Start with the sixty-four parishes. In the rural farming economy of the early 20th century, each parish served as the synergy of daily life in Louisiana. There was a need for local road and water districts to take care of rural needs. Government, by nature, was local. Police jurors and sheriffs ran their respective local districts like fiefdoms. Rural voters elected local candidates who directly touched their lives.
The sheriff was not there just to keep you safe, but to offer you a ride to town for groceries or to take you to the doctor. The local police juror kept the ditches from overflowing and could see to it that a little gravel was spread on the dirt road leading to your farmhouse. Baton Rouge was often a two-day ride on horseback or an all-day trip by car over muddy dirt roads. What happened or did not happen at the local courthouse had a direct bearing on the daily lives of a majority of Louisianans.
But that was in days gone by. Times have changed, and the state has assumed the vast majority of public duties including the funding and administration of highway construction, flood protection, healthcare, and an array of other public needs. Yet the local governing structure, with thousands of commissions, districts, and boards, hasn’t really changed in the past 75 years.
Do we need sixty-four parishes? Or would forty-five work more efficiently and save millions? Do cities that take up the bulk of the parish like New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Shreveport really need both a sheriff and a police chief? Some of the small, rural parishes have as few as nine thousand people per district judge. The average is more like 20,000 per judge. Should consolidation be undertaken? Why does every parish elect a coroner? Back in the 70s in my home parish of Concordia, a local logger held the job. Couldn’t professionals run this job on a regional basis?
As demographer Elliot Stonecipher has pointed out in a recent study, Louisiana’s population is about the same today as it was in 1985. Yet, instead of a reduction in local and state governmental units, the numbers have been substantially increased. Over the past century, little has changed in Louisiana in how local government operates, and the system in place today is run by the same archaic institutions that were put in place before the invention of the telephone, light bulb, automobile, and, of course, the computer.
The same overlap exists on the state level. Do we need four boards to govern higher education? How come states like California and North Carolina, where colleges rank at the top of national lists function quite well with just one board? And how about the slew of state boards and commissions that appear to make up ways to regulate where none is needed? If I go to my local grocery store and buy a dozen roses for my wife, do I really need a licensed florist, who has to be tested and certified through a floral board, to wrap them for me? Do I need a board to oversee someone I hire to help decorate my office or home?
Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw discussed the problem and the opportunity: “Every state and every region of the country is stuck with some form of anachronistic and expensive local government structure that dates to the horse-drawn wagons, family farms and small-town convenience. It’s time to reorganize our state and local government structures for today’s realities rather than cling to the sensibilities of the twentieth century.”
Streamlining state government should be a major concern of both the governor and the legislature. Louisiana needs major change. President John Kennedy said it well. “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownusa.com.