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Dardenne should stop whining, start privatizing

As previously noted, complaints about funding for Louisiana’s Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism are the norm for its chief Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne because of his political ambitions. But if he really wants to set himself apart from other gubernatorial contenders in 2015 as well as serve the state better, a change in tune from asking for handouts to helping himself would do the trick.

So far, as the state has faced fiscal pressures in the past few years, annually Dardenne has moaned that (1) his department isn’t getting enough money overall, (2) some of statutory dedications that could go to operating expenses instead are directed to funding special events, and (3) funds that could be used for capital items are getting diverted to operating costs. Almost certain to run for governor in two years, he has kept up this drumbeat of criticism as funding for parks has decreased from over $33 million to under $32 million, and for the department from $87 million to $80 million since he assumed the job in 2010 (a percentage reduction below many state agencies) because the relative powerlessness of the office becomes even more pronounced the fewer resources he has to use.

Last week, he harped again on the last gripe when lamenting about how repairs are coming so slowly for the most-visited of all state parks, Fontainebleau, concerning its dozen cabins that often are reserved months in advance still out of service after Hurricane Isaac. He repeated his refrain that in the past six years the removal of money from the State Park Repair and Improvement Fund, some $34 million worth, could have gone to repairs, among other capital items. However, using the discretionary authority in the law (clarified this year), over that span Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature have chosen to use that on operating expenses, leaving a $20.4 million backlog and a empty fund.

But these circumstances have as much to do with Dardenne’s managerial choices as the propensity of budgeters to choose current operations over maintenance and new initiatives. The fund gets all of its money from park revenues and from donations, and until this year Dardenne left unallocated fund balances every year that could have gone to the most pressing needs. Further, as his agency’s sunset report to the Legislature last year reveals, much of the spending that has gone on has been for new features at parks, even opening new parks themselves – decisions made by Dardenne. Of course, since Isaac hit only a year ago reconstruction at Fontainebleau then was not a priority, but even over the past year some redirections of funds could have occurred to start the process.

However, the specific conditions at Fontainebleau and general conditions throughout the state park system suggest a novel (for Louisiana) approach to solutions for them – privatization. In the past year-and-half alone, a half-dozen states made significant policy changes expanding the scope of privatization of park operations, even capital improvements. In these instances, states have recognized that introducing private sector operators will instill efficiency that will stretch taxpayer dollars.

Dardenne can get more bang for the buck by pursuing a similar course. For example, with Fontainebleau Dardenne can negotiate get a private firm to come in to fix cabins and to operate them – if he started now, maybe they could be ready for the peak season beginning in April. He could promise a cut reasonable enough to pay for the reconstruction and operation, which could be paid for out of incoming revenues from them for a fixed term that pays them off. Taxpayers win by putting no money up front and getting the cabins in operation sooner.

Similar kinds of deals could be made across the system, where 18 of the 23 parks with lodging can have some repairs or upgrading done. And operations of others can be contracted out to the private sector or to local nonprofits or governments. Nothing except political will prevents this from happening, and given its philosophy concerning other policy areas, the Jindal Administration ought to be on board with this kind of initiative.

In fact, the biggest stumbling block could be Dardenne himself, who throughout his executive political career has seemed more interested in asking more from taxpayers instead of doing more with their resources (with the exception that he left unfilled the CRT secretary’s job and assumed it himself). Yet as a legislator Dardenne on occasion advocated budget retrenchment to ask the state to do with less. The question is whether he views privatization as an alternative means to accomplish them, or whether he remains wedded to the notion that the more government does directly, the better it is. By boldly moving to privatization of park operations, he can demonstrate superior capacity to manage fiscal difficulties as well as sensitivity to take from the people only what truly is necessary – a commendable if not indispensible trait that should be possessed by the state’s elected leader.

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