Capitol Views: Bill changes review of consulting contracts

A version of a bill that unanimously was passed last year by both chambers of the Legislature with the backing of several university faculty senates, but which ultimately was vetoed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, appears to be heading back to the governor’s desk.

This is the fourth attempt by the duo of Treasurer John Kennedy and Rep. Dee Richard, No Party-Thibodeaux, to cut the amount of money the state spends on professional, personal and consulting service contracts. Earlier measures advocated across-the-board reductions to such contracts, but the House Appropriations Committee approved without objection the latest incarnation today.

HB 30 instead would allow lawmakers on the Joint Legislative Budget Committee to reject or approve practically any consulting contract with an annual value of $40,000 or more. The money saved by rejecting contracts then would be placed into the proposed Higher Education Financing Fund.

Kennedy said the bill, if approved, would allow lawmakers to review as many as 1,700 contracts valued at $2 billion; his estimate is based on an annual report from the Division of Administration, which reviews contracts. Division officials, however, said the number would be closer to 150 or so contracts valued at $21 million. The discrepancy between the estimates drew a distinct line in the sand that pits the bill’s author and Kennedy on one side against the administration on the other.

The treasurer cited several examples of contracts lawmakers might be in a position to reject, thus creating more money for higher education; an example was the $413,000 spent with Rutgers University in New Jersey to study the aftereffects of the BP oil spill. While there might be some benefit to the research, who should receive the contract is the big question, he said.

“Should we be giving that money to McNeese or ULM or LSU or Southeastern?” Kennedy asked.

Other questionable contracts lawmakers didn’t get to review in the past, according to Kennedy, included one to promote seat belt usage for the Hispanic population of Rapides Parish and others directing taxpayer money to groups such as Young Audiences of Louisiana, God’s Little Angels, Little People’s Play Station and Angels in Training. He cited nearly $47 million in coastal restoration contracts this fiscal year that lawmakers could have negotiated. “Don’t tell me they can’t do the job for 10% less,” Kennedy said.

Officials with the Division of Administration argued that the bill would extend contracting periods by 30 days at a minimum and up to 60 days at most for each contract. They complained about being micromanaged by lawmakers and labeled the savings touted by Kennedy and others as unrealistic.

Some lawmakers also voiced concerns about dedicating the savings only to colleges and universities.

“The biggest problem we have is lack of flexibility,” said Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington. “I support higher ed as much as anyone, but we cannot keep dedicating all of our money.”

The bill moves next to the House floor.

—With no opposing votes, the House Appropriations Committee also advanced today the state’s $3.7 billion funding formula for public K-12 schools to cover next fiscal year. HCR 18 by House Education Chair Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, includes $36 million in money that was inserted by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and roughly $40 million that was recently added for some 5,000 additional students. The bill moves next to the full House for further consideration.

—The House Ways and Means Committee finally has approved the state’s annual construction budget, as found in HB 2 by Chairman Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette. The bill includes bonding for projects all over the state; among those projects, some have been completed, others have not yet been started and many are in various stages of development. The Jindal administration is charged with sending the so-called capital outlay bill to lawmakers each year, and this go-around there’s $258 million more in projects than there is funding in the bill. Robideaux has expressed interest in stripping new projects from the legislation as it progresses through the session; he maintains up to $20 million could be saved through avoiding debt services. That option may be a long shot with lawmakers facing re-election in the fall, as many would like to tout brick-and-mortar achievements to voters.

Jeremy Alford will publish a daily update throughout the legislative session on Daily Report PM. He reports on Louisiana politics at LaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook. He can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.

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