THE SECRETARY OF STATE’S OFFICE was the perfect location. Nestled alongside the corporate hubbub of Essen Lane and roughly 10 miles from the heart of downtown Baton Rouge, where state government thrums loudly in the shadow of Huey’s House, the office represented an off-the-grid haven where Louisiana’s statewide elected officials could meet. It was also an inconspicuous site for Louisiana’s most powerful to coalesce; they would have certainly been noticed at the State Capitol Building, filing one after another into the same room after walking past hundreds of state employees who excel at doing few things better than passing intel.
And that’s how it started. Driving their tricked-out SUVs and taxpayer-supported rides, complete with special Louisiana plates that are as much about status as anything else, they slowly dribbled into the conference room set aside in late August. The Democrats showed up — Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell — as did the Republican statewides — Treasurer John Kennedy, Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon and Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, their host.
All were accounted for, expect GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal. His presence would have made things sticky at best. The meeting required, demanded even, that Jindal stay on the sidelines, or better yet seated in the bleachers. How could they be expected to speak candidly if the Big Dog was staring down upon them like political interlopers?
Caldwell, with his north Louisiana twang and no-holds-barred demeanor, had organized the gathering. Dardenne, quite the antithesis with his city-smarts and suave oratory, offered his conference room as a “central location.” The time had finally come.
Most knew going into the meeting that Jindal’s administration would be a topic of discussion, but all were urged to bring their own problems to the table — after all, maybe the others could help out. In this sense, many of the statewides viewed the gathering as a sort of mutual-assistance club, like Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia Junto. Nonetheless, some of the anti-Jindal sentiment let loose later during the meeting lent itself better to an ancient scene of Liberatores plotting against Julius Caesar, only without the bloodlust.
WATER AND COFFEE HAD BEEN MADE AVAILABLE, but the men, whose schedules demand that they live only for the next meeting, wanted to get down to business. So Caldwell convened the gathering. Among other things, he explained that there were growing concerns about the administration’s plans for so-called outcomes-based budgeting, which some interpret to include a process where departments could bid on each other’s services and potentially take them over if they can deliver them more efficiently.
To Caldwell, this concept was the latest in a long line of budgetary oversteps, like the administration telling the attorney general he couldn’t hire certain experts for cases he’s trying, even though his office is running a surplus. “Our individual and legal authorities cannot be compromised,” Caldwell says. “And there’s no reason for us to be fighting against each other.”
Strain, another statewide of country ilk whose ever-present belt buckle shows more rural roots than his speech, was among the most animated of the bunch when it came to this topic. In the past, he’s bemoaned already having to cut nearly $8 million and eliminating 25 employees. Strain, to his credit, has received accolades for inheriting and transforming a department that was widely perceived as having serious problems. “I’ve already streamlined my department,” Strain says. “We shouldn’t be bidding against each other for services.”
That much was agreed upon. The statewides would not take part in any kind of bidding process and would not swallow whole Jindal’s grand budget experiment. As in most political battles, this one had come down to money and turf.
At least one official veered from the path, though. According to sources in the meeting, Donelon, who did not return a call seeking comment, spent part of his time passionately railing against Legislative Auditor Steve Theriot, who has been seeking e-mails from Donelon’s office for more than a year. Donelon has argued in the past that Theriot has no legal authority. The courts disagreed and Theriot is on the offense.
The records requested date back to 2007 and involve fraud investigations, employee sick leave and other internal affairs. Specifically, Donelon asked the other statewides to stand together to keep Theriot out of their departments. When he completed his rant, none of the elected officials gathered made a comment.
Asides aside, the only thing left to do was to present the group’s arguments to Jindal. Dardenne, a former state senator who thrived on building consensus, carried out the task. He personally called the governor and set up a meeting to be held in roughly seven days’ time. For Jindal, the phone call must have been at least remotely jarring — to learn every statewide elected official, except for him, was just moments before in private conference discussing his proposed policies.
Indeed, it may have been a wake-up call. “In my 20 years as an elected statewide official, we never really met collectively in anything other than social settings or to break bread,” says Jim Brown, former insurance commissioner and secretary of state. “Rarely would an issue come up that would bring us together, aside from pay raises, or create an adversarial role with the governor. For something like that, you’d have to go back to [former Govs.] Earl Long or Edwin Edwards.”
It’s quite possible, however, that Earl Long and Edwin Edwards would have denied their conspirators a face-to-face meeting. Jindal, on the other hand, has become an old pro at putting out fires both real and imagined — and he probably recognizes a potential political threat for what it is, especially when it involves six statewide elected officials.
THE MEETING WITH JINDAL was held just a week later as scheduled. By all accounts, the governor was gracious, receptive and willing. He invited them all to the Governor’s Mansion at the end of a workday, so there would be few distractions. The mansion was emptied out of all non-essential bodies and Jindal kept only a few key staffers by his side.
Among the statewides, only Kennedy was missing. An oddity, given the treasurer’s well-documented tiffs with the administration over financial matters. While Jindal created the Commission on Streamlining Government this summer to address the state’s multi-year shortfall — now clocking in somewhere around $1 billion annually — Kennedy, as a member with brazen ideas and a knack for influencing media coverage, has made the commission all his own.
He says his absence shouldn’t be construed as a slight to the governor or what the statewides are trying to accomplish. “I missed that meeting and really only listened at the initial meeting,” Kennedy says. “Look, there’s a lot of frustration among the statewide elected officials and I understand that. But in the end, everyone wants to work with the administration.”
As Caldwell recalled, Jindal promised the statewides gathered that his administration would not encroach on their constitutionally protected authorities or force them into any kind of budgeting process that would water down their respective powers. Aside from that concession and some political chit chat, Caldwell added that Jindal kept the meeting light and promised to be more attentive.
That bit of ego stroking probably went a long way, especially since Jindal has been treating statewide officials quite differently from his predecessors — no regular lunches, no phone calls to take part in press conferences and few opportunities to sit at the policy-making table. In short, it was a nice change of pace. “I felt good about the meeting,” Caldwell says. “It was really the first time I was able to spend real time with the governor since taking office [in January 2008].”
The statewides stressed to Jindal that their combined budgets are less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the state’s total budget, which should be reason enough to allow them budgetary control. Moreover, they told him that each department head in the room was elected by the voters and should be treated as such by the administration. “The tenor of the meeting was receptive and he even encouraged us to keep meeting, which we will,” Caldwell says. “And I have a feeling he’ll meet with us again, too.”
Kathleen Blanco, who has served as governor and in statewide office as lieutenant governor, public service commissioner and state rep, says it would be in Jindal’s best interest to keep the statewides close to his inner circle, especially since they’re meeting privately to discuss specific policy issues, which was a rarity in her days as well.
Besides the obvious fact that statewides are often political competitors, Blanco says they’re also carrying out parts of the governor’s mission and can offer expertise not found in the administration. “We had regular meetings during my administration and it really gave us a sense that we were working on the same team,” Blanco says. “As for when I was lieutenant governor, we never felt the need to plot against the governor or fret about the governor. [Former Gov.] Mike Foster worked closely with us. We built the state park system together and I even got him to wear a tuxedo for an event once, and that was a challenge. Believe me.”
WHILE IT’S EASY TO DIRECT THE STATEWIDES’ COLLECTIVE BEEF at Jindal, it’s more of a direct path to aim it at Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis. Since taking office, and actually long before, Davis has been a champion of the reinventing government strategies of David Osborne of the Minnesota-based Public Strategies Group. In very basic terms, the strategy requires department and agency heads to prove in their annual funding requests that their individual activities are worth the money being assigned to them.
Known informally as “outcomes-based budgeting,” it’s a work-in-progress that started last year. And so far, it’s only been publicly discussed in broad terms by the administration. Even the state treasurer is waiting to see the complete picture. “I don’t have a taste for this new flavor of budget yet, but I do plan on trying to participate,” Kennedy says. “Except for the bidding. I won’t have anything to do with the bidding on of services.”
Sources close to the governor’s office contend “misinformation” and “hogwash” is being passed off to statewides as fact, causing them to stir without warrant. In fact, one high-ranking official called the reactions many statewides are having as “whining.”
When contacted for comment, Davis offered up the same line, but with a diplomatic touch. “Nobody ever said that this budgeting process entailed taking away anyone’s constitutional authorities, so it sounds like a whole lot of needless worrying based on misunderstanding,” Davis says. “The simple fact of the matter is that every department, every year, competes with each other for a share of general fund dollars in the budget.”
Knowing that the state is facing a nearly $1 billion shortfall for the next fiscal year, she says every department, “without exception,” needs to be prioritizing what they do and seeking ways to improve performance, cut costs and maximize efficiency. “We have made changes to the budgeting process to welcome those creative solutions,” Davis adds. “It’s what small businesses and families all have to do when money is tight. I imagine that the taxpayers expect nothing less from all of us in state government.”
Louisiana government has made attempts throughout the years to do “performance-based budgeting,” although it was difficult to find evidence of wide-scale implementation and actual spending decisions being based on performance data. Davis and her team are trying to take it to a level that’s decipherable and void of across-the-board cuts. Davis wants to shift the focus away from the usual continuation-budget practice of adding or subtracting from the base costs of government and toward outcomes.
In the past year, Davis has required departments to submit more meaningful performance information based on this result-driven system, such as Activity Performance Reviews that are meant to zero in on the smallest of activities, and Strategic Priority Plans that prompt department heads to essentially list funding lines in order of importance.
And then there’s the talk of bidding on services, a concept that has always been a part of Davis’ passion for the reinventing government trend. But administration officials contend the bidding process is often misunderstood. It won’t result in department heads going after each other’s services, they say. Dardenne, for one, suggests that wouldn’t happen even if the administration wanted it to. “Many of us have constitutional authorities that are inconsistent with this notion of bidding on activities,” he says. “We can’t be subjected to that.”
THE STATEWIDES HAVE EVERY REASON TO FEEL THREATENED, Brown says. The Commission on Streamlining Government is considering many bold ideas and investigating the best practices of other U.S. states, many of which have no elected treasurer or agriculture head, for example, or have already combined certain departments and agencies that stand alone in Louisiana. It’s just another reason for statewides to continue meeting privately to guard their interests, he adds.
Even if they survive this round of streamlining, deficits are scheduled for future years and Jindal’s commission will surely be back for the sequel. “I think some of them consider these threats to be very real,” Brown says.
Coupled with the satisfaction gained from closed-door access to Jindal and the spoils of a unified front, it’s no wonder that all of the statewides interviewed for this story want to keep the gatherings going. The strategy will certainly play out more publicly next year when the Legislature meets to consider recommendations from Jindal’s commission and oversees what will surely be contentious budget hearings. “We have plans to continue meeting regularly,” Strain says. “Absolutely.”
As for Jindal, this new collective of minds means his administration will not be able to ramrod blanket budget policies through state government. Statewide elected officials will have to be treated as a special interest that’s included in backroom discussions. For starters, it’ll be good politics. Think back to this past June when Louisiana’s four living former governors called upon Jindal in their own private meeting to reduce his planned cuts to education, to which he obliged. It grabbed headlines statewide and made for column and editorial fodder for weeks.
Now just imagine if all six statewide elected officials did the same thing — and in public, rather than in the conference room of Dardenne’s office. “We are elected by the people of Louisiana and not appointed or hired. There’s a great deal of institutional knowledge and experience in the group,” Caldwell says. “The governor would be an idiot not to coordinate with us.”