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Continue quest for right-sized LA govt with Library review

This Saturday the 2013 edition of the Louisiana Book Festival will come off, and the circumstances of its reemergence provide an example to Louisiana government in general, and to the State Library of Louisiana in particular.

The Festival is an all-day affair that showcases Louisiana-authored books, those connected with the state, and those who write about it. Beginning in 2002, through 2009 it relied mostly on state funding, but with the Pres. Barack Obama-inspired non-recovery of the country’s economic fortunes, budget pressures on Louisiana cut out that funding and 2010 saw no such event.

But Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who also has the portfolio of overseeing tourism and culture efforts in the state and as such also has the State Library under his aegis, took the lead in arranging for private funding of the event that was leveraged into obtaining federal government funding. Since 2011, the Festival has gone on without any state funding.

Dardenne’s privatization strategy was entirely correct. If authors and publishers want publicity for their products, by having these there and by them holding readings, discussions, and workshops, and if bibliophiles want to consume them, it’s enough that the state pitch in some in-kind assistance with its employees organizing and it supplying space for this. Otherwise, it’s up to those groups to use their own resources in this effort. Government has no obligation to provide this for the self-interests of a tiny segment of the state’s population, as government should do only what people in general through their own honest efforts cannot that involves an important objective – especially when competing for $300,000 in funds that, for example, could provide the equivalent of nine waiver slots to serve the developmentally disabled. That the privatization has succeeded since only validates this.

However, at least one of Dardenne’s subordinates doesn’t seem to get it. State Librarian Rebecca Hamilton recently moaned about how a return to the status quo ante of state funding would be so nice for the Festival, and more broadly, for the Library itself. She complained about budget cuts of over 40 percent to $7 million in the past eight years and staff cuts nearly as much to leave 48 employees, remarking that a 43 percent rise in her employees taking sick leave was “a strong indicator of people wearing out” as a consequence.

More expertly analyzed, that rise can be attributed to the absurdly generous paid sick leave policy in effect for many classified state employees of two days per month; with a realistic policy, you might find more gamers on the job. Yet it also begs the question of whether the Library truly does perform necessary tasks not duplicated anywhere else in state government.

Certainly the collection of, preservation of, and making accessible materials, locating and shuffling books through interlibrary loan, assisting patrons in locating materials, etc. are activities that serve a reasonably broad segment of the population (especially as the Library coordinates among the 68 local library districts in the state). But when reviewing its strategic plan for the next five years inclusive, there appear some tasks more suitably performed by other parts of state government – and in fact already are being done by them.

For example, why does the Library provide homework tutoring when that is a function of and is being (or should be) performed by local school districts? Or it tries to provide job-hunting skills and information that already is available through the Louisiana Workforce Commission? And is not professional development of librarian skills better served through community college or technical schools?

And cannot the job be done more efficiently? Oklahoma, a state of similar population as Louisiana, has a whole Department of Libraries, which performs similar tasks and maintains three state libraries for about a million dollars fewer this year and 52 currently listed employees.

Dardenne has all but announced he will run for governor in 2015, and during that campaign a big issue will be competence in managing government in a funding era that demands the utmost efficiency and keeping it at an appropriate size. How he handled the Festival revival shows an understanding of right-sized government. He can add to his selling points for the office by ensuring the same happens with the Library.

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