Our Views: A jihad misguided

One can only applaud persistence, even in pursuit of what we believe will be small, if not totally illusory, savings from a jihad against state consulting contracts.

The jihadists are Rep. Dee Richard, No Party-Thibodaux, and state Treasurer John N. Kennedy, who have decried for years what they see as excessive spending on contracts.

For the record, we have agreed with the critics of this simplistic approach, including the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal and members of the Senate Finance Committee, which has routinely killed Richard’s bills in past years.

If Kennedy can point to some contracts that sound silly — and it’s a standard riff in his political speeches — upon closer inspection, most of them turn out to be services that the state needs. Big money in contracts goes for standardized testing or inspection of facilities or something of that nature, or “contracts” with the U.S. government or businesses for various services.

Some “consultants” actually save the state money by doing work that would in the past be done by a full-time employee. Many of the contracts are federally funded, to conform to requirements of a grant. The Jindal administration says it has already cut contracts, just not enough for the jihadists.

Sometimes, the jihad against contracts can get ugly: Kennedy has in the past criticized a contract for Muslim religious services in prisons. We think the hint of bigotry in that particular criticism is obvious, and if anything, we think that providing only Christian services could result in legitimate complaints or even a lawsuit.

Some contracts are political patronage. Some are silly. But the notion that the state budget can be balanced with Richard’s bills was nonsense all along.

The essence of any jihad is simple answers to complex problems.

However, there’s a new wrinkle this year.

Richard wanted to force a 10 percent cut in agency contracts, but senators rewrote the bill to require that most consulting and professional services contracts of $40,000 or more would need approval from the Legislature’s joint budget committee.

Under this feel-good version of a feel-good bill, if unworthy contracts are pruned by the committee, savings would be directed to higher education.

We hope there are significant savings ahead, but we remain skeptical. For one thing, as the volume of contracts is large in a $25 billion enterprise, the budget committee is likely to be like other public bodies in the position of looking at multipage lists of contracts. The new bill only applies to general fund contracts, not those from federal funds, so that will help.

On the one hand, maybe that will lead an enterprising member to do the grunt work that Richard and Kennedy have avoided, such as researching what contracts really are pure politics or wasteful. It takes work, but surely there are some smelly fish in the barrel.

On the other hand, we wonder if a term-limited Legislature with relatively little insight into the machinery of government will actually be an effective monitor of the flow of small contracts through many agencies.

Under the rewritten Richard bill, the oversight provisions would expire in 2017 unless lawmakers choose to renew them. We hope there are some real savings there, but we wouldn’t be surprised if the administrative difficulties overwhelm the lofty promises of this bill’s sponsors.