As Hurricane Katrina roared through Louisiana, the focus, naturally, was on dealing with the hundreds of thousands of people impacted by the storm and coordinating cleanup in the aftermath.
To that end, it was essential that Louisiana state government remain operational during the ordeal. With Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco called upon to be the visible face of state government in the midst of the crisis, the behind-the-scenes job of ensuring that Louisiana government kept functioning fell to a team of top officials, led by Commissioner of Administration Jerry Luke LeBlanc.
In a way, it was fitting that LeBlanc be in the center of the action. After all, he made his name in the Louisiana House of Representatives — and nationally — as an influential proponent of performance-based government, and Louisiana’s government would be called upon to perform as it never had been before.
A lifelong resident of Lafayette, the 49-year-old LeBlanc holds a degree in business and has worked as a real estate appraiser. He served in the Louisiana House of Representatives from February 1989 to January 2004 (following in the footsteps of his father, who also had represented the area) and was the first House member to serve as chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.
LeBlanc says his business background, combined with his first experience watching the legislature craft the state’s budget, was what led him to push for linking spending to measurable results. “There was just no accountability,” says LeBlanc. “I knew there had to be a better way.”
And so LeBlanc started down two tracks. On the one hand, he drew up his own notions for how to build meaning into the budget — that is, a clearer picture of what state dollars were supposed to be buying by way of real results. And he also looked at five other states that had embarked on similar efforts.
In a state not known for strong management, LeBlanc used his role as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in 1996 to push and help pass legislation aimed at moving Louisiana toward a new model of budgeting and administration. While in some cases, LeBlanc says, progress is coming “one retirement at a time” — a not-so-subtle reference to what it sometimes takes to change the culture of a bureaucracy — he thinks that the concept of performance-based budgeting now has a foothold in both the legislative and executive branches.
In addition, LeBlanc’s tireless efforts to push performance as a fundamental value in state government have distinguished him nationally. “He’s clearly one of the most knowledgeable and experienced officials when it comes to these issues,” says Judy Zelio, of the National Conference of State Legislatures. LeBlanc is part of a national team set up to educate other states on implementing performance-based budgeting and was a significant contributor to “Legislating for Results,” which NCSL published in 2003. The book and CD represent a thorough and accessible primer for state legislators — a group that’s not generally known for being very tuned in to managing and budgeting for results. For holdouts, LeBlanc offers up a favorite motto: “Budget fads come and go, but accountability never goes out of style.”
Now, as chief of administration, LeBlanc says he’s had an illuminating opportunity to see what performance is all about from the executive side. Indeed, when the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee floated a tax-break plan last April, LeBlanc publicly urged it to reconsider. “I would plead with you to be cautious as you consider legislation that would have negative impacts [on the budget] and make things worse,” he said at the initial tax-cut hearing. “I would urge a little extra caution because of the situation and how fragile it is.”
In urging the Senate committee to go slow on tax cuts, LeBlanc was hewing to a classic tenet of performance-based government: Cutting taxes may be simple and popular in the short run, but you never know when a crisis might hit the state that requires government to step up and do some huge job that it never anticipated having to do. No one could have predicted that the lesson would be driven home so soon after LeBlanc’s admonition — or so devastatingly.
— Jonathan Walters
Photo by Jackson Hill