day to his colleagues in the House chamber. “I appreciate you standing by me for four years,” he said.

The Senate Finance Committee advanced House Bill 142 after Richard agreed to a few changes and brought in college professors to lament about financially strapped campuses. The bill’s savings would benefit higher education. “We’re compromising to get the bill passed,” Richard said.

The committee’s vice chairman, state Sen. Norby Chabert, praised Richard for being flexible.

“We are in favor of the intent. We’ve always been in favor of the intent. … You’ve brought back a much better bill,” said Chabert, R-Houma.

Richard, No Party-Thibodaux, and state Treasurer John N. Kennedy have long beat the drum that some of the state’s financial problems could be solved by forcing state agencies to cut back on private consultants. The Jindal administration generally questions their approach, arguing that the legislation would turn away federal dollars and affect important contracts that provide services to the public.

Holding up a thick sheaf of contracts, Kennedy said state government can afford to shed a few consultants. He said 19,000 consulting contracts dot state government. Contracts routinely ridiculed by Kennedy include money spent to coach children on recess play and educate Hispanic drivers about seat belt safety.

The Jindal administration countered that the proposal would arbitrarily cut contracts and hurt public colleges while attempting to help them.

HB142 reached the committee as a simple directive for state agencies to reduce contracts by 10 percent. It left committee giving the legislative budget committee authority over contracts exceeding $40,000. Higher education could receive any savings generated by rejection or editing of proposed contracts.

Public college professors told committee members that campuses are wounded after back-to-back cuts in the amount of state general fund dollars spent on higher education.

Under the Jindal administration, colleges have had to increasingly rely on tuition increases.

“The hardships colleges have gone through: program cuts, faculty and staff laid off, services that used to be provided free as a public service … This bill is the best shot we have,” said Joe Mirando, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond.

This is the fourth year that Richard has offered the bill. Similar bills in 2011, 2012 and 2013 failed to clear the Legislature.

Kennedy praised the compromise on the bill that gives the legislative committee more oversight, saying nothing helps ward off temptation like the presence of witnesses. “This will bring some transparency to the contracting process. I believe it will lead to some changes,” he said.

The Senate Finance Committee typically has been a graveyard for the proposal.

On Monday, the Jindal administration resisted the legislation, even with the changes. Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, the governor’s chief budget adviser, said the proposal could have unintended consequences.

She said the first entity affected would be the Office of Group Benefits, which oversees the health benefits of current and retired state workers. “You would arbitrarily cut that contract for no other reason than to fulfill this bill,” she said.

Nichols said the bill also would affect coastal and higher education contracts.

“The impossible is often just the untried,” Kennedy retorted.

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