Hammett: Government can be leaner, still effective

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 25, 2000

FERRIDAY, La. – In the nine years he has been a Louisiana state representative, Bryant Hammett has grown to believe that many people need services that government can best provide.

&uot;You can’t run government totally like a business, because it business you can’t spend money without getting something tangible in return for that,&uot;&160;Hammett said.

Yet he also holds fast to the philosophy he held when he was first elected: that government can find ways to more with less money, becoming leaner without cutting essential services.

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And now, as a member of legislative committees that are working with state departments to make their operations more efficient, Hammett (D-Ferriday) is getting a chance to put those beliefs into action.

Hammett was appointed earlier this year as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which figures out ways to produce revenue for the state. But now he also serves as vice-chairman of the Select Committee on Fiscal Affairs and a member of the Joint Budget Committee.

The meetings can last six hours, and Hammett sometimes travels to Baton Rouge two or three times a week to attend them. That is in addition to time spent running his business, engineering firm Bryant Hammett and Associates.

But it goes with the job, and Hammett thinks the hours spent discussing departments’ inner workings with department officials will pay off. Right now, the committees are holding talks with officials of the departments of Revenue and Health and Hospitals.

&uot;We need to understand the departments better so we can direct them to make better cuts that affect services the least,&uot;&160;Hammett said. &uot;(Lawmakers) are also in a position to change the law if it needs to be changed to increase efficiency.&uot;

The committees’ goal is to complete such hearings by spring so that any bills that can need to be drafted for that purpose can be finished in time to introduce them in the spring legislative session.

And tightening the operations of state government is even more important when one considers that there is an anticipated $200 million budget shortfall for 2001-02.

&uot;I have heard people say these committee meetings are costing the state money, but this has the potential of saving the state money over the long haul,&uot;&160;Hammett said.

Still, Hammett believes that government must provide some services that do not necessarily balance out on paper.

&uot;I&160;went down to Baton Rouge with certain beliefs about what government should be doing, but I&160;found there are services that, without the state providing them, people would suffer,&uot; he said.

And Hammett often gets to see that firsthand, as was the case when a woman came to his office for help when her husband left her with two children and no vehicle.

&uot;There was another person who had a handicapped child and couldn’t take care of him and work at the same time,&uot; Hammett said.

&uot;Look at it this way — if those services weren’t provided, that child would probably be turned over to the state, so we would be paying to care for him anyway.&uot;

But Hammett is not only looking at the expense side of government. He has also spoken on behalf of the &uot;Stelly plan,&uot;&160;a bill authored by Sen. Vic Stelly (R-Lake Charles) that Hammett calls &uot;a good first step toward restructuring the state’s tax system.&uot;

The bills would swap some of Louisiana’s sales taxes for income taxes in order to generate $200 million a year for education, with 80 percent going to teacher and school support worker raises.

The amendments will be included on the Nov. 7 ballot.

&uot;If we don’t do something, … every three to five years we’re going to have a fiscal crisis,&uot; Hammett said. &uot;And there is no ‘plan B’ for teacher raises’.&uot;