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Bills, debate show statist attitudes die hard in Legislature

Two bills, minor in and of themselves, when opened to debate the rhetoric concerning them that flows shows that, despite recent progress in extinguishing this attitude among public servants, the statist mentality still hampers Louisiana public policy-making.

SB 479 by state Sen. Mike Walsworth would allow the state to trade out as economic incentives surplus property. It would follow the current legal procedure of the Department of Natural Resources reviewing whether property is surplus and, if so, getting it appraised, but then instead of auctioning it, the Department of Economic Development with the approval of the Commissioner of Administration would get to use it as an incentive to attract a business and its concomitant economic boost as a result of successful recruitment.

The House Natural Resources and Environment Committee approved the bill but not before tacking on an amendment that would require any specific project utilizing this feature to return to it and its Senate counterpart for vetting. DED opposed it, arguing this could take agreements made with confidentiality out of the running by use of this tool.

With this option unlikely to be used more than rarely in any event and the added oversight a legitimate method to reduce the tendency to sweetheart deals to the detriment of the people, this provision is not obnoxious enough to make the bill unmeritorious for passage. But what was obnoxious was the implications of comments made by panel members supporting the amendment. State Rep. Sam Jones said of it, “I don’t want to be putting these things out there as carrots,” while state Rep. Stephen Ortego opined, “We are elected to be stewards of the public property.”

Note the underlying attitude behind these sentiments: that it should not be the job of the state to dispose of property not used or with any reasonable chance the state would need it for some public purpose in the not-distant future. Instead, it’s not the purpose of government to be a holder of idle taxpayer resources, but to control as few resources as possible and enable an opportunity for the citizenry to hold as individuals, groups, on in collective organizations outside of government in private ownership as much of this as possible. This means exactly that the state should be maximizing its efforts to have “out there … carrots.”

And while it is a goal as an elected official “to be stewards of the public property,” it is one far less important than to be purveyors of public property whenever a compelling reason is absent for government to possess it. As long as there’s nothing unethical about a deal, the task is not to decide whether to keep the property, but to divest of as much of it as quickly as possible. To state being a “steward” as a primary reason to veto a transfer of surplus property in this context shows a misunderstanding of the role of an elected representative and of the purpose of government. Worse would be if this thinking leads to supporting the amended bill precisely to render it practically inoperative in order to keep as much property in the state’s hands as possible.

But while this bill in its present form is salutary, even if the amendment discourages divestment of surplus property, another one that discourages this even more and reflects a general aggrandizement to the state but specifically to elected officials comes in the form of SB 106 by Sen. Rick Gallot. This would allow a legislator to receive office space declared “surplus” in his district for use as a district office, if approved by the Commissioner of Administration. (Although it was even worse prior to amending; originally, it said “vacant” space.)

This creates yet another potential perquisite for legislators to enjoy and additional costs to the taxpayer. While one could argue that this might make for more convenience for constituents for office visits, few districts in the state are so spread out that this would really matter and staffing resource constraints are such that multiple district offices could have none of them staffed full-time unless the legislator wants to do it himself. This is more than offset by the extra maintenance, upkeep, and utility costs that another occupied suite would impose on taxpayers. Let’s face it, this is mostly about feeding egos by elected officials getting more stuff from the taxpayers than in any additional value brought to serving the people.

Like the other, this bill is about to get to the floor of the other chamber from which it originated. Unlike the other, this one needs to be voted down because it is not cost effective and might provide a disincentive for shedding surplus property, as legislators enjoying free space might do what they can to prevent it from being sold out from under them.

In common between them also is the disturbing attitude reflected in the debate around these bills – that it should not be a priority for government to shed itself of assets, all too wedded to the false notion that bigger government is better. While elections in recent years have begun to wring the possessors of this attitude out of policy-making positions and influence, this debate demonstrates the job of neutering that view completely remains quite unfulfilled.

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