Big payroll a major challenge for Jindal

Most of us have been so focused on the cost of President Barack Obama’s massive “stimulus” that we may not have noticed the financial picture here in Louisiana. The state has about 105,000 people on its payroll, with base salaries totaling $4.6 billion bucks – the highest level in its history.

Of course, the spending doesn’t end with meeting base salaries. You have to add such things as retirement and benefit expenses. With that, the state payroll expenses go winging to a new level – close to $8 billion. That’s about four-fifths of what will flow into the general fund in taxes and other direct revenue annually.

The situation calls for strong thought and creative action by our state officials.

During Gov. Bobby Jindal’s first 11 months in office, the total state budget decreased because of declining federal subsidies. The employment rolls increased by 3,198 jobs, or 3 percent. The new employees and pay raises boosted the state’s base payroll by $278 million, or 7 percent.

The jobs gained were high priced. While the number of state workers earning less than $40,000 per year declined last year, the number who make more than $40,000 grew by 4,334 jobs.

Then comes the big jump. With those workers drawing down salaries of more than $100,000, the state’s payroll grew by $96 million in one year. That amounts to about one-fourth of this year’s state budget shortfall.

The Jindal administration hasn’t been on the hunt for high priced employees. Actually, the increase in payroll was happening as the governor and his budget officer were freezing or eliminating jobs. They cited a state employment system that is not entirely under their control. Examples offered were higher education and health care.

Another factor that has affected Jindal’s efforts to keep things under control is the number of state jobs that have been essential in the New Orleans since the attack of Hurricane Katrina. About a third of last year’s state worker increase was attributable to health care operations in and around the Crescent City.

This was taking place even as the governor and his budget officers were freezing or eliminating positions at many agencies, and consolidating offices.

Jindal also has championed the state’s community and technical colleges. They have been allowed to add positions to meet a strong demand for job-driven education.

The factor challenging Louisiana public officials is how to meet obvious needs without going deeper into troubled financial waters. Jindal’s work is cut out for him. He has an opportunity to demonstrate that, with the proper chief executive, Louisiana can act responsibly in budget matters.

– The Daily Advertiser, Lafayette, La.