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Enforced parsimony improves program menu, delivery

For all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth that occurs relative to budget cuts in Louisiana, the fact of the matter is they have a cleansing effect, wringing out impure inefficiencies otherwise potentially tolerated without the imperative of tighter money. Case studies show the benefits they bring to taxpayers.

In the waning days of the just-completed legislative session, one high-profile program that seemed on the chopping block when there was a movement afoot to exclude some recurring funds from the budget just because they weren’t classified as being in the general fund was Early Steps, which seeks to assist developmentally disabled children to overcome as much as possible learning impediments at an early age to prepare them for regular schooling. If the program does what it should, this makes sense to avoid having more intensive and expensive services later administered without this intervention.

When funding did come through, obviously program participants were relieved, but the near-miss also induced some retrospection about what the program does and how it goes about doing it. As one functionary noted, restructuring and review of the core assumptions of how the program can operate to achieve its goals using fewer resources are tasks inspired by the threat of budgetary reductions. Without such external stimuli, incentives for this kind of evaluation may never exist sufficiently to prompt money-saving measures.

The necessity to scrutinize the relative value and worth of programs also encourages institutions to scale back or shed those that are too peripheral from its core mission. Just such an action comes next fiscal year at Nicholls State University, where, under pressure of reduced state funding, it will reduce its subsidy of the Louisiana Center for Women and Government from $275,000 to $50,000. The organization asserts it’s there to promote women in government and public service, to acknowledge achievements of women, and to teach all citizens about the importance of public service and responsible citizenship.

That’s all well and good, but is it necessary to have conferences, leadership summits, girls’ academies, leadership and campaign institutes, and paid internships of as many as 15 hours credit for female college students in state government to accomplish this on the taxpayer dime? Is all of this necessary and non-duplicative, especially as other nonprofits or the private sector or universities across the state (without necessarily offering pay) offer essentially much of the same?

Nor does this constitute an evident good investment for taxpayers when the present head of the organization, who will lose her full-time job (she does retain her faculty position) as its leader cites as justification for continued increased funding that, given the relative paucity of women in the Legislature, this means “[t]here is no balance in the Legislature in the perspectives that are being brought to the table in what's important and what's not important.” Not only does this view reflect the tired and invalid notion of identity politics, it also ignores the reality that women do serve in the Legislature, have input into the bills that come out of it (including their own), and that women do have the right to vote and do so regularly in Louisiana elections. This political agenda aside, confidence in the Center’s proper orientation erodes further by having an ex-state legislator on the payroll whose salary exceeds the continuing subsidy.

This is not to say that the program’s existence nor its apparent perspective are undesirable, but that it’s questionable whether this is an appropriate expense borne by taxpayers and with students’ tuition dollars – again, given that other entities outside and inside of government perform many similar functions. Nor does it mean that everything that gets taxpayer bucks now deserves them through fulfilling a genuine need that otherwise would be unmet without state government intervention – perhaps the most notorious example of an utterly wasteful program being the shelling out of hundreds of millions of dollars annually to make movies that returns only 13.5 cents on the dollar to the citizenry.

The director appears to have come to the understanding that private dollars can supplement what the citizenry has provided until now, and if its purposes are deemed valuable to the community, those dollars will manifest from it. But absent the reality of cutting budgets, would this shift in focus ever have taken place? Taxpayers would continue to have been on the hook for something not meeting a genuine need efficiently as possible. So as much as slimming budgets disrupts, this acts wonderfully usefully to prompt efficient governance. And Louisiana still has a way to go in slicing spending before that ceases to be true.

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