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Government consolidation efforts provide silver lining to hurricanes

As one of the few silver linings to the hurricane disaster cloud, the storms’ impacts have triggered a useful debate in Louisiana about government consolidation and even have seen the idea translated into practice.

The merging of many functions of the law enforcements agencies in Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, and St. Bernard Parishes may presage similar, and welcome, news. The concept around the state isn’t new by any means: witness the many merged governmental functions among the four cities in East Baton Rouge Parish with the parish government, as well as the metropolitan governments of the city of Lafayette with Lafayette Parish and Houma and Terrebone Parish.

But the impact of the storms has given new impetus to the idea that tremendous scales of efficiency can be achieved by taking separate agencies geographically proximate to each other and largely doing the same thing and consolidating many, if not all, of their functions. Even politics-as-usual Gov. Kathleen Blanco belatedly has jumped on the bandwagon with her next special session call likely to include measures concerning consolidation of levee governance and to reduce the fragmentation of some local government in New Orleans by paring the number of assessors from seven to one and merging the criminal/civil tracks in administering the justice system.

Even the traditional media, after paying scant attention to the issue, now seems interested (although government reformer/critic C.B. Forgotston has long championed the idea). An intriguing concept comes from Chris Tidmore who writes of merging entire Orleans and Jefferson governments and provides a good case not just for doing so (which always has existed) but why it is at least politically feasible at this time (which has never before existed). In past columns in other venues, I have argued that Caddo and Bossier Parishes would benefit greatly from merging all governments (save school districts) in the majority of their functions.

Americans often resist this idea because we believe strongly in self-government, and that fragmenting power among many subgovernments not only facilitates this, but also it reduces the power of any one government that, at least at the lowest levels, reduces its potential for mischief (although when considering higher governments, James Madison’s arguments in the Federalist #10 are compelling). Efforts in Orleans will provide a valuable test of political will to achieve this – for example, to date the inefficient, often patronage-laden Bridge Police, Causeway Police, and Harbor Police adminstrators have shown no enthusiasm for a consolidation that likely would eliminate their agencies.

While the state was grateful that the storms’ surges quickly and briefly washed over the landscape, let’s hope the surge from this idea is much longer-lasting past any recompiling levee governance and Orleans Parish. Miraculously, it even could lead to downsizing state government. And that would create a very nice, extensive silver lining to the otherwise bad impacts of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

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