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LA earmark procedures need changing, not elimination

In its deliberations, an interesting request came from Treasurer John Kennedy for the Commission on Streamlining Government to pursue: the end of earmarks as we know them. Kennedy argued that a Commission recommendation be to eliminate them completely, arguing they allowed too much wasteful spending. Opponents countered that this approach threw the baby out with the bathwater. What’s the correct policy here?

First, note that this is a statutory matter, not a constitutional one. This is because the Louisiana Constitution grants the Legislature power to make appropriations (Art. X Sec. 7(D)(1)). Thus, to alter the Legislature’s ability to make such appropriations, it would take just a statute to do so.

Second, this would affect the theoretical principal-agent relationship between the state and local governments. In theory, local governments are entirely creatures of the state, created and assigned to perform certain tasks (with a few dozen of these entities granted extra latitude in doing so through the use of home rule charters). Thus, to surrender the power to transfer money to a local government for a purpose the legislature finds desirable impedes its ability to act as the principal.

Third, a conceptual distinction needs making between one kind of agent, local government, and another, the so-called “nongovernmental organization” (NGO) which is an entity not connected to government, probably nonprofit in nature, but seen as a vehicle by which to carry out state policy. That differentiation relies upon another theoretical principle in intergovernmental relations, known as “subsidiarity.” This idea argues that governmental functions should be performed at the lowest possible level, regardless whether the administering level has the power to do so independently. There is some history of subsidiarity concerning federal-state relations in America, exemplified by the (vastly de-emphasized) 10th Amendment.

However, there are 50 separate political cultures concerning state-local relations, and Louisiana’s history is weak in the practice of subsidiarity. For example, the state provides extensive services in health care through its charity hospital system, and with the majority of funding in elementary and secondary education. Especially since the 1930s, this notion has not played as strong of a role in policy-making as it has in many other states.

Applying these principles, some measure of earmark reform is possible and desirable by the Legislature. It would be too restrictive to completely ban the practice. It does serve the principal-agent purpose, and if there are “abuses,” the means have been implemented, at least by legislative rules, to ensure transparency which would assist in the real solution to earmarks considered wasteful, voter recognition of this and use of elections to replace offending legislators. (Not that this couldn’t be strengthened; the standards need to become a matter of law and perhaps made stricter.)

However, in regards to NGOs, the principal of subsidiarity would mandate that the state get out of that business. Since the NGOs are confined to local areas and perform functions assigned to local governments, those governments would be the appropriate ones by which to make such decisions. A statute limiting state earmarks to go only to local governments to perform tasks assigned to local government by Art. VI of the Constitution would be entirely appropriate, and should be pursued.

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