By Steve Winham, guest columnist
I have a regular monthly breakfast with venerable politician and retired state fire marshal, V. J. Bella. As a legislator, V. J. never shied away from taking bold actions (think cabbages inside motorcycle helmets hit with baseball bats) and his background and devotion to the cause made him uniquely qualified as fire marshal. He is also a good friend.
Among other topics, we always have lengthy discussions about Gov. Edwards. At our most recent breakfast last week, V. J. said he believes Gov. Edwards is running for re-election too early. He may have a strong point and, based on recent press reports, the game is already afoot to discredit him every way possible by at least one Republican PAC (America Rising). It has already launched a website to gather negatives about Edwards. The plan, of course, is to stress his failures, including those dealing with our budget, economy, infrastructure, education, etc.
If the governor attempts to please as many people as possible over the remainder of this term in hope of being re-elected, how can he possibly recommend the very difficult and unpopular solutions necessary to begin to move us up from dead last among the states by most measures. In an ideal world, making those hard choices would endear him to the public and ensure his re-election. Unfortunately, the real world is not the political world.
If, in my dreams, I was Gov. Edwards, I would announce today that I am not running for re-election as governor, nor running for anything else. I would then make dramatic changes unilaterally and push a legislative agenda that would move our state forward without a care for my personal political future.
As a bonus, taking bold, but politically unpopular actions would allow legislators to blame everything their constituents didn’t like on me. That worked well for legislators even in the good times, so it could work even better now – “I put that rodeo arena in the capital outlay bill, but the governor vetoed it. Vote for me and I’ll get it in there when we get rid of him next election.”
There is no question our budget is seriously broken. Nor is there any question that is our major problem. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Our educational system continues to decline – Both strongly contribute to our stagnant economy and enhance a basic distrust of our government. Businesses cannot reasonably plan because they have no idea how they will be taxed over time. People dependent on state services have no assurances for the future.
All state services not completely protected continue a steady march toward total breakdown. At the same time, we see almost daily news reports of waste, fraud, and corruption within government. The public has lost faith in the ability of government to do anything right.
The first thing I would do is call my cabinet together and tell them I am tired of seeing news reports about things they should have been paying enough attention to catch and fix. It’s not that hard to get a handle on these things. It is a simple matter of working down the chain of command and holding people accountable at every level. More on this later.
I would use the excellent January 2017 report of the Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy and other information to put together a firm proposal of both expenditure cuts and revenue measures to permanently fix the gap of $1.2 billion that will result from expiration of sales taxes in July 2018. Further cuts are unlikely to be popular, but they will be much more popular than additional taxes.
Since people are fed up with government, and because I believe it is needed now more than ever, I would do something I recommended in 1990. I would take existing staff from the budget and accounting sections of the Division of Administration to create a small entity called the Office of Effectiveness and Efficiency. I would send this team to every department, beginning with the most troublesome one and working down. They would take a common-sense look at how things are being done and recommend changes to make them better. I would expect full cooperation from my cabinet secretaries.
Restoring the public’s faith in government is a daunting task, but it should be of highest priority. Until people begin to have this faith, they will never believe anybody in government cares about waste or providing the best services possible and they will certainly not enthusiastically support sacrifices to support such a system. It is simply not possible to begin to restore faith in government if political commitments override all other concerns.
We desperately need stability to achieve anything in this state. Pandering to popular beliefs not supported by facts to win elections clearly does not work for the greater good. An objective look at what has happened since our most recent presidential election should tell you that.
So, I would challenge Gov. Edwards to take the bold step of not seeking re-election and to announce it immediately so he can be free to fight the battles necessary to set us straight. If he did, he might just find people begging him to change his mind and run again after all – And, if that happened, it would put a whole new, and ironic, spin on V. J.’s view.