Legislative Leaders Facing the Crisis

State legislatures are on the front line of government and have a profound impact on how innovative state government is or isn't.
by | February 7, 2011

Two legislative leaders, Sharon Weston Broome, Democratic President Pro Tem of the Louisiana Senate, and Dominic Pileggi, Republican Majority Leader of the Pennsylvania Senate, recently appeared at GOVERNING's Outlook in the States and Localities conference in Washington, D.C. They shared their thoughts on the directions their states are taking.

Challenge No. 1? The rising tide of red ink.

Both legislators agreed that dealing with budget imbalance is job one. Sen. Broome notes that like other states, Louisiana is facing a sizable budget gap -- roughly $1.6 billion out of a total budget of less than $8 billion. Pennsylvania faces a daunting budget shortfall of $4 billion to $5 billion on an overall $28 billion general fund.

The governors of both states have said they will oppose any efforts to raise revenues. So how will the legislatures deal with these challenges? Innovation is on the table in both states.

"One of the positive aspects of the current challenges is that it is forcing us to think outside the box, to embrace some non-traditional ideas," said Broome. "Even with all the creativity and innovation we aren't going to be making everybody happy, especially the state workers who are going to be feeling the impact of some of these cuts."

Pennsylvania is looking for certain innovations that could enhance service delivery and hold the line on costs. "In education, we hope to expand choice and expand the use of charter schools,"Pileggi said. "We are also looking at privatization of the state liquor control system."

Can technology save the day?

"Technology is important, but I don't know that you are going to solve our budget issues just through technological innovations," said Pileggi. "It can drive efficiencies, but you can't close these multibillion gaps through technology. But technology should be able to open up and make more transparent democratic deliberations, particularly in the area of redistricting."

Broome concurred. "I think telemedicine is an area we can look at enhancing preventative care and access," she said, noting other possible enhancements from technology were likely.

Education

Both senators stressed the link between education and economic competitiveness. Broome, a Democrat, and Pileggi, a Republican, saw this issue a bit differently.

"As President Obama said in his State of the Union address, [we need to look at] broadband access, educating our communities from family to school room, some practical solutions we can aim for," said Broome. "We have to look beyond our normal thoughts as the way things used to be and move forward...."

Pileggi leaned more toward a systemic overhaul. "Our Senate Bill 1 is a school choice bill and it has bipartisan support -- it is co-sponsored by an urban Democrat and a suburban Republican. Schools have failed children for 20 years, and when children are trapped at persistently failing schools, why not give the parents an opportunity to seek alternatives? On education, the old approach was to pour more money into a k-12 education monopoly -- now there have to be new approaches other than money.... I'm not saying we should defund public education, but we need to try different models."

Broome was asked about the significant education reforms that followed Katrina. "There's some concerns about the effects of some of the new schools. But the experience of the Recovery School District is raising the issue of school choice more broadly in Louisiana."

What is the future of privatization in various areas?

Pennsylvania, said Pileggi, is considering privatization of liquor sales. The main debate is whether that is a core activity of government. "Our state is in the business of retail wine and liquor sales -- we are in the position of advertising for people to come in and buy beer and wine and maybe buy a lottery ticket while they're at it." Other issues have been floated as well. "Should we sell or privatize the operation of infrastructures, such as turnpikes or prisons? These are under discussion as well, but each has their own pluses and minuses," said Pileggi.

Privatization in Louisiana may not be moving as quickly. "Our governor has offered privatization ideas in several areas, including our state retirement system, prison system and a number of other ideas, including the sale of state land," said Broome. "We'll see how these all evolve--not all of these are well received right now."

Pileggi said meeting the challenge all comes down to embracing "real change." As he put it, "I think people understand that there are limits as to what government can do in terms of solving problems. We've reached the limit of the federal government funding every worthy effort out there--we can't look to Washington for torrents of money."

State legislatures are on the front line of government and have a profound impact on how innovative state government is -- or isn&'t. But the media tends to ignore these players, focusing instead on governors and federal officials.

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