Guest commentary: How to fix the state budget
Our colleges and universities are in trouble. Since 2008, they’ve been cut $700 million, and they’re about to be socked again to the tune of up to $400 million in reductions.

At some juncture, there’s a tipping point. Classes fall off the curriculum. The departure of professors turns into a stampede. Campuses turn into ghost towns. That’s the situation we’re creating with each snip to the education budget.

The whole scenario reminds me of the movie “Thelma and Louise,” with one notable difference. Our promising young people aren’t going to go off the edge of the cliff with our colleges and universities. They’re going to take a sharp turn and head to Ole Miss or Texas A&M. Once they leave, they won’t be back except to visit at Christmas and Thanksgiving.

We need to act now. We don’t want future generations visiting the ruins of Louisiana’s great universities. We need to stop dismantling what past generations worked so hard to build.

Yes, we have a $1.6 billion shortfall next fiscal year. Yes, we have difficult decisions to make. However, we can rebuild our budget — and that’s what we need to do — by settling on priorities, embracing fiscal conservatism and dispensing with the smoke and mirrors that have been used far too often.

Our budget woes do not necessitate tax increases. They do not necessitate sneaky fee hikes on Louisiana’s taxpayers. Our families already pay enough in taxes.

We need to focus on the state’s spending practices. We’re propping up a state budget and spending that clearly is unsustainable. We need to get lean in order to get strong.

All it takes is a little political will.

We can get our financial house in order. We just need the will and time to do it.

Let’s start with consulting contracts. We have thousands of them worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Over the years, we’ve paid consultants to analyze how our kids play at recess, encourage people to wear seat belts (which, by the way, is the law) and to use Facebook. I don’t know about you, but if I can’t pay my mortgage, the last thing on my mind is how well my kid interacts with others while he’s winding the tetherball around the pole on the playground. Shouldn’t the state be just as prudent a steward?

The governor resisted my push to cut consulting contracts in the last legislative session. Now, to his credit, he has quietly started cutting them on his own when he saw the amount of red ink in the state budget. I’d like to build on his reductions by eliminating 10 percent of consulting contracts paid with state money, ask those consultants left for a five percent discount (times are tough, after all) and offer consulting contracts paid with federal money to our colleges and universities.

Let’s also adopt the Patient Navigator Program used by Houston’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. The program pairs community health workers with medically underserved patients to cut down on unnecessary emergency room visits.

Emergency room care is expensive. Each year, Louisiana has 900,000 taxpayer-funded visits to the emergency room for nonemergency care. Taxpayers can’t afford for people to go the emergency room to be treated for acne or to get a pregnancy test.

Let’s terminate the $140 million consulting contract with four out-of-state consultants to build a website for food stamp recipients.

Let’s ensure that the changes we’ve made, such as paying insurance companies $2.6 billion a year to care for Medicaid patients, are making financial sense. Are we saving money? We have no idea. Let’s find out.

Those are just a few ideas, and they’re my ideas. I know other people have their own ideas. We should sit down and discuss together how to fix this mess before we deliver a catastrophic blow to our colleges and universities.

Let’s not send our state’s most valuable asset off the cliff with Thelma and Louise.

John Kennedy is Louisiana’s state treasurer.