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Too many boards? Law cuts 15 state advisory committees

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Saturday, July 13, 2013 - 11:30am

An Ascension Parish lawmaker believes getting rid of some state-level advisory committees will save taxpayers money while making government operate more efficiently.

But others worry that a lack of oversight is damaging the local economy.

State Rep. Clay Schexnayder (R-District 81) authored a bill in the previous legislative session, HB 156, which eliminated 15 state boards and commissions. It passed without objection and was signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The goal of the legislation was to, "maximize the efficiency of government," Schexnayder said Thursday, "to make it smaller, to help the taxpayers with boards and commissions that wasn't working."

The 15 boards provided regulation and oversight to a variety of topics, including obesity, education, and wildlife.

"They had a good purpose," Schexnayder said of those boards, "and people had the insight to want to do it, to make something better."

But Schexnayder claimed that they failed to perform the role to which they aspired.

"They have a place," he added. "But we want the people that are appointed to these boards to have a little responsibility, and show up and do what they're supposed to do."

When Gov. Jindal took office, the state had 590 boards and commissions. Since then, he has approved the removal of 130. Most of the boards focus on specific issues related to health care or the environment. But some pertain to marriage, addiction, and polysomnography (studying sleep).

Some board members get paid for their work, while others work for free. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education paid its members $100,000 last year in per diems and travel expenses. Members of the Southern High-Speed Rail Commission took home more than $40,000 to study the idea of a high-speed train connecting Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Plans have been seemingly dormant since 2009, when Gov. Jindal turned down $300 million in federal stimulus money.

Schexnayder said money had no bearing on which boards were cut.

"You still have a job to do," he argued. "And that job needs to be done whether you're paid or not."

Instead, he claimed that the primary reason for a board to fail was that its members, for a variety of reasons, refused to meet.

"It's hard to get 12, 15 people together every month to work on one common goal," he said.

Peter Gerica does not harbor that sentiment. He serves on the Crab Task Force, as he has for the last three decades.

"Having the idea that you can get on a panel and be able to have your voice heard, talk to biologists and learn a little something, it's a great thing," he said.

The Crab Task Force met in Baton Rouge on Thursday to discuss a number of issues, including protections for immature female crabs; payment of salaries for the Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board; disposal of derelict traps; and appointment of new members.

The board's leadership tries to set meetings well in advance, and in locations that are central to its membership.

"You gotta weigh things out and you gotta be able to have the flexibility to pull people in when you need them," Gerica stated.

Gerica is a third-generation crab fisherman who lives on the east side of New Orleans. By law, all of the voting members of the Crab Task Force are working fishermen or processors. Employees of the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and LSU may serve as non-voting members.

"I can see where it's important to have people that are in the industry in there," Schexnayder said. "But I can also see a part where you want somebody from outside the industry, that's not hands-on. But it seems to work well right now." 

Gerica claimed that he and his colleagues are perfectly capable of regulating an industry they actively participate in, because they are invested in its prosperity.

"Oh, the industry would fall on the wayside if didn't have the actual people out there that's making things happen participating," he claimed. "We knew that when we didn't have it. That's why we put these task forces together."

None of the members of the Crab Task Force earn a per diem or travel reimbursement.

"On a short trip like this, I mean, even though fuel's up, that's the least you can do for your industry," Gerica said.

Before the 15 boards were eliminated, Schexnayder spoke with members of the related state agency to find out if they could perform the duties being neglected by those particular boards.

"You don't want to stick something somewhere where they're not going to be able to have oversight of it," he stated.

He went on to say that the Crab Task Force is doing a good job or preserving and growing the crab industry, and its members take their responsibilities seriously, so there is no danger of that board being dismantled any time soon.

"We don't want to eliminate a good board," he said, "that's gonna really have a good function and help the state and get things properly done."

Included in the law signed by Gov. Jindal this year is a sunset clause, forcing each board to the Legislative Auditor every year to prove it still performs its desired functions. Schexnayder anticipates reviewing those reports to determine if more boards deserve to be cut in 2014.

"As long as we can keep downsizing [government] and making it better for the taxpayers, and streamlining government, make a smaller footprint," he said, "I think this legislation, we'll move forward with it." 

The Legislative Fiscal Office said getting rid of those 15 boards would save a very small amount of money, if any.

But Schexnayder argued that, since there are nearly as many boards in Louisiana as festivals, any cost savings is a bonus.

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